sermon on the farm

This morning I had the great pleasure and honor to be invited to speak at the Interfaith Gathering that takes place in my community on Sunday mornings. The group is a non-denominational, inclusive space for meditation and conversation on spiritual matters. I was asked to speak about the spirituality of farming and to tell a bit of the story of how I came to farming. We had a lovely time and a lively, engaging discussion. It was a real treat that reminded me of how much I love living here. Below is what I read before the group this morning in order to generate conversation. Enjoy. * * * * *

How I came to farm is as winding and complex as a life. I wasn't searching for it; there was no method. There was no one influence, no one “ah ha,” no thought or conscious realization. It was just a thing that happened, that felt right, and that made sense. If I could pinpoint a moment, I might say it was the asparagus that in the back yard of my childhood home and the fact that I was stunned to realize that not everyone knew what the spindly shoots looked like coming up out of the ground. Maybe it was later, when my mother sat in bed with me and read aloud Laura Ingles Wilder’s Farmer Boy. So great was my childhood enthusiasm for the food in that book that the yellowed paperback still bears a 6-year old’s teethmarks on the corners of certain pages describing the simple and sumptuous farm meals Alonzo Wilder grew up with. Perhaps it was the plain fact that my mother always seemed happiest either in the garden (in her old, white blouse so worn it has the texture of tissue) or in the kitchen (which smelled of garlic and never saw a can of store-bought tomato sauce). There was something about big suppers like Thanksgiving and Christmas when the table would fall silent at my mother’s cooking and all you could hear was the scraping of forks and the occasional “mmmm… ohh…mmmmm.” I knew, no, I didn’t know, I felt, I felt the love and nourishment of that food and I saw that others could feel it too. I felt that somehow I wanted to be the person who could make a crowd of people around a table stop, become calm, and give attention to their food. I wanted them to feel the nourishment and love it transferred to them and I wanted to be its cause.

This love of food and feeding people kept coming back over and over again. One of my college entrance essays was all about my relationship with food and how, like Eudora Welty’s magnificent Phoenix Jackson in A Worn Path is sustained and able to continue on her journey just by the vision of a piece of marble cake. In college, I would take the train to the Union Square Greenmarket every Saturday, lugging grapes, cheese, and lettuces in my bag as I wandered through the Met, carefully cradling precious eggs up and down stairs and into crowded subway cars. My freshman year I abandoned the cafeteria and set up an illegal hot plate in my dorm where I could make Fettuchine Alfredo or Chinese hot pots and share them with my dorm-mates. By my sophomore year I could make puff pastry in a dorm, a feat I would challenge anyone to surpass.

But the question remains: what is it about food that has this hold on me, that has this hold on all of us? Maybe not everyone is moved to tears by a simple plate of sliced tomatoes like I am, but everyone, everyone has experienced the pleasure of eating. So what is it? Sure, biology plays an obvious roll, but to say that we eat only because it is a biological imperative is about as true as saying we have sex only to reproduce. The fact is we don’t. We don’t do things only because we must; if we did, having sex would be as equally appealing as doing laundry or paying bills: just one more thing to get you through the day. Biology is just one part of a larger whole, that whole being the uniquely human experience of pleasure: the force that generates wanting, that generates desire. The fact is that for a biological imperative like food or sex to happen successfully and sustainably over time, the reality that it is needed is less important than the fact that it must also be wanted.

The link between desire and food is hard to miss. But food, desire, and God is a less-likely combination. In a world of boxed mashed potatoes and pre-packaged tenderloin, the closest one might get to God in the grocery store is the occasional kosher label. However, the roots of western civilization are steeped in the connection between the three. The most obvious example can be found in the biblical Canticle, the Song of Songs, which can be interpreted as a metaphorical description of God's relationship with humanity. The speaker writes of his beloved,

Your stature resembles the palm, your breasts the clusters. Methinks I'll climb the palm, I'll grasp its branches. Let your breasts be like grape clusters, your scent like apples, your palate like the best wine…

