A Chalice of Spirit, Art, and Nature

Six months ago, I was asked by a small committee if I would make a chalice for the First Congregational Unitarina Church of Harvard. They would soon be welcoming a new minister, and it was to be a symbol of this new beginning. A chalice – hmm, I had no idea. At the Last Supper, Jesus drank from a wine-filled cup, and it became the much sought after Holy Grail, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with this Christian object of worship.

The committee explained that their chalice commission was not actually a cup, but a flaming chalice, the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Association. It represents two important liturgical symbols—the chalice and the flame—and they are united by two circles.

The Unitarian Universalist website says, “We are a house without walls, a congregation without spiritual boundaries.” This symbol, likewise, seems to hold no one meaning or interpretation, but to represent the broadest possible teachings of significant importance in the Unitarian Church—generosity, love, justice, compassion, as well as service and sacrifice for others.

Light, flames, candles, and sacred fires cross religious boundaries. In my childhood synagogue, there was an ornate lamp hanging in front of the ark where the Torah was stored. It hung by three golden chains from the high domed ceiling. I often wondered if it was really an eternal lamp, and considered, while I sat through a long service, the logistics of filling it with oil and lighting it.

Light is easy to identify with, but I wasn’t asked to make the light but the chalice to support it. Then I remembered the story of Siddhartha before he became the Buddha. For six years after leaving his home, Siddhartha followed many teachers and excelled at the most austere practices. At one point, so emaciated that he was close to death, he realized that he was not getting closer to what he was seeking. That’s when he recalled sitting under an apple tree as a child while the adults were plowing the fields; he remembered his calm state of mind. He resolved to take nourishment, find this calm mind again, and sit under a tree until he reached enlightenment.

I’m an orchardist in a town well-known for its beautiful orchards. Our fruit trees offer us sustenance and beauty. Trees also offer refuge. I think we can all remember sitting against the trunk of a tree; it’s so simple, and universal. Inspired by my own love for trees and the Buddha’s story, I decided to use the image of a tree for Harvard’s Unitarian Church’s chalice. I made the trunk to support the chalice bowl and sculpted two small seated figures leaning against its trunk, enjoying the peacefulness, exemplifying a calm abiding, an equanimity. Above the figures, for the two circles, I used tree branches. The branches will encircle a glass sphere oil lamp (not pictured).

I made the sculpture in wax and had it cast into bronze. (I will write about bronze casting in another blog.) This Sunday it will be lit for the first time. The service begins at 10:00 am, 9 Ayer Road in the center of Harvard. All are welcome!

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice

Hanami — Blossom Viewing

Blossom viewing is a cultural event in Japan. Hanami, literally “to see flowers,” is the word for this traditional custom that dates back to the 8th century. Hanami takes place as a picnic under the branches, or a stroll among the trees. Sweet treats and sake, colorful kimonos, and an opportunity to compose and share poems are all part of hanami. When I lived in Japan, the evening news announced the opening of the cherry blossoms from Okinawa in the South of Japan to Hokkaido in the North. Families and friends planned their weekends to visit their favorite cherry blossom viewing sites.

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hanami is not only for daytime viewing, but temples and gardens have lanterns to light the cherry trees during special evening hours. In Kyushu, there is a traditional Japanese garden with over 2,000 cherry trees. In Maruyama Park in Kyoto, over 800 trees are illuminated during the short season of the blossoms, and crowds gather. Hanami is big business.

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Usually hanami refers to cherry blossoms, but originally it was plum blossoms that were harbingers of spring. In Kyoto, I would see plum trees in bloom in early February, when there was still a dusting of snow on the branches. The striking visual similarity between snowflakes and flower petals has been a favorite subject for Japanese poets. In the earliest Japanese poetry collection, the Manyoshu, this poem was composed at a plum-blossom viewing banquet at the home of Otomo Tabito in 730 CE:

In my garden fall the plum-blossoms—
      Are they indeed snow-flakes
Whirling from the sky?

                                    —the Host

And later in the same collection:

Yonder in the plum tree
Fluttering from branch to branch
The warbler sings
And white on his wings falls
Airy snow. 

