The old farmers used to say you should leave a field better than you found it. Sometimes that called for heavy lifting. Other times it just meant picking up a rock as you crossed and placing it at the field’s edge.
That counsel stuck with Amy Hereford, who grew up on a 10-acre Missouri farm where sheep roamed and blackberries grew wild. She planted whatever vegetable seemed to be lacking.
For Amy and her three younger sisters, singing lightened their footsteps. “This Land Is Your Land,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Edelweiss.” The music never ceased. At night, she carried the earth inside – under her fingernails, on her cheeks, scenting her hair.
Studying biology in college added an intellectual appreciation for the things she already knew. Then life carried her from the farm: teaching, entering religious life, attending law school, traveling and working in canon law.
She arrived at each new stop with gratitude, as Catholic sisters seem to model so well, thinking, “Who would’ve thought I’d be here now, doing this?” At 58, Sister Amy describes being a Sister of St. Joseph as a life of “adventure,” with some tough challenges and many amazing opportunities.
About a decade ago, she found herself coming full circle, getting her hands back in the dirt. Her work coalesced with her continued study of sustainability. She moved into the Dogtown Ecovillage on the edge of St. Louis and tried to cultivate new life with her neighbors.
“There’s something so wholesome about the soil, about growing things,” Sister Amy told me. “When I’m out working on the garden, I feel like I’m tending the garden and the garden is tending me. God is tending me.”
In the summer, it’s how she starts her day, heading out in the quiet of early morning. Then, before she sets to her business, she prays. “That flow from garden to prayer is a natural one.”
When Pope Francis released “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Sister Amy devoured it. “I think the linking of ecology, technology, economy and sociology was spot on,” she said.
Just as we can no longer think in terms of individual species, but rather an ecosystem, she said, we also must be mindful of our social ecosystem. “Half of our native bird species is in decline, if not endangered. A lot of that is because we’re not planning the right plants that bring the right insects that these birds want to eat. It’s all interconnected. As a society, we’re also interconnected. What I do affects you, what you do affects me. We are all in this together. It really is our common home.”
This month, as winter melts into spring, she’s joining in the fourth annual celebration of National Catholic Sisters Week March 8-14, an official component of Women’s History Month, by hosting an event in her eco-village called “Sisters and Sustainability.” She’ll be teaming up with other women religious and lay people to install a bat-house and a bee-house and plant Missouri-native plants to help support pollinator populations and increase soil fertility.
To me, it embodies what women religious do best, and why we salute them this month: they tend to their neighbors and our common home. They practice the simple living Pope Francis called for in “Laudato Si’,” resisting the “constant flood of new consumer goods” in order to “be serenely present to each reality” and open to “greater horizons of understanding.”
“It is not a lesser life,” he wrote. “On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.