Spiritual Composting: A Prodigal Daughter’s Return

Disillusioned with synthetic life and compelled to live more deeply, Lisa Reagan writes about her return to the earth, and as a result, to herself.

Windsong, a small white horse rented to carry a diamond engagement ring in a leather bag draped around his neck, dug in his hooves at the bottom of the arched wooden bridge named Crim Dell on Virginia’s College of William and Mary campus. Unmovable, the horse made the knight in shining plastic armour fish the ring out of the bag and walk to meet his dumbstruck college sweetheart standing alone on the footbridge. While the knight was capturing his fair maiden’s hand, the tipped-off local press, hiding in the bushes, captured the image of the kneeling knight that shot around the world in seconds on an Associated Press wire.

Breaking down

Fifteen years later, with a five-year-old son, Keith and I staggered, battle-weary out of our gated community and collapsed on a small eight-acre farm, complete with barn and pond, on the rural side of the county. Years of fervent activism for natural parenting issues had left me beyond burn-out while Keith’s corporate success had demanded much from his soul. Adrift from ourselves and each other, we harboured a little hope for our seemingly idyllic new life.

After a half-hearted attempt at separation, we chose to stay together. There really was no time to separate. No time to envision some new life somewhere else. One moment we were estranged from each other and the next we were discussing what was for dinner and did someone remember to buy cat food? Life and death marched on: my best friend from high school and my stepfather died from cancer, and my cat died in my arms after 19 years of companionship.

The first mornings on the little farm became a blur; waking to reality, I would brace myself for the wrecking ball that came through the wall before uncurling from a fetal position into a yoga corpse pose. Before moving to the farm, I would meditate and practise yoga, but I no longer had the strength to sit up straight and breathe. Lying in the dark with the phone to my head after Keith left for work and my son for school, my sister, Angela, indulged me when I minimised my grief by reassuring her, ‘I wasn’t lying in bed depressed, I was just “composting”.’ We laughed.

On one of the rare occasions that I ventured out to talk to a group of women about natural parenting issues in a library that year, I shared my idea of composting. ‘It seems appropriate, when looking at the state of our planet now, to grieve. But I don’t call my grieving “depression” anymore, I call it composting.’

‘I’m going to use that!’ one woman declared. In fact, sharing this insight at the end of my presentation lightened up the room considerably. I felt encouraged.

Composting meant breaking down old forms that had served their purpose into fertile and living soil for the next cycle of growth. I didn’t understand what was breaking down in my being, only that an acute sense of falling apart was a daily experience that I had to either make friends with, or let it consume me and rob my son of what was left of his mother.

At the time, I didn’t know what my next cycle of growth would be because it didn’t feel possible that there would be any. The fairytale was over. The future was a blank. Where to begin a re-entry to life? Searching for comfort in the small rolling hills of my farmlet, a long ago memory surfaced of walking barefoot behind my father as he tilled the red soil of our family vegetable garden, eating hot tomatoes off of the vine and preserving their summer perfume in glass Mason jars with my mother. The beckoning balm of childhood memories soothed my soul and set off a visceral homing beacon that led me to micro-eco farming workshops and books in search of a dying American dream—the family farm. (According to Farm Aid, every week 330 farmers leave their land. As a result, there are now nearly five million fewer farms in the US than there were in the 1930s. www.farmaid.org) In the past 25 years, the number of farms in Australia has fallen by a quarter.  

My worlds, mini-van mom and aspiring mini-farmer, soon began to collide when, at a back-to-school picnic, a mom asked what I had done over the summer. I said I had attended an eco-farming conference.  

‘Guess how many people were there?’ I asked the mom.

‘Twelve?’ she dryly offered turning back to the other moms who looked embarrassed for me.

‘Try twelve hundred. And from all over the country.’

