the southern piece

I am grateful and extremely honored to have been published in the most recent quarterly edition of the Biodynamics Journal.  To learn more, please click the link, or attend the TN Food Summit, or an event like it in your area, and read my piece, slightly edited, below.

The world is full of wonderful places to live and be. I make that statement with confidence, because I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to very many of those places.valley view

I have chased the moon’s reflection on the firm wet sands of the Gulf Coast. I have picked peaches on a Connecticut hilltop with a view of Long Island Sound, on a good day. I stood with my face to the Pacific winds at San Francisco’s Presidio Park. I will never shake the memory the South Pacific islands, with the basalt soil that seems to vibrate with the rhythm of the crashing surf. And the Himalayan Plateau, so vast, silent and strong. The high Tibetan villages are built of stones from the mountains around them. The houses are the same color as the fields. I collected the dust under my fingernails, and kept a collection of pebbles in those interesting colors in my pockets. I bathed my soul in the cool green of the lower Alps, and rested in the sweet darkness of St. Francis’ cave retreats in Umbria. I have wondered at the variety of bananas to be found on the north coast of New Guinea (the ones that never stop being green but taste like sweet cinnamon were my favorite). I have reveled in the sound of many languages in my ear. I have tasted many soils in my fingers. I have been around.

But I have always returned to the southern United States, specifically northern middle Tennessee. Over the years, friends have attempted to lure me away. They showed me wonders, beautiful visions, and fruitful fields in far away places. I was moved by those places, but never deeply enough to shift my compass. Many have wondered at my choice. From where they stand, there are reasons to wonder. But there’s something about this land that holds me.

For as much as I am certain that there are endless wonderful places to live in this world, I will not pretend that any place is perfect. It may be perfect for a moment here and there, but the definition of perfect is as variable as the weather, which is to say extremely variable, especially around here. Sometimes our weather comes from the northwest, blowing in cool winds and clear skies from the plains and Canada. Other times, tropical weather moves in from the Gulf of Mexico. Frequently, those two impulses collide right on top of us with dramatic results. Arctic blasts slam down from the north. Hurricanes roll up from the South, and when the two meet, the y hybridize into tornadoes and torrential rains, not to mention the occasional heat wave and drought. The weather is high drama in the mid-south. We get the best, and the worst, of both tropical and temperate weather patterns. These patterns, in all their variety, have shaped and continues to shape this land. Without the northwesterly flows, our winters would suffer and we would be all the more tropical. And then again, the south wouldn’t be the south without the tropical humidity. We need all the influences we receive to keep all four of our seasons cycling. Sometimes the seasons flow seamlessly as a clear stream, and sometimes they make a tumbling ruckus in their passage. Earthly perfection does not manifest as stasis.

I once took a walk to the top of the hill with a visiting friend who commented that he had hiked for miles to see views less beautiful than ours. And it’s true. There’s an immense, living beauty in our southern rural landscape. But it would be a mistake to think of it as a wilderness. To the trained eye, the countryside has been used hard. There are abundant woodlands, full of magical places. All have been logged, most of them repeatedly. It does not diminish their magic, but the scars are visible if you know what to look for. There are many a field of sedge grass that glow a beautiful golden red in the evening sun but indicate depleted soil. The land shows the signs of long years of human habitation. Some places have been used gently, and well, with tangible effect. Others not so much. The signs of hard use can be heart breaking, but they also tell me that the land supports life in the long term. The earth and waters still take every opportunity to cover themselves with grass and trees, with living beauty. The message of the land is always, “Love me. Keep trying.”woodside 2

We live just out of reach of the last Ice Age. This land was not touched by the glaciers when the dark soil was pushed down from the far North. Our soil is old, thin, brown, sometimes yellow or red. The stones in our fields are small and plentiful. The topsoil tends toward a thin silty loam, with abundant gravel, and the subsoil is clayey. Below that, there are limestone, slate, and flint. There are signs of ancient waters, indications that we were, once-upon-a-geologic-time, an ocean bottom. There are geodes – bumpy round rocks born from the limestone that yield crystals when cracked. (We use them to make 501.) Put a shovel in the ground in any random field around here and you’ll find all kinds of interesting things, but not much in the way of nice fluffy black soil.

