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 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

lilly

IMG_7202Of all the tenets of biodynamic agriculture, the one that resonates the most with me and that guides my aspirations for the farm, is the notion of the farm as a complete organism. According to Hugh Lovel, in his book The Biodynamic Farm, “an ideal biodynamic farm is a self-sufficient ecosystem that produces its own composts, seeds, livestock replacements, etc., and operates within the larger context of the district and its make up, the country, the world, and the rhythms and relationships of the solar family against the starry background. The biodynamic farmer grows food for nourishment, not simply to make money, and the spiritual human requires nourishment as much as the physical.” IMG_7353Fascinating stuff. The in-depth study and true practice of biodynamics could easily fill a lifetime, and I am a mere beginner with three young children, two mortgages, and a bustling farm to manage. My ability to execute, and even fully understand, all of the many facets of biodynamic agriculture (inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner) is somewhat thwarted by the grind of each day and the need to bring home the bacon. There are only so many hours in a day, you know. But I do try. And if there is something that you aspire to do, it’s always good to start somewhere. So for me, above all of the other biodynamic farming principles, the creation of a whole-farm organism is how I feel the most connected to biodynamic agriculture. IMG_7355IMG_7275As far as growing nourishing food in the gardens for my family and CSA community, Eric and I have that detail covered. We also raise plenty of chickens for eggs, as well as sheep for lamb and cattle for beef. Sometimes we raise a few pigs, too. We have fruit trees just beginning to bear crops and berry bushes laden with fruit…IMG_7337But we did not have our own dairy animal. In my opinion, if you really want to be a truly self-sufficient farm organism, a dairy cow is a must. The last dairy cow we had was when Ira was a wee thing. The last time she calved, she had twins (not a common occurence in cattle, contrary to lambing in sheep) and we decided her calves would get all of her milk. So we had to either find another cow, or a source for milk. We chose the latter and fell into a long and very comfortable milk relationship with an amazing Amish family. That was over seven years ago. This week we had to tell our sweet friends that in a few weeks, we wouldn’t be needing to come for milk anymore. We were being given the gift of all gifts… a milk cow. There are powers at work here beyond my comprehension, and all I can say is thank you dearly.

Meet Lilly. The newest addition to our farmstead. The cow is highly esteemed on any farm, but on this little farm with this little family of mine, I value the gifts this cow will give higher than gold. She is due to freshen (calve) in just a few weeks and our journey with milking Miss Lilly will begin. Isn’t she just lovely?IMG_7330Previously when we had a milk cow, Eric did all of the milking. But this time around, it’s going to be my duty. I hope I can be as good to my new bovine friend as her previous caregivers. They set the bar pretty high. I have moments of feeling a little daunted by the intensity of this commitment, and wondering if I can be consistent enough. It’s pretty huge. But so, so beautiful. The incredibly helpful thing is that I’m not in it alone. Eager children, lovely neighbors, and a supportive husband have all offered to lend a hand if ever I need it. IMG_7318Now I’ve got some preparing to do. A portable stanchion that I can pull through the pastures with the golf cart is high on the list. I’ll keep you posted on that detail! For now though, I want to leave you with a passage from a fabulous book that I’m currently engrossed in, Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman.

“Every day, for ten months of the year, my cow Fern translates the sun and rain that fall on my small acreage into life-supporting, nourishing milk. With superb efficiency she borrows the energy in cellulose (think grass, upon which humans starve) and reinvests it into a food more perfect than anything in the supermarket. No mangrove swamps or rain forests are destroyed in the manufacture of this product. No water to float a battleship is diverted for her purposes. No grain that might otherwise have been cracked into ethanol or bargained to the starving is apportioned to her use. Fern accomplishes this feat without burning any gasoline. She does this through the magic of wild fermentation in her rumen, the same process employed by cabbage worms and everything else that lives by splitting cellulose. Right now is the moment to abandon the fiction that cows are high on the food chain. The only things that live lower on the food chain than cows and caterpillars are bacteria. Fern is a one-stop food factory, using sun, rain, grass, and rumen fermentation to produce complete-protein milk; the cow does all the work today, and tomorrow she will do it all over again.”IMG_7359