Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bottle to Bucket

We have been having a lovely holiday week here at the farm. For Christmas, Santa brought a huge new wheel barrow filled with tools: a pitchfork and manure shovel, a feed bucket for Marvin and a water bucket for the chickens, and a new 75 foot section of hose. We even had our periodic thaw to help us with water transport!

Then there are the calves. A few days ago, Jordan walks into the house at the end of chore time, obviously frustrated. "I am beginning to question Blaze's intelligence," he quips.

I stop and listen. "Why?"

"Well, he refuses to drink from a bucket! I even tied him up and put the bucket right in front of him, and he just stands there--obviously hungry--and moos." Jordan sighs. "He won't drink from the bucket unless I put my fingers in there so he can suck on them." I now see Jordan's dripping hand. Meanwhile, Bright happily slurps his quotient of Daisy milk from a bucket without a fuss.

So what is with Blaze?

I have some sympathy for the little creature. It is not the easiest transition to make. A calf is born wanting to suck, head up, preferably on some soft and resilient oblong protrusion that hangs from the sky and dispenses sweet warmth. The sucking motion in this tipped-up position is beneficial. It stimulates the salivary glands and aids digestion; exercises head and neck muscles; and connects the calf with a source of heat and protection: mom. I imagine Blaze asking: So what's this puddle in pail?

I think back to what I have written in What a Body Knows (and sketched on April 1 in this blog): nurture and nourish are forever entwined. Perhaps it is no different for cattle. It is not merely milk that Blaze wants. He wants to suck. He wants to nuzzle. He wants his mom.

"I don't think it is a problem to feed him on a bottle for a while," I suggest.

"But it isn't convenient," Jordan replies. "It is hard to hold the bottle for Blaze while giving the bucket to Bright. It would be so much easier if he just drank from a bucket!" I recognize this logic all too well. Parenting by convenience. Oh how I know! Still, I also know that a calf, like a child, is a force of nature. If you oppose it, even if you win, you lose. Jordan knows too.

I remind him. "Well, you know from riding--when you want to stop a horse, what do you do? You don't sit back and yank on the reins. You tug and release, tug and release, tug and release. Try that with Blaze. If he rejects the bucket, give him the bottle for a feeding or two, then give him the bucket again. Give him a little time to get used to the idea." Jordan nods.

Meanwhile, I am still wrestling with calf care issues of my own--related to the kids and their ability to work together (see Dec 17). I am still seeing faces that pout and hearing voices that complain of being left out.

The Family Council I described in the last post had been highly successful as far as it went. We had worked out a framework for a different way of thinking: our calf-caring team. We had staged a shift to a more harmonious way of being. Yet feeling that shift and making it happen was proving another matter.

In our councils, the format is simple. Each person has a chance to speak. More than that, each person has a chance to be heard by the very persons who are provoking concern. In that hearing, I guide the listeners to mirror the speakers--restate what the person said, don't respond, just say it again, let them know that you really get what they are saying. It is a basic relationship tool for enhancing communication. And it works. You can see the tension melt from young shoulders who feel finally released, finally heard.

But hearing only goes so far. A shift towards resolution needs to occur, and it does when persons involved recognize that they share a common desire. In this case, it was obvious to the kids. They each wanted the calves; they wanted the calves to be healthy and happy and well tended; they wanted to be the ones to help. In the end, after everyone shared and was heard, the kids could see, even without my prodding, that they all wanted the same thing: to be recognized by the others as an important, necessary, and effective member of the calf-caring team.

It wasn't quite enough. I too had to tug and release. Tug and release. I had to give the kids time to get used to the idea. To feel it. To live it. So we kept talking.

As the week progressed, we realized more: it has to do with trust. Building trust. Blaze has to learn to trust Jordan. The kids have to learn to trust one another--really trust each other to want what they say they want. Let it sink in. So we work on that trust. Tug and release. Letting it be real.
A couple of days later, Jordan and Jessica come in together at the end of chores, smiling broadly. "Blaze did it!" Jordan announces.

"He drank from the bucket!" Jessica adds.

"Perhaps he is intelligent after all," Jordan grins. I never had any doubts.

"These calves are teaching me patience," Jordan adds with a triumphant sigh.

Me too.

Happy New Year to All!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Arrivals!

Friday night the storm is raging--wind-rain-snow all at once. When we wake on Saturday, so does the golden sun, streaming through ice covered tree branches, dancing across dazzled white lawns, and illuminating a wafer thin full moon, hovering just above the horizon. It is beyond beautiful. And cold. It is the day we are to pick up our baby bulls.

It takes us half an hour to de-ice the car--scraping and melting and scraping frozen sheets from its surfaces. Thank goodness it isn't a plane. Geoff crawls through the side doors to jimmy open the front ones. Finally the windows are clear and Geoff and Jordan are on their way. The rest of us stay behind to finish the pen preparations—washing grain and water buckets, and fluffing up bedding hay.

An hour later, the car drives up, as if it were an ordinary day. This time, however, the car is carrying cattle. The two rows of back seats are down and covered with blankets. And there are our bulls, of the Milking Shorthorn breed, cruising in casual comfort. Jordan has named them Bright and Blaze—two names, easy and related, and not to be confused with the handful of verbal commands they will have to learn to become a team of oxen.

Will I know which is which?

I peek in the front door. It is obvious. Blaze, the smaller of the two, is standing up, his red head gently bumping the ceiling. His brown eyes are fixed on me. Who are you? he asks. His face is flecked with white (or premature gray?) and marked with a large white cyclone splotch. Jordan reports Blaze rode on all fours the whole trip, lurching back and forth, surfing the winding roads of rural NY.

Curled up behind him towards the back is the slightly larger and redder bull Jordan has named Bright. He does not look so happy. He reminds me of Ferdinand. Each one has on a calf coat—somewhat like the ones you see on small dogs but larger—fastened around his front and back legs.

My first impression: oh they are so cute!

We open the trunk door and Jordan wraps his arms around Blaze, who has stepped over Bright to get to the door first. Jordan makes it a few steps before Blaze wriggles away, landing on his back in the snow, legs sticking in all directions, Jordan’s arms still around his neck. The two of them freeze there for an instant, wondering what comes next, before Blaze flips himself over and peeks curiously into the barn. Geoff carries Bright, and soon the two of them are nosing around their new home. Spacious! Cold! Nice view! And all these small people!

Blaze scampers about, running in crazy circles, kicking up his hind legs. He buzzes and hums with energy. Bright mopes in the corner and coughs slightly. I feel a grip of maternal worry. Already? They haven’t even been here five minutes!

So what are we going to do with these fine furry beasts?
Feed them. Steer them. Train them.

The feeding is introducing an element of competition to our otherwise overly abundant milk flow. The bulls drink cow milk, of course. They are only babies—4 and 5 weeks old. And the cow milk we have to give them is Daisy’s. We have been milking a little more than a gallon at each milking, twice a day. Each calf needs to drink a half-gallon, morning and night.

You can do the math. We are scraping the bucket! Still, we have a plan. We are feeding Daisy more grain and hay over the next few weeks to boost her flow, and then in another month or so, we will wean the calves to grain and hay themselves. At this morning’s milking, Jordan squeezed out nearly two gallons. Thank you, Daisy! Then in March, Precious is due to give birth and we will be milking two cows! So we are consoling ourselves. It is only a temporary hardship.

