|Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals was one of five Mainers to attend the North American Biodynamic Conference last fall. Photo courtesy of Avena Botanicals.
By Jean English
More than 700 people attended the November 2012 North American Biodynamic Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. Among them were invited speakers Tom Griffin and Deb Soule, presenter Jennifer Greene of The Water Institute of Blue Hill, and Maine growers Dylan Chapman and Madeline Owen.
Griffin has a master’s degree in agronomy and worked as an environmental scientist before moving to Camphill Village in Kimberton, Penn., to study biodynamics. There he found a holistic philosophy of farming that made more sense to him than his reductionist education. He now has a CSA farm, Hope’s Edge Farm in Hope, Maine.
Soule, a MOFGA-certified organic grower and the first biodynamic-certified grower in Maine, founded and runs Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine, where she and her staff cultivate 3 acres of medicinal herbs for harvest. The garden also serves as a healing and educational space.
Chapman, a MOFGA journeyperson, and Owen were growing vegetables in Cushing and are moving to Union soon. They sell their vegetables at restaurants and the Good Tern Co-op in Rockland and are starting a CSA this year.
Deep Ecology and Biodynamics
Biodynamics uses many practices common to organic culture. In addition, biodynamics considers astronomical events such as lunar rhythms and relationships of planets. Biodynamics also uses specific herbal and mineral preparations, which are placed in compost and sprayed on fields. The farm or garden ecosystem is viewed holistically as a living organism.
|Tom Griffin’s workshops on adding biodynamic preparations to compost are popular with MOFGA apprentices. English photo.
Griffin spoke at the conference about the relationship between deep ecology and biodynamics.
He told The MOF&G later, “Deep ecology holds that all living things have an equal right to live and flourish. The subtext here is that whenever one life form (humans) becomes dominant at the expense of all other living things, then the entire organism (Earth) suffers. In other words, the healthiest Earth is the Earth with the greatest diversity.
“In biodynamics this principle is evident in the ‘ideal’ goal of the farm as an individual, self-sustaining organism. The farm’s organs include the obvious things, such as soil, crops, livestock, hay lands, pastures, water resources, etc., but they also include wetlands, hedgerows, forests, fungal and bacterial life, birds, insects ...
“If the healthiest farm organism is the one with the greatest diversity, why would we strive to eliminate any life form? Granted some life forms, i.e. ‘pests,’ need to be restrained. Potato beetles are voracious and greedy critters (Perhaps we humans are the potato beetles of the Earth?) and left to their own devices would severely damage the potato crop. But the best that we can and should hope for is a homeostatic situation where the ‘pests’ are kept in check without going on a war of extermination – a war we would only lose.
“My interpretation of biodynamics is that, through this striving for the ‘ideal’ diversified farm organism, the farm will attain this homeostatic place naturally.”
Another principle of deep ecology is that facts and logic, i.e., science, cannot by themselves explain how we should relate to the rest of nature in an ecological or moralistic way.
“For that you need deep wisdom,” says Griffin. “Deep ecology says to attain deep wisdom you need to ask deep questions, be open to deep experiences, and you need to be deeply committed. For me biodynamics is all of that. For example, biodynamic growers are confronted with the deep question, ‘Why do we put manure in a cow horn and bury it in the ground during winter?’”
Regarding deep commitment, Griffin says, “As farmers we’re busy; why would one take a few hours out of one’s day to stir and spray something that may or may not have a benefit? This requires a deep commitment.
A Spiritual Connection to the Elements
Soule believes that the title of the biodynamic conference, Sacred Agriculture – Creating a New Relationship with the Earth, brought many new people to the November event.
“The biodynamic principle that all the physical world is a manifestation of a spiritual reality is key,” says Griffin.
Rudolf Steiner, who started biodynamics, was supposedly clairvoyant and could see into the realm beyond our five senses, Griffin adds. For Steiner, the elemental beings were spiritual beings whose focus was earth, air, fire or water. (Soule notes that Ayurvedic medicine includes a fifth element, ether, an unseen spiritual force, which, joined with the air element, creates movement and form.)
Steiner said, for example, that he could see Earth elements working in the realm of plant roots. We used to have a closer connection with these beings, or cosmic forces, says Griffin; using biodynamic preparations is supposed to invite them to return or to work more closely with us.
These forces, invisible to most of us, may seem strange, but Griffin notes that we accept things such as gravity as being valid even though we don’t see them. “We see the results, but we don’t see gravity itself. So why would we discount the notion that there are forces at work in our gardens which we don’t see and yet which are having an effect?”
Soule glimpsed that realm when, at 15, she read The Findhorn Garden: Pioneering a New Vision of Man and Nature in Cooperation. “That book was so inspiring to me, because it talked about working directly with elemental beings.” She had sensed “elemental forces that work on the land,” and the Findhorn book “gave them language.”