In July 2005, at an oversold eco-farming conference in Staunton, Virginia, farmer Joel Salatin addressed the multitude as a prophet delivering a divine message through a megaphone atop a small mountain of hay bales. My husband, son and I navigated cow-piles through the pasture to enter the intense air of a church-tent revival on a brilliant green hilltop. Hundreds of people crammed under the metal shed raptly listened to Joel’s message of how we were going to take back our country with grassroots eco-farming while the herd of displaced cows impatiently swayed and mooed behind us in the scorching sun. A year later, Joel and his ‘local food movements will save us from the evils of globalisation’ message would be featured in Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

In August, at a smaller eco-farming conference I met Cindy Conner—one of a handful of certified GROW BIOINTENSIVE® instructors in the country, teaching one of many college courses popping up nationally on sustainable agriculture (see www.newfarm.org). Cindy’s no-frills demeanour warmly reminded me of my maternal grandmother who had raised 12 children in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, and at 103, was still alive.

Twice a week during the 2005 fall semester, I drove an hour through the Virginia countryside to a community college for two classes in sustainable agriculture. My classmates included a retired tax-attorney, a dentist who was changing professions to chef and grower, a water-aerobics instructor, and a variety of traditional students. Sporting a homemade vest with prints of bright orange vegetables the first day of class, Cindy asked us to state why we were there.

‘I have a small farm and I’ve grown some things—pumpkins, sunflowers, some tomatoes. But I’m overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to do this farming thing. I don’t see myself ripping up the front field on a tractor,’ I sighed.

‘You need a plan!’ Cindy’s voice shot with clarity to the back of the room and through my muddled brain.

The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method—pioneered through Ecology Action’s John Jeavons and Carol Cox—has been presented in the well-known and ubiquitous book How to Grow More Vegetables since 1974. For the past three decades, Ecology Action (EA) in Willits, California, has researched, developed and shared the method’s millennia-old techniques for growing more food in a small area, using simple tools—no tractor needed, or welcome—while focusing on the health and productivity of the soil.

Former US Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, declared the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method ‘has more potential to solve poverty and misery and hunger than anything else we’ve done’. The method is used in 110 countries, and within a wide range of climates, soils and cultures. According to Ecology Action, with this method of sustainable mini-farming, a farmer could produce two to six times the yield compared to commercial agriculture, while using 67 to 88 per cent less water, 99 per cent less energy and 50 to 100 per cent less purchased organic fertiliser per unit of yield compared with commercial agriculture. ‘It is a method that allows gardeners and farmers to transform scarcity into abundance,’ states their website (www.growbiointensive.org).

At an Ecology Action workshop in Willits, California in November 2006, John Jeavons held up a small apple to the international conference attendees, explained the apple represented planet earth, and then proceeded to carve the apple until a flimsy 1/32 of its peel represented the shrinking topsoil needed to feed a burgeoning global population.  ‘So what is going to happen at the rate we are going now?’ he asked, paused theatrically and popped the small peel greedily in his mouth and swallowed.  

After three days of apocalyptic lectures and hopeful demonstrations in EA’s mountainside research garden, Jeavons convinced me that learning to grow food through mini-farming is the most important action anyone can take as, in addition to shrinking topsoil, our global emergency food stores are destined to run out in roughly three years. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method’s track record and promising potential is impressive but, as Jeavons pointed out, it would take a beginning mini-farmer 10 years minimum to become sustainable. I did the math, and I did not feel encouraged.  

The Uni-Verse, or the One-Song

In the spring of 2006, I decided to put my new ‘farming plan’ to the test, and with the help of local college students, started a Community Supported Agriculture program. Once a week we delivered ‘shares’ of the harvest to our subscribers at a local coffee shop and set up a mini-indoor farm stand to sell extra produce.

My search for the ‘Old MacDonald’ family farm led to the discovery of the CSA— a growing international phenomenon whose philosophy could socially and historically be viewed as the evolved version of the dying ‘nuclear family’ farm that now extended its mission to serving its ‘community’ as the foundation for local economies to become self-sustaining.  

