Fallow fields


In the Middle Ages, it was common for villages to have three fields of farmland. At any given time, two of these fields would grow crops while the third lay fallow. Farmers rotated the fallow fields every year, the idea being that after two cycles of farming, the soil needed time to replenish and restore lost nutrients.

When a field lies fallow, it doesn’t look like much is happening. All the other fields are producing bright and colorful crops; we can watch them change from day to day. But the fallow field is just a pile of dirt. It was a pile of dirt yesterday. It will appear to be the same pile of dirt tomorrow.

But within that pile of dirt, a flurry of activity is happening. Worms burrow tunnels that nourish and aerate the soil. Organic matter decomposes into life-giving nutrients. Rainfall gathers into underground water. The health of next year’s harvest depends upon this rich, invisible dance beneath the surface.

Even at 12 years old, when I first learned there were such things as fallow fields, the wisdom of this approach struck me. Now, as I gaze outside my office window to the unmistakable signs of winter, it occurs to me:

Humans need fallow periods, too.

I don’t think we’re very good at recognizing this. I think we would rather pretend that we can (not to mention should) always perform at our peaks, that even being tired or burned out or undernourished ought to have no bearing on our ability to be creative or do good work.

I fall victim to this mindset, too, which is one of the reasons I look forward to winter every year. For me, the bare trees and fallen leaves are visible reminders that all living things need time to lie fallow. I like to use the season as an opportunity to let my own mind lie fallow, too.

I try not to plan too much or force half-formed ideas out into the world before they’re ready. I make time for writing, art and other creative pursuits, but I do so languidly and without end goals.

Most of all, I do my best to remember that come spring, my sense of vigor and energy will return with all the brilliance of the cherry trees that bloom every March on our block. That their bright flowers are not a judgment on winter’s laziness but do, in fact, depend upon this time of lying fallow.