Fellowship

I’m helping to organize a really great event.  It’s the Fellowship of the Preparation Maker’s Conference.  The Fellowship is a dedicated small group of Biodynamic Practitioners.  Each year they gather in a different region and explore a facet of biodynamic agriculture (a multi-faceted field, to be sure).  But this group is so much more than a handful of sustainable ag geeks.  That’s why I agreed to help throw this event in our neighborhood.

February 9-11, if it’s your sort of thing, please come.  Here’s a link to some more info.

This is a piece I wrote about the experience my Fellow Man and I had attending last year’s conference in Kincardine, Ontario.  Maybe it will help persuade you to come to this year’s event.  Or you might just like to take the ride vicariously.  Either way, enjoy.

kincardine

When we crossed the Canadian border into Sarnia, the sky was light, and there were sparkles of snow in the air. The effect was tropical, to my southern eyes. We don’t get partly cloudy snow down in our part of the world. I was enchanted. My Canadian husband was less impressed and directed us to a store to pick up some anti-freeze windshield wiper fluid. It was a cold weekend, and we were poorly prepared, but the snow that day, and into the night, was magical.

I knew when we walked in the door, nearly at the end of Friday’s opening day session of the annual Fellowship of the Preparation Makers Conference, that we were in a good place. The conference was held in a historic community meeting hall. It was a singular spacious room, with a small kitchen curtained off in the back and chairs circled up in concentric rings. In the middle sat Hugh Courtney, pendulum in hand, holding onto a sizeable apple young apple tree in a pot. I have always considered Hugh a true “mensch” – a worthy and reliable member of humanity. I appreciate how he answers questions without assuming over-arching authority – he is simply sharing what he has learned. He has influenced many of the people who have influenced me, and has shown a steadfastness in his dedication to the work of his life that is uncommon in our day. It was a pleasure to see him in this context – in a room of listeners, really absorbing the information he has to share – his life’s work, laid out for any who care to try.

Hugh’s presence is an important piece of the Fellowship of the Prepmaker’s work. Their stated mission, to insure that there are sufficient biodynamic preparations available across the continent to meet the needs of all who want to use them, emerged from the recognition of Hugh Courtney’s work at the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, which largely fulfilled that demand for many years. As it is, the Fellowship is a collection of deeply dedicated biodynamic practitioners, intent on exploring their craft in its blood and bones, as well as its heart and soul.

After a satisfying dinner and some mingling in the warmth of strangers who were surely about to become friends, we lined up the chairs again and set out to listen to Reverend Jonah Evans, of Toronto. I’ve never heard a sermon like that before, and I would travel to hear it again. Jonah is an engaging speaker, and he challenged all of us in the room to engage our own inner world in terms of the work we do on our farms. He asked us to explore the resonant parallels between the activity of preparation making and the activity of the human soul. Consider the qualities the fresh manure gains from spending the winter underground in a horn, in deep darkness. What do we gain from passing through periods of darkness, uncertainty, hardship, ourselves? Certainly, under the right circumstances, the passage through darkness increases the creative capacity of soul, and soil. On both counts, it is a journey whose worth becomes apparent upon returning to the light. (I could spend this whole article ruminating on Rev. Jonah’s message that night. Please just take the opportunity to hear him whenever it presents itself.) Laying my travel-weary head down that night, I thought Hugh Courtney and Brother Jonah set our foots on the path for the weekend to come.

Saturday morning, snow-covered and bone chillingly cold, we met the day together in song. It was reassuring for a new-comer to the Prepmaker’s Fellowship (like me) to feel that we were maintaining the strong soul-connection that was set up the night before. The rest of the morning was spent hearing perspectives from biodynamic farmers in different places. Chris Boettcher gave a carefully prepared talk about the feedback loops of farming fertility, from animal, to plant, to cosmos, and ultimately, in human farming activity. Jeff Poppen followed with a comical account of his personal and professional transformation through biodynamics. The juxtaposition of those two interesting speakers gave us plenty to think and chat about over lunch.

After lunch, we were called to open up to our own perspectives and our capacity for perception. Pat Frazier led us on a choose-your-own perceptive/creative journey which prepared us for the meat of the weekend: horn manure evaluation at the Hack Farm.

The cold crisp day didn’t stop most of us from jumping on a hay wagon for the short ride to the farm. We un-earthed some horns and passed them around. Some of the horns were new, and others had been used before. Hugh Courtney spoke of the differences he had perceived in working with old and new horns in the past. It was an interesting exploration, but I have to admit that I was distracted by the flat expansive fields (the kind you don’t see much in middle Tennessee) and the black earth (another rarity in our parts) that Uli says goes about a foot and a half deep. As part of the afternoon tour, we entered one of the Hack Farm outbuildings, where Wali Via prepared us to encounter Horn Manure in a different way. On a long table, there were 12 samples of Horn Manure. Each was on a plate with a number on it. There were no other indications about each one. We were each given a pencil and paper and asked to circle the table and quietly mingle our senses with the samples, scoring our first impressions, and second impressions, and any other impressions as well. Some of us pulled out pendulums. Others squeezed the samples, and smelled them. I was amazed at how different 12 samples of manure packed into cow horns and buried in the ground could be. One was black, another reddish brown. Many were sandy and nearly dry. A few were moist, and one nearly spongy wet. Wali pointed out to us later that this exercise boiled down to experiencing 12 years of biodynamic work all at once, as so many of us only get to handle our own horn manure, year after year. It was a powerful exercise, and most of the remainder of our time together was spent discussing our impressions.