Then, in 1986, she was teaching Elderhostel programs at Thomas College, which also offered Steiner programs for many years. At the college bookstore, she found and bought the Stella Natura: Kimberton Hills Biodynamic Agricultural Calendar and started sowing seeds according to dates on the calendar.
Soule senses the elements as “a quality of energy. Sometimes I see a quality of light when I’m working. There’s also a being-ness sense, like a presence I feel.” In thinking about medicinal herbs, she considers how an element may be out of balance in someone with a disease that shows up physically, emotionally or spiritually.
At the conference, Soule spoke on the keynote panel with three other biodynamic farmers, each talking about their sacred relationship to land. In her portion of the keynote, Soule showed an image of a big rock face that had recently been exposed at Avena. Soule says, “The woman whose father grew up on Avena’s farm said she remembered as a child her grandfather showing her a petroglyph of a hand [on that rock] that he assumed was Native American. We haven’t found it yet, but one thing that’s important for me when I think about sacred agriculture is gratitude.” So she has dedicated that rock area on her land as a place to have a small fire, to hang prayer flags and to “speak to the spirit of the land.”
She says that using biodynamic preparations made sense to her from an herbalist’s perspective, because all six herbs used in the compost preparation are medicinal herbs that she already used. Because she has studied homeopathy, specific methods for stirring preparations also made sense to her.
“When we make tinctures, we’re beginning to do this rhythmic way of shaking them, really enlivening them. The biodynamic preparations drew me because I think of them as medicines for the earth, as I think of them in another way as medicines for people.
“The other thing I really love about biodynamics is working with rhythms,” Soule added. “Herbalists work with seasonal, solar and lunar rhythms. That’s a strong component of biodynamics and that was really easy for me because I had been working with the Stella Natura calendar since 1986.”
She says that in the ‘80s, when she started seedlings in rented greenhouse space, planting according to Stella Natura, she noticed that her seedlings always looked a little more robust, than others’.
When she started planting at Avena’s current site, in 1997, she began using biodynamic preparations. “I get all kinds of comments from the hundreds of visitors who come through. They’re always amazed at the vitality of the plants. I think it’s in part due to the preparations.”
That’s not easy to measure.
“We’re talking about spiritual forces,” says Griffin. “We don’t have a meter that we can stick in some fruit and say, ‘Look at all those spiritual forces!’
“A lot of what I experience is subjective – the energy of the farm, the taste of a strawberry, the comments from CSA members. The Biodynamic Association (BDA) is always looking to fund research in biodynamics, but I don’t think there’s a way to prove objectively that biodynamically grown plants contain spiritual forces. It’s a reductionist way of looking at something that’s not reducible.
“Perhaps aboriginal cultures are the only ones other than biodynamics that have a spiritual base [to cultivation]” Griffin continues. “Steiner was a spiritual scientist. When he talks about some of these odd things, like preparations, it’s coming from a spiritual point of view. To call it sacred agriculture highlights that aspect. You don’t see those two words together very often.”
“In many ways,” says Soule, “there’s a lot of overlay of indigenous peoples’ thinking about how all of life is sacred. Everything and everyone is holy, and the Earth is a living organism connected to the larger cosmos, the influences of the moon and the planets, the sun.”
Griffin says biodynamics has made farming not just his livelihood but also his spiritual path. “I go about my work looking at nature in a more participatory, non-dualistic way.
“I think that has implications not just in farming but for human culture in general. If you can stop thinking about the potato beetle as ‘the other,’ can you stop thinking of another person as ‘the other?’ We can make enemies of anybody; we can become fundamentalists in our approach to the world. Is Monsanto evil and we’re the good? We can tend to make those dichotomies but ultimately we’re all the same.”
Griffin recalls a little boy at one of his CSA potlucks pulling a carrot on his farm. “His mouth falls open and his eyes get big and he shows his parents and he's awed by this carrot. I realized then that as we grow older and so-called wiser, we can lose our awe regarding simple, everyday things like carrots. We don’t look at a carrot as a miracle anymore. What I need to do at least once a season while I’m digging carrots is to be awed – look at what the Earth has produced!”
Such experiences don’t have to come through biodynamics, says Griffin. “I think there are just as many organic farmers out there who experience the same things – being awed by a carrot, or making a relationship to nature that goes beyond the physical aspects of, ‘It’s raining or it’s dry.’ For me biodynamics has been the door that has allowed me to develop this relationship. Some people just see the door anyway without biodynamics. I don’t know how one could farm over an extended period of time, in a hands-on sort of way, connected to the earth, and not make some of these same connections.”
But in addition, he does think that “cosmic forces are rained down on the Earth no matter what we do, but biodynamic practices focus them ... It’s the doorway, and it is bringing forces to the farm and my neighborhood. If they’re not brought in a conscious way, they’re a little more dispersed.”