As for steering, it turns out that the best time to do so is right before puberty, which occurs around six months. Before then, the male hormones the bulls produce are actually helpful, fueling healthy growth. Only with puberty does testosterone turn testy. We will be sure to call the Vet in three months. Before then, the bulls will be bulls.

As for training, it has already begun, though it is not clear who is training whom. Ostensibly, humans train cattle, the first step being to shower them with affection--a resource we have in ample supply. In fact, figuring out how to allocate all that attention has been our first challenge. Each of the children wants to be with the calves, caring for the calves, feeding the calves, leading the calves, and not one of them wants to be left out. Each one of them is also convinced that the others want to leave him or her out. So one child slips out to the barn to give the calves a secretive pat, and the others howl with the injustice of it all.

It is a high quality problem, really, and one whose value I appreciate. How are the kids supposed to know already how to work together to take care of baby bulls?

When similar issues arose last spring with our horse, Marvin, I quickly figured out that I could respond with acute and exasperated frustration—my heart wretched and my face blue—or I could embrace the moment as an opportunity to learn. Let’s work together on working together!

We gather in a Family Council. Forty-five minutes of concentrated chat time later, we are on our way—each child knowing that he or she is an essential member of a calf-caring team, with Jordan as our captain. Each one appreciating the others as enabling him or her to have bulls at all.

Last night Jessica comes in from the barn after giving Marvin some hay. "Did you pat the calves?" I ask. "No," she replies, "I didn’t want Jordan to feel left out." I smile. OK, so we still have some small adjustments to make. I reply, "Jessica, if you are out there, it is fine to pat the calves. They need all the love we can give them."

So who is training whom?

Once again, the farm is making its family.
(See "Forward to the Farm," Oct 15)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Water, Snow, and Ice

Drip. Drip. Drip. I wake to the sound of rain on the roof. Rain? Yesterday morning it was 5 degrees and snowing. I must be dreaming of spring.

No, it is no dream. As I look about outside, I see a yard filled with puddles pooling atop the partially frozen ground. Soon Kyra and Kai are out there too. Yesterday it was snow pants and sleds. Today is it tricycles in the mud. Welcome to winter.

In one sense, I am relieved. It will be easy today to water the animals.

Watering is our latest challenge—not the water itself, but its transport from house to barn. We have a lovely well, sunk halfway up the hill behind our house, with the sweetest of water in a county where many wells are flavored with sulpher. The quality of that water was the one condition we stipulated when we bought the farm, its quantity too. We heard it could support a hundred head of cattle. Should be enough to supply showers, dishes, and laundry for our family of six, we thought. At the time it didn’t even register that there was no plumbing to the barn. What would we need it for? Besides, the pipes would freeze if there were.

Then we got animals. In warm weather, of course, water transport is no problem. A string of hoses connected to our outdoor spigot does the job perfectly. Our furry and feathered friends have all they need.

When the temperature drops, however, the spigot freezes, the hoses harden and split, and the challenge increases. Last year we resorted to buckets, filled up one by one in the kitchen sink, and hauled by hand to the barn.

But last winter we only had two large thirsty beasts. This year we have two more great guzzlers—Marvin our horse and Dandelion our nine-month-old heifer calf—with another two arriving this Saturday. (The bull calves are coming!) Our ninety-five-gallon cow trough needs filling every few days. Marvin’s fifteen-gallon dish empties in a matter of hours. We will need a lot of buckets! And Pop-eye arms. And patience with all those booted feet stamping in and out of the house. Isn’t there another way?

So far this year, we have opted for an alternative called “emptying the hose.” After a watering, we—often Jordan—drains the hose completely, lying its separable sections along the downward slope of our backyard. Then, in the sun of the day, even if cold, we can usually get the spigot pumping water through those tubes.

Except when we can’t. One recent frigid morning, Jordan spent about a half hour trying to get the water flowing. He was so darn patient, until facing those last remaining recalcitrant coils. I suggested he bring his frozen fingers into the house. We stuck the stubborn length of hose into the sink for faster warming. We got it working. Better than a bucket.

When we finally had the water flowing, I turned to find Jessica filling buckets at the sink. My spent effort nearly erupted. Why wasn’t she using the hard-earned hose? It took a moment for her to confess: “Marvin likes his water better if it’s warm.” OK, so here I was about to yell at her for being thoughtful. Still, maybe we can treat Marvin to a hot toddy, but what about the rest?

There is another solution. We could spend oodles of dollars to have a standpipe installed—a hand pump that sticks straight up into the air and plunges down into the earth about four feet, to just below the frost line. Water that doesn’t make it out the pump drops back into the warming earth, and refuses to freeze.

Problem is, we have thought that we might rebuild the barns, or move them up the hill. If we do, there is no sense in investing in such a system here and now. So we are stuck. The issue hangs, unresolved. Back to the buckets.

Today, however, the weather is warm. The hose will be soft and pliable. The spigot will flow; the containers fill. Our arms will rest.

Perhaps we could just arrange to have a thaw on every third day?
Tomorrow it is supposed to snow.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Daisy's Match

Something was afoot. Jordan noticed immediately. As he approached the cow barn for the morning milking, he saw Dandelion, our nine month old heifer calf, jumping up on the back of her mother, Daisy. Dandi was straddling her spine, front legs dangling to either side. Daisy just stood there.

One super tolerant mom?
Or perhaps, could Daisy be in heat?

We have been waiting eagerly for this moment. Daisy gave birth to Dandi in March, and launched our milk making enterprise. To keep up Daisy’s milk production, we need to breed her again, otherwise mother nature will take her course, and after a year or so, her milk will slow to a trickle. Gestation takes nine months. So the sooner breeding happens after a birth the better.

Yet Daisy was not showing any of the tell tale signs—no bellowing or moaning, no tolerance of spine-straddling compatriots. Except for maybe once. Until today.

Jordan decided to conduct his own test. He hauls himself up onto Daisy’s back, sitting astride, as if on a horse. He knows. If Daisy is not in heat, he will find himself off her back in a flash. If she is in heat, he will prove himself a veritable cow-rider, for she will stand and wait, hopefully. Little does she know.

Jordan is on and Daisy is not moving. He leaps off and runs inside to get the telephone. “Call the breeder!”

We call our local breeding specialist, Ray Foote. We trust him. He is two for two, having bred Daisy once before and then the expecting Precious. Can he do it again? We leave a message. Several hours pass. The kids are getting anxious. We have about a twelve-hour window, before Daisy’s fertile day is done. We have no idea when it began.

Minutes before noon the phone rings. It’s Ray. He’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Everyone cheers.

Soon enough, Ray is pulling into the driveway. In the back of his truck, he has everything he will need: a vat of frozen sperm vials, a test tube warmer, a selection of long syringes, and lots of armpit-grazing plastic gloves.

We discuss Daisy’s mate. Ray recommends Rebel. “He makes good bags,” he says. A good bag (translate “udder”) means good milk. Sounds fine to us. Dandi’s dad was a bull named Mecca. But monogamy is no issue here. We approve. The match is made, if not in heaven, well then, in Hebron Hollow.

Ray selects a vial of Rebel’s relics and slips it into his test tube warmer. He then fills an arm length syringe and pops it inside his shirt. The sperm like it warm. He dons his gloves.

We walk into the barn where Daisy is waiting. Ray lifts her tail and reaches in. “Yes, she’s in a good little heat.” He knows these things.

He guides the syringe right into the O rings, and gently empties it through Daisy’s cervix. He is an expert at finding the deposit spot. It is why we called him. Thirty seconds. Daisy is done. She doesn’t seem to mind.

