Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Big O, little o, what begins with O? (Part I)

On the front cover of the most recent issue of the Canadian Organic Grower is a photograph that fascinates me: two Milking Shorthorn oxen standing in yoke. Somehow, they are the picture of both humility and of tremendous power, all in one: Their heads lowered, their shoulders massive, their horns straight ahead, obediently bearing the burden their teamster has laid on them. They could gore him with a single flick of the head; instead, they quietly work his field.

This image, and the accompanying article, speak to me of a parallel tension in the organic food movement, a tension between the way of power and the way of humility. Oxen, as the article makes clear in the first sentence, represent a radically downscaling approach: "Cattle have always been, and continue to be, the most common source of traction power on small farms throughout the world." (Read: this is how the little guys do it everywhere other than the wealthy West.)

Organics is at a crossroads. Go big or go home. There are the Gary Hirshbergs of the world - CEO of Stonyfield Farms, which sells its line of organic dairy products on the shelves of Walmart - who warn us that for meaningful decreases in pesticides, growth hormones and carbon emissions, we have to convert the big food system to organic practices. To fret about the grassroots, small-scale, local, "small o" organic movement losing its soul is to "make the perfect the enemy of the good."

You can bet Tractors to Tonka Trucks Stonyfield Farms are not tilled by oxen.

In many ways, Canadian Organic Growers has championed the Big O approach in recent years. The push for a national organic standard, the legal protection of the "o" word only for those with official certification has caused many of my "little o" organic, locally oriented farmer friends to distance themselves from COG and its associated certifying agencies. We ourselves have decided to drop our certification this year. We may re-certify in future, but for now, the paperwork and the financial cost of certification is not justified by our small-scale enterprises, and means little to the friends and family who buy from us.

So, is COG really serious about promoting oxen-scaled farming? Or are the oxen on the cover of their magazine like the little red barn on the logo of Stonyfield: a notional image, a marketing fiction designed to create a romantic association, and obscure the very destruction of this way of life which industrial upscaling entails?

Which raises another question for me: How serious am I about reading up on oxen? Is this a romantic dream for me, a pleasant diversion from "real" farm planning, or is renewing this ancient tradition, as the article concludes, a way of "closing an energy loop on the farm?" Does the climate/energy crisis reveal tractor-farming as the actually soft-headed and rosy future vision?

We have friends who farmed with water buffalo oxen in Burma all their lives. Our Karen refugee friends tell a creation story about the this animal that reveal its centrality in their economy:

Once, God summoned the water buffalo to deliver a message to the people. "Tell them that this is how often they can eat: Adults twice a day and children three times a day."

The water buffalo went to the people, but when he reached them, he told them, "This is what God says: 'Adults can eat three times a day, and children can eat as often as they like.'"

Upon the water buffalo's return, God asked him. "What did you tell them?" When the water buffalo told God what he had told the people, God became angry with the water buffalo for changing the instructions: "If you want to make big promises like that, you will have to help deliver on them. Now you must spend your life helping the people with their crops, so they can eat that often."

And that is how the water buffalo became a beast of burden.

There are many-layered teachings in this agrarian wisdom-story:

  • There are sacred limits on how much one ought to eat.
  • Humans and the creation are bound together in divinely ordained interdependent relationships.
  • There is a tendency to tell people what they want to hear, rather than a harder truth.
  • The difference a water buffalo ox makes is the difference between a life where adults eat only twice a day and children three times, and a life where adults eat three square meals and children can eat as often as they like. As our friend Naw Kay Seng says, "a simple life, but a good life."

I am reminded here of an echoed wisdom, this time by way of Wendell Berry, another farmer-sage:

"Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies....The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits." (from The Agrarian Standard)

How does a culture that honors limits: the limits of soil, of animals, of workers and watersheds, help turn around a culture founded on defying limits? By getting out in front and proving we can play ball with the big boys, that we can ramp up, mechanize and standardize organic food to penetrate the mass-market?

I suspect the limits will assert themselves. I am grateful to the Big O movers and shakers, for blunting some of the damage being done by the industrial food system. But when the real limits of cheap energy, of ecological carrying capacity, soil depletion, etc. do assert themselves, any peacable future one can hope for will count on humans who have learned to imagine, then live, "a simple life, but a good life."