The fact that in the Catholic tradition, the Christian rite of communion involves the transformation of food, typically bread and wine, into the actual body and blood of Christ, which is then eaten together among the parishioners is perhaps the best example. Gross it may be, but erotic, it certainly is: it is a means of finding closeness with the divine where there is an intimate exchange that transpires by putting the divine body inside mortal body. Though I was not raised in a particularly religious home, and certainly not a Catholic one, I was always drawn to study religion and religious practices. As my religious and spiritual understandings grew, somewhere along the line I had to ask myself, what, fundamentally, is the difference between a bit of bread imbued with the life force of God and any other food. If God created all that is and is ultimately all that there is, then surely it would follow that when we eat, we are bringing the divine into our bodies, allowing us to be nourished and to create and sustain life.There is a longer story here, one that can trace my relationship with the divine from a child-like enthrallment to an adolescent agnosticism, to an ever-growing felt knowledge, that there is some spirit in the wind that moves and binds, that creates, that nourishes that my heart sings to think upon. It is a particular voice I find in the Song of Songs. It is the thing that makes me want: the great, internal generator of desire that points to something beyond mere biology. It makes me want to want. It makes me relish biting into a summer peach and its explosion of juice all over my face, it makes me run for my camera when I slice into beets in order to preserve the sight of their red veins variegating the root, it is the thing that makes me cry with pleasure when I am presented with slices of fresh summer tomatoes. It makes me want to get closer to what I eat.

Food writer Michael Ableman, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference a few years ago, put it best. He described the foods growing on farms he visited for his most recent book: clusters of dewy cherries heavy on branches; great baskets of corn and rye you could stick your hand into down to your elbow to feel the cool grains; and the musk of goats, heavy with their babies and taut sacks of milk. The reason, he says, people love farmers and farming, that folks return to farmers markets, want to visit our farms, and want to get to know us is that : "they all want what we've got." There is an intimacy farmers have with creation and the act of creating. At the Thanksgiving table of my childhood, I found that what I wanted was to create and share in pleasure. The pleasure of eating made me, my mom, my family happy; it made us feel together, it made me feel close to them. It was our communion. I found the same feeling had been enhanced 10-fold selling lamb, beef, and pork at a farmer's market in Asheville. People held my hand and thanked me for what I was doing. They chatted with me, telling me their stories, and asking me about anything and everything going on on the farm. With hundreds of people clamoring to be near me and what I did with my life every week, I thought to myself, this is the closest I will ever be to being a rock star, isn't it?

This feeling of intimate unity with the land and food is confirmed by some of the greatest farmers in the world. Wendell Berry writes,

Sowing the seed, my hand is one with the earth. Wanting the seed to grow, my mind is one with the light.

Hoeing the crop, my hands are one with the rain,

Having cared for the plants, my mind is one with the air.

Hungry and trusting, my mind is one with the earth.

Eating the fruit, my body is one with the earth.

The great farmer Masonobu Fukuoka likens farming to a perfect marriage, a unity between a human and the land that is "not bestowed, not received; the perfect pair comes into existence of itself." Of course, not all farming is like this. To continue the marriage analogy, most modern agriculture is a child-bride, married against her will, and repeatedly raped by her husband. The great monocultures of the midwest deplete, poison, and abuse. The way we eat these foods follows suit. These foods are high in calories, but devoid of nutrition, leading to disease. More disturbing still, I am concerned that our wanting to eat, the thing that has sustained human existence for a millennia, is declining. Studies find families don't eat together. Indeed, a family of four may eat four different meals, in four different rooms of the house, at four different times. An increasingly large percentage of meals are eaten in the car. Studies also find that most people spend approximately 10 minutes or fewer eating a meal. We are eating as if it is something we must do, not as if it is something we want to do. Worse still, food is avoided through an increased focus on weight loss, which exacerbates the problem by encouraging us to eat scientifically over pleasurably. And if eating isn't a "chore" for some, than it is something done obsessively, as if we are trying to reconnect to the land and each other over and over and over again, to no avail but more illness. As the land has been abused and neglected, our wanting has become warped.