On the way out, Ray gives each of the kids a terrific knit hat, warm and sung. Blazoned across the front of each hat is the name “Big Foot A.I. Breeding Services.” The kids wear them proudly, especially Kai.

I can’t imagine that fertility clinics will be handing out such knit favors any time in the near future, but perhaps it is somewhat reassuring to know that it began with cows, and that it can work!

Now, we wait again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wanting Oxen

Jordan wants oxen—a team of oxen. Which means two. We have known of this desire for the past several months, beginning in June or so.

At first his pleas were intermittent, somewhat serious, somewhat exploratory. We nodded in assent, agreeing with how useful they would be—at some far and distant time. But then his pleas grew more frequent and impassioned. His head would dip with the intensity of the emotion.

Where his desire came from, we have no idea. It wasn’t that he saw a team of oxen at work and wanted to do the same. None of his friends or our friends work with oxen. There was no particular book or video that he sparked his attention. Nonetheless, the idea grabbed him, and refused to let go. All Jordan knows is that he must own them, raise them, train them and use them to do farm work. He wants a form of farm power that does not pollute the environment like a tractor does. He wants to perfect an older method, one with a greater connection to the land. But there is something else too—more primal. It is as if his life, and the life he wants to lead, depends upon it.

In August, Jordan decided to make a yoke for the oxen he hoped to have. He hiked up into our land, scouting for the right kind of wood. He chose a piece of red pine—the best option he could find—and began hewing it with a hatchet—the best tool we had. Discovering that the wood was rotten in one place, he went in search of another prime piece. After achieving the rough shape of the yoke, he wanted a drawknife to finish it off. We ordered one over the web, paid for with money he had saved.

As his October birthday approached, his request was singular and unequivocal. Oxen for my birthday. That is all he wanted. I gave him a book—one about training oxen—thinking that some more information might grant the project a more realistic hue. The gift had the opposite effect. He read the book cover to cover, honing his desire with every turn of the page. He wanted two bull calves, of the same breed, born less than a month apart. Maybe Devons (the traditional American breed), or Milking Shorthorns. Jerseys would be OK too, though Devons and Jerseys are a bit harder to train than the Shorthorns: they have a higher “tractability” score. He needed to make another yoke.

It was becoming clear. This was no whim. Feeling the inevitability, I finally responded to yet another ox-chat by saying: “Call your 4H leader. Ask.” He did. A month went by.

A week ago, we received a call from another 4H member, Katie. Katie raises Milking Shorthorns. “May I speak with Jordan?” she asked. I handed over the phone and watched Jordan’s face open into a radiant beam of light. He put down the phone.

“She has two bull calves, born a week apart. She will give them to me when the weather warms a bit, and she’ll tell me more at the next 4H meeting.” He was stunned. Deeply quiet.

Watching him, hearing the news, an unexpected joy released in me. (Where did that come from?) I was delighted! Happy too. Jordan would have his oxen! Kyra and Jessica were leaping and cavorting, happy for their brother, happy for themselves. They set about making yokes for some toy bulls we have in our plastic animal collection.

Two more big bovines?! I rationalize my excitement. First of all, Jordan would be taking care of them. Not me. Besides, they're easier to keep than cows—they don’t need to be milked. They can live in the barn with our other cattle. All we need to do is enlarge our fenced pasture, as we have wanted to do since we moved here. Our hill is in need of grazers. And if Jordan really can get his team working, think of what he could do! Logs from the forest. Furrows in the ground. This might just work.

Besides, he will be in good company. People all around the world still use oxen to farm, especially in areas where the terrain is too hilly for tractors, or the fuel and service sources too rare. Oxen are hearty, disease resistant, and carry their own coats. Throughout time, they have served as symbols of virility and fertility.

On the other hand, it seems crazy. With Precious, our Jersey heifer, due to give birth in March, we stand to double our herd in a few months—from three to six. At least. Where does this end? Should I worry?

I decide not to. For one thing has always been true: our kids enable us. Geoff and I moved here in pursuit of our dreams, but the kids pushed us every step of the way in pursuit of their dreams. We wanted a rural place to think and create; they wanted animals. And now, pursuing their dreams, they are helping us in ours. I know it.

Geoff and I were the ones talking about living a closer connection to the natural world. Jordan is doing it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cream of the Crop

In our eight months of milking, we have worked out our own pail-to-pot-to-bottle system. Jordan carries the warm foamy milk from the barn in a stainless steel pail. We take the pail and strain it into a pot that sits in the refrigerator until the next milking. At that point, we pour the milk from the pot into half gallon glass bottles that we purchased over the web from an Amish family, thereby making way for the next batch. Why this three-stage process?

It’s all about the cream.

Milk from a living cow is itself alive. It keeps evolving, changing, separating from itself, unless it is cooked to kill (about 180 degrees) or shaken so furiously that it refuses to separate. Left on its own, what separates are the elements of various densities, with the fluffy fat molecules floating to the surface, while the heavier water, protein, lactose, and minerals settle below. The cream rises to the top. (Yes, skim milk is heavier than cream!)

While there are cream separators you can buy with asundry washable (i.e., needing to be washed) parts, we prefer to rely on the tried and true method of gravity. Sitting in that pot between milkings, the milk has a chance to do its thing. It is our daily non-activity. We let the cream rise, until a half-inch layer of skin coats the surface of the milk, awaiting the swirling, skimming movement of a large spoon. We sort the cream into a quart jar, before pouring the rest into bottles to drink.

Why catch the cream? It’s where the value lies. The cream makes butter, ice cream, rich cheeses, and (surprise) cream of the whipped, sour, heavy and light varieties. We are still amazed by the stuff. “Look at this!! It’s massive! It’s gorgeous!”

Still, we have learned a thing or two. In the beginning, we were obsessed with the idea that more cream is better. Tastier. It is hard to imagine otherwise, given how our culture romanticizes creaminess, the cream on top, the cream of the crop.

Yet the skin we peel from the top of our pot is more like sludge than liquid. It folds and holds its shape, sticking to the spoon, dropping in globs, heavier than the heaviest cream from the carton… and deceptively light. It makes ice cream that is too foamy; coffee that is too thick, and butter that takes way too long to churn. More cream is not better. What the cream needs, we have learned is its milk—to weigh it down, spread out its flavor, and deliver its charms.

Twelve hours is just enough. Separation is partial. The milk we bottle is not fully stripped of skin, and we skim enough milk with the cream to make it flow.

In American culture, we assume that the cream can and does and should rise to the top. The irony is that we don’t let it happen. We spin the cream away as soon as we can, forcing a complete separation of milk elements. We heat them to exterminate all bacteria, bad or good, mix and match for desired products, and the shake them into bits so small that any difference is homogenized. Many elements. One substance.

We put our milk through these paces ostensibly for our own health. Our milk will stay fresh, be user friendly, and not carry unwanted germs into our homes. Is it so?

The practices began with the advent of a dairy industry—and its excesses. With the increase of urban life, thrifty entrepreneurs carted milk in from rural areas and supplemented it with “swill milk” from confined cows eating the waste from urban distilleries. The "milk" makers added plaster paris, molasses, and other thickeners to give their product a golden glow. The waves of milk-borne illness caused by these practices were not due to milk—but to the humans milking it for profits.

So to protect the many from the excesses of the few, laws requiring pasteurization followed, along with practices of homogenization that prevented the killed bacteria from collecting at the bottom of your glass. It was a regulatory response that, in the end, favored the dairy industry by knocking out competition from any milk whose cream really would rise to the top. In some states, including ours, selling raw milk is illegal. Large dairy operations are the laws' key defenders.

