Taste the Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture

On March 31st and April 1st,  I had the honor of presenting a paper at the Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture Conference at the Harvard Divinity School. My talk was “Feed the Body, Feed the Spirit: Agriculture, Art, and Community at Old Frog Pond Farm.” Farmers, spiritual leaders and academics from all over the country and a few from distant continents gathered. One of the many presentations I attended was about Vedic Agriculture, something I knew nothing about.

The Vedas are ancient Hindu texts of prayers, philosophy, and practices written down about 5000 years ago. Dr. Appachanda Thimmaiah, the presenter, said quoting from one of the Vedas, “The whole of existence is an interplay of matter and spirit.” I felt instantly in tune with this way of talking about the world. I believe that spiritual practice has to be grounded in the physical world. And like our approach on the farm — respect for the earth and an appreciation of life — we have to put this into practice with healthy agricultural practices.

In the Vedas there are very specific daily practices for individuals, like asking forgiveness when you wake before putting your feet on the ground of mother earth, and rubbing your hands together to evoke the seven sacred rivers of India. Three times a day, at the transitions — midday, late day (dinner time), and before going to bed — there are specific prayers to express one’s gratitude and reverence for the earth. I know how often I am swept up with the workings of daily life. I know that stopping for a few moments of conscious reflection throughout the day would be helpful.

Many Vedas also speak directly to agriculture. There is specific timing information — what to plant, when and where — and how to create rhythms on the farm for health, balance, and integration not only for plants but for livestock. There are performances to enliven the creative intelligence of both the plant and the farmer. I thought of our mid-January Wassailing of the apple trees when poets and friends of the farm gathered to ‘toast’ the trees and encourage the new crop. We weren’t reenacting a traditional ritual, but with our own new words and songs we were awakening joy.  

Lynn Horsky reading her wassail poem.

Lynn Horsky reading her wassail poem.

We know that food provides joy as well as nutrition. In the Vedic tradition food is our life force. Dr. Thimmaiah said that food grown following Vedic practices will nourish every level of life — body, mind, heart, and consciousness. He added that he is certain that by growing our food in the violent ways of industrial agriculture, we create the conflicts and wars that are happening around the planet. If he is right, we need to nurture the earth and make sure that all beings have good food, and only then will we create a world of peace. Our relationship with food affects the social, political, and environmental future of the earth.

Attending the conference made me more certain that this ancient knowledge can’t be lost or forgotten. It’s in our bodies and in our bones. We are of the earth. We eat from the earth. We return to the earth. It’s not necessarily about specific practices, it’s about appreciating all of life, and most importantly, our own. “When one’s food is pure, one becomes pure.” (Chandogya Upanishad 7.26.2) It’s not so different from the slogan, “You are what you eat.” What if we unconsciously absorb the emotions behind the growing and preparation of our food?  Mega tractors rip through dry, chemically destroyed soil . . . the underpaid, bitter factory worker. . .

This week, I spent Thursday and Friday in New York City. I stayed overnight near Columbia University and in the morning went inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This great church has a long history of political and artistic activism. To my amazement, their exhibit, The Value of Food, had just closed, but some of the works were still up. The curators’ statement on a panel at the entrance to this glorious cathedral’s central nave said, “ The Value of Food explores the dynamic and organic materiality of food and its integral role in sustaining life. . . Pull up a seat and join us at the table. Food becomes a meal when it is shared.”

Food Altar at St John the Divine, New York, NY.

Food Altar at St John the Divine, New York, NY.

Wassailing the Apple Trees

On Saturday afternoon we will be wassailing the apple trees in the orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm. We want to thank them for such good harvest in 2015 and encourage their fruiting for 2016. Wassailing is an old English Christmas tradition where farmers would visit the orchards with bowls of cider and gather around one of the largest trees. They would pour libations on the roots and hang bits of bread dipped in cider on the limbs for the robins, the good spirits who would protect the trees. The farmers would of course drink the cider too, and then circling around the tree they would sing

Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats-full! caps-full!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra!

Wassailing celebrates the gifts from the trees by returning a portion of what we have been given.  The ritual acknowledges nature’s generosity and our dependence on her. 

Bread and cider are the pagan sacraments for this orchard communion. Bread is food, a symbol for well-being, and physical sustenance. Cider quenches thirst — perhaps physical as well as spiritual. This golden juice is the sun, the rain, and the soil through the living tree.

Thoreau writes about wassailing in his essay, Wild Apples. He also mentions ‘apple howling’ where a group of boys would go out to the orchards and sing while knocking the trunks with sticks

Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow!

This howling feels almost like a wake-up call, like the Zen masters’ use of the keisaku, the hitting stick to wake up their students and call them back to the reality of the present moment. “Don’t slumber too long, trees! We love you. We count on your fruit.”

For our Wassailing celebration at the farm, we’ll toast with our own hot mulled cider and listen to original poems written for the trees. We’ll sing and send out prayers that all creatures will have food, shelter, and bear fruit in 2016 — the microbial population in the soil,  sea turtles and polar bears, all people everywhere. If you’d like to join us, bring a little bread for the birds, and we’ll meet at 3 pm in the orchard.