Here in North Dakota, linear stands of trees called ‘shelterbelts’ are inscribed like wooded hieroglyphs here and there across the prairie. Sometimes they form a three-sided square around a homestead. More often they stand as long, parallel lines that cut through, or alongside, cultivated fields. I’ve learned they are planted as wind guards to reduce erosion in this wind-scoured landscape, as well as to form a natural snow fence in winter. In the field, the ‘fence’ allows precious moisture to accumulate for springtime planting. Around homes and structures, the shelterbelt offers protection from the buffeting wind and blowing snow of blizzards.
As a kind of side benefit, the trees often serve as a haven for deer and other wildlife. Earlier this week, I watched two deer dart into the protecting foliage of the shelterbelt depicted here, which stands just beyond the monastery. This particular belt is three trees deep, with beautiful Russian olive trees standing tall to the left (northeast).
These past days I’ve been meditating on shelterbelts and on the ways in which we seek, create, and offer shelter – both shelter from and shelter for. There is something deeply humble about the way the shelterbelts lie so quietly across the land. It brings to mind St. Benedict’s ladder of humility, as if his ladder had been planted like a row crop of goodness along a stretch of barren earth.
St. Benedict’s 12th step of humility is that a monk “should always manifest humility in his [her] bearing no less than in his heart.” The shelterbelt reminds me of this humble stance. It is silent, yet full of right speech. Still, yet full of right action. Humble in its bearing. Fruitful in its work. I pray that my words and actions may be like a shelterbelt on the windswept prairie, offering a safe haven and protecting presence, standing humbly yet firm against the scouring winds and swirling snows that so often buffet and blow.
“You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust…’” Psalm 91: 1-2
Postscript: See chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict to read more about the ladder of humility.