We didn’t realize that by owning our own cow, we would be engaging in an emergent resistance movement to the hegemony of the dairy business over our daily foods! Dear Daisy, our calm, cud-chewing compatriot, is producing contraband.

And we drink it up, gladly, gratefully, after letting the cream rise. It is a slow process, and one we never complete. For what results is always best when mixed in various proportions with the milk it leaves below. The slight separation opens up all kinds of creative possibilities. We add more cream for butter, less for ice cream, less for cheese, and less again for milk, marveling at the combinations and permutations. No wonder the industry wants to corner the market--and our culinary imagination. They don’t want our cream to rise.

Maybe it should.

Next week: New beginnings

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Make Hay When the Sun Shines

One of our first tasks when we arrived here in July of 2005 was to find a local farmer to hay our fields. There were two reasons. Not only are those acres of rolling green hillside absolutely gorgeous to behold, there is money at stake. Taxes. To secure an agricultural discount, worth lots of dollars, we must either rent our fields to someone who does $10K of farming business a year, or do that business ourselves. Renting was our better option.

We soon met Farmer Larry who lived across the way. The stories that tailed him were legendary. He let his dangerous bulls wander onto everyone else’s land. He milked his cows when the cows felt like it—or not. He would give you the shirt off his back. Fact was, Larry told better stories than anyone ever told of him. And he was happy to hay our fields.

To hay a field is the farmer’s equivalent of mowing the lawn. Hay is grass—cut and dried and bound into bales. It can be alfalfa, timothy, orchard, fescue or any mix and match that grows. And though we had yet to discover it in those early years, this basic grass is the foundation of the whole farm economy. The grass feeds the animals who work the land, give meat and milk, and fertilize the soil again. It is a solar-powered cycle interrupted by the use of fossil fuels, as when farmers use tractors to pull their mowers and grains to feed the cows. Still, if you trace that fossil fuel back in time, it all comes down in some time and place, to sun-fed grass.

This year, for the first time, we realized for ourselves how crucial hay is to the farm family. All it took was imagining ourselves in the dead of winter, staring down our four thousand-pound beasts, and trying to explain to them that there was nothing left for them to eat. Our milk production, not to mention our well being was at stake.

As May ripened, so did the stalks of grass. Walking in the fields, I was up to my armpits, swimming through heads budding pink. It was time to hay. The sun was shining high in the sky. Where was Larry?

All the good weather was making me anxious. When the grass is grown, it needs to be cut, else it starts shedding nutrients, preparing to die and be reborn. When the grass is cut, it needs to dry, spread out on the field, else the balls or boxes into which it is baled start to mold. When the cut grass is drying, it needs a good 24 hours of clear sky to do so at least, for any rain that falls washes its nutrients right into the ground. The sun was shining. Where was Larry? I was feeling like a farmer.

Larry, we heard, had stopped worrying about the weather long ago. Where other farmers had internet connections to follow the satellite forecasts, Larry hardly even looked at the sky. You hayed when you could. You took your chances when you did. It would rain or not. And by the time winter came, whatever hay you had to offer your animals, Larry said, would be better than a snowball.

The sun was still shining on the spring day when Larry died in a logging accident. He was out in the woods, doing what he loved, and quickly felled. It was tragic. We missed him and still do. We miss his unfailing smile, his generous ways, and the stories he told at our kitchen table of wild moose and rangy bulls and the pony he used to ride to school. The line of people waiting to enter the funeral home for his calling hours in this rural town topped 800 people. We had thought we were his only friends. He was buried in the most beautiful cemetery I have ever seen, at the foot of a pine tree too big to hug. What would he think, I wondered, looking up at that tree?

Our hay was still standing. The sun was still shining. We talked to Larry’s sons who agreed to hay for him, as they had been doing with him, for years. In their hay days growing up on the farm, they processed over 10,000 bales a year. We would have several hundred.

Then it began to rain. Day after day, one week, two weeks, three weeks. You can’t cut hay in the rain. There was nothing to do but wait. June seeped into July. The grass thinned; its buds darkened red, and we waited some more. Those snowballs were looking pretty good.

Finally the sky cleared. Finally the hay was cut, rained on, turned and combed again, baled, and loaded safely into our barns, still green and crispy good, despite it all. Smells delicious. Our animals love it.

Make hay when the sun shines. In general use, the meaning of the words have softened into something like: take advantage of your opportunities when you can. But we have learned they mean far more than that. To make hay is be the link in the farm economy that enables the life of every member. To do it when the sun shines is to honor your obligation to let others live, by aligning your actions with the productive, creative work of the natural world.

To make hay when the sun shines is to do what you can and what you must to be a life enabling link in the universal rhythms of bodies becoming.

I know that next year, as we are making hay when the sun shines, I'll be thinking of Larry, at the foot of his tree, taking heart that whatever we make will be better than a snowball.

Next week: The cream of the crop

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Farm Philosophy

Large fluffed flakes are falling, melting as they touch down on wet grass. A grey sky hangs low. A chill fills the air, smarting against bare skin and sinking deeper too. We have heard rumors that winter will come early and hard, but it is only October! Days ago it was a sunny sixty! We have been working up wood to warm our stove, but will we have enough to last through April?

This weekend, anticipating a hard frost, we pulled up the remaining tomato stalks, plucking off every fruit, hard green to rosing red, and settled them in color coded baskets around the kitchen to ripen as they will. We picked a final crop of the red raspberries, and boiled them into jelly. We picked more apples, making sauces and crisps. In some ways, the end of the harvest was a relief. We will soon be finished with the processing! But the warmth of the thought is tamped by the chill—will there be enough to last?

Of course, there won’t be enough—food or fuel. Even with our Daisy dependence (Oct 15), we produce a mere fraction of what our family of six needs to eat in a year. The wood stove only heats half of the house. To fill the gaps, we will truck to the local supermarket and spend hundreds of dollars a week. We will call the local oil company to fill our tank with fuel. So really, we need not worry at all whether we can last the winter. Right?

So why the chill?

Before humans were farmers, we were hunting and gathering, moving from place to place as we followed the herds and the harvest. We observed the cycles of the seasons, of seeds, roots, and fruits, of birth and death. At some point, around 10,000 BCE, the gatherers, supposedly women, began participating in those cycles, planting their own crops in close and clustered areas, trapping and taming small animals for eggs, milk, and meat. Farming as a practice took hold, drawing more of the community into its sphere. Hunting was no longer as necessary. Neither was movement. The hunters started staying home to protect the food stores—and their producers.

Why this shift? It is not obvious. Farming is labor intensive. Plowing, planting, tending, harvesting, and storing take more time and energy to produce the same amount of food as hunting and gathering. Anthropologists estimate that the hunter-gathering clans had a leisurely life relative to the farmers. In three weeks, a gatherer could collect enough grain from a field of wild wheat to last a year.

Even so, farming has its advantages. With a bit more effort, a small piece of land can yield a much larger crop, supporting a crowd of people who can stay where they are and build permanent dwellings. Farming enabled towns and cities to sprout, and with them came the challenges of communal living that spurred humans to develop new strategies for governing, exchanging goods and services, managing resources, instilling values, building relationships, and documenting all of it.

The advent of agriculture enabled the dawning of culture. As a portion of laborers worked full time to fund the food supply, others could begin to begin to think and feel and act as if they existed independent from the forces of nature. Mind over body.