I imagine the farmers among those humans will be working their fields with grass-, rather than oil-eaters.

My next post will look at some of the practical considerations I'm gleaning on ox-farming, mixed with some biblical tangents.

Until then....

Big O, little o, what begins with o? Oxen on organic outposts getting off of oil, that begins with o.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


March 13, 2012. Snow and ice are still everywhere, but melting fast.

I scramble down the embankment, off the gravel road and away from the cultivated field into the woody swamp that has become one of my favorite winter places here. The embankment, I have come to believe, is the long-ago western bank of the Brokenhead River. (A hundred years ago? A thousand? Ten thousand? My mind cannot fathom the lifespans of river courses, the eating away of clay here, the slow silting-settling of new soil there.) Below the embankment, an elegant forest of tall, straight black ash rises out of the low-lying little delta that stretches east toward the riverbed that has been curving away from us and leaving itself behind all these years. I am going down to mine its soil.

Long before potting soil mixes were ever made available on store shelves, gardeners got their best starter soils from the forest floor. That's what I am after. I am in a hurry. Today I can still haul a heavy tobaggan load up the little logging trail I have carved through these marshy woods. In another day or two the smooth snow trail will be gone, leaving behind a tangle of sticks and water and mud unfriendly to two-leggeds and their loads. Old Man Winter makes some work a lot lighter, truth be told. I'm a little sad to see him go so soon this year.

I find a spot under the trees with minimal grass poking through the snow. Just leaf litter and rotting branches. Under the snow, I am surprised that the frost is completely gone already. The shovel cuts out slabs of soft, rich brown soil, moist and glistening like fudge. I look up at the ash in front of me and realize I am taking something from it. And then realize that there is no bite I have ever taken that was not sacrificial. It has always cost someone something to feed me. Am I "eating unworthily," as the New Testament puts it?

Funny how these thoughts do not occur in the garden department aisle, eyeing a plastic-wrapped bale of potting soil.  These products seem to be spontaneously created, out of noplace, and their presentation casts a spell of limitless supply. Beneath this mighty ash I am thinking, how much can I take from here? How long did this soil take to build? How deep is this well? What are the needs of trees? Can I keep coming down here year after year for more?

"Eating unworthily" is the concept of a violation of a sacred meal in a sacred circle. In Corinth, early Christians ate "unworthily" the love feast of Christ by disregarding the poor among them. The sacrament of communion is a holy rite of careful, attentive sharing, borne out of a vision of community in which the needs of all are considered and no one takes more than their share. When certain members of the Corinthian "body of Christ", accustomed to richer fare, glutted themselves to the exclusion of poorer members, Paul warned "If you eat and drink without discerning the body, you eat and drink damnation upon yourselves."

I had better be careful out in these woods.

The earth-laden tobaggan glides in heavy stops and starts over softening snow. I am hot, even in a T-shirt. I realize that I have not drunk enough water today. I pull, I thirst, I pull, I thirst. Thought settles and simplifies, body works.

I come up out of the bush and up the slope of the road, past the maples I tapped two days before. I pull toward them, just to see. The effort of leaving the trail is too much. I untie myself from the tobaggan and make the last three steps, unburdened. There is a cupful of clear liquid in the bottom of one of the milk jugs hanging off the tree. About a quarter teaspoon worth of syrup. But a cup of water. I hesitate only a moment, then reach out and drain the jug. It is cool, ever so slightly sweet. It tastes like snow. The water poured out of the side of this tree enters me and becomes me, runs down my throat and through my veins.

A black-capped little friend draws near to have a look-see. "Check out the Deity," he sings.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Come All Ye Pagans

This one's from the early years on the Brokenhead. An experience and a meditation I wanted to put out into the universe several years ago, but didn't know where to launch.

I am just crossing the river, coming back from the neighbours, when a bald eagle flies close over my head, heading downstream. I can hear the air pushing through his great, dark, outspread pinions. For a moment, his nearness makes him so solid that the fact of his gliding through air seems pure sorcery; it is easier to believe that eagles are real when they are far away than when they come close. And then, in one sharp intake of my breath, he is gone again, around the bend of the river, and I am suffused with joy.

