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

rules of the road

on the roadWe live almost at the end of a very rural road.  People drive through a mile of deep woods and over six small creek crossings before coming to our house, if they even notice our house for all the trees.  I’ve been contemplating what it means to me to live on this road, and have come up with a few helpful tips for people who might want to take a drive in the rural southern countryside.

  1. No matter how deeply wooded and remote-feeling the road you are traveling feels, assume that someone lives there.  If you could find it, and it is passable with your car or truck, even if only in four wheel drive, there’s a probability that someone lives or works there as well.  And if we live here, we can hear you.  Assume that.occupied territory
  2. Drive slowly, but not too slowly.  Reckless speeding on remote roads is annoying at best and dangerous at worst.  Kids on bicycles and other precious critters live in these woods. On the other hand, if you are going at a snail’s pace in front of us when we are trying to get to work, that’s no fun either.  We want you to be safe, and we already know every bump and pothole.  Pull over as best you can.  We’ll find a way around you.not too fast
  3. Keep your garbage to yourself.  Keep your cigarette butts, your beer cans, your water bottles, your fast food cartons, your small appliances and furniture IN YOUR VEHICLE.  Dispose of unwanted items properly.  Please do not think that we don’t notice your trash.  Would you notice if someone left a sofa at the side of your driveway?  We do too.  Our “driveway” is just a lot longer than yours.trash
  4. Don’t shoot the wildlife from your vehicle.  If you have permission to hunt from a landowner, please park clear of the road so that we can pass and do your hunting away from the road.  We’ve got first dibs.
  5. If there is water running over the road, proceed with great caution.  Get out of your vehicle and look closely at any fast moving streams.  Just because the road goes through to the other side doesn’t mean that the road is always passable.  We don’t want you to get stuck.  We don’t mind helping when help is needed, but it is unnerving to be called on at bedtime by strangers who have failed to notice that the creek is too high to drive through.
  6. As an addendum to number 5, please don’t drive OFF the road.  Even if you are in a zippy four wheeler, the road is where you belong.  Public land is rare in these parts.  Assume that both sides of the road, and the creek, are privately owned.  Please don’t drive in the creek.creek crossing
  7. If you are not in a honking huge truck, don’t straddle the big rocks.  Sometimes it might seem like a good idea.  But if there’s a way around, use it.
  8. Be friendly with passers-by.  We often stop and say hello to people we see on the road down here, just to check out who is tooling around the neighborhood, which is an extension of our backyard.  Surly and smartalecky responses to our greetings leave us feeling unhappy and suspicious.  We live here, and we will be as kind to you if you will allow us to be.  friendly
  9. Pull over and turn off your engine and radio.  Listen to the birds and wind and flowing water.
  10. Enjoy the view.  We do.enoy the view

occupy life

(Sigh.) Another theater season has drawn to a close in our local high school. They did a bang up job putting on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. And we survived. My lack of a post last week was due to the fact that we were just surviving the process, but now, a few days out, I can look back and enjoy the ride.occupy teacup 2

Theater is a high impact, comprehensive, creative, full body sport. I love it. When I was in high school, it was one of my ambitions to play Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, on Broadway, or someplace similar. (Thankfully, I have let that particular ambition slide.)

It didn’t take much time in New York City for me to realize I would rather be in the woods than on the stage. The theater of life is sufficient. But that doesn’t stop me from still loving the process of live stage drama. So, I got a little bit involved.

The directors of the local theater program are really excellent folks with good taste in vegetables (we supply their families) and we had long talked about yoga with the theater kids. I started leading their warm ups at one rehearsal each week.

It was so much fun. I’m hoping that the kids enjoyed it at least half as much as I did. Working with them, and watching them develop this performance has been a really special experience for me. Love of my daughter, the stage, and the local kids all collided in one great opportunity. I really want these young folks to get a sense of their own power, and to practice a waking awareness of their own bodies and selves. See, in order to convince someone in the audience that you are not yourself, you have to use every piece of yourself – every gesture, every breath, each movement – and so you need an acute awareness and control over yourself. I want them to know where their hands and feet are at all times – to feel the weight of their precious heads on their shoulders and use it well. I want them to use their whole bodies and their whole minds, and to learn how to work hard without hurting themselves in the process.  occupy kids

Those teenage years are so freakin’ intense. Young people have enormous amounts of energy – emotionally, intellectually, physically – and it is in the best interest of all involved for that energy to be used well. There’s a tremendous focus on sports-related activities in our local schools (which is a fine outlet) and the theater gives an outlet to those who aren’t so inclined to the playing field.