“It’s like a gesture,” says Soule, and a way she can give back to the soil, the microorganisms, the earthworms, the healing forces and the elemental beings. “It’s a way that I can make a gesture of gratitude, because I’m doing so much harvesting … a way that I can keep giving back. I love the stirring and spraying. It’s such a natural thing for me to do. It also helps me more consciously be connected to the natural rhythms. What’s really happening in the larger natural world that allows me to tune in here? Because I do resonate with what Steiner talked about – the re-spiritualizing of our food and my deep prayer for great healing on this planet. These two healing systems that I work in – herbalism and biodynamics – give me hope.”
Healing the Earth
Healing the Earth is an aspiration common to deep ecology and biodynamics. Steiner spoke, even back in 1924, about a devitalized spiritual consciousness of humans and of the overall life force of the Earth.
“There is an irony here,” says Griffin, “in that this is a bit like asking the cancer to heal the body,” when so many of the Earth’s ills are caused by human activity.
The human community, Griffin continued, is a member of the community of Nature – as opposed to the commonly held Judeo-Christian concept that nature is God’s gift to humanity to use as we see fit.
“This is also where the three deeps of deep ecology – deep questioning, deep experience and deep commitment – come into play. The introspective nature of these activities cannot, I believe, help but lead one into a spiritual frame of mind and soul, which is essential to our awakening and ultimately to our survival as a species.”
“For me,” says Soule, “it’s about vitality. There’s life in the food that we’re eating, that feeds the human spirit, and hopefully builds our capacity to be much more whole in ourselves so that we can become more conscious, kind, caring human beings, which I feel is our true nature.”
Steiner, says Griffin, said that humans don’t live up to their spiritual potential because their food does not have enough spiritual force. “As farmers,” asks Griffin, are we fed by what we’re doing? [Does farming] build up that spiritual life in us? I can’t speak for all farmers, but that’s where [biodynamics] takes me.”
Good garden design can help meet our spiritual potential. At the conference, Soule and herbalist Jean-David Derremeaux spoke about incorporating medicinal herbs into a garden design. For 18 years, Derremeaux worked at Camphill Village in New York, a community of 250 with more than 100 adults with developmental disabilities, so his designs accommodated those disabilities. Now he runs a biodynamic farm at the 1,500-member Center for Discovery community in New York, where 600 people with different levels of autism live. He’s designed five gardens there, says Soule, to serve as healing spaces.
“We talked about our impulses to create healing gardens. That’s one of the purposes of Avena’s gardens, too,” she says – to be a sanctuary where people (and pollinators) find healing in nature, as well as where she and her staff collect herbs for medicine and offer herb walks and classes.
Connecting Biodynamic and Organic
While Soule’s enterprise is MOFGA-certified organic and she is a big supporter of MOFGA, she believes the USDA standards of organic farming have watered down “the essence of organic farming” and that people are looking for and turning to a system of farming that has a strong spiritual foundation. Hence she is also certified biodynamic by the Demeter Association.
Soule believes that MOFGA, other farming organizations and the biodynamic community can form stronger connections. Helping build these connections is Robert Karp, executive director of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, “an extraordinary person who came from the food movement,” says Soule.
“He’s surrounded himself with a really good group of people who are helping him. He also works from a heart place and is really good at connecting with all kinds of people.”
Karp has visited Griffin and Soule’s farms and is interested in building relationships with people in the Northeast, says Soule.
Many organic organizations have been contacting the BDA since the conference. “Sacred agriculture,” concludes Soule, “underlies what so many of us do as farmers.”
A Big Jump
Dylan Chapman learned about the Sacred Agriculture conference from Griffin.
“The title ‘Sacred Agriculture’ jumped right out at me. Some of the subjects [of talks] resonated with both of us,” he says of himself and of his partner, Madeline Owen, both of whom are new to biodynamics.
“Organic agriculture doesn’t look at the more spiritual aspects of gardening and farming … at the more sacred connection to the land. I went to try to learn more about something deeper than ground covers and compost.”
He describes the way he feels about working the soil as “unquantifiable, even unqualifiable” but something that was addressed at the conference.
He and Owen plan to use biodynamic preparations on their crops and in their compost this year. Just the fact that they traveled halfway across the country for the conference shows their interest, he says, in something that’s “easy to be skeptical about, but [after the conference] we felt more supportive of.”
One More Maine Speaker
Jennifer Greene, director of The Water Research Institute of Blue Hill (www.waterresearch.org), also spoke at the conference, on “Discovering the Intrinsic Nature of Water.” Participants in this workshop experienced, among other things, “how the movements, forms and rhythms found within water flow can help us become more observant in our seeing of nature and more imaginative in our thinking about nature,” according to the conference literature (https://www.biodynamics.com/cevent/2012-north-american-biodynamic-conference/discovering-intrinsic-nature-water).
To learn more about biodynamics, Soule and Griffin suggest these resources:
Biodynamic Gardening for Health & Taste, by Hilary Wright
Cosmos, Earth and Nutrition, by Richard Thornton Smith
Culture and Horticulture: A Philosophy of Gardening, by Wolf-Dieter Storl
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association www.biodynamics.com