Down at the bottom of the hill, in the cool wet earth next to Chester Creek in Duluth, is the Monastery rhubarb patch. How old is it? I don’t know: given good soil, cool springs, and sunshine, rhubarb can live beyond a person’s memory. Rhubarb has long memory. This patch may have witnessed the comings and goings on the hillside farm that the Sisters bought in 1899 to grow their school, college, and Monastery.
It is a lazy spring, slow to come and slow to leave. Rhubarb doesn’t care; it likes cool weather. As winter ends and ground thaws, circles of red fists push up through crumbly darkness into light. Through the last melting snow they emerge with resolution and deep intent. They open to reveal fleshy wrinkled leaves colored a deep spruce underlain with blood.
Each evening sees the leaves a little larger. Stalks, mottled in cherry and khaki, slowly lift them into the chill air to become a dense canopy of leaves. Their tips reach upwards to catch rainwater and funnel it down into the crown. Rhubarb likes deep wet earth. Underneath is dim twilight, the smell of loam, and the hum of mosquito wings.
After Evening Prayer and dinner, six Sisters drive down the hill from the Monastery with boxes, knives, folding chairs and mosquito repellent to harvest the first crop of spring. Two women do the pulling. You bend over a clump and reach blindly under the leaves, feeling for the thickest stalk. Grab it firmly at the base and pull. It will come free from the crown. Once you pull the larger stalks you can look into the clump and decide which to pull and which to leave for another week’s growing.
Hand your harvest to another Sister who carries it in armfuls and piles them on the long grass, where three sit in folding chairs trimming away leaves and succulent bases. They drop the stalks into one box, and the trimmings into another. The circulating Sister then strews the leaves on the bare soil between rows and accepts another armful of stalks from you.
As you work up the rows, you are entertained by snatches of songs, jokes and laughter from the group cleaning the stalks. It is the sound of people working together and finding joyful purpose in their work. In the background Chester Creek sings quietly as it drops towards Lake Superior, harmonizing with the human voices, murmuring of cool brown depths and the gift of life.
The work done, join the others to drive back up the hill, itchy, bug-bitten and satisfyingly tired, with boxes of rhubarb to be made into sauce, jams and cakes for the Rhubarb Festival sale at the end of June. Works of Nature and of many sisters’ hands, they will help feed, clothe and house those who in their poverty tread lightly on this earth.
Our rhubarb with its roots deep in Chester Creek recalls another creature planted by a spiritual stream:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
— Psalm 1:1-3