The CSA’s roots reach back 30 years to Japan where a group of women concerned about the increase in food imports and decrease in the farming population initiated a direct growing and purchasing relationship between their group and local farms. This arrangement, called teikei in Japanese, translates to ‘putting the farmers’ face on food’. The concept travelled to Europe and was adapted to the US and given the name ‘Community Supported Agriculture’ at Indian Line Farm, Massachusetts, in 1985. As of January 2005, there are over 1500 CSA farms across the US and Canada. (Find a farm at www.localharvest.org) In Australia there are just a handful of CSAs. The biggest CSA is Brisbane-based Food Connect. Launched in 2004, this not-for-profit company now has more than 500 subscribers fed by 50 core farmers.

In a CSA, the customer, who becomes a subscriber, shares the risks involved in food production by paying the farmer upfront to grow vegetables. The cost is usually between $20 and $50 (AU$) per week. In return, every week the farmer delivers a box of their best vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit. The benefits work in lots of ways: there are no middlemen, so farmers receive a larger percentage of the production cost. Subscribers are generally within an hour’s drive from the farm so they receive fresh, field-ripened produce that has not travelled hundreds of kilometres.

‘Starting a Community Supported Agriculture project is like having a baby—you unleash biological and social forces that may take you in directions you never expected,’ writes Elizabeth Henderson in Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture. She was right.

Overall, our first summer’s mini-farming experience was glorious. There were daily and moment-to-moment miracles, like beholding the first Garden Peach tomato’s luminous golden velvet skin with soft pink striping. One student and I reverently and admiringly handed the heirloom fruit back and forth, wondering if and how we could eat such beauty. There was the 10-foot tall ‘volunteer’ sunflower, self-planted in the centre of the garden, with a 14-inch head that followed the sun from dawn to dusk. When Hurricane Ernesto stomped a path across the garden, flattening corn and Jerusalem artichokes, the giant sunflower went down, too, and into the compost pile. Next spring, the supposedly ‘dead’ parts of the stalk will nourish the seeds from the head that we saved.

Participating in the cycle of the soil—nourishing seeds into plants, into fruit, into seeds, and into soil again—fed my soul. A truth emerged. While the plants grew and died, the life force stayed. The air surrounding the plants, the soil embracing the roots, the parade of insects crawling in and out of blossoms, the dew, the rain—how to separate it all out to understand it? Where did one begin and the other end? One day we were picking the first of the watermelons off the vines and eating them on the spot, spitting the seeds in a contest, and the next we were dragging dead vines to the compost pile.

Eventually I found that I could meditate again, but it was not the same experience as years before. At first it was overwhelming. ‘It’s alive,’ I confided to my friend Liz. ‘I walked to the edge of the sidewalk this morning and that is as far as I could get. I didn’t want to step on it. I don’t know how to walk on a living thing without hurting it. I’m cracking up.’  

‘No you’re not!’ she laughed. ‘You need to talk to Swami Gitananda who teaches Spiritual Gardening at the ashram in Charlottesville. She has those kinds of experiences with nature as well.’

On another day I got past the front porch when I was met with a cacophony of something like humming. My mind struggled to separate the source of the noise and lower the volume. I couldn’t. Everything—the earth, grass, trees, clouds, sky, was humming and it was deafening. Again, I retreated into the house. This time I didn’t call Liz. I didn’t know what to say.
When I wasn’t composting in my room with the blinds drawn, I focused on keeping up with the abundance bursting from our little garden and continued to meditate, most of the time lying down. I felt okay about lying down, I reasoned, because at a meditation retreat years earlier led by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk and author of A Path With Heart, I learned to meditate while walking, standing, sitting, and eating. In the retreat centre’s Frank Lloyd Wright cafeteria, surrounded by the California desert, my fellow meditators and I daily padded slowly in our sweats from the humus bar to lunch tables re-creating a scene from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

And then, on the day when I could finally sit up and breathe during meditation, I found myself hovering over the garden watching as the students showed up one at a time to work. Instead of walking bodies in the vision, they appeared as a vibration, a hum, and as they joined each other in the garden, a sound emerged that wasn’t overwhelming, cacophonous or frightening. It was the sound of a song playing: a song that made sense, and was beautiful. Even the student who usually carried a dark cloud over his head made the song complete with its heavy bass line.