The crowd around the coffee and tea station was thick when we returned to the meeting hall. As we warmed up, so did the discussion. With Wali guiding us, we shared our impressions and in turned learned the ‘biographies’ of the preparations we had met at the Hack Farm. It became clear in short order that the exploration of our experiences and what they mean coupled with the stories of the preps could have gone on all night. Thankfully, our mindful hosts turned our attention to some other information and prepared us for some fun.

Following another beautiful meal, we took a stroll through the garden inside, led by Gabi Boettcher as she played Beethoven Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathetique) for us. Her son followed her with a trumpet piece. And then, we were visited by a theatrical presentation of rhyming little troll who danced on a table and played a ukelele for our pleasure. This display of the local farming families’ artistic abilities would have been a superb ending to the day, but they weren’t done with us yet. Our chairs were stacked in the corners of the room and we partnered up for a rollicking round of social dancing (which is fun whether you can dance or not). When we sufficiently warm from the dance, a line of chairs returned to the center of the room, an accordion was pulled from the closet, and the group played the most competitive game of musical chairs I have ever witnessed. Emerging flush-faced into the dark, cold night, I was reminded that winters are long in Canada, and by necessity, these folks have mastered a number of ways to strengthen their community and enjoy themselves in the off-season. What a treat!

Sunday morning, our curiosity was piqued and we were ready to continue our discussion of the horn manure samples. It was interesting to note that though our impressions of the samples differed greatly, there were some parallels that emerged. Many of the same people had a negative impression of several preparations, while many others would have a positive impression about the same group of preps. Personally, I was not able to rate any of the samples poorly, but I was more attracted to certain individuals than others. Hearing different people from the group voicing their experience with each sample was a great lesson in differences, understanding, and the potential power of this kind of perceptive study in a group setting. We came away with a lot of information, and maybe as many questions as answers. In other words, a great success.

Circling the chairs one more time, we set about to close the weekend with a final sharing circle and ceremony. Pat opened the sharing circle and asked us to bring forth our questions as well as our impressions. The pouring forth that followed was lovely, and served to open our hearts for the closing ceremony, led by Wali.

I want to tell you about the closing ceremony, but I’m not going to. It’s too good to share in print. If you want to know, the best way is to show up and become a part of it. This is what I will say – it was a privilege to pour out intentions and dreams into the shared vessel of this event. It was a privilege to share in the great celebration of all creation that is at the heart of biodynamics, and at the heart of the Fellowship of the Preparation Makers.

kincardine 2

the food we grow is art

food is artWhen one of your dearest friends tells you to read a book, you read it, right? Big Magic, the latest by Elizabeth Gilbert. I requested it on inter-library loan and dug in.

The book immediately began to bug me. The writing is divided into two to three page chunks, each titled on its own, sort of like blog posts. I’ve noticed that there are lots of books coming out like this. And I have a personal aversion to it. I feel a loss of continuity and depth in the format. Of course, it is still possible to get a lot done in a few pages of wonderful literature (Wendell Berry’s essays come to mind), but it’s sort of rare. And I understand that people are busy and lots of people only have time for a few pages in a sitting, so it’s handy to have those few pages encapsulate an idea. I usually only read a few pages at a time before my eyes shut at night. But I still really appreciate some meatier material to sink my mind into. The irony of my criticism is not lost on me. I do write on a blog, where 500 words-at-a-time is the most “readable” format, which makes for better “ratings”, more “likes” and “shares.” But it doesn’t change how I feel. Here lately, my Fellow Man has been reading an exposition on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The introduction is 60 pages long. Reading that book is like climbing a mountain. If you’ve ever read any of Rudolf Steiner’s essays, or the Bible, or pretty much any sacred or scholarly work, you know what I mean. It’s not easy, but there are moments of awesome clarity and depth and the experience is incredibly rewarding. I love that quality in a book.

Since I figured out what was bothering me, I decided not to let it get in my way. After all, the book is about creativity. There’s bound to be something to love. Isn’t there almost always something to love?

Elizabeth Gilbert throws the gates of creative living wide in this book, and welcomes everyone in. I thought I was reading the book because she is a writer writing about writing, and I love writing, but coming from that angle made the bees in my bonnet buzz.

The section on making a living quieted them. Liz talks about her need to write as a creative impulse, whether or not she gets paid. Like most artists, she waited tables, washed dishes, walked dogs, and did whatever needed to be done to make a living while she wrote. Even when she began to be successful, she didn’t stop doing other work. It is a common situation among artists, and others.

