“When we consume bread, it becomes us. It becomes our eyes and our hands,” Elizabeth DeRuff said, addressing the large circle of people around her. “Agriculture is where the self meets the landscape.” It was August in Sonoma County, California, and the day was already warm, but we—a group of twenty-five—were all wearing long sleeves and pants, to protect our arms and legs against the prickly husks of the wheat we would be harvesting that morning. We needed to start early to finish before the heat of the afternoon set in—record heat, the latest in a string of days to break a hundred degrees. Many of us wore plaid shirts and wide-brimmed straw hats, perhaps in homage to the farmers we were pretending to be for the day.
Elizabeth is the founder of Honoré Farm and Mill, a nonprofit organization that grows, mills, and sells heritage grains, and runs educational programs that involve volunteers—like us—in the agricultural process. For this harvest, we would use hand sickles with curved metal blades and carved wooden handles, which sat in a crate on the ground. It wasn’t functionally necessary that we gather and do this by hand—one of the participants had access to a combine harvester, a tractor-like machine that could do the job in a fraction of the time—but the point was experience, not efficiency, and we wanted to press on. “Think of it as an embodied meditation,” Elizabeth told us.
Elizabeth is an Episcopal minister, but she calls herself an “agricultural chaplain.” She is lean yet sturdy, in her fifties with short blonde hair and a no-nonsense sunniness that I would have associated with Christianity even if I hadn’t known she was a member of the clergy. Elizabeth traces the origin of Honoré to a church service almost twenty years ago, when she was presiding over the eucharist. A woman came up and whispered in her ear that, because of a gluten sensitivity, she could not eat bread—considered the most fundamental food in Christianity—or even take communion. Elizabeth experienced a shock of clarity: Because of industrial-farming practices, which apply toxic petroleum-based chemicals to commercially bred crops, she thought, the body of Christ was hurting the earth and making people sick. So Elizabeth began a new project, cultivating species of heirloom wheat that might otherwise have gone extinct, and named it after the patron saint of bread bakers. She describes the story of Honoré Farm and Mill as one of redemption—reparative of the environment, of our bodies, and of our sense of reverence for creation. In a short documentary about Honoré, produced last year, Elizabeth says, “If every Episcopal church were to source their communion bread from a sustainable farm, like Jesus would have eaten, we could sequester a hundred million pounds of carbon dioxide every year. So it’s something the church can actually do, practically, to address climate change.” That morning in Sonoma County, she put it in more personal terms. “Farming has completely changed my relationship to my spirituality,” she told me.
The vision for Honoré is Elizabeth’s, but its manifestation depends on the generosity of those who donate plots of land for her use. This year, the hosts were a couple in Healdsburg with a small, diversely planted organic farm, who offered up a quarter of an acre. Cindy and Doug met at the University of Colorado in 1980, in a possibly apocryphal scenario that involved nude sunbathing and a set of birdwatching binoculars. She was studying dance and he was double majoring in environmental and molecular biology—his second go at college after dropping out the first time to play jazz guitar. They were both interested in farming, and she remembers being enticed by his trunk full of organic fertilizer (also known as manure). Today he is a soil scientist and she is a kind of creative Renaissance woman: a designer, a clothier, a cook, a flower arranger. Until recently, she was the visionary behind SHED, a James Beard-Award-winning restaurant and market that focused on seasonality and sustainability. On walks, she’ll pick and hand you various leaves to smell. “That’s bay,” she’ll say. Or, “That’s pineapple sage.” Twenty-five years ago, Cindy and Doug moved from San Francisco to a piece of land in Sonoma County that they call HomeFarm, where they would raise fruits and vegetables and free-range chickens and their two sons, the older of whom is Henri, my boyfriend of five years—which is how I came to be there, harvesting wheat on a Saturday morning in August.
In a single-file line, we climbed past olive trees, with their spiky, muted-green leaves, and between rows of plump muscat grapes that gave off a faint floral scent. When we reached the wheat, we circled up again, to introduce ourselves. Henri was last. “It’s good to be home,” he said. “To see what is possible.”
There were two rectangular plots, side by side. On the left was Sonora, a soft winter wheat that was introduced to North America in the mid-1600s. It had been planted in straight rows, but the seed-bearing heads had grown too heavy with grain for their stalks to support, and the wheat lay toppled over in all directions. Beside it, Hourani wheat stood upright. “Resilient, like the Jewish people,” Doug said to me, winking—one member of the tribe to another. In the 1960s, an Israeli archaeologist found Hourani wheat at the ancient fortress of Masada, in earthenware jars, meaning it had been preserved there for nearly two thousand years, following a siege by the Romans and a mass suicide of nearly a thousand Jews. These seeds were living artifacts. By propagating them, we might heed Elizabeth’s call to eat the wheat that Jesus did, literally. I breathed in the grain’s aroma, which was sweet and earthy, like hay, and caught a whiff of the fresh bread it would become.