As I learned about these abuses and their affects, I became more and more concerned with not just being able to cook a good meal, but knowing whether or not the food I was handling and preparing to put into my body and share among my friends was the product of creation or a contributor to destruction. Growing up with with my abiding love of food also gave me a sense of ethics about eating. My father kept kosher and insisted we keep a kosher house and that I be raised on a kosher diet. My childhood eating habits were infused with a sense of right and wrong eating, especially when it came to meat. Whenever we ate out, I was an automatic vegetarian, since very little restaurant food is kosher. I hated him for it, mostly because a bacon cheeseburger looked and smelled to be about the best food on the planet. I craved getting to explore mixes of foods and flavors that were “off-limits.” When my first grade teacher made us Ritz crackers with melted cheese and slices of hot dog on top, I neglected to tell her I wasn’t allowed. I learned that transgression can be downright blissful. In retrospect, however, I am grateful. This atmosphere instilled in me that there is right and wrong eating. My whole life I scanned menus, looking for the one or two things I could eat, but as I left childhood and started to make my own decisions, I started scanning menus, ingredients lists, and markets for my own reasons. I was looking for the foods that weren't tainted, for a communion that didn't have to become sacred by the prayer of a rabbi or priest, but that really, actually was.

As I looked for these foods, I began to learn about how they were grown and was daunted. In the maze of information about organic and all natural, certified this and certified that, I consistently felt that I was being duped. I abandoned grocery stores except for certain imported staples like sugar, coffee, and olive oil and started getting my foods almost exclusively from farmer's markets. I abandoned meat altogether for many years, that is, until Ross, who was working at the Warren Wilson College Farm at the time, started talking about a fellow called Joel Salatin. As the notion of becoming a farmer began to roll around in my mind, I had always envisioned vegetables, but Joel Salatin changed that. The first farms I was directly exposed to used the methods of raising livestock called "grassfarming" that Salatin has perfected. Salatin practices a method of raising livestock and grassfarming that is, to use his term, "beyond organic." It is a style and method of farming that so closely works with the nature of animals, cultivates symbiotic relationships between them, and that fundamentally builds and regenerates soil and the land. He calls his farming "regenerative." It is a way that humans and the land interact that is neither destructive, as with conventional farming, nor neutral, as with many organic farms, but that is inherently creative, making the quality of the land better than it would be, even if it were simply left alone. If you ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living he would tell you he's "in the business of redemption." He sees himself as a co-creator with God, that it is his scared mission to heal the land by building fertility into the dirt, and thus make this barren and broken world a little more like Eden. I became a disciple.

It was ultimately Joel Salatin, along with the writings of Wendell Berry and Massonobu Fukuoka, who allowed me to see that I want to farm because I want to be close to God. I want to be close to God because I love to eat, I love to imbibe creation. I am in love with creation. I crave intimacy with it. I desire it. I am in love with creation right down to the nitty-gritty teeth of it, down in the dirt and pain of it as much as with the blossoming, joyful beauty of it. I am smitten with it. I want to emulate the divine by being a caretaker of creation. We are not made in the image of God because God looks like us, we are made in the image of God because we have the capacity to act like God and do the things God does best: create, nourish, and protect. This is recreation (RE-creation). It's fun, it's pleasurable, and it's how we get a little closer to making heaven a place on earth.

The best farmers understand that the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process. Wendell Berry writes, "Make the human race a better head. Make the world a better piece of ground." For Massonobu Fukuoka, natural, regenerative farming practices easily lead to a life of harmony with nature that occurs almost spontaneously and fluidly, as if it was nascent, always there, just waiting to be a part of one's self and approach to daily business. The natural, regenerative farmer comes to understand that intellectual knowledge is insufficient for understanding creation, and that the farmer can begin to cast aside, "the thought that humans exist apart from heaven and earth." This work can make you quiet and kind. Farmers are some of the kindest, quietest, most introspective people I know. They can also be some of the most fiery and angry. Wendell Berry has a character who recurs throughout many of his poems; the Mad Farmer, he calls him, a figure very much in the spirit of the French farmer who drove his tractor into a McDonald's or the Italian grandmothers who protested a fast food restaurant at the Spanish Steps by sharing great plates of handmade pasta with whoever happened by. The natural, regenerative farmer is a Mad Farmer, mad because he or she is so in love with creation that to see the manifestations of what harms it ignites a fire in the heart. It is a fire that burns in the pursuit of changing the world. The Mad Farmer wants a revolution:

The mad farmer, the thirsty one, went dry. When he had time he threw a visionary high lonesome on the holy communion wine.