It is an irony of history: farming enabled our distance from nature. It contributed in a significant way to the complicated process through which humans began imagining themselves as individuals, rational agents, whose freedom is a freedom from the body, over the body, to be master of the body—free to consume what the bodies of others provide for them.

Dropped into the wilderness, however, the truth would be revealed. We are forever dependent for our every living moment on the cycles of air, water, earth, and fire, of plants and animals and elements that nourish our flesh. We may be able to imagine we have no bodies, but that imagining does not make it so.

Hence the chill. We are vulnerable amidst our abundance.

So it occurs to me, as a philosopher, here on the farm. If my aim is to offer an alternative to the mind over body ways of being that dominate western culture, then focusing on an individual and her or his desires, as I have done on these pages since January, is only the beginning. I must extend my discussion of What a Body Knows, to revisit and reimagine the relationships to each other and the natural world that our mind over body philosophies and religions express. What better place to do so than on a farm? With my family?

I am learning what our farming practices to date have enabled us to forget: in everything we do, we are always already participating in the earth’s rhythms of bodily becoming. We owe it to ourselves to do so consciously.

Next week: Making hay when the sun shines

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Forward to the Farm

The rooster is crowing, cracking through thick layers of sleep. The kids call him “Brooster.” Guests at the farm call him “Dinner.” He seems to think that everyone needs waking up all the time. At this moment, at least, he is right.

The next sound I hear are steps going down the stairs, plodding into the kitchen. The milk bucket clangs. It is Jordan. He will be pleased to be down there first, gathering his supplies, and out to milk his cow, Daisy. He loves to milk—by hand, twice a day, ever since Daisy gave birth to Dandelion in March. Who knew that was in my genes? I roll out of bed to be downstairs when he returns. There will be milk to process.

I open the refrigerator and pull out the stainless steel pot where last night’s milk is separating. With a large spoon, I skim the skin that has formed on top. Golden folds of thick cream slide into a waiting quart jar. We will use the cream for cream, ice cream, butter; and the remaining milk for drinking, and making yogurt and cheese. This is step one.

I muse. Jordan is two-handedly securing our Dairy Independence, or rather, he is cementing our Daisy Dependence. For nothing now tastes as good as the sweet substance she provides. Her milk is living, luminous. It practically glows, like the liquid sunshine it is: sun-fed grass-made nutrients transformed into a sweet protein rich elixir. Talk about miracles.

I pour the remaining milk into waiting bottles and wash my first pot of the day. Jordan enters with the usual gallon and a half. Milk anyone?

Being here is different than I imagined. When we decided to move over three years ago, we wanted land. It was incidental to us that this place had been a farm. We are artists, not farmers—makers of culture, not agriculture. We wanted to do our work in closer relationship with the natural world; we wanted to generate art and ideas that remain faithful to the earth in us and around us. But farming? Thanks anyway. A vegetable garden perhaps, but that would be it.

Think again. A first “aha” moment came several months into our experiment. By then we had learned more about the history of our farm, and the three generations of one family who had produced potatoes then milk then beef. We had begun to appreciate how much of the beauty of this area—its wide green vistas and tree covered hills—was due to a light agricultural touch.

The realization dawned: Farming is not just about producing food. It is about participating in the endless, ongoing pro/creativity of the earth—soil, air, fire, water becoming plant, animal, human and back again. Farming is a relationship to the natural world. Perhaps even the relationship to the natural world that Geoff and I were yearning for to fund our arts and ideas. We realized that we want more than simply to bear witness to the cycles of the natural world, we want to be those cycles, to move with them, to co-create with them, making this world what it is and can be. The fact is we humans are part and parcel of what is. Farming is a way of knowing concretely that this is true.

The animal count started to rise. First chickens, ducks, and then a cow. A second revelation soon followed. Farming is not just about our relationship to the land. It is about our relationships with each other too.

In our culture and many others, farming has traditionally been a family affair. Before the shift from sun-based to fossil-fuel based farming (a shift whose implications Michael Pollan documents brilliantly in his must-read Sunday Times article, “Farmer in Chief”), farming was what a family did to ensure its survival. A farm wasn’t (just) a unit of agricultural production, it was a community of people in which the well being of every member depended on and enabled the well being of every other member. It was a community in which work and play, art and life, career and kids entwined in mutually-enabling synergies. The farm made the family who made the farm.

Insight flashed: We are a farm family. That is who we have always been and who we want to be.

It all began to make sense. Sure, we moved here with plans for the farm, but the farm had plans for us too. The farm is working through us to create us into the network of persons and relationships it needs to thrive. We are learning about love.

Ever since, we have been open to learning, and learn we have. We are learning what we need to know to take care of plants, animals, and acres of land, but we are also learning about the perspectives that doing so provides on the values, trends, and ideals that dominate contemporary western culture. Nothing more or less than a radical new philosophy of living is emerging here—one inspired by a duck, a rooster, two cats, three cows, four hens, four children, and a horse named Marvin.

Next Week: Farm philosophy

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Temporary Lull


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Beyond the Middle

Lately, I’ve been laughing. Sometimes a soft chuckle, other times a belly guffaw, and once a side-splitting, tear-jerking, silent seizing. The political satire sailing back and forth is hilarious.

Smiling over Maureen Dowd’s piece in the Sunday New York Times, however, my grin turned upside down. It occurred to me: no one who intends to vote for McCain or Palin will find this funny.

Dowd is one of many who are not only preaching to the choir but doing so in a way that reinforces the wall between parties with layers of scorn. We who read and laugh can’t possibly imagine that someone would actually buy what the other camp is selling! Mockery fosters hostility, intolerance, and elitism—all in fun. It isn’t possible to communicate with them, so why even try? Our opponents are just plain wrong.

Except that they aren’t. Any side is a side. Isn’t there a better way?
Tilting towards the political these last few weeks, it may seem that my blog is leaning far beyond its intended scope of our desires for food, sex, and spirit. However, what is at stake in this election, when it comes right down to it, is precisely our desire for spirit.

How so? As noted, a desire for spirit is a desire for a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that gets people out of bed in the morning, willing to believe that life is worth living. It is a desire that finds its pleasure as we participate consciously in naming and bringing into being a world we love that loves us. It is a desire that makes its wisdom known in patterns of chronic frustration, depression, and despair.

People across the nation are feeling acutely a frustration with the current administration and its policies—a frustration that signals to us that we want more. We want new energy, a new direction, and a renewed sense of belonging to a country of which we are proud. We want change in which we can believe, and both parties are selling it to us.

However, if you take a look, you can see that the positions offered in response to this frustrated desire fan out along the mind over body spectrum we have identified in relation to our desires for food, sex, and spirit. At this end, one party is calling individuals to develop greater will power and self-restraint among individuals and corporations. At that end, one party is calling for more effective government regulation of and involvement in key industries and services.

The response to the recent collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank is case in point. McCain attributes the crises to excessive greed, while Obama points to the absence of government regulation over the derivatives markets.

Both responses, however, reinforce the mind over body logic they share. Whether the mind in question is individual or collective, the dynamic is the same: we are led to believe that we will bring into being the world we want to see by exercising the power of mind to rule over the renegade bodies that are abusing our precious freedoms.

From this perspective, both visions of change are offering us more of the same. There are differences and those differences matter, but they do not matter enough to make a real difference.