Nonetheless, the strong sticky clay beneath it all holds those little stones together, and this soil is a living body. One cannot walk these hills and fields for long without knowing that the earth is very much alive. If you have the will to tend this soil well, and the strength to push your roots into this ground, it will hold you, and provide for you in abundance. Like most living things, this land responds favorably to love and good treatment.dandy lion

Though I have seen some lovely soils, from mucky black northern fields to sparkling soft tropical silt, my affection for southern style mud was formed early on. My parents arrived in Tennessee in the late 1970’s, in that generation’s back-to-the-land movement. I spent my early childhood running the wooded hillsides, collecting crinoid fossils and skipping slate rocks in the creek. Late in my teenage years, I began to hang around at Jeff Poppen’s place, Long Hungry Creek Farm. I picked a lot of tomatoes. I hoed some corn. I fell in love with the life outdoors, the food, and the interesting dynamic of tethered freedom that is small-scale farming. Returning home for a whole season at the end of my college years, I stayed in an old farmhouse on the far side of the farm. I had the place to myself, and was given access to biodynamic preparations and a Stella Natura calendar. It was my job to spray the preparations on the land around my house. To this day, I can feel in my mind’s eye each bump and roll of the landscape around that old homestead. The fact that I came into that intimacy with biodynamics, with soil and water, in this place, helped seal my love of it.

Jeff, my mentor, saw to it that I took the trip into northern Georgia that Fall, to Hugh Lovel’s farm and the Biodynamic Conference that Hugh put on each year. We packed up as much kale and winter squash as would fit in the back of my car and headed into the mountains. I remember dousing around the bee hives with Harvey Lisle, to diagnose a a sick hive. I remember Hugh Courtney standing in front of a large crock of whirling water. I remember Lovel’s tiny stone house, packed to the gills with people, and the strict task-mistress in the kitchen (I remember her face and voice but not her name), turning out tables of amazing food for the waiting crowds.smiling tomato (2)

But I did not understand, at that first gathering, who Hugh Courtney and Harvey Lisle were. Later, I learned just how deeply these two men influenced the path of biodynamic growing in the South. Hugh Courtney was a student of Josephine Porter who was a student of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer who was a student of Rudolph Steiner. Hugh founded the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics in Virginia and made the preparations available by mail order across the country. He also made himself available as a teacher to a great many young growers and biodynamic enthusiasts. Due to his location in Woolwine, VA, his influence is strong in the southeastern states. Harvey Lisle, soil scientist, master dowser, and author of The Enlivened Rock Powders was an enthusiastic advocate of Anthroposophy, Biodynamics, and cosmic compost. As legend has it, Harvey was instrumental in persuading Jeff Poppen’s father to help Jeff invest in the farm, rather than a college education. Both Hugh and Harvey invested their time connecting with growers like Hugh Lovel and Jeff Poppen. These individuals have drawn together and grown the movement of Biodynamic agriculture in the Southeast.

Twenty years later, we still throw a Biodynamic Conference for the southeastern region. Now it is held at Jeff Poppen’s farm, and it remains a vibrant, fun reunion of inspired growers. It is a very special event. The legacy lives on, firmly rooted in the local soil, and growing.

This land is stubborn. The clay subsoil is dense and slippery, and hardens like a stone as it dries. It holds on tight. Dense bottom land like ours benefits from frequent feedings, preferably of living organic matter. It needs to be fed to keep the the life moving through it. This land demands a relationship, a commitment. If we do not feed our soil, it will continue to grow abundant plant life, and recycle that plant life into itself. In short, it will feed itself, but not us. Goodness knows, it was taking care of itself long before any of our kind moved in. If we choose to enter into this committed relationship, we agree to feed the living earth, and give the land’s strong life impulses a direction. In return, the strength of the land feeds us.sunny field

As is often the case, the qualities of the soil are reflected in its inhabitants. Deep inside the culture here, I see the Scots-Irish folks who came ahead of the towns and states. They were independent people. They didn’t necessarily care about setting up townships and governments. They neither wanted to boss nor be bossed by anyone else. They came here, across the ocean and then away from the coastal colonies, to get free of that. The freed slaves that followed were of a similar mindset. I wish we knew more about the indigenous people who preceded the Europeans and Africans – the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creeks. I can’t help but believe that they hold some of this quality in common as well. And even though the state lines were drawn and governments established around us, with all that those hallmarks that civilization carry, an attitude of fierce independence flows steady here, with deep roots in the stubborn clay sub-soil.

