More Humus, More Humanity
by Jeff Schreiber
The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.
– Paul Cezanne
We in the Midwest were blessed this season by the extended visit of biodynamic researcher and consultant Bruno Follador. In May, with fellow instructor Angela Curtes, Bruno gave a hands-on overview of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s farm-scale hot controlled fermentation compost process. From November 1-3, he “dwelved” (his wonderful word!) deeper into all things cosmic and compost at the workshop “More Humus, More Humanity: Insights and Practices out of Biodynamic Agriculture.” From the first night’s lecture it was clear – to the diverse group of farmers, gardeners, teachers, orchardists, and others assembled – that Bruno was not going to just come right out and give us his insights; we’d have to work for them.
Through stories, poems, exercises, a movie, and wonderful living language – through portraying rather than explaining – Bruno carefully built up a picture of the whole issue at hand. These lyrics from the Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, for example, were displayed throughout the workshop with a series of images for us to ponder:
The mountain, the mountain
Came to recognize
Its steep and rocky sides
More than realized
The issue at hand? Our thinking. One simple exercise, in which we viewed an image that first appeared to be random dots arranged in a circle, served to illustrate the complex process that plays out in our minds when observing phenomena.
Upon receiving the image, some began to rotate it to and fro, trying to catch its orientation. Most jumped into the task with zeal – curious, engrossed, excited about the challenge. Some, clearly, found it tedious; they were “above” such games, perhaps. Whispers revealed that some searched their memories for help, or sought for a sort of comparative analysis in their attempt at comprehension. Wild guesses from some, or an attempt to squint and hold the image closer or farther from one’s eyes. A few, here and there, discovered the image and appeared noticeably relieved, satisfied. Others appeared less excited, more tense, annoyed. Finally, when most seemed to have found it – or at least were too embarrassed to admit they hadn’t – the riddle was announced: “a giraffe!” Hiding in the apparently random collection of dots was the coherent image of a giraffe’s head.
Everything beckons to us to perceive it,
murmurs at every turn ‘Remember me!’
– Rainer Maria Rilke
What happened in this process, we wondered? What happened at that moment when our perception of random dots magically aligned itself into a conception of a giraffe’s head? If we just perceived (“to take the truth,” in German, the multi-lingual Bruno explained) would we ever see the giraffe? With just an organizing idea or concept of a giraffe, would we see anything at all? What is it that unites percept and concept? Bruno coaxed us to the significance of these ideas, this awareness of the process of thinking: too often we approach the world by jumping to explanations or slapping on ready-made and rigid concepts, instead of giving the things we come across time and space to speak to us as they are. Instead of going out to sensuously and empathically meet the real, living beings in the world, we instead retreat into some imagined and distanced “objective” intellect. From there, we “thing the world,” to use Craig Holdrege’s phrase. All phenomena become merely things “out there,” things to manipulate, exploit, and control. Here, in this worldview, is where the horrors of our world begin: soil becomes just an inert medium for root growth. Chickens: just cuts of meat. Water: just molecules. Land: just a commodity. People: just collections of genes.
Chances are, like me, you are probably not even conscious of the extent to which this thinking influences your worldview. Presenters like Bruno and Holdrege (who is the director of The Nature Institute, and whose new book on this subject, Thinking Like a Plant, is much recommended) can be helpful in making one aware of such “object thinking,” and in moving toward a more “living thinking” (Holdrege’s terms). Bruno, in the living way in which he speaks – gestures – about composting, models this awake, aware thinking: The pile is not merely a mechanism or thing composed of thing-like materials, it is on its way to becoming a being, a whole. It needs a proper form, a proper body, just as we do.
There is no “recipe” of a certain amount of “greens” and “browns;” one must rather pay attention and develop a personal relationship to the materials that make up the pile, and to the pile itself as it ages. (“She’s a wise one!” said Bruno of a particularly lovely and mature pile). The pile itself is the teacher, one learns by “taking the truth” and orienting oneself to the living pile and the processes and forces behind it, around it, within it. Answers can be found in the intervals and participations between parts. The four elements are “wonderful helpers” in this process, in seeing the pile as whole. “How are you formed/ing?” is the prevailing attitude, not “Why?” As Bruno describes it, the pile seems more verb than noun, really.
The whole problem is primarily a moral one.
– Ehrenfried Pfeiffer
As the workshop came to a close, we brought our burning questions to the group. What role do we play in the life of the earth? Given the atrocities we’ve committed – the species extinct, the rivers fouled, the land scorched – would not the earth be better off without us? Such a sentiment, though understandable, can only be the result of object thinking. We cannot “opt out” of our participation in nature, regardless of how hard we imagine it to be just a “bunch of things” to which we needn’t have any moral obligation. No, Bruno explained, we must take responsibility. The very act of observation is a moral act, he stressed. Most people, I think, understand this at some level. Even in our intermediated, Facebook-ed world one can still sometimes become aware of and connect with something or someone as they are (as opposed to how we would like them to be). A smile, a certain look, a touch. It becomes harder to distance ourselves once such a connection is made, harder not to feel morally committed. This sense of responsibility, as most farmers know, only increases the more you pay attention, the more you remain true to what you see, the more you become enmeshed in a place. This is why it’s important that the use of land is granted to those who exercise an alive, participatory thinking.
The revolution we so badly need won’t come through new laws or economic policies. No, it will come, in philosopher David Abram’s words, “through a rejuvenation of our carnal sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us.” It will come through free people paying ever greater attention – little by little, day by day – to the phenomena that surrounds them: carrots, compost, other people. The element that is decisive is human consciousness, human thinking. By the end of the workshop, an image had emerged for me from Bruno’s pictures and gestures. In it, thousands of small farms blossomed across the land, like so many wildflowers in a prairie. Each was a unique, living organism, part of its place; none were the same. Each had a compost pile at its center, its heart. And around these farms myriad beings coalesced, forming through their openness and attention new, living communities, new wholes, new beings.
Jeff Schreiber received a scholarship from the Biodynamic Scholarship Fund to attend “More Humus, More Humanity.” Jeff farms at Three Sisters Community Farm in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, a community-oriented farm serving the greater Milwaukee area.