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Thursday, May 13, 2004 03:30 pm

Nun sense

Put a few Dominican sisters on a Springfield-area farm and add some llamas, and you’ve got a whole new way of viewing Mother Nature

Cover photograph by Ginny Lee

Just a few miles west of Springfield, on a farm graced with rolling hills and a creek, Sister Sharon Zayac is working hard on relationships.

She's getting to know the ways of vegetables. She's mastering the subtleties of manure. She's learning the proclivities of llamas, those unusual camel-like mammals from South America.

It's all part of Zayac's years-long quest to understand how we can best relate to God's other creations and her belief that human beings "are not independent, autonomous creatures."

Since 1999, Zayac has been practicing her beliefs on Jubilee Farm, a 111-acre organic farm on Old Jacksonville Road owned by the Dominican Order.

Zayac and other resident Dominicans raise vegetables, chickens, and llamas. They're in the process of starting on an orchard.

Why llamas? They're easy-to-care-for manure producers, says Zayac. Plus, they're living, breathing, hair-covered billboards for the farm: Visitors spot the creatures from the road, she says, and the curious llamas (there are four of them in residence) go right to people, although they do not like to be petted.

"They're beautiful animals," she adds.

Before Jubilee Farm was founded, the land had been farmed conventionally. When the Dominicans arrived, they let the farm lie fallow for a year -- in keeping with the Church's injunction to let the land remain untouched in a jubilee year. They allowed the clover, vetch, and rye to grow and then plowed the vegetation back into the soil to add humus.

Taking care of the soil is the key to sustainable-agricultural practices: Don't plant the same crops every other year. Don't load up the ground with chemicals. Don't deplete the soil of naturally occurring minerals such as phosphate and boron.

But for Zayac, Jubilee Farm isn't just a test lab for alternative agricultural practices: It's an extension of her Christian spirituality.

"I always had a love for natural things," she says.

The 51-year-old nun was born in Great Falls, Mont. Her father was in the U.S. Air Force, and the family moved around the globe. "I suppose my love for nature has always been there, but I've seen and been surrounded by beautiful places, from the Pacific Ocean to the Alps," she says.

After serving as a hospital administrator, Zayac spent a year on sabbatical, immersing herself in works about the environment and religion. That year of study helped fuel her deep conviction that everything in nature is related, and in 2001, she earned a master's degree in earth literacy from St. Mary-of-the Woods College, near Terre Haute, Ind., the first college to offer such a degree.

Her training was multidisciplinary, taking in natural history, philosophy, art, music, drama, justice, peace issues, biology, and botany.

Zayac's passion for "creation spirituality" led her to examine Roman Catholic Church documents and teachings and to explore her order's history. The nun's studies culminated in a book, Earth Spirituality: In the Catholic and Dominican Tradition, published last year.

Zayac finds that God, the Creator, delights in creation; that creation is good and deserves our respect; and that we are expected to be co-creators.

"We look at creation as a gift from God and that it's time for us to reclaim that gift is the premise of the book," she says. "Earth spirituality fosters a respect for creation."

Part of that respect means recognizing that "there are more than humans 'in the house,'" she says. "What we choose to do affects everyone else -- plants and animals -- in the house. We are not independent, autonomous creatures."

Zayac's sentiment is echoed by Theresa Santiago of Eureka, a fellow proponent of sustainable agriculture and vice president of the Land Connection Foundation of Congerville,which helps market locally grown foods.

Santiago says that farmers who practice sustainable agriculture are "constantly concerned with the health of the soil," striving for minimal soil erosion.

Paul Gebhardt of Edinburg, president of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society, says he believes in "mimicking nature every chance we get" He talks about the ecology of his farm: "I'm going to do what nature does."

"We are part of the very fabric of earth," Zayac says. "We are an expression of earth. The context is the whole earth. We can't do things from a narrow worldview. We are not independent, autonomous creatures. Science shows us there is no such thing as an independent creature.

"The universe is made up of relationships. We are one earth entity," she continues. "Any action has an effect on the good as a whole. Ecology is not just about the environment. It's about the entire community of life. All issues are ecological issues. We live in a human construct, but it's not the model of earth."

Part of Zayac's goal is to offer an alternative to huge corporate farms that use only a two-crop rotation, pour on the chemicals, and depend on big machinery. Not only are those enterprises ruining the environment, she says, but they are also threatening the few family-farm operations that remain.

Many farmers are so heavily in debt that it will be impossible for them to pass the land on to their children, she says. In the last 15 years, the number of farms of 2,000 acres or more owned by corporations has increased by 300 percent.

When she got started, Zayac consulted with Bill Becker, a plant pathologist sponsored by the University of Illinois. Becker helped the nuns with soil analysis, and he still coordinates all the planting at Jubilee Farm.

Zayac plants 20 different vegetables on a little more than half an acre, trying to use more exotic varieties, such as different lettuces and greens, than the ones usually found in the United States. "I try to use heritage seeds, which I buy from seed-saving companies," she says.

She also practices companion planting -- discouraging harmful insects by growing plants with natural repellent qualities with food crops. For example, nematodes had a field day with Jubilee's tomato and potato plants until the nuns planted marigolds, which have nematode-suppressive qualities, nearby.

Zayac says she plans to get Jubilee Farm produce certified as organic this year. So far, the farm has donated its food to various causes.

Food's not the only thing being brought into existence at Jubilee Farm. Dominican Sister Mary Fran Gormanhas set up a pottery studio, where she uses red clay and sand-colored soil from the farm.

Two years ago, she incorporated as Mary Fran Originals. "There are no duplicates," she says. "It's so eclectic." One of her favorite creations is the "Ugly Bugs."

"These guys teach tolerance -- you can see their differences," Sister Gorman says. Another favorite is her dragon castles.

She invites groups to visit the studio. Second- and third-graders from Matheny School recently made ceramic birdhouses. A women's group made plaques, using weeds to emboss the clay. This spring, Gorman made pendants, using baby leaves as decoration. Several pendants can be hung together to form a wind chime.

"So much clay, so little time!" she says.

Visitors can also explore Jubilee Farm's walking trails. A labyrinth within the emerging orchard of dwarf trees is especially popular. "A lot of people come just to walk the labyrinth," Zayac says.

The nuns at Jubilee Farm live in an old farmhouse. A newer building on the property, known as La Casa, has three private bedrooms and kitchen facilities. It's used as a community resource center and for retreats and meetings. A one-room guesthouse is also available.

The farm also offers quiet places for visitors to meditate, commune with nature, and, if Sister Sharon gets her way, raise a little "earth consciousness."

To visit Jubilee Farm, head west from Springfield on Old Jacksonville Road. As the road begins to curve, you will cross a small bridge over a creek. Coming up the hill, you will see a sign at the end of the driveway on your left. The phone number is 217-787-6927.

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