"It is an awesome event when an earthen man has drunk his fill of the blood of a god," people said, and got out of his way.

He plowed the churchyard, the minister's wife, three graveyards and a golf course. In a parking lot he planted a forest of little pines.

He sanctified the groves, dancing at night in the oak shades with goddesses. He led a field of corn to creep up and tassel like an Indian tribe on the courthouse lawn. Pumpkins ran out the ends of their vines to follow him. Ripe plums and peaches reached into his pockets.

Flowers sprang up in his tracks everywhere he stepped. And then his planter's eye fell on that parson's fine fair lady again. "Oh holy plowman," cried she, "I am all grown up in weeds. Pray, bring me back to good tilth."

He tilled her carefully and laid her by, and she did bring forth others of her kind, and others, and some more.

They sowed and reaped till all the countryside was filled with farmers and their brides sowing and reaping.

And so, I leave you with this knowledge, this one little thing that has been made clear to me in this process, as I have learned about and been guided towards a life of loving the land:

What I know of spirit is astir in the world. The god I have always expected to appear at the woods' edge, beckoning, I have always expected to be a great relisher of this world, its good grown immortal in his mind.

meet Franklin

Sheep are tasty. They are small and not terribly smart, making them quite easy for a predator (human, canine, feline, or otherwise) to get hold of one and enjoy. However, humans have taken it upon themselves to horde sheep for their own, private consumption. In return for their meat, milk, and fibre, we provide sheep plentiful sources of food and water, along with protection from other creatures that find them just as delectable as we do. This is, essentially, the sacred contract of farming with livestock. In return for their lives, we provide them with food, water, medicine, protection from predators, humane treatment, and a humane death. Consider for a moment which you would rather have happen to you: coyotes kill an animal by opening the abdomen and eating the internal organs, wild dogs will maim to death slowly and violently. Humans kill animals, when we do it correctly, by either stunning with a single blow to the head or else slitting the throat with a sharp knife. Neither is pretty, neither is fun, but you get where I'm going here. The same goes for food and water. Food and water are precious amenities in nature that often shift, dry up, or are otherwise of limited access. Most wild animals spend every minute of their waking lives looking for food. Part of the deal when one raises livestock is that food for the stock is always provided and is easy for them to get. Temple Grandin, whom I love and write about often, says that nature is harsh, but we don't have to be. Agriculture itself is a kind of insurance against the harshness of nature. It is still very much at the mercy of nature, but it allows us some respite from the daily struggle to fill one's belly. Part of how we keep the harshness of nature at bay for animals is by providing them with a similar respite as well as protection through the use of guardian animals.

Guardians are an essential part of any farm that raises small animals. Dogs are the most common and have been used for this purpose the longest. There are literally, a bazillion different breeds of guardian dog, each bread for its home region, type of stock it is works well with, specific behaviors, and specific temperaments. In addition to dogs, farmers have also used llamas and donkey's as effective guardians. For a long time, Ross and I thought we would use llamas to guard our sheep. That all changed, however, when we met Nancy Osborne of Cordero Farms when we were in Vermont last summer. Nancy told a story about the dogs that guard her sheep. Apparently, her farm lost power during a big, midwestern snowstorm. Nancy had painstakingly sorted her sheep into different breeding groups and put a dog with each group. Because of the loss of power, she was convinced that she was going to have a very long couple of days re-sorting everyone. How wrong she was! The dogs not only kept the sheep safe while the electric fences were out, but kept each group of sheep together and separate from the others. This sold me completely, not just on using dogs, but on using a particular breed: Maremmas.

In a nutshell, Maremmas are the Italian version of the well-known Great Pyrenees. They are big, white, bushy dogs with calm demeanors but formidable when they or their charges are threatened. The main difference between the two is that the Pyrenees was bread to guard a perimeter; thus, they wander, sometimes quite far, and don't generally stick with the stock. Maremmas, however, develop a strong bond with their stock and stick with them.