This song had been there all along. It was the song of a living, breathing earth. It filled in all of the spaces that weren’t spaces at all. In place of an illusion of separation there was the song. It carried the seeds up and out of the soil, into the sun and air and rain, and returned them to the soil again. It carried living air into my cells. It was an ageless omnipresent context that nurtured and loved all of life. A vibration of something about Truth, the truth of who we really are—how loved, how blessed, how cared for—drifted into my fragmented thoughts and gently orchestrated them in a way that allowed me to take it all in without being overwhelmed or terrified. Joy? Love? There are no words really.

The personal is planetary

The connective insight of this ‘one-song’ experience brought a new context to all situations, people and relationships. Separateness evaporated like early morning mist. One morning, while I sat talking to my husband who was dressing for work, I watched as he became a little boy pulling on an oversized adult costume and then a bent frail old man. His core innocence and personal frailties, under the swashbuckling veneer of an able provider and playful father, touched my heart in a way that shattered my mental boxes labelled with various expectations of him. Over these past few years, we have toted to the relationship compost pile our old beliefs about who we were supposed to be to one another. Without the old seed casings to hold us in, we now acknowledged we were free to stand apart as our authentic selves and to grow together in ways previously not possible. The death of our fairytale created room for a reality that is more nourishing than we ever imagined.

Far from an impractical experience, my one-song’s context for the connectedness of life was both physiological and practical. The disappearance of barriers in thought and form allowed room for questions that I had not considered, as my mind was now free from the exhaustion of trying to make pieces fit into a limiting reductionist view of myself, my family, community and the world. The personal became planetary. With a new context emerging, my original questions about sustainably growing food for my family and others seemed clinically detached, awkward and even peripheral to a missing centre. What if searching for an economically viable and mechanically efficient strategy for feeding ourselves and the starving masses in the world wasn’t the place to start to find answers? What if, I intuited, the answers are missing because the questions are wrong? How did one walk on a living earth? Surely someone knew.

Finally, following my friend Liz’s advice, I sought out Swami Gitananda, and shyly shared my connective insight experiences in her secluded Peace Garden near a spring in the mountains of Virginia. She happily reassured me I wasn’t cracking up and rejoiced at my experience of ‘hearing nature’s buzz’ before sharing her journey to becoming a ‘Roman-Catholic Hindu nun who is both and none of that’… and who spoke directly with nature about healing our planet in a way that was as ordinary as breathing.
‘Biodynamics. We have to learn about Biodynamics before it is too late,’ Gitananda cautioned in a soft voice as we stood outside her circular garden surrounded by the colourful autumn leaves.

Before Gitananda gently pointed me to Biodynamics for answers, I knew the word as the ‘bio’ part of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method. However, as with CSAs and the organic movement (Biodynamics predates by 20 years), the reference to their roots is no longer recognised.  ‘The “bio” part now means “biological”,’ says Carol Cox, co-author of How to Grow More Vegetables, and Garden Research Manager at Ecology Action.

Gitananda’s confident reassurance that I would find what I was looking for—the missing context for working with the earth to grow soul- and body-nourishing food—sent me to the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, amazingly enough, in the mountains of Virginia not far from my parents’ birthplaces.

The spiritual science of Biodynamics

The night-time drive through mountainside hairpin turns to the remote Josephine Porter Institute (JPI) for Applied Biodynamics in Woolwine, Virginia, tested my car brakes and my nerves. After three days of making Biodynamic preparations at a February, 2007 workshop I began to suspect the Universe had shielded written information about Biodynamic agriculture from my over-intellectualising mind for a good reason. Just like hearing the one-song, the direct experience and humbling process of working with the plant and animal materials that formed the nine Biodynamic preparations—the foundation of Biodynamic farming—was necessary.