Watching them take their final bow on closing night brought back vivid memories of those wonderful intense sensations – the heat of the lights, the bond with fellow players, the exhilaration and corresponding exhaustion. A theater production crew creates something altogether new with their combined efforts whether great or small, and shares that creation with the community. Whatever the character of their shared creation, if it grabs us, the audience, and takes us along for the ride, it is successful.occupy teacup

Of course, when my personal favorite purple tea cup takes the stage, I can’t pay very much attention to the rest of the action. That’s the nature of parenthood I suppose, but besides that, I appreciate seeing her be a piece of the whole production process. As exhausting as it is, I do believe in it. (I’ll believe in it even more when she’s older and can drive herself to rehearsal, but…)occupy kids 1

Then there was the bomb threat.

Yes, that’s right, a bomb threat, right here in the middle of nowhere. It was a fake, of course, perpetrated probably by a student hoping to get out of school early, but the authorities had no choice but to take it seriously and lock down the school for a night. And that in turn meant canceling that night’s performance and re-scheduling it later, which was a major bummer for the kids who had worked so hard for months to put this show together.

My initial reaction to hearing the word “bomb” connected to any place my children will be is to remove them from that place, perhaps permanently.

But after that reaction came and went, I got to thinking a little harder about it all.

First I thought about this place – the rural south – where we have come home and chosen to raise our children. I wasn’t born here, but have lived here since I was a little baby. I’m still not considered “local” and probably my children won’t be either, even though they are among the tiny minority of people actually born in this county. Part of why I like it here is that there is a staying power to the people. Walking the halls of the high school on the closing night of the play, I looked at the faces of the graduates dating back into the 1930’s. The surnames are still familiar – there are generations of people who have stayed right here. They know each other through deeply woven connections and generations of family ties. To my way of thinking, this gives the local society a level of accountability that is hard to find in the scattered social disconnect of suburban sprawl. There are problems, too, of course. There are “good old boy” networks and prejudices that sometimes send me screaming. But there is a sweet, deep beating heart beneath all of that. And that’s what will keep a community whole, a place where you don’t ever, in your wildest dreams, expect to hear the words “bomb threat”. And that’s part of why we are still here.

There is a tendency among a growing number of us to want to ditch civilization at large. I am definitely prone to that kind of thinking. There are times that I would like nothing more than to take my family deep into the primeval forest and stay there, where there are no bomb threats, no standardized tests, no blinking screens and ticking clocks and nightly news and faceschmuk.

But if I hold my gaze firm I come to know that there is no running away. There is no perfect place. What I want is a better world, a world without bomb threats and school shootings, among many things. It is feasible that my Fellow Man and I could perhaps create enough of a bubble around ourselves to make the world better for OUR kids, which would be great, but it’s not the whole picture.

I believe that when part of humanity suffers, we all suffer in some way. Our suffering, in our comfortable homes and with our creature comforts may be indirect and subtle. It may manifest in the crude sort of alienation that leads young people to make false bomb threats. But that doesn’t make the suffering any less real.

I want to do things that make the whole world a better place. Your world, my world, OUR world. This doesn’t mean I’m joining Doctors Without Borders (a WONDERFUL organization). That’s not my calling. My work, for now is simply to not run away – to stay here and occupy this world, at home.

I believe that if we were to pay more attention to the places we occupy – our bodies, our homes, our communities – then these places will be improved. They will not be improved while our attention remains glued to the high speed screens that try to sell us what they say we ought to be.

I’ve heard it said that the footsteps of the farmer are the best fertilizer. That’s not a statement about compressing the soil – it’s about paying attention. Our worlds, large and small, need our attention, as they are right now, in pain and sickness and pleasure and plenty, to heal and to thrive. Nothing will get better if we ditch now. Nothing will improve without our heartfelt, focused, creative attention.

That’s a lot to pack into a yoga class with some teenagers, I know. Sometimes people get a funny look on their face when I say to a class, “feel your feet on the ground”. Maybe they’re thinking that this yoga teacher is just nuts. Or maybe they’re feeling the soles of their feet in a way they hadn’t noticed before. Maybe they can carry that new sense of the soles of their feet out on the stage in the stride of some character that will make us all laugh our heads off. Maybe they will carry that sensation into their lives and use it to help them stay awake for all the beauty in store for them if they look for it, and create it. I hope so, cause that’s what I’m talking about.

The kids in the theater production occupied every inch of that stage to make that awesome performance. They connected to the creative process, and each other, and they shared it with us. We gave them back a lot of love and appreciation in return, and for this period of time, in this little town, that lively exchange made our world a very good place.occupy kids 2