At its best, this independent stubborn quality maintains itself and its allies with dignity and loyalty. At its worst, it repels progress and change like a duck sheds water in the rain, and seems to take pride in stagnating in its own ignorance. These are basic human qualities, but it’s no good pretending that the south isn’t infamous for them. As difficult as it is to look at head on, turning a blind eye to racism and bigotry has never been an effective strategy. On the other hand, it is a joy to see the upside of stubbornness in the spirit of local growers. We do love the land, and we do keep trying, and we don’t necessarily buy into anyone else’s way of thinking until we’re sure it works for us here. And as new ideas and new ways get tested and prove up, the stubbornness of our local culture and agriculture loosens up a little. It’s like feeding air and light to dense soil. Biodynamic agriculture, for example, will not be going away. People here are only a generation or two away from the time when all the food was local food. They still know something about quality. From where we stand, grateful, on the body of this ancient soil, the community of biodynamic growers is breathing a new breath into our local culture, and agriculture.

As I have lived and grown on this land since I was a child, this soil and this water is part of me, and I of it. I am this land. I am a little piece of the South. Parts of me have blown in from other places. I am influenced and inspired by ideas from near and far, some old, some new. I collect them like pretty creek pebbles, and hold them together with the strength of my heart, mind, and body – the strength of this good southern soil.southern home grown picture 3

right now :: recovering, exhilarated

For twenty years, we have held a gathering of eclectic, “holistic”, “alternative” farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders at Long Hungry Creek Farm.  It’s a sort of a family reunion where new folks are always welcome.conference 3

I’ve probably attended more than fifteen of those twenty years worth of gatherings.  (We call it a “conference”.)  And usually the weather is great.  Sometimes, it gets cold that weekend.  Sometimes it rains one night, or part of a day.  I cannot remember that it has ever ever rained so much and at the same time been so cold for the weekend of our get-together as it was this year.

I was completely unnerved.  This is an outdoor event.  We put up an extra tent in the yard – a big tent.  But I knew it wasn’t sufficient.

Truth was, it didn’t matter.  As soon as the people began to arrive, my apprehensions began to melt.  The people who attend this event are wonderful people.  Some went to town and got rooms at the local B&Bs.  Some camped in the rain.  No one complained.  They drank a lot of coffee and hot tea.  They ate the warm meals with gratitude.  They may have even attended MORE of the workshops than usual, because they were held in protected locations.conference 4conference 2

Both Friday and Saturday were cold and wet.   Sunday, the clouds broke and the sun warmed us, through and through.

We celebrated the goodness of another season past.  We exchanged our thoughts, and our laughter.  We delved into the mystery of the living soil, the good and beautiful earth that we share, and the simultaneous struggle and victory of being human.  This is the new agricultural revolution.  It is populated with good company.conference 1

I am grateful to everyone who took part in the weekend.  I am still sleeping it off.  And I am still exhilarated.

a woman’s eye view of the world

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So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth? “

~Wendell Berry, from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Interestingly enough, I heard Wendell Berry quoted nearly as much as Rudolf Steiner at the biennial North American Biodynamic Conference last weekend. That made me happy. Of course, I love chewing on some Steiner material too, but it was wonderful to hear Wendell Berry honored as a translator of wisdom, earthly, human and spiritual, in our time.

In short, we did it. We, the Radical Farmwives, gave our first public appearance at a national conference. And we did just fine. The room was small, but the crowd was comfortable and appreciative. Just as we had hoped, there was room around the edges of mothers of small children to sit with us and not feel uncomfortable with the movements of their babes.

We spoke about our farms, our families, our business models, and all the joys and pitfalls of the lifestyle we’ve chosen. A reoccurring theme was the potential (maybe tendency is a better word) for farmers, and mothers, to be isolated in our society, and the need to build community and connection and break through that isolation in creative ways. We talked about de-compartmentalizing our lives, choosing to live in full contact with our families, mates and children, and the challenges, richness and reward of that choice. In the end, we called upon our audience to engage their noblest impulses, to be courageous in their lives, to nourish themselves and their families/communities and befriend those around them fearlessly, for the well being of the world at large.pic 2

Our presentation was well met and the attendees peppered us with wonderful comments and questions for the last few minutes of our time together. It was clear that we were in sympathetic and empathetic company, and it was an enormous joy to speak with those women and men (2) who shared that time with us. One of the gentlemen in attendance approached us afterward and commented that there should have been 100 men in the room to hear us. We emerged from the experience exalted and exhausted, both.