‘Biodynamics cannot be grasped by intellects that are conditioned by an education that currently is so focused on the material world,’ writes Hugh Courtney, founder of JPI in the introduction to the book What Is Biodynamics: A Way to Heal and Revitalize the Earth. ‘Real understanding takes place not just by exercising one’s mental capacities, but only when one is “doing,” or taking action.’

Biodynamics began when German farmers—at the height of fashionable chemical fertilisers in the early 20th century—became concerned about the decreasing fertility in their soil and increasingly diseased cattle. The farmers turned to Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner for help. Steiner, initially an editor of the scientific works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, integrated his disciplined scientific mind with his spiritually gifted clairvoyance, to form Anthroposophy—the philosophy of spiritual science that led to Waldorf education, the art-form of eurythmy along with valuable contributions to medicine, architecture, drama and poetry.

Steiner lectured publicly for 25 years on various subjects, and only after being intensely persuaded for many years, the story goes, finally answered the German farmers’ questions. In his series of eight lectures, entitled The Agriculture Course, presented less than a year before his death in 1925, Steiner attempted to provide a new science of cosmic influences that would reorient the chemical farmers and enable them to grasp his recommendations for creating the nine preparations and a cosmically-influenced planting and harvesting calendar. In his sixth lecture, Steiner pointed out that when we look at something through a microscope, our focus blocks out the rest of the universe. The more we concentrate on the microscope, the more we block the macrocosm.

‘They didn’t get it,’ says Courtney in a phone interview. ‘They didn’t understand a word of what he said. They took the information into hiding. It took years for people to understand how to make the preparations and work with the Biodynamic calendar.’

A retired naval commander, Courtney founded JPI on a 100-acre cattle farm in 1985 to carry on the lifelong work of Josephine Porter, who had created Biodynamic preparations for three decades in the US. The institute hosts international groups throughout the year and teaches hands on the creation of the Biodynamic preparations (www.jpibiodynamics.org).

Unlike chemical and some organic fertilisers that are often grown, mined and shipped long distances, killing the sustainability of the system, the nine Biodynamic preparations can be made with on-farm naturally-occurring plant and animal materials combined in specific recipes in certain seasons of the year. The concentrated forces within the preparations are used to organise the chaotic elements within the compost piles, and sprayed directly onto the soil and plants. When the process is complete, the resulting preparations are medicines for the earth that draw new life forces from the cosmos. Effects of the preparations have been verified scientifically.

‘When Newsweek and Time Magazine call, trying to explain it to them is fascinating,’ said Jim Fullmer, the director of Demeter USA, in a phone interview. ‘The media leave behind the description of the preps. You can’t put it into sound bites and get a point across. It is more about an inner feeling than an intellectual thought. How do you express that to someone who hasn’t even given it a thought?’

But scientists and farmers alike are now forced to give the future fertility of the living earth’s soil deep consideration since:

  • Worldwide only about 42 to 84 years’ worth of topsoil remains. 
  • Current agricultural practices destroy approximately six pounds of soil for each pound of food produced.
  • Conventional agricultural practices deplete the soil 18 to 80 times more rapidly than nature can build the soil.
  • Even organic farming depletes the soil 17 to 70 times faster than nature builds it by importing organic matter and minerals from other soils, which thereby become increasingly depleted.
  • 57 million tons of topsoil are lost every day.
  • In the past 100 years, one-third of the topsoil has been lost from American farms.

(Data from Ecology Action.)
According to Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in their book Secrets of the Soil: New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet, the fairy-tale promises of chemical agribusiness were spawned in the middle of the last century when the ‘father of chemical agriculture’, Justus von Liebig, ‘mistakenly deduced from the ashes of a plant he had burnt that what nourished plants was nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—the NPK of today’s chemical agriculture…

‘That the secret to fertilising soil lay in organic excreta, not chemical, Liebig only concluded ten years later. Too late.  By that time, the chemical companies were off to such a profitable start there was no stopping them in their headlong race to destroy the soil and all that it supports.’