To harvest wheat by hand, you grasp a bunch big enough that, when your thumb and forefinger encircle it, they barely touch. Keep the heads of the wheat, which look like intricate blonde braids, at the same level, as precisely as you can. Then, with one confident tug, pull the sickle toward you, slicing through the stems. For the purpose of milling flour, the moisture content of wheat has to be low, so next, comb through your bunch, pulling out all the greenery that has gotten tangled within. Field bindweed, a creeping vine, was pervasive in this field, and it hungrily wound its way up many of the stalks, choking them. This might have been an annoyance were it not for the plant’s little white flowers, shaped like funnels, and how pleasing they looked peeking out from the golden bouquets. Tiny tomatoes and deep purple shiso leaves popped up here and there, relics from the years when these beds bore a vegetable garden. In one bundle, I found a praying mantis, its long body a startling electric green, its natural pose one of reverence for creation.
To get out of the sun, Henri and I offered to work the thresher—a big blue machine that separates the wheat from the chaff—which had been set up in the shade of a tree. I undid the zip ties that bound the bundles of wheat and handed them to Henri, like bouquets to a pageant queen, and he thrust the seed heads into a rectangular opening in the top of the thresher—a mouth that whirred when hungry and roared when fed. It spit the straw fibers up into the air, and they drifted to the ground like a flaxen blizzard. Down a little white ramp, out the side of the machine, came the grains: hearty little kernels that I recognized from the bulk-bin aisle at the grocery store, where all I had to do to receive them was pull a handle.
The sweet smell, the intense heat, the wheat’s golden hue—it was synesthetic, like one beam of light filtered through my every sense. I thought of “amber waves of grain” as an invocation of patriotism, and of the artist Agnes Denes sowing a field of wheat on the landfill that became Battery Park City, the New York City neighborhood where I grew up, as a utopian rejoinder to American wastefulness. I understood the potency of this symbol. Maybe my spirituality would be changed, too.
This feeling of sacredness always comes back to me when I visit Sonoma. When Henri shows me where to pluck tiny, vivid-red strawberries from the garden, or how to find peaches so perfectly ripe that I don’t even have to pick them—they just fall, heavy and soft, into my palm. When I take a bite and the sweet juices are warm from the sun, religious language always pops into my mind. I think, “Ambrosia.” I think, “Eden.”
Lunchtime came and we had not finished all that needed to be done. At Elizabeth’s instruction, we left the big bundles we had made laid out in piles on royal blue tarps, shining in the sun, ready to be threshed. When we returned to the house there were boards and platters of food laid out for us, prepared by one of the volunteers and his family: grain and green salads, cheeses, and breads made with flour from last year’s harvest. Elizabeth prepared to bless our lunch—but first to bless the nation of blessings, by sharing the words of a theologian named John O’Donohue: “There is certain poignancy in this belief that blessing can enter the silence and privacy of the object and continue to dwell there,” she read from an index card. “It changes the nature of the object; it is no longer simply itself.” Then she recited, to my surprise, the Hamotzi—the Jewish blessing over bread. “Blessed are you, lord our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” I was taken aback by the words’ new immediacy when I’d been reciting them all my life. The bread and the earth had entered the blessing and changed it; it was no longer simply itself.
“By the way, there’s a red-flag warning for fire for the next twenty-four hours,” Cindy said lightly, as she got up to start dinner. Everyone left after lunch and the house had been quiet for hours. “There is a forecast for lightning, but we don’t really get that up here.” She seemed accustomed, unruffled, and I mirrored her composure, reassured by her deep knowledge of the land. At dusk, the sky turned brilliantly colorful, casting pink light over everything. Everything is so alive here, I thought dreamily.
I don’t know whether it was the thunder, or the strong wind hurling dried leaves against our window with a loud thwap, but I awoke in the night sitting up, my heart beating fast, my body afraid before my mind was conscious. The storm was explosive. It was fiercer than any weather I had ever witnessed—more warlike than natural. It boomed and crashed, noises that seemed even louder without the muffling hush of falling rain. I was terrified, trembling in bed like a child. “One…two…three,” I counted between the lights and sounds, trying to soothe myself, though it was not really the storm I was afraid of, so its location didn’t comfort me. Every lightning strike ignited a fire in my mind’s eye, one that I could see dancing along the parched ground, traveling as fast as the wind, ready to rise up and engulf. I stayed awake out of both fear and vigilance. And then, after what felt like hours, it poured. The relief was like a fever breaking. Of course rain had its own wrongness, unheard-of as it was for the place and season, but the fires in my mind sizzled out, and I could sleep. Just before I drifted off, I worried for the wheat, waterlogged and exposed.