We, as individuals and as a country, need our own version of what I have been describing in these posts as an “experience shift”: we must learn to discern the wisdom in our sensations of frustrated desire.
Simply promising more or less government is way too crude a tool to deal with the issues of our time. The messy negotiations conducted amidst tightly strung webs of conflicting commitments merit careful attention—but not just that. Change happens so quickly that we need to be able to recognize when and how government action is necessary, and when it isn’t. We need to cultivate a sensory awareness of how the movements we are making--as individuals, communities, corporations, and country—are making us. This is not just a question of accountability; it is rather a willingness to discern the impulses to move locked in patterns of chronic pain and frustration and see them as something other than either a matter of will power or government control.

When we examine the movements contributing to our current dissatisfaction, we find a common thread: inequality. The movements we make when we think and feel and act as if we were minds over bodies serve to concentrate power in the hands of those who reinforce this belief. Ironically, we place our faith in larger and larger institutions that promise to give us the economic, political, personal, or spiritual autonomy over our material circumstances that our mind over body training teaches us to want. Political parties included.

This inequality is soon structural. It is what we are creating—not as a result of excessive greed or lack of government oversight, but as a result of our willingness to create relationships with those who promise us the mind over body power we believe will grant us the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we seek.

The crux of the matter is this: are we moving in ways that foster relationships in which all entities benefit? This is the question that a government by the people and for the people must answer. For if one party to an exchange has a much greater concentration of power, then that is where government is needed—to ensure a mutually enabling relationship.

Banks depend upon the solvency of individuals as much as individuals depend upon the solvency of banks. If the benefits accruing from a relationship are one-sided, then it is in everyone’s interest to provide a counterbalance—not regulation for the sake of regulation, but an articulated sense of the common good, the shared principles and rules that enable the play to continue.

This logic is what we have been working with of the past few months: In so far as we are intent on naming and bringing into being a world we love that loves us, we are obligated to let others live as the condition of our own freedom. This is something that we all must embrace—our ends both tempered and empowered by what we share. This country. This planet. This race. This tomato.

Next Week: Enabling Freedom

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

He Said, She Said

The political race is degenerating. It is increasingly a matter of he said, s/he said. Palin says she said no to the bridge to nowhere. Obama says she said yes. Biden says he is for change. McCain says he is not. The list goes on and on. Back and forth. A tennis match, but hardly as enjoyable. There is so much at stake. Whom do you believe?

I think again. For whom are we voting anyway? Or more to the point—for what? We are voting for the candidates, yes, but really, for the parties who have nominated them, fund them, back them, and cheer for them. These candidates are where they are, in the public eye and on the public stage, because two very large networks, with critical nodes throughout our country, have put them there.

Each candidate is merely the tip of an iceberg. The race is about which conglomeration of people—which cadre of experts and advisors, rising stars and time-tested sages—will have the edge in the ongoing scrum of political debates at all levels of government. We are voting for a team, or a horde, and the candidate who wins is the one who can best sell the dream—a victory vision of who we are, who we want to be, and what this party can help us be.

This is the issue, even more than the issues. We all know that when candidates get into office, they don’t always make good on their campaign promises. The reasons are many. Sometimes acts of nature or terrorism transform the terrain; sometimes the larger political machinery blocks attempts at change; sometimes advisors prevail in a different direction, and sometimes candidates tell the people what they want to hear, knowing everything will be different once they are in office. But we who listen and seek to discern hope that the candidates are making their promises with the intention of trying to carry them out. We trust them at least to try.

Which brings me back to the dream--and the bridge. It is what some Democrats still don’t seem to get. Simply opposing McCain or Palin’s claims won’t work to deflate the Republican fervor. The opposition only serves to strengthen the terms of their arguments. For example, opposing Palin’s claims about the bridge to nowhere simply strengthens the notion that what matters is reducing government, ending earmarks, and winning a reputation as a reformer.

The opposition to her position, in other words, reinforces the very standards of value that Republicans are selling. If you buy into the Democratic rebuttal of Palin, your opposition plays right into the Republican hand, for the Republican party has succeeded—despite the facts of history—to solidify an image of itself as promoting small, fiscally-responsible government. Resistance is futile.

It is a great irony: the Republicans in office, due to their failures and excesses, have stirred in us a deep desire for Republican values of restraint and conservatism. The Republicans in office have set up the Republican candidates perfectly to make the age-old criticisms of Democrats, however off base, as guaranteeing bigger government and higher taxes. The barbs stick.

I am not taking sides here. On the contrary. My point is to understand how arguments by both parties are reinforcing the ways of thinking that have failed to provide us with what we, as citizens, most want.

So what more is possible? We must displace the discussion by offering an alternative vision of the dream. We need to honor the failures and excesses of the current administration as what our movements towards small government and low taxes are themselves creating. We need to ask which party will give us the tools that we need, the new vision we need, to learn from the pain of our current situation how to move differently. We need an experience shift, so that we can find, trust, and move with the wisdom in our desire for more.

One way to begin is to note that the value we accord to small government and low taxes hinges on the idea of individual freedom and what it takes to sustain it. Yet the fact is, as Obama has stated, the kinds of individual freedoms we prize in the United States are given to us and enabled for us by a vast network of relationships. We are free because there are people in our lives who educate us, manufacture for us, protect us, heal us, and raise us. In this light, in order to ensure our freedom, we need a government then that will support individuals in creating the relationships they need to support them in unfolding what they have to give.

Such a government may or may not be big or small, in the war or out, drilling or not. It may or may not offer earmarks. But what that government will do is evaluate all such policies based on whether or not they support individuals in creating the relationships that will enable them to thrive. It will maximize the opportunities for individuals to participate consciously in the rhythms of their bodily becoming, naming and bringing into being a world they love that loves them.

In this light, what matters about Palin’s comments on the bridge is whether she is providing us with a criterion of governing that serves our vision of the democratic good. Simply abolishing earmarks is not enough. A government without them will not necessarily guarantee our freedoms. We need to know what will.

Next week: A harder case

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Living It: The Palin Pick

I have to confess, I am obsessed with Sarah Palin. (Who isn’t?)

It is also time to shake up my blog. (Anyone know of a vice-blogger I could hire—maybe one from Alaska? No experience required.)

I have written to the edge of my plan—spending two months each making the case that there is wisdom in our desires for food, sex, and then spirit in turn. All along I have hinted that our desires are entwined—that we cannot address our dissatisfaction or find the wisdom in one realm without involving the others. Now it is time to investigate.

Which happily brings us back to Sarah Palin, McCain’s VP pick. Hers is a story in which human desires for sex and spirit are enchantingly entwined. We are missing the significance of it.

Palin eloped with her high school sweetheart and gave birth to her first son eight months later; she continued her pregnancy with infant son Trig, knowing he had Downs, and her 17 year old daughter Bristol is 5 months pregnant and planning to marry the father. At every turn Palin’s attitude to sex and its fruits is guided by her Christian faith: abstinence-only sex education, no abortion (except where a mother is in danger), marriage as one man-one woman, with child/ren.

Of course, her personal life is irrelevant to her ability to lead, say Republicans and Democrats alike. What counts is her executive experience, her intelligence, her charisma, her promise. Except that they don’t. For every bend in Palin’s personal story is further proof of what matters most to the social conservatives who rally around her: namely, her belief.

Representatives of the religious right are embracing her joyously with open arms as one of them—as someone who believes. To them she is someone who values life, commitment, family, love, and God. There is no one better for the White House. Period.