With the current international attention on climate change issues, including the extensive planetary damage of agribusiness and the industrialisation of organic agriculture, Fullmer says that, ‘It is now, in 2007, that Biodynamics is starting to come into reality, and we have to get ready. Humanity is only evolving, and I think we are evolving to the point where we can grasp this stuff: that we are not the centre of the universe and that the planets and stars, that all of it, is interconnected.

‘We’re seeing a lot of interest because people are starting to wake up. If you have a kinship with agriculture, Biodynamics is a natural progression. A lot of cultures in ancient times did this—followed the stars and planets and using homeopathic remedies. This is not a new thing; it is an ancient thing. When Rudolf Steiner created Biodynamics he was pulling on the peasant wisdom from his part of the world. Biodynamics is a modern incarnation with the ancient.’

Biodynamics predates the ‘organic’ movement—named and popularised in the 1940s by publisher J. I. Rodale in the United States. Today, ‘Organic is now dead as a meaningful synonym for the highest quality food,’ states Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower, who blames the industrialisation of the organic movement on its inability to stay true to its origins.

‘The transition of “organic” from small farm to big time is now upon us. Although getting toxic chemicals out of agriculture is an improvement we can all applaud, it only removes the negatives. The positive focus, enhancing the biological quality of the food produced, is nowhere to be seen. The new standards are based on what not to do rather than what to do,’ states Coleman.

According to the Demeter Association, in day-to-day practice, Biodynamic farming involves managing a farm as an individual and living organism. A concise model of a living organism ideal would be a wilderness forest. In such a system, there is a high degree of self-sufficiency in all of the realms of biological survival. Fertility and food arise out of the recycling of the organic material the system generates. Avoidance of pests is based on biological vigour and its intrinsic biological and genetic diversity. Water is efficiently cycled through the system.

‘While agriculture immediately takes nature to a state that is one step removed from wilderness, the wisdom of humanity that steers its course can, to a large degree, mimic these ancient principles of sustainability, based on a careful observation of nature as a whole,’ states Demeter’s website (www.demeter-usa.org).
With a philosophy broad enough to provide a context of the earth as a living entity, with plants being influence by forces deep within the earth, to the movements of planets in the heavens, broader and truer questions can emerge like: ‘Can the earth heal itself, or has the waning of the earth’s vitality gone too far for this?’

Sherry Wildfeuer, editor of the Stella Natura Biodynamic Agriculture Planting Guide and Calendar, poses this question and answers, ‘Organic agriculture rightly wants to halt the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing earth. From this the following question arises: What was the original source of vitality, and is it available now?

‘Biodynamics is a science of life forces, a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature, and an approach to agriculture that takes these principles into account to bring about balance and healing. In a very real way, then, Biodynamics is an ongoing path of knowledge rather than an assemblage of methods and techniques.’

Patrick Holden, president of the UK Soil Association, advocates an integration of the macrocosmic context that Biodynamic practices can bring to farmer, farm and the humanity they feed. ‘If we do not bring in this deeper dimension of inner work and of the harmonious development of human beings who are recognised to be more than mere material organisms, if the organic movement does not embrace the ideas and impulses of the Biodynamic movement and remain open to them, I think there is a very serous risk that all the energy and all the ideas… will be lost and the opposite will take hold,’ writes Holden. ‘The industrialisation of farming, including the industrialisation of organic farming, compromises public and cultural health. This problem is with us now and we have to do something about it.’

Fullmer and Courtney both agree that if ‘those who have ears to hear’ will do so in the coming years of planet-wide shifting, Biodynamics can provide the missing, integrating context that could allow humanity to tote our old, worn-out and failing reductionist worldviews to the cosmic compost pile, where a future beyond our current microcosmic view is waiting to take us from a degenerative planet to a regenerative one.

‘So how does one walk on a living earth?’ I asked Courtney at the end of our phone interview this summer. ‘With gratitude,’ he replied.

See also Biodynamic, Super Science behind super food

Published in Kindred, issue 23, Sept 07

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