And I am struck, struck that this place of reverence is exactly where I try so hard to take people as a worship leader. I spend hours poring over songs and scriptures, crafting prayers and poetic turns of phrase to construct the road that will lead the faithful exactly here: Awe. Self-transcendance. Holiness. Joy. Here I have been waylaid by it, entirely without human contrivance or effort. I can understand why Christian priests of old were suspicious, hostile even towards pagan spiritualities that drew people out of the pew and into the woods. It's pretty hard for us to compete.

But then, why would we think it was a competition? Why would we think that the God people meet in the woods would draw people away from the God they meet in church? My friend and neighbour, Jonathan Sears, was telling me about a distinction some have drawn between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that seems to speak to this question. Lewis, even in his fiction, never veers off message, never strays far from the the skirt hems of Mother Church. He may lead you through a magical wardrobe into another world, but the allegory always carries a Christian apologetic that is obvious and familiar. Tolkien, a friend of Lewis, also a deeply convicted Christian, leads us into a more mysterious and subtle world, much more frightening and beautiful, and more convincing than Narnia. Tolkien might not be a pagan, but he clearly is acquainted with their ways and loves the land they inhabit. The difference between Lewis and Tolkien is one of confidence. Tolkien trusts that his whole world is steeped in Christ. Those with eyes to see will see.

These are days when Christian confidence is taking a bit of a beating. Mainstream churches continue to dwindle, whether they try to water the message down or try to cement it in dogma. And although evangelicals still attract the masses for the moment, the certainty they proclaim increasingly carries the shrill ring of denial. Is this a celebration or a sales pitch? Somewhere along the line, the logic of the market took over in our sanctuaries: create a desire, provide a product.

I've read the words of an aboriginal elder criticizing his own people for commercializing and marketing their sacred rites and objects: "once you sell a sacred thing, it isn't sacred anymore." To sell, to push, is to make a desecration of the holy, and cynics of us all. It is not an invitation to faith. It is an inoculation against it. It creates an allergy to religious awe. How hard it is for us to speak to one another of wonders now, and not suspect a hidden agenda. Our souls are guarded, wary of being sold a bad bill of goods.

Perhaps this is why I could respond to that encounter with the eagle as a sacred moment. He wasn't trying to sell me anything.

And maybe that's why I love Jesus too. As far as I can tell, he isn't trying to sell me anything either. In the Gospel I read more warnings about the trouble I'll see if I sign on than boasts about the great benefit package or the eternal retirement plan. And his love is just there, free and pervasive as air, whether I sign on or not.

Unlike him, and unlike the eagle, I have a hard time freely offering up the sacred. I want something in return: Affection. Influence. Stature. Money. Hey, I've got a family and an ego to feed too, you know.

Ah yes, the altar call and the collection plate, the blessed one-two punch, be it strong-arm or survival tactic, of every priest, every shaman, every rabbi, every preacher, every imam. Perhaps that's why the poor have often been pagans. There are no collection plates in the woods. Or, at least if the shaman does pull one out, it's a lot easier to disappear into the underbrush. Jonathan pointed out to me that pagan simply means "people of the land." A pagan is someone who seeks the sacred in an encounter with the land. If you're in the business of packaging and selling sacred encounters, they make lousy customers. Kind of like selling ice to eskimos, as the saying goes. Which I suppose would be one reason why shamans hit an income ceiling a lot sooner than the figureheads of megachurches, and why pagans are still on the must-convert list for most organized religions.

We've driven them nearly to extinction by now, those people of the land. Which is perhaps why, like the Mountain Lion or the Timberwolf, they charm us now. I count as good friends some folks who would be honoured to be called pagans. Born-Again-Pagan is in in the Mother Earth-lovin', back-to-the-land movement I'm so drawn to. Christianity is the house of the overbearing and controlling parent they've finally moved out of. I can understand the urge to bolt.

But, God help me, I do want to win back the neo-pagans. Or at least, as Jesus did, to sit at table together and swap some parables. That eagle, as swift and majestic as he is, might be able to ride the wind all the way to Mount Doom to carry Sam and Frodo away from its angry fumes, but he cannot explain the foolish wisdom, the power perfected in weakness, the vulnerable love that bore them there, that pinned all the hopes of Middle Earth on these unlikely saviours.

And so, with as open a hand as I know how to extend, I make this invitation: Come, all ye pagans. Let us speak of eagles, and let us speak of Christ.