How can this be?
Democrats and some republicans are dismayed, calling McCain’s move a distraction from the major issues (e.g., economy, environment, health care and the war in Iraq); a sign of weakness (caving to the religious right), cynicism (who cares whether the VP has any experience), or desperation (the Hail Mary pass of a losing team).

Yet the fact is, McCain’s breathtaking move scored every point he wanted to make. He wrested media, web, and public attention from Obama; energized his campaign, his party, and its conservative base; refreshed his image as a maverick and change agent; undercut Obama’s case against him, and made his ticket as potentially-historic a reign as Obama-Biden’s.

Even more important, however, is what is implied in the response of social conservatives and the religious right. McCain shifted the race to a terrain where Reagan and Bush won regardless of their (lack of) international experience or positions on the issues—a terrain where what counts is what you believe. McCain made the race about whether we live in a world where life is holy, good triumphs over evil, and the progress we want is assured. It is not an easy position to oppose.
In a thoughtful essay on the Palin choice and the political mind, George Lakoff makes the distinction between “realities” (issues named above) and “symbolism.” He argues that McCain had no hope of winning based on the former given his ties to Bush and so had to rely on the latter. With the Palin pick, Lakoff argues, McCain’s ticket is now strong in symbolism. Palin not only believes what she believes, she lives it. She is thus a symbol of integrity, of the power of belief in our lives, of what is possible when you, as an individual, believe.

Lakoff praises Obama for being strong on symbolism too—with his descriptions of a democratic America as a place where people care about one another and help one another to succeed. Nevertheless, he urges Democrats not to fall into the trap of arguing over “realities” while ignoring the symbolic dimension of what they offer. Democrats must also provide frameworks and narratives—visions of who Americans are—that enable people to affirm the solutions offered as moral and right, and not just effective. Otherwise, their arguments will fall short of what motivates people. Heart. Love. Desire.
So too, there is even more at work here than symbolism—which is where sex and spirit come in again. In choosing Palin, the network of belief that McCain is tapping is not solely conservative or Christian. It involves patterns of sensation and response common to Americans across parties: namely, the lived sense of ourselves minds dwelling in and over bodies whose best recourse in facing any problem is to use the power of those minds to exert control over our bodies and those of others.

Palin’s story authorizes the mind over body belief system that underlies McCain’s policies. She lives it in relation to our most basic human desires for sex and spirit. She confirms for us that all we need to do is to exercise the power of our minds over our desiring bodies—or over the bodies of women, terrorists, animals, earth—in order to get the physical intimacy and love, the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging, that we most want.
Still critics howl: none of these strategies—abstinence, war, or more petroleum fuels—works! The evidence is clear.

To those who share a mind over body sense of self, however, the fact that these strategies don’t work does not necessarily invalidate the framework, for it might be that they just haven’t worked yet. For those who believe that belief is what matters, the apparent failure is a call for more—more restraint, more war, more drilling. They want that world in which life is good, pleasurable, and meaning-full.

In response, simply arguing for abortion rights, an end to the war, or energy independence does not go far enough in addressing the underlying issues. What we need in addition is a vision of life that allows us to believe in these responses as right--not just because they fix a problem, but because they create the conditions within which we, as humans, can thrive, to the extent they do. What we need is a vision of life that allows us to welcome the failures of the noted strategies as vital information about how to move differently to do what they intend: honor and protect life.
Moving beyond this impasse requires the kind of experience shift I have been describing, where we dislodge the sense of ourselves as minds over bodies and learn to discern the wisdom in our sensations of discomfort. It involves articulating a moral universe rooted in a sensory awareness of ourselves as the movement that is making us.

Next week: What would that look like?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I just spent a week taking care of four kids and three cows at the Washington County Fair, a major agricultural event in this region for over a century. I had help. Geoff and I took turns watching the kids who watched the cows. The other of us would skip home during the day, returning at night to a happening whose fun, food, and festivities can amount to an all-out sensory assault, depending on how deeply you imbibe.

At one end are the amusement rides, where you strap yourself onto a pop-up truck bed that hurls, twists, drops, spins, shakes, and otherwise throttles you through space while you passively receive a barrage of thrills.

To get to the rides you walk through clouds of spiced grease, emanating from rows of container cars, peddling fried you-name-it: potatoes, onions, zucchini, chicken, steak, fish, cheese, and of course, dough, served in large tubs or plate sized dog bowls. Next door you can get soda, lemonade, or mix your own fruit slush in liter cups with fast flowing, wide mouth straws. A good dose makes the rides all the more amusing.

At the other end of the Fair are the pulls: tractors, trucks, and ATVs tug various weights to see how can pull the most, farthest, and fastest, belching out plumes and fumes of exhaust. Mufflers are optional.

In between rides and pulls, you find barn after barn of farm animals: horses, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and rabbits of various shapes, sizes, and breeds, whose time tied and caged in close quarters is relieved by an occasional trip to the show ring, the showers, or the milking pen.

Three Jersey cows in one of those barns are our responsibility. Or rather, my kids’ responsibility. They are on duty 6 AM to 10 PM, in charge of every drop of matter that goes in or comes out of their animals. It is expected that they will wait vigilantly, ever ready for the "phone call" they try to catch with a shovel on the way down. So the six of us live on the grounds, in a tent, shuttling back and forth from home for staples that come from another land—fruit, salad, pasta, and whole wheat bread.

This is farm country. The Fair was once a time for isolated farmers to gather together for the week, share their wares, strut their strengths, and build community. Now, it seems we are making machines, and the machines are making us. Various competitions prize cows as milk-making machines; sheep as wool-making machines; chickens as egg-laying machines. Our horses are simply replaced by horse-powered machines. And through it all, we become pleasure machines, seeking the satisfaction for which we long by overriding and overwhelming our sensory selves.

It is fun! A feast! A blast! Yes. But it also offers a vivid snapshot of who we are. In lives where we regularly practice overriding our sensory selves, the Fair is less of an escape than it is a place to reinforce the sense of our selves we are already practicing. Mind over body. It's just that easy.

A periodic override of the senses can feel energizing. Rejuvenating. It can charge open new sensory spans, spurring new possibilities for our becoming. But when the sensory assault is seamless, relentless, we lose sensitivity rather than gain it. To register the same pleasure response, we need more. The warning signs are there: the movements we are making are making us addicted to a constant stream of sensory stimuli to fund our desire for the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we lack.
Jump now from the Fair to the problem which with we ended last week: navigating religious differences. The two are related. For what is happening to our farm life is happening to our religions too. Networked, globalized, and high tech, we are making (ourselves into) machines.

It is one of the ironies of our time. Technology links us more closely than we have ever been. We send our messages of hope, peace, and love across vast distances instantaneously. Yet individuals are also more alienated and isolated, more in conflict with those who think and feel and act differently than they do. Discussion and dissension among and within religious groups is louder than ever.

Some commentators explain this paradox in terms of increased exposure. There simply aren’t the buffers between peoples and groups that once gave them the space to tolerate one another. What we know is near, we fear.

There is another explanation, however, and it has to do with our mind over body sensory education. Our globally networking technologies are educating our senses to expect a constant stream of stimuli. We regularly, eagerly, even willfully seek out a sensory overload that fills us up, and makes us feel important, happy, loved. Even at the Fair.

Yet the more we depend on our mechanical or electronic devices to connect us with nature or with the world, the more separated we become from the sensory awareness of our own bodily movement. And it is this sensory awareness that provides us with our lived, living connection to ourselves and others. Without it, we stay in touch with others but not ourselves. Disconnected with ourselves, we grow less tolerant of others.