Much relieved, and happy now to go on and share time with our biodynamic compatriots from around the continent, we set off to gather our children from the child care room (which we were extremely grateful for) and get on with the evening. The plan was the grab the kids and their box dinners and eat together in the large dining room. The sweet girls even dressed up (each of them in classy black skirts and dresses) for the exciting occasion. You can imagine our surprise when we were stopped at the door and told that children were not allowed to dine in the common dining area.

Our choices were: 1) for our children to eat with the other children in the children’s room while we ate with the adults in the adult room, or 2) for us to eat together as families in the privacy of our own rooms. In other words, we could isolate our children from the larger group, or isolate our entire family. To say that we were flabbergasted would be the most mildly appropriate way to put it. (It seems that this was policy of the Hyatt conference center, not the Biodynamic Association.)

But we adapted, of course, and went on with the evening, juggling children and adults through three hotel rooms, glass elevators and FUN escalators. The next day, the chaos resumed course. The Smith kids woke up with full blown colds, and none of the rest of the children had any interest in returning to the on-site child care. They had some nice toys and activities, and wonderful volunteers, but it was just a little too crowded for these farm kids to manage a second day of it for any length of time.

I think it’s fair to speak for all three of us in saying that the weekend was a financial and logistical challenge. It’s a slow time of year, economically, for CSA farmers, and the polar blast made it hard to leave home, even overnight, with a clean conscience. Our family had been fighting off sickness all week long. Making the effort, then finding that our children were not welcome in common social spaces with us, was hard to take. Even though our talk went well, and it was wonderful to connect with so many like-minded people, it would be easy to complain that the weekend wasn’t very family friendly.pic 3

Complaining, in and of itself, isn’t very helpful and doesn’t feel good, so I was grateful for Robert Karp’s opening remarks before the Saturday morning keynote address. Robert is the executive director of the Biodynamic Association and a gifted speaker in his own right. I wish I had a direct quote to share, but here’s the gist of it:

Just as we turn the water, from a beautiful harmonious vortex to jumbled chaos in the course of mixing biodynamic preparations, so too will we experience challenges and tumult within ourselves in the course of gathering together in a large group. It is up to us to see that those challenging times help us grow, and don’t just send us reeling away from each other.

Amen, Robert, and thank you. That gave me enough courage to make it through the morning. I couldn’t help noticing that any presenting farmer who had children talked about them and had pictures of their farm kids in their slide show. I also noticed that the children were popular in the crowd. People smiled and spoke kindly to them wherever we were. I cannot thank Cynthia Hoven enough for letting me partake in most of her Eurythmy movement class with Levon riding on my back. By the time dinner rolled around I was tired. I hadn’t been able to sit through an entire presentation all day and was in serious need of mental and spiritual refreshment. And so it came, again from Robert, as he opened up the ceremony in honor of Hugh Courtney, a man who has truly maintained a foothold for biodynamic practitioners of all levels on this continent. Again, I paraphrase Robert:

In the making of a movement, there are individuals who give themselves. They sacrifice. They give their lives to the making of the movement. The work of their lives inspires those around them to carry on, and so the stream of that work, of that movement, grows stronger.

And that cinched it for me. I will not sacrifice my family, my children, for the sake of a movement. But I will sacrifice my own good times, because I believe that this world should be a safe place to have children and to be a family. I want my children to see and meet these people who work in this movement, and I want the people of this movement, and the world at large, to see and meet my children with me. I believe that our lives, our working and learning, can be enriched by sharing space and time with those much older and much younger than ourselves. In our elders is the world as it has been, and in our youngsters, “such is the kingdom of heaven”.  And, not least, I believe my children are good people, and frankly, it never really occurred to me (in the whole year that I spent in its’ anticipation) to go to this conference without them.pic 4

I believe in families. I am willing to go against the stream and bear some of that discomfort, and sacrifice some of my personal experiences, in the hopes that eventually, there will be more places and events that open themselves more gracefully to the presence of whole families.

We came to the North American Biodynamic Conference to present our Woman’s Eye View of the Farm. We learned a lot. We have created safe and healthy places for our children to grow and learn and BE, on our own farms. Here, at home, it’s a piece of cake. When we turn our gaze to the rest of the world, it’s clear that there’s plenty more work to do. I guess that’s where we need you to work with us.

Up for it?