In the morning, there was no power. Doug had filled a bucket with water in the night, which we boiled for coffee. We wandered through the house, aimless and ill at ease. “Usually when it rains here, it smells so fresh afterward,” Cindy said. Instead, there was a strange rotting smell, like the wheat’s sweetness turned sickly. “I was thinking last night,” she went on, “that the sky reminded me of the sky before an earthquake.”
The following day, when I saw smoke blooming from the hilltop, it felt inevitable, foregone. The shimmery heat was visible rising off the ridge, if the flames themselves were not, and the smoke filled the sky with pinks and purples and browns, like a malevolent sunset. It looked like the fire was right there. I ran to get Henri, who ran to get his parents. “Do we have to leave? Do we have to leave right now?” I whimpered. We huddled together, cowering in the shadow of this new knowledge.
It took us a day and a night to leave—to determine that our evacuation was mandatory, to pack our things, to figure out where we could go. As our phones blared with updates on the fire’s path, Cindy and Doug tried to take stock of what personal things they could not stand to lose. We said goodbyes and thank-yous to the house and to the land for all it had given, if it came down to that. It was the height of the summer season and anything we didn’t pick would rot on the vine, so I went out in the strange red-gold light and mechanically filled a colander with shishito peppers and my pockets with plums, trying to feel useful.
In that time, I told a few people that we were evacuating, and got variations on the same response: “First a plague and now this. What’s next, locusts?” In texts and emails, my colleagues, friends, and family remarked that what was happening was “Biblical,” or an “act of God.” They did not mean to be flippant, I’m sure. I knew how it felt to encounter beauty, to grope for language, and to find every descriptor—“heavenly,” “dreamy,” “magical”—a flight from this world. It was surely no different with disaster. Still, it felt so inadequate as to be insulting. I did not want myth or allegory in the face of this real and total danger. I did not want this destruction rendered symbolic.
And to my surprise, I felt protective of God, or of my newfound idea of it. The force that brought forth the wheat from the earth should not be blamed for these fires, when we all knew who was at fault. We are the almighty ones, who had remade the world in our image.
We got in the car and drove for an hour, in the direction of blue sky, brushing away ash with the windshield wipers. Friends of Cindy and Doug’s had offered to host us at their house in Marin, up on a mountain. From there, we could see all of San Francisco and, beyond, on a ridge in the distance, the glowing, undulating line of fire. It looked like a narrow slit in the landscape, with the earth’s molten core seeping through.
Our phones dinged with messages from friends who had stayed behind with a hose in hand, and from others who were now scattered across the region. A couple who lived only a mile away from Cindy and Doug lost their house—the house where they got married and raised their daughter—and Cindy read aloud from the tribute they’d written: “I will miss the millions of stars, the silence like I had never heard.”
On our third day of evacuation, we received an email from Elizabeth to the Honoré community with the subject line “A grateful Harvest and a Prayer for the Protection from Fires.” She had included photos and videos of our day in the field, which felt, at this point, as far away as Masada. The email announced proudly that our work had yielded a hundred and thirty pounds of Hourani grain, and thanked the earth and the volunteers for their generosity. Elizabeth then asked the community to join together in a blessing for that earth, now threatened by fires. “May we bless in a way that draws a circle of light containing the California wildfires and protecting the surrounding life and structures.” she wrote. “Bless those who selflessly step into the breach to fight these fires. Bless those who have suffered from the fire’s destruction.” As a principle of ordinary living, the idea of blessedness had seemed transformative. But as a plea in a crisis, it saddened me. Who could protect us from ourselves?
With the power cut, the farm’s irrigation system was shut off. Every day Doug drove back up to the farm to water the plants, determined, even when all could still be lost, not to let them die. He harvested peaches in the thick air and handed them out to the first responders he encountered on the road. One morning, over breakfast before he left, he read us a text from a friend and colleague who is a geomorphologist—a scientist who studies why the physical features of the earth form the way they do. “Feels like a mean and vengeful world. It isn’t. It doesn’t care at all,” he paused, his voice breaking, “but we do.” In the weeks to come, the fires would be contained but the heat wave would continue, and on a day that would reach 114 degrees, Elizabeth and her family would return for another day of work. There was still more wheat to be threshed.