                                  —Author unknown

In Japanese poetry, blossoms evoke the ephemeral nature of life, the fact that everything we love in this world is impermanent — the warbler’s song, the moon’s reflection in water, the touch of a lover. However, in our realization of this transience, we love all the more. For the Japanese, beauty is never very far from melancholy, and one of my favorite books is Beauty and Sadness, by Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. In the book, the writer Oki Toshio meets a lover from his past, Otoko Ueno. She is now a well-known, but reclusive artist, living with her protégée, who is fiercely jealous of her teacher’s old lover. It’s not the storyline in Kawabata’s books that won him the Nobel prize, but the subtlety of emotions. It’s as if the reader were gazing into the reflection in a drop of sweat on her lover’s neck — we are that close physically to complex emotional states.

In the traditional world of Noh Theater, often one emotion is the focus of a play and, during the performance, that emotion builds to a final delirium of expression. While I was training in the Noh Theater, I danced a role from the Noh play Sakuragawa, Cherry Blossom River, in which a mother, having lost her only son, named Cherry Blossom Boy, roams the countryside to find him. She comes upon the Cherry Blossom River, where, in her crazed grief, and moved by the falling blossoms, she dances. In the dance, she uses a bamboo scoop to lift the fallen blossoms from the river, as if to raise her drowned son’s body. She dances faster and faster, while the deep voices of the chorus, the percussive beat of the drums, and shrill calls of the high-pitched Noh flute come together with intense fervor to express her unimaginable loss. The cherry blossoms signify the transient nature of life, yet a mother’s love for her child never fades.

Now, as an orchardist, I check the daily weather reports during this time of the year. Tender blossoms are susceptible to damage from frost, and the wildly fluctuating temperatures we’ve been having in recent years raise my anxiety. High temperatures cause flower buds to break dormancy and begin to swell. Frigid temperatures can be fatal for these tender buds. Last year, all over New England, farms lost their peach crop, and many orchards lost up to 90 percent of their apple crop. Even if the buds open, the severe cold can affect the fruit set and quality. It’s a big unknown, and we are a long way from fruit set. 

Weather can also wreak havoc with cherry blossoms. A rainstorm with wind close to peak blossom time will leave wet petals plastered to the branches, trunk, and ground, and the hanami tourists will change their plans. I’ve seen a rainstorm shred the petals in our orchard; but, by then, the bees had already pollinated, and the tiny applets grew.

Viable blossoms are a cause for celebration both for their beauty and for the fruit we can anticipate. If we have a full blossom set I’m going to host a hanami — kimonos optional—with  hot sake, tasty morsels, and poetry!

Soil Redemption Song

Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard, now has a new book, Mycorrhizal Planet, just published by Chelsea Green Publishing. There was some disagreement between Phillips and the publisher about the title for the book, so he conducted a poll asking friends for input. A cattle rancher, a regional publisher, a permaculture guru, a biodynamic herbalist, an academic, and an orchardist/artist, among others, all weighed in on which of three titles they preferred. I voted without hesitation for Mycorrhizal Alchemy, but Chelsea Green decided to go with Mycorrhizal Planet (Mycorrhizal Pathways was the other choice). Alchemy suggests transformation, mystery, and ancient practices, all of which I am drawn towards. It’s a little like taking old found objects and making them into art.

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

In the painting, The Alchemist by Cornelis Bega, a hunched figure sits in a cave-like room, intent on what is happening inside a glass jar. Books, notebooks, and earthenware pots surround him, suggesting a lifetime of mixing substances and studying their reactions. The alchemist is grounded and humble in Bega’s depiction. It’s a lonely art, much maligned as a materialistic quest to turn ore into gold; when, in fact, alchemists made considerable contributions to early science. 

The Alchemist, Cornelis Bega

The Alchemist, Cornelis Bega

I think of Michael Phillips like this alchemist, studying the threads of life in the soil, appreciating them, and sharing their magic. Mycorrhizal fungi form a fibrous network stretching throughout the soil, attaching to roots, and connecting plant roots to each other. These fungi process minerals and feed them up to the plants, sending up just what is required. They will even provide storage for a plant’s bounty until leaner times, or pass on needed nutrients to other plants. It's a hidden world that scientists are only beginning to explore.

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

“Each and every Mycorrhizal pulsating with nutrient flow, [is] making our lives possible,” Phillips writes. I consider Phillip’s passion to understand soil devotional.

Interestingly, Buddhism conceives of our world as one in which everything is interrelated and interdependent; nothing is separate in all of existence (or non-existence). Buddhism uses the analogy of the jeweled Net of Indra to describe this global interconnectedness. Imagine a vast net spreading out infinitely in all directions. At every crossing point in the net is a reflective jewel, and each jewel contains the reflection of every other jewel. If I were to put a mark on one gemstone, it would appear on every other one. How we treat one person ripples across the entire world.  

