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

the right medicine

As the season winds down, we start getting bookish around here. Even though the to-do list is still too long, I see school buses out on the roads and start thinking that we ought to do our own version of that. That. That school-thing.

I know I wrote a piece, sometime last year, about homeschooling/unschooling. I probably talked about how we don’t believe in coercive education here and the process of getting comfortable with that step outside, or even against, the mainstream current.

I may be about to contradict myself. (Exhaling) It’s a natural part of the human condition.big picture

When I look at my beautiful eight year old daughter, sometimes it’s as if I can feel what it’s like to be living inside her body. I suspect that this is not uncommon with some parents and children. When she runs and jumps and plays outside, I can watch her and feel in myself what it means to move like that, to have that intense kinetic energy, to be eight years old.

And so, when we sit down together to look at some basic mathematical concepts and she breaks into tears and screams in frustration, I take it pretty hard.

But I don’t stop. I might change tact, or order some different material. Sometimes I have to walk away for a few minutes. Sometimes I have to sit right next to her while she makes loud protests about the quality of my parenting, but I won’t stop now.lulah bird

It’s a biodynamic principle that guides me here.

From Lecture Two of Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course:

From the perspective of an ideal farm, any fertilizers and so forth that are brought in from outside would indeed have to be regarded as remedies for a sickened farm. A healthy farm would be one that could produce everything it needs from within itself.”

Of course, there’s not a perfect analogy between a farm and a family, but to me, it’s a concept worthy of consideration.

Most of the land in our part of the country has been logged more than once and/or crop-farmed continually for many years. We didn’t get glaciated in the last ice age, so the land wasn’t rich to begin with. A few generations of plow pan and hard use leaves some rough, rocky, clayey, worn out soil. Most of us, from the get-go, are farming “a sickened farm”.

When we first turned ground in our little bottom field, it was full of sedges. There were giant thick muddy puddles in many places when it rained. The soil was hard to the touch, and hard to hoe. A strange slimy fungus-y stuff grew on the turned soil surface. It didn’t seem to be doing damage, but it was weird. With help from some nice compost, we were able to grow a good enough garden. Year after year, we feed the soil. We monitor with tests and observation the progress and continuing imbalances. And yes, we have brought in manure, to compost, and minerals to spread. The scrappy little bottom field has come a long way, and we’re not done with treatment yet.

We must look at the whole of our land, and determine how much and what kind of farm medicine is necessary, not just once, but continually throughout the season and over the years, and not just to grow enough food (animal, grain, or vegetable) to make the mortgage, but enough to mend the land and eventually restore its health.

That’s part of our job as farmers, growers, stewards.green garden

And it’s part of our job as parents.

When I take on the responsibility of homeschooling our children, I am forging a deeper commitment to the individualized entity of our family. I am vouching that we have the resources to shepherd our children’s intellectual development (as well as their physical and emotional growth). It probably wouldn’t be hard to argue that our families and communities have taken a similar abuse as our soils. If we are wise, we will carefully discern our personal weak spots, be they academic, physical, or emotional, and take remedial action, in whatever way best suits the situation.

music class - math made audible

music class – math made audible

Our daughter is not sick. But as I gently observed her over-all academic growth this season, I could sense a thin spot, a place where seeds of thought weren’t germinating as well as they could. And so, our attention will go there, more than usual. This season, it’s math.

Some unschooling advocates might say that she will catch up when she’s developmentally ready. I just have to watch and wait and seize the day. Maybe they are right, too. But I’m feeling a different force at work on me right now. I’m looking at a bigger picture.lulah watermelon

I know my daughter, the way a good gardener knows her soil. I know what she’s capable of, and have a glimmer of an insight into the possibilities of her future. It’s part of my job to see to it that she has the tools she needs to proceed into that future with confidence, and that she will not be held back by any intellectual deficit, real or perceived. She’s a mighty person, and I take it as part of my job to see that she meet the world with all her strength intact.

Have you ever resisted growth? I think most of us have in some way, sometime. It can be scary, and frustrating, to transcend our previous understandings. But just like so many mothers in labor at some point declare that they “can’t do it” just when they really ARE doing it, we break through, and grow anyway.

She does, and will continue to, resist my efforts sometimes. We will have to be creative and flexible and observant to proceed correctly. There might be workbooks involved (oh well). We may have to step outside our own box to find out what works, but that’s ok. It seems to be one of the job descriptions of parenting, of teaching, of growing, of living.

At the end of a “school session” that has been particularly challenging to us both, we go do our things. Sometimes my nerves are frazzled. I am grateful to go outside and grab a hoe or push a mower for awhile. But there’s something right about it in my heart. I know I am serving her the right medicine.lulah sweet

 

we will all be there

 

it was a gloomy sunday morning, I was sort of wallowing in a bit of exhausted self pity. sundays during market season are hard, coming down from an over caffeinated, highly stimulating, definitively sleep deprived 24 hours, we all kind of wake up on sunday morning not quite knowing which way to turn. as usual, i grabbed a cup of tea hoping for clarity. none. i headed out for morning chores and was stopped in my tracks by a copperhead in the wood pile. things were not taking a turn for the better. alas, instead of begrudgingly tackling my to do list, i stopped at the computer and am i glad i did.  there was a simple yet powerful email from a new friend steering me towards the latest on the website for the 2014 North American Biodynamic Conference.

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i have been dabbling in biodynamics for as long as i have been farming. when it was announced that the national conference would be held in my home state, my mind whirled and thrilled at the number of old friends that would gather and at the opportunity to meet an amazing collection of folks doing this significant work so attached to my life. when i was asked to sit on the steering committee for this conference, i was honored and perplexed at what i could possibly offer. monthly calls ensued and often i sat silent as others suggested potential speakers and themes. i am not often quiet, but i have not attended many conferences of this type and had little insight. it is not that i wouldn’t love to attend, i cried in 2012 when i realized i simply could not. truth is  i farm and i have children and  the combination of these two keeps me and so many farming mamas away from these amazing events.

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this year, the conference is a mere 2 hours away and the farmwives and i are fully engaging in the event. we will join together, my dear friends and i, and offer to the conference goers our first professional, public appearance (i can not divulge any more until the full conference schedule comes out).  this alone is monumental and incredibly exciting, but now, let us return to this sunday morning and the aforementioned email from my new friend. in our last conference call just a few short weeks ago, a topic close to my heart was brought up: children. here i found my voice. i feel strongly that events such as these often push women and children to the margins. we speak to the beauty and the significance of the small family farms, but how can we carry this vision if there is no place at these conferences for the kiddos or the mamas nursing them? if we don’t support the whole family, offer learning opportunities to all of us, how can we possibly address the age and gender imbalances in agriculture?

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my friend’s email directed me to the newly added children at the conference. tears spilled from my eyes as i read the words. children’s activities and child care will be available all day, every day of this conference. families are welcome and will be cared for as we all share knowledge, experience, and insight. this most definitely changed the course of my previously gloomy sunday morning and will most hopefully alter the path for conferences and events for a long time to come. hip hip hooray for the Biodynamic Association.

so friends, why not join us?  we will be there. all three of us farmwives. with our husbands and our children. our families will be joining so many others in learning and sharing. i know it will be a place of high level education and the wonderful mingling of a large community. i should warn you though, you might not want to have a room near us at the hotel, we can get a little excited when we’re all together.