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

transformation

“Change can change back. (We can go from conservative to liberal, from disciplined to undisciplined…) Change is volatile. Transformation is completely different – though sometimes it is called change. Transformation never makes the past wrong. It transforms it. It doesn’t deny it. It honors it in a way that you can move forward without making anything wrong, and having the past somehow now become complete, rather than wrong. Transformation has a permanence to it – where once you transform, once you awaken, once you see the stations you didn’t see before, you can’t go back. Transformation has the ultimate power of time, and what the world is crying for now is transformation, not necessarily more change, though some change may be a part of it, the route to transformation. Transformation suddenly makes the past make sense, and new futures open up.” ~ Lynne Twistcomet and hickory

Our two goats birthed healthy kids in the past 10 days.  There’s nothing like birth to illustrate the power of transformation.  comet and pepper

Pepper the goat, who came to us as a sweet little kid about a year ago, is now an attentive and worried mother.  The bulge that has slowly grown in her belly over the past five months is now a perfectly beautiful little doe (Comet Wood).  Our other mama goat, Annie, had an equally beautiful, but much larger, buckling (HickoryNut White).hickory portrait

I can’t watch those births, and the growth of those kids, without thinking of our (human) processes, as well.  I remember my children as sweet little bald-headed toothless infants.  They have transformed into walking, running, bike riding, sweaty-headed children with opinions and talents all their own.  And they are far from complete.  Day by day they will grow into adolescents and adults, and if they (we) are so fortunate, they will have children of their own and even become elderly.

We have all been many people, haven’t we?  Most of us cannot remember being infants, and we cannot know exactly who we will become as we continue to age.  We are capable of great change, great transformation, one breath, one heartbeat at a time.

Is transformation ever complete, or never complete?  I suspect the latter.mother and child

The continuum is evident in the garden.  I’ve been watching the garden with different eyes this year, knowing it will be our last growing season at this little homestead.  Twelve years ago, when we landed here, the land, the soil, was rough.  It was hard growing.  With our care and effort and loving attention, the land has transformed.  We can grow a beautiful garden here now, and there’s still room for improvement.  As we come to the point of finding a new steward for this place, I will be seeking someone who will continue to apply the loving care necessary to keep the transformation moving in a positive direction.

Here’s the thing.  I won’t pretend that all transformation is positive, because it isn’t.  People neglect and abuse their land, and what was a once a pretty nice place transforms into a washed out and infertile wasteland.  When people fail to nurture, love, and provide for their children, those children have a harder time making a healthy transformation into the full bloom of adulthood. We be will all be transformed, whether we are paying attention to the process or not.  And we all take part in the transformation of ourselves and those near to us.  lulah and comet

I think it is one of the special gifts of being human, the choices we have in our own transformation.  And though we are deeply swayed by the forces of instinct and hormones, we are not completely ruled by them.  We can allow the bumps, jostles, and upheavals of life harden our hearts and minds, or not.  We can, do, and shall overcome. It is up to us to make our transformations healthy and positive.

It brings me joy to watch the new goat kids stretch in the morning light.  Their skinny newborn bellies are already fattening up with their mama’s good milk.  The garden, soft and  wet with rain is stretching upward toward the swelling moon.  Our children, bursting with the excitements of summer, berries and creek time and fireflies and all, seem to be growing taller and more full in themselves each day.  Joy is a transformative power.  Taking joy in all these growing lives, these transformations are also mine.  I share them with you, so they can be yours too.

I hope you will go find (or make) some more goodness, and share it.  comet and levon

 

 

fringe benefits

moonWe waited out the last of the “little winters” with our little greenhouse getting a bit too full of plants ready to go in the ground.  The moon was nearly full, in a nice earth sign with rain in the forecast for the next day.  We hustled and got it (almost) all planted.

Doing this change, this year, scaling back the gardens – it’s strange.  We only planted seventy tomatoes.  My Fellow Man and I stood on the edge of the field, looking at the rows and wondering…  could seventy tomatoes possibly be enough?  How could seventy tomato plants possibly NOT be enough?  It’s been ten years since we’ve grown anything less than one hundred tomato plants.  Our season has been organized around hundreds of row feet of just about everything.  It feels very strange, and sort of unsettling, to be growing less.tomatoes

Part of the weirdness is missing our people.  Year after year, I have considered our customers as we plant.  Thoughts along the lines of: “This family loves this variety of pepper, let’s make sure to have plenty of it!”  Or “This person always wants extra orange tomatoes.” Or “I can’t wait for her to see these purple radishes”.  Sharing the garden was such a large part of growing it.  I miss our people, and I still think of them when I’m out there.  No doubt, there will still be plenty of food sharing going on.  It’s just changing.

Another part is figuring out what we, just our family, want to grow.  After a decade of trying to grow EVERYTHING, the question this season is – what do we want to eat, and how much?  Mostly, the answer is still EVERYTHING, but the proportions are changing, and it feels funny to consult only ourselves, not our larger marketplace, in the decisions.  We have grown mostly paste tomatoes this year, with canning in mind.  The watermelon and cantaloupe bed is smaller, more narrowly defined by our personal tastes.  I’m having a hard time believing that we will survive with anything less than a seventy five foot long row of basil.  It’s just not worth the risk!  But some things, like spinach – we can have a small bed of spinach and be wonderfully satisfied while we wait for the cucumbers to bloom and grow. It won’t be long until the excesses of the growing season will be fully upon us. basil

The topic of “how much is enough” is a big one.  We live in a culture that glorifies excess.  We are raised on it, and in it.  The “average” American child consumes the same amount of resources as thirteen of its neighboring children in Brazil, or thirty-five children in India (source).  The numbers are nothing short of absurd, but I don’t doubt their veracity, because I feel it right here at home.  Here we are, trying to live “simply”, trying to produce instead of consume, and still we are over-run with matchbox cars, legos, paperback books, not to mention the constant demand of the fuel tanks, needing to be refilled.  I’m not into inspiring guilt, in myself or others.  I am very much interested in inspired personal responsibility, in myself and others.

While hustling the garden into place this week, I thought about doing my best, and continuing to learn to do better.  I don’t do this – this gardening, this thinking, this writing, because I feel guilty about our excessive use of resources.  I do it, and advocate for it, because it feels good to strive for better.  It feels good to learn, to change, to grow on the inside.  In fact, it is much more satisfying to learn and grow than to buy more stuff.  It’s just a little more challenging.garden enough

And I believe we can take steps in a completely different direction by looking at what it is that we can make MORE of for the goodness of the world.  Love, of course, is the most obvious thing.  Friendship and understanding, love’s counterparts – can’t have too much of those.  There don’t seem to be too many clover flowers, so I think it’s safe to make more clover.  Flowers in general – especially the ones still attached to their roots. We can use more flowers.   Then there’s the other stuff, like tomatoes, for instance, and lettuce (sweet potatoes, too, and cilantro, arugula, garlic and onions, butternut squash – can’t have too much of these things).  If we can’t eat them, or given them away, the chickens and goats will enjoy them, and we will pile up their manure, let it rot, and spread it on the garden, which leads to another good thing – compost, and fertile soil.  Anything that anyone of us can do to enrich the life of a piece of ground (and I’m talking about earthworms, not Miracle Gro here), THAT activity is a service to all life on earth.   The fact that we gain incredible natural beauty, high quality food, and good health from that service?  That’s just fringe benefits.

valerian