Fallow Time, or, The Rewards of Lying Low and Following Winding Paths

Lighthouse stairs, Corolla, NC (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The photographs said what I couldn’t.

The winding paths on Roanoke Island, site of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, ending up in as-yet-unseen destinations, presented me with an unanticipated gift, fruit of the fallow time thrust upon me recently.

What does it mean to be fallow?

Uncultivated, unplowed, untilled, unseeded, unplanted, unsown, unsowed, empty, neglected, unused, idle, dormant, resting, inactive, inert, barren, unproductive, unyielding, unfructuous, unfruitful, fruitless, uncultivable, exhausted, depleted, worn out, impoverished, poor, bare, bald, arid, dry, waste – according to a dictionary of synonyms, all of these words refer to fallow.

And almost all of these synonyms for “fallow” ooze negativity. Does this terminology mirror the work ethic of our culture, where quiet thought appears to be laziness? One of the Seven Deadly Sins – SLOTH?

Yet taking the time to be fallow rewards in unexpected ways.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, insists that every person engaged in creative work needs fallow time. The Bible touts the Sabbath, a whole day devoted to reflection and staying still.

In this hustle-bustle, social-media-saturated world there’s not enough fallow time. The dictionary also imbues the word with negativity, defining fallow as “cultivated land that is allowed to lie idle during the growing season.”* Idle? Perhaps “quiet” would be a better term.

I rarely make time to be fallow, and so when events like a broken back force me to stop and slow down, I sense the weight of my culture, for then many of the synonyms listed above parade through my head: inactive, inert, barren, unproductive, unyielding, unfructuous, unfruitful, fruitless.

Fallow time, who has the time, I might have sneered just a short time ago.

Being one of those people who find nearly every subject exciting and worthy of intense investigation, I’ve veered from many paths in my life, seeking some ultimate and soul-fulfilling passion. I burn the candle at both ends, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote so poignantly:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!  

Sometimes it just takes a small catalyst to spark a reaction, propelling me out of hibernation, and back to the straight and narrow, to move forward with one small step after all the zig-zagging. That first step always costs, in terms of energy and effort. The law of inertia at work, no?

A body will preserve its velocity and direction so long as no force in its motion’s direction acts on it.

On Roanoke Island, stepping where early English settlers followed Sir Walter Raleigh’s dreams, I felt again the draw of my deepest passions: food, cooking, cookbooks, and history.

Once more the old adage – A picture is worth a thousand words – holds true.

Elizabeth I (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

*Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2007

© 2012 C. Bertelsen



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