This hit a nerve for me. In this process of ceasing to grow food for money, I have felt, at times, like a sell-out to the real deal of the new farming movement. Like I’m no longer a legitimate “farm wife”.  And of course my farm-wife friends have had nothing to do with this, I feel it in myself as we chat, that my attention is not as deeply drawn into the hustle of the season as it has been in the past. But, this feeling has more to do with the fact that I’ve spent more than half my life with the intention to live on the land – growing food in the deep woods with my family. For more than half of my life, THIS has been my dream. And in that dream, I rarely considered the economic viability of the farm. No one was talking about CSAs when I was 18, but it was just assumed that there would be a way to make a living on a farm. It’s been a way of life for most of human history, right?

Not necessarily. A way of life is not necessarily a way to make a living. A way to “make a living” is not always the same as a vocation, or a way to make a life.food is art dandelion

What I find in my community of farming friends are various and beautiful ways to make a life. We make a living too, one way or another, using what is before us to create what we need, and more. And we are extremists in the realm of creative living, as we are working with the hearts and bones of biological creation itself. Where else is creativity more obvious than the garden, where one small seed creates pounds upon pounds of tomatoes, or watermelons, or hot peppers, or endless okra, any of which can be eaten OR saved to create a whole garden’s worth of MORE SEED?

Agriculture, or rather agri-business, today is not an art. It is a science and a business, more or less akin to mining. Those of us who refuse to coat our soil with black plastic and use GPS on our tractors are doing something completely different. We cannot subtract the larger economy from our lives and works, but by adding the concept of stewardship, we change the equation, and I believe, we become artists. Many of my friends probably wish they could make a better living by growing food the way we do, but they do not compromise the integrity of their land for the sake of money. There are some compromises that are just too great. They will do what they believe they should – what those of us out here are deeply compelled to do – which is to live as creative stewards of their land.

My fellow man and I limited the size of our business based on the carrying capacity of our land. The longer we work here, the more we learn about this place and what it can handle. It needs us to go easy. It’s not a land that handles over-ambitious production with ease. We are incredibly fortunate to have other marketable skills to pay the bills that refuse to be bartered with garlic. But even if all our financial needs were being completely met by off-farm income, we would not stop growing food, and talking about food, and sharing food, and nourishing our land so that it can nourish life on earth.   We love it like a marriage, like a good meal, like a piece of art.

Regardless of their position within the larger economy, small farms today work on a deep level of dedicated human creativity. When I realized that my realm of creative living isn’t limited to writing, but in fact is based on the activity of land stewardship, I could rest easier in my assessment of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. However, I want to make an addendum to her explorations. What we learn as creative growers, working in the soil with our hands and the weather on our backs, is that most of the magic in the world is not big at all. It is infinitesimally small, but absolutely pervasive. That small magic going on under our feet and all around us is the foundation of human civilization and life at large. Maybe, the “Big Magic” is our ability to open our senses to that all-encompassing living world around us, and actively cooperate with it.

All food used to be grown by farming artists. Once upon a time the vocation of farming was considered just as respectable as a calling to preach, teach, practice law, or write poetry (your opinion of each of those jobs notwithstanding). And not all farmers derived all of their income solely from the farm. It was never unusual for a farmer to hire out different services as her/his talent and the success of the season dictated. For that matter, I believe quite a few lawyers made their way through their years of study while making a living on the family farm. To go much further into this discussion we have to tackle subjects such as the values of our collective society, and wealth distribution. That’s stuff for another post. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider that farming artists (meaning those who maintained an artful and respectful balance relationship to the land they worked) used to hold their own much more comfortably in this world, and that our food system was all the more lovely for it.

I have always shrunk away from the term “artisanal food” because it sounds high-end, and I strongly believe that EVERYONE should eat well, not just rich folks. But here I am now, fully convinced that food is art. Everyday art – living art -necessary art. It’s worth contemplating the quality of the food grown by agribusiness verses the food grown in creative stewardship. It’s worth contemplating the kind of world where all people could be fed that kind of food again, and where the vocation of farming indicates a particularly beautiful quality of life.

I believe in that quality of life, that WAY of life, the way a painter believes in color, and a writer believes in words. I believe we all have an art inside of us, somewhere. If you haven’t found yours yet, eating this food, the stuff that is also art, might just help.food is art egg

 

radical photographic art

It’s finally winter here. And it’s stunningly beautiful.  The kids are beside themselves.  The fire is blazing.  The pantry is full.  The male cardinals shine out like beacons in the bare trees.  I’d rather watch it than write about it today.  snow day

So, I’m looking through some old photos, and my memory catches to a day awhile back, spent sitting around a table with some friends.  Hooks, needles, and yarn in hand.

After chatting awhile, the first question arose:

“Where are the children?”

(Answer: Probably in the car, listening to music.)

Then the next question:

“Where is my camera?”

(Answer: Being put to good use!)radical photog 4

radical photog 1

hello there bright eyes!

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radical photog 6

and they are farm kids, after all.

radical photog 3

what’s for lunch? oh, brother!

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Lulah doesn’t know how they made the effect on these photos.  We haven’t been able to re-create it with any combination of settings we’ve tried so far.  It was a strange and beautiful fluke and they used it to their best advantage.  Ah, the birth of art.

Happy Snow Day Friends!  Please stay home!