The world under our feet is no different. Trees even share nutrients through Mycorrhizal fungi attached to their roots with trees of different species. It’s a little mind blowing — this network of fungi in the soil supporting the cosmic connection between all beings throughout space and time.

Phillips told me that he actually wanted the title to be Soil Redemption Song, inspired by Bob Marley’s haunting Redemption Song.

[…]
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
'Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the Book

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Michael told me that as he pondered the lyrics of this song, he wrote, “Healthy plant metabolism begins with a molecule of water, a breath of carbon, and light energy from our nearest star. The tangible science behind all this unlocks the righteous way to farm and garden, give honor to trees, and plain do right by this earth. Nothing has ever excited me more.”

Mycorrhizal Planet provides practical information for the farmer, gardener, orchardist, and forester, as well as inspiration for all of us who have temporarily lost heart from following the daily news. If you’d like to order the book please go to Phillips’ website. He’ll sign a copy and send it to you.

Listen closely when you next walk among the trees. You might just hear the great alchemist Bob Marley singing — transforming our pain with his courage. Listen!

Food is Primary Care

Sometimes I will buy a big peach, a bright red tomato, or even an apple only to be disappointed when I bite into a mealy peach, a watery tomato, and a tasteless apple.  I don’t like to throw out food, so I often eat it anyway. But sometimes, it’s just so bad that I guiltily toss the entire beautiful glob into the compost pile, burying it under some faded tulips or tough cabbage leaves.

Nutritionists say that we’re not getting the nutrients our bodies need from our food.  Considering the obesity epidemic and the debilitating diseases in America, it’s hard not to agree. Soil health, crop health, and human health are interrelated. Since the 1950s, however, crop yield has gone up, but nutritional value has gone down.  The great monocultures of agricultural production have focused on yield, pest resistance, appearance, and shelf life; not taste or nutrition.

Many of our food systems provide food that is low on both flavor and nutrition — for example, food served in hospitals to those who are ill, people who need healthy food. Turkey with corn might sound appealing when ticked off the menu, but when it arrives the next day, it’s a different story. Pre-frozen turkey rounds and corn niblets grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides, not to mention jiggles of artificially dyed red and orange Jello for dessert, is neither appealing nor nutritious.

The good news is that Marydale Debor, founder of the organization Fresh Advantage (their wonderful tagline is Food is Primary Care), works to put fresh and nutritious food back into hospitals, schools, and other institutions. It’s not easy – the old guard must be removed and new chefs who want to buy and cook with local ingredients need to be hired. Debor knows that buying food from a small local farm is the best way to get tasty and nutritious food.

A healthy diet contains a diversity of foods, but how to encourage diverse and nourishing meals when much of our food no longer has taste — especially when junk food has so much flavor? I heard a presentation by Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor. He explained that not only have our foods lost their flavor, but food is now separate from taste. He gave the example of the Frito-Lay Company that makes Dorito chips. In that product, for the first time, taste was manufactured; and flavor was added separately such that taste had no relation to the product’s food ingredients.  Frito-Lay, Inc. (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) perfected the taste of their chip to be appealing to a wide group of people. This original manufactured taste opened the door to all kinds of manufactured food, in particular, the enormous category of junk food.

Humans can have associations with food taste from childhood like the sweetness of mother’s milk. If a manufactured food is high is corn fructose, it will satisfy this associative sugar craving, but, and here’s the catch, it will not satisfy the belly’s nutritive need because it’s only flavor. We don’t stop eating, because the craving doesn’t go away. We are caught like Tantalus reaching for the apples that are forever out of reach.

I love potato chips and eat more than I like to admit. But if that peach I had grabbed was warm, sweet, and juicy, or there was a basket of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter, I would eat a bellyful, be sated, and nutritionally fed. Healthy food needs to be the norm for people everywhere. Everyone should have access to nourishing and delicious food at a price that is affordable.

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

Some people believe that our bodies can sense food grown with love and compassion; it feeds the spirit as well as the body, and sadly the opposite is also true.  Food made by an angry cook can make a food unappealing or even repellent. ‘Food is primary care’ — and real food inspires wonderful poetry!

Ode to The Tomato

by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is
halved
like
a
tomato,
its juice
runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately,
we must murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
parsley
hoists
its flag,
potatoes
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.