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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.