I spent the better part of the past few months learning about these dogs, watching information and questions pass through Maremma list-serves, reading, and talking with breeders and other farmers who keep them. Through this process, I was able to find Frankie.

Frankie, is an 18-month old Maremma from Washington State. He is an amazing dog. In preparation for his arrival, we borrowed three sheep and six lambs from a neighbor for him to look after until our sheep arrive. It took Frankie a while to adjust to things here. He arrived via 747 jet, clearly a bit traumatized from the experience and wondering where the heck his mom and sheep were. I'm sure he also had a bit of jet-lag; he was quite sleepy for several days. His transiton has been less than perfectly smooth. Due to his privious owner's schedule, we had to take Frankie about two-weeks sooner than we were really ready for. I wanted to make sure all of our fences were up before we brought a dog to the farm, but that didn't happen and on Saturday, we paid the price.

While we were working on building our chicken houses with a group of volunteers, Ross and I both heard a yelp and saw a flash of white coming down the hill from the barn where the borrowed sheep were. Frankie had gotten out. My theory is that he jumped out of his pen to get nearer to the sheep. The sheep were inside a temporary electro-net fence. Frankie's pen was just outside this fence. We think Frankie must have touched his nose to the electro-net, got a shock, and took off in the opposite direction. Ross and I both yelled "shit!" and took off after him, leaving our poor volunteers quite bewildered. However, once they figured out what was going on, they sprang into action, either following after us or jumping into cars to go patrol the roads. We were able to find him after about half an hour of searching. He had made his way over to our neighbor's pasture, across the creek, and had nestled himself on the side of a steep ledge. The relief I felt was profound. We had him. But a new tension was emerging in me: how in the world were we going to get him back? After looking and talking for a few minutes, we could not figure out a good way to get him down. The whole time, I was just so worried; Frankie had been with us only two days. He had no idea who any of us were or what we were asking him to do. It was not hot outside, but he was panting from stress and several times looked as if he was going to fall asleep standing up. We were all stressed as we floated ideas, tried to get Frankie to come along, only to have it fail. We called our friend Chip, who had been helping us with the chicken houses. He's a firefighter, and so I figured he had some good expirence with these types of rescue missions. My hunch was right, after quite a lot of discussion and a series of failed attempts that only stressed Frankie further. Chip's idea to dig down from the top of the ledge to make it less steep so Frankie might be more inclined to hop up safely worked. Again, there was a sense of huge relief. We breathed again and cheered. Chip took a big, celebratory swig of Gatorade. Ross started walking Frankie through the woods back towards the farm. We thought the long struggle was over. My friend Lauren and I went back up to the barn to reconfigure things so that he would not be able to get out again. After we finished, though, Ross and Frankie had not appeared. Something was wrong. Lauren and I walked down the road towards the bridge that crosses the creek where there seemed to be some activity. The bridge. The damn bridge. Frankie would not cross the bridge. The floor of the bridge is grated steel, something we knew we would have to fix for the sheep to be willing to cross it, but we did not anticipate a dog having such an adverse reaction. In the fray of trying to get him to cross, Frankie had come out of his collar, which made matters more tense. Chip and I hopped in the truck to go get another collar, a long lead, and some wet dog food that would hopefully entice Frankie back into his crate, which we finally resolved, was the best way to move him at this point. It was slow going to get him to accept a new collar and lead and even slower going to get him into the crate. He would not eat the wet food, so the idea of luring him was out. Ross and I spent much of the time just sitting with Frankie, waiting for him to calm down, showing him that we were calm and trustworthy, but this did little to help us progress. Finally, our friend Lauren, who had done some work in vet school and worked in a vets office for several years coached us through forcing Frankie into the crate as carefully and gently as possible. We latched two leads to Frankie's collar so that he could only move forwards and backwards and moved the crate to be directly in front of him. Lauren got behind Frankie, pushing his bum with the side of her foot and gently lowering his head into the crate. Slowly. One. Foot. At. A. Time. He was in. Sweet, sweet relief. We got him. He was safe. Stressed, to be sure, but safe.