Competition among religions is fierce. With so many lives in the balance, competitors drawing on business and marketing techniques designed to snare our sensory selves—endlessly repeated sound bites, catchy logos, tear-jerking tales, emotionally entrancing rhythms, tunes, and movements. The competition forces a homogenization along the axes of the battle: each religious representative stakes a claim to truth and knowledge, exercising the right to believe. Without a sensory awareness of our own bodily becoming, we lose the ability to perceive a religious alternative as anything but a threat to our existence. (My) Truth versus your truth.
When we cultivate a sensory awareness of our own bodily becoming, we acquire two precious things: a sense of how we are thoroughly dependent on our relationships with others to be who we are; and a sense of how everyone else in the universe is similarly webbed.

No one can thrive in a world devastated by war or environmental decimation. We are related in more ways that we can think or know. Humans need each other. We need to learn how to live with one another. And no amount of arguing towards a rational program will work unless we are aware of how the movements we are making are making us. What is enabling us to argue as we do? Why? How is it that what we believe has Authority for us?

Once we understand how our movements make us able to believe and think as we do, then we also understand how different movements made by different others would find expression in different beliefs and reasons and thoughts. We still may not agree. We may vehemently disagree, but instead of simply butting heads, we can appreciate the different networks of relationships that have enabled each position to emerge. We can begin to appreciate the trajectories for growth present in each as well, and move with them. For that, however, we need quiet time to think and wonder and dream, and to cultivate the sensory awareness of the movement making us.
The path to peace begins with our bodies and in our bodies because our bodies are irreducibly relational. It begins with working to create environments where we can attend to our humanity… and live it. It is in doing this work, whatever shape or form it takes, we will find the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we seek.

As fun as the Fair was, I am happy to be home.

Next Week: Living it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Athletes of god

The Olympics are on, in case you haven’t noticed. Once again we are awed into submission to our television sets and webcasts by bodies—the bodies of these women and men—reaching, twisting, bending, spinning, flipping, thrusting, hurling, heaving, kicking, rowing, and running. We are impressed and again amazed by the concentration focused, the effort expended, the will to win demonstrated time and again in extraordinary bodily movements.

Close, yet so far. On the one hand, these bodies are just that—bodies like ours. Their movements are ordinary, basic to the workings of nearly every healthy human on the planet. On the other hand, we can hardly imagine making such extreme versions of those movements. We come away strangely rapt, somewhat inspired, giddy, determined, and humbled all at once.

Yet what rivets us in the end, what we celebrate and cheer, is not the particular accomplishments, as great as they are. It is the human power to become: the basic capacity of bodies to become something other than what they once were, whether swimmer, gymnast, runner, shooter, equestrian, fencer—someone who can empty his or herself, mind, heart, and soul, into a split-second breathtaking bodily act of extraordinary precision and grace.

What we celebrate and cheer is the power of bodily becoming. You might call it the spirituality of sports.
Inhaling. Exhaling. The movements of breathing, the basic rhythm accompanying and enabling every moment, every movement, of our lives. Inhaling, we take in the possibilities that await us—the resources that may become us. Exhaling we release what we were, to become something new.

Inhaling. Exhaling. Present in this basic oscillating rhythm is a moment where we are not—a moment between who we were and who we now are. It is a moment of transcendence—a moment when we are transcending ourselves, becoming other to ourselves, moving beyond ourselves, and becoming something else. Someone else.

Are you breathing?
It is tempting to think of sports and spirituality as two distinct realms of life. We tend to think that in sports, we use the power of our minds and wills to push the limits of our physical bodies, whereas, in our religious and spiritual paths, we plumb the heights and depths of our spirit or soul, expanding our horizons beyond our finite bodies, bound as they are by time and space.

The distinction is a false one. For our spirituality is itself an expression of our bodily becoming. Our bodies our infinite, not our minds, and they are infinite in the range of movements they can potentially make—movements that include believing, breathing, and bounding over a pole.

Spirituality, like sports, involves a rigorous education of the senses to certain possibilities of experience.

A gymnast learns to notice the give of a parallel bar, the spring of the mat, the curve of the ring, the tilt of the horse, and spontaneously make the micro adjustments needed to align his intention and action.

A member of a religious group learns to move with the melody of a song, the cadence of a chant, the names and images of god. A member learns to make the gestures of prayer, think with the arc of repeated narratives, pay attention for the anticipated length of a ritual, and so too, learn to make spontaneous micro adjustments that align her heart and mind and body with the beliefs and intentions expressed.

In each case the apparatus—whether material or conceptual—provides the one who practices with an ability to develop an acute awareness of a given sensory range, and devote himself or herself to the perfection of certain virtues, the completion of desired tasks. Each offers a particular course and context, a training ground and goal for our bodily becoming.
Nevertheless, there is a difference, and one worth noting. What distinguishes sport from spiritual is the moment in the rhythm of bodily becoming that each values as worthy of sustained attention.

In our spiritual lives, we are drawn to various tests and challenges that exercise that moment of our bodily becoming when we become other to ourselves—that moment when we move beyond who we are, expanding beyond our myriad fears and insecurities, troubles and ill—to connect with a source or presence or energy or whole that is greater than we are. We inhale and absorb visions of who we are and what we can be. Doing so, we strengthen our capacity to transcend.

In pursuing excellence in sports, we exercise that moment of our bodily becoming where we become other, realizing, in our physical actions, what we desire. Making the goal. Winning the prize. Overcoming all obstacles.

The two are not mutually exclusive. At the extremes of practice in either case, the difference is negligible. Our sensory and spiritual selves, inhaling and exhaling, are fully entwined in the pure presence of awareness—the action of the moment.

It is this entwining, really, that we celebrate. It is what we yearn for in everything we do. It is what makes anything satisfying to do. Finding it, realizing it, is what gives us the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that will satisfy our desire for spirit. We become, in the words of one faith, "athletes of god."

Next week: Why and how this model of spirituality can help us in a world torn by religious conflict.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where is the Spirit?

Back from vacation!

I was discussing my understanding of our desire for spirit with a colleague this week. He asked: where is the spirit in all this?

I knew what he meant. I talk of vitality, direction, and belonging, all worthwhile elements of life, for sure. But, like many definitions of religion on the books, it seems like my definition reduces our desire for spirit to something psychological or social, to a function or use, such as personal happiness, communal cohesion, moral up-building, or the passing on of tradition.

Where is the spirit in spirit? Where is the sacred, the holy, the transcendent Other? What about God?
I have been reading about Rick Warren these days. It is hard not to. Not only is he the founding pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States, the author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life, and a global activist, he is also the host of an upcoming “civil forum” between Obama and McCain. Commentators are heralding Warren as a new breed of evangelical leader, one who is broadening the politics of the Christian right beyond party lines and divisive issues to include health care, poverty, illiteracy, and global warming.

Pondering the many facets of his story, one thing rivets our attention: Warren claims that his purpose is God’s. As Warren insists, it is not about him. It is about God. It is about doing God’s Will. Doing God’s Work. God spoke to him. Warren’s success seems to confirm it.

We want what he has. We want that sense of vitality, direction and belonging—we want an unquestionable capital-A Authority to tell us that our lives are worthwhile and worth living. Our desire for spirit wants it.
From the perspective I have been developing here, Warren’s conviction serves him well. It energizes him into action, providing him with a seemingly boundless sense of vitality. It guides him in his daily tasks: he has a mission, a clear direction. And, his specifically Christian commitment, ironically enough, provides him with