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

four, a retrospective (and introducing thunder bullet)

We recently celebrated one of those great big birthdays.  All the fingers of one hand.  Five years old.  Wow.

Levon and Lulah shared a birthday celebration in Canada - hence the extra candles.

Levon and Lulah shared a birthday celebration in Canada – hence the extra candles.

It only seems right that I am only able to reflect on Levon’s fourth year now that it is over. It has been an amazing and wonderful ride. This year, he has mastered himself in new ways. He began to write his own name, and doodle letters. He wipes his own bum and changes his own clothes, most of the time. He is the master of the tricycle, and can pump a swing. He sleeps in his own bed, which doubles as the couch during the daytime. He has made rapid-fire progress out of the world of toddler and into full swing boyhood. He is rambunctious and loud. He is also sweet and very helpful when he has a mind to be. He sits on my lap and gives me “too many kisses” while I pretend to be overwhelmed. Could I ever really have too many kisses from this little guy? Nope.levon sweet 2

But one of the most interesting parts of Levon’s fourth year has been the awakening of Bunny Rabbit and Thunder Bullet. Bunny Rabbit showed up soon after his birthday last year. She is a girl, not a bunny. Bunny Rabbit is just her name. She resembles Lulah in some ways, but she has long silver hair that changes colors and magical powers. Thunder Bullet is her father. He has magic too, of course. Their family, including two brothers named Kraut and Fish, and two more sisters named Katie and Katelyn, and a mother, Gold Leaf (we don’t hear much about her), live in New York City, which is just over the western hill from here, if you ask Levon. Looking at a map, he puts their house on a far northern island in the Nunavut Province in Canada. They may well be closely related to Saint Nick, and they spend lots of time with Levon whenever we’re not around (in other words: in the privacy of his own head).levon sweet

Bunny Rabbit and Thunder Bullet are happy in the city. They have a big barn. All their vehicles have four wheel drive and plenty of hydraulics. Nothing slows them down, and their adventures are endless. Really, endless. At home, we hear about them all the time.  And by that I do mean ALL THE TIME.

Anything we don’t have, Thunder Bullet and Bunny Rabbit have, in spades. If my Fellow Man bags a deer, Thunder Bullet gets a bear. When we’re piling compost with the front end loader, we hear about Thunder Bullet’s veritable arsenal of tractors, and did I mention that Thunder Bullet has hydraulics? Oh, does he

One hot summer day, I had a job to do in the upper garden and Levon had no choice but to accompany me. There was no shade and he was tired and peevish about having to leave the cool hollow play space. I was tired, too, and my primary desire was to finish the job at hand and head back into the shelter of the trees. Levon was babbling along beside me. I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention to his narrative until he began to ask me questions. I still wasn’t very attentive, and I don’t even remember the question he asked that sparked this interaction. He asked some kind of normal kid question that can easily be either over-answered or brushed off, like why hot peppers are hot, or why dogs like to dig. In my busy and somewhat inattentive state, I gave some kind of unsatisfactory answer along the lines of:

I don’t know Levon. I guess that’s just how God made them.”

I remember now his little sweaty brow furrowing as he stared at me and said,

Thunder Bullet can kill God.”

It was one of those parenting moments. I wanted to laugh, but pulled it in. I wanted to give him a hug and press rewind. I wanted to have a long talk about goodness and light and love and eternity. But I had to think fast and make the most of it, somehow.

God wasn’t born, so he can’t be killed.”

Levon’s eyebrows shot up. “Hmmmph.” he said.

Thunder Bullet didn’t make any more appearances that day. Levon was chewing on new concepts in that vast and ever expanding head space of his, and I had a whole new appreciation of Thunder Bullet’s powers.

rendering of Thunder Bullet by Lulah, with Levons directions.

rendering of Thunder Bullet by Lulah, with Levons directions.

It would be easy to feel inadequate in the presence of Thunder Bullet and Bunny Rabbit. Clearly, Levon is translating his perceptions of the world around him through these characters. He is trying to justify the world he meets with the world he knows (now that I think on it, it’s a lifelong process), so there are all kinds of explorations, longings, and frustrations at play in the process. And though he has some of his own ideas filtering through, I think it’s fair to say that many of his perceptions are sponged straight off of us.

Bunny Rabbit and Thunder Bullet have taught me to mind the tone of my voice when I speak about what we want and need. They have taught me about contentment and the importance of voicing contentment to the children. Yes, there is always room for improvement. And YES, what we have and where we are is already very good.levon birthday

It is interesting to me that Thunder Bullet and Bunny Rabbit take a break when we’re out and about. If the environment is new and there are unfamiliar things going on, that part of Levon’s brain (the New York City and Nunavut part) is otherwise engaged. On vacation, we didn’t hear about Thunder Bullet until we were about to head home.canada levon cap

One day, these fantastic characters will dissolve into the expanding pool of Levon’s life experience. His perceptions and ways of perceiving will change and change again. We will be lucky to remember any of the multitude of stories they have brought to our household. They have been wildly entertaining stories.

It is bittersweet to see this fourth year go. It has been such a sweet year. As Levon picks up speed, it takes a heartfelt effort to keep up with him. I’m sure he won’t be slowing down anytime soon. He is a growing boy. I’m excited to see what he does with his fifth year.levon carrot

wrap up

i have been composing and recomposing posts over the past week. they swirl in my mind but nothing seems fitting enough to push the birth announcement of our newest farm baby elowyn pearl smith down the page. what my friends could be more interesting or compelling than a bugtussle babe?

nothing. nothing. nothing.

alas, it has been a week. a week of sleepless beauty for my buddies in bugtussle. a week of cuddling and greeting the world for their 4th child and a week of farm life for each of us.

so, i will write and move the image of the newborn farm babe down the page a notch.

here in the hollow we are wrapping up, the garlic planting, the last great farm task of the season, is near complete. the field crops are winding down and the high tunnels are full of hope for late season bounty. i am spending the final moments in my dye studio, a place born and treasured here in the 2015 season. a spot that welcomed our farm’s first ever indigo dyeing workshop, and a nook that i have sought day after day as i tried to develop a new farm enterprise.


the japanese indigo is setting seed, the goldenrod is passed, and now i am playing with the delightful marigolds:  strong in scent and offering a deep golden yellow.


it has been a great year full of life and color. a few more dye vats and i will close the studio for the season and prepare in earnest to attend our first ever fiber show SAFF in the meantime, a few more thousand garlic cloves beckon so off i head. a good end of season indeed.