The whole process, start to finish, lasted from 2:00pm to 7:00pm. When we got Frankie back up to the barn and settled, Ross bent over and nearly vomited from stress. I gave Lauren a huge hug. I don't know if we could have do it without her help. Afterwards, as I sat there and blamed myself for the mistakes I had made in assuming Frankie would not jump out of his pen and in accepting a dog before our fences were ready, Lauren very kindly and wisely pointed out that this process probably helped Frankie to bond with us, especially Ross. Lauren said she did not think Frankie associated the stress of the afternoon with us. Rather, we were the ones who were with him during a difficult time. I noticed at one point, when we were trying to get Frankie to move in the direction of the crate without a lead, that he walked when Ross walked, and he looked back at Ross every time something changed, as if to ask "is this alright?" It was amazing to see.

What was even more amazing were my wonderful friends and neighbors who helped get Frankie back. Our neighbor, Fuller, without missing a beat, jumped into his truck with Ross to go looking through the pastures. Chip and our neighbor Sarah immediately went hunting for Frankie, offered help and suggestions and stuck with us to the very end. Carter and Laura stayed with the chicken house and kept framing while the search and rescue team went out, erecting the back wall entirely on their own; and our dear Lauren, without whom we would probably still be out there, trying to coax Frankie into his crate. Living out here, doing farm work, I am continually amazed by the generosity and fortitude of the people around me. This kind of thing is the stuff that community is made of. I am so, so grateful.

Frankie is currently doing well. He's out of his pen and with the borrowed sheep. Already he is exhibiting protective behaviors with them, keeping them where they belong, watching them, looking up at any sound or disturbance. He's a wonderful dog. We really got a sense of his character and demeanor on Saturday. The characteristic calmness of Maremmas shone clearly. Frankie could have freaked out with us so many times, but he didn't. In all his stress, he remained quite calm and even submissive at times. He is eating heartily now and enjoying firm butt scratches from us. Now that he's had almost a week to adjust, we are going to begin the real work of training him to us and to our farm. We'll keep you posted.

Finding Our Way

So, during the long absence of posts, the Dirty Way has been gettin’ cleaned up and gettin’ its act together. Ross and I had an epiphany shortly after we came back from Arkansas. This wasn’t working. There was something about isolation we learned in Arkansas: it’s not good. Isolation makes a person a little wacky in the head, and not in an endearing, Jack Sparrow sort of way, more like a scary I have a shotgun now-get-the-hell-off-my-land way. Ross and I realised that though we craved freedom, peace, and quiet, solitude was not at all what we craved. It is an easy thing to mistake solitude for peace. We realised all this while visiting a farm south of Atlanta called Serenbe. Actually, the farm is a part of a a larger community called Serenbe, based on principles of community, design, and environmental ethics that are pretty amazing (all without being a “commune” or land-trust). We spent the morning with Paige, the farm manager, tending to seedlings, “weeding out” the smaller plants to allow the bigger, healthier ones to grow uninhibited.  As we drove away, Ross and I both said: the hell with everything else. This is what we want. We don’t want to be interns, we don’t want to wander: we want to settle. We want to be in a place, to get to know exactly where we are, through and through; a place to orient from, a place to call home. We decided that community was a part of what we want for our lives: to create it and to be a part of it. Transience is not a feature of genuine community participation and creation. So, we are building our home at Serenbe and we are orienting from it. Ross has taken a job for the present, using his technology skills to meet people, make connections, put food on the table, and generally to have a good time. I am enrolled at Emory University getting my masters in teaching. Yes, teaching. You all will be hearing a great deal more about my teaching adventures in coming posts (which will be much more regular, henceforth). Some may argue that it is a long leap from farming to teaching, but I could not disagree more. In farming, you are raising and cultivating plants and animals for the survival and perpetuation of human-kind. In education, you are raising and cultivating children for the survival and perpetuation of human-kind.  The two are inexorably linked. And believe me when I say that education is a dirty job. It is at the core of the dirty way.

In essence, over the past five months we have closed the doors; we have begun to give shape to our path.