I live in Alabama, where we've been under a drought for going on six years. Even with our recent precipitation amounts over the last six months, we're still in drought status in many parts of the state. Two years ago, however, when we were in the "extreme drought" category--to the point that there was a standing ban on open burning and water restrictions in many areas--there was a great deal of concern over the peach crop.
See, Alabama produces a lot of peaches. Almost as many as our neighboring state that is so famous for the fruits. There had been so little rain, the peach crop was sure to be slim. Indeed, the trees produced fruit, but they were tiny, stunted things--nothing at all like the full-to-bursting, rich-fleshed, juicy peaches that we had come to expect. These were small, wrinkly, and pretty ugly. Despite the lower number of peaches, the prices actually plummeted; they looked so awful, no body wanted them. Demand was actually lower than the lowered supply.
It's a funny thing about fruit, though--especially fruits like peaches that usually have a lot of water content in them. The sugar content of the fruits, that tasty-tangy zing that makes your mouth water and your stomach rumble, is the same no matter how big the fruit actually gets. In years with a great amount of water and a bumper-crop, those huge, soft-ball size peaches had the same sugar content as these stunted little balls. In fact, the lack of water made the flavor of these unappealing peaches concentrated into a smaller area. They actually tasted really good. It took a heck of a lot of them to make a respectable homemade peach icecream that year, but, boy were they tasty.
Desert ecology forces you to look at the minimum. It imposes on you restrictions, limits what you can do, what can grow, how things grow. Really, our culture could learn a lot from the desert; we have this idea that growth without limits is what freedom is. The desert teaches you that learning to grow within even the most restricted limit is freedom...it is the freedom to live in way that is free from excesses that breed distraction.
Lately, I've been thinking of Great Lent as our yearly spiritual visit to the desert. Oh, I know that just by altering my diet according to the Lenten guidelines, attempting to follow the augmented prayer rule, and being more generous in alms for six or so weeks isn't going to turn me into St. Anthony the Great on Pascha--but there is something terribly valuable about the attempt at living with the limitations. Could it be that, freed from our water-fat (or, meat and cheese fat) distractions, something about our concepts of even food are concentrated more spiritually? Could it be that, like those ugly, wrinkly drought year peaches, a lifetime of Great Lent--the kind of life lived by those desert fathers and mothers in Scetis, and still lived by monastics everywhere--produces a person similiar in kind? Smaller, but richer. Poorer externally, more vibrant within.
Holy Father Anthony, and all the Saints of the desert, pray to God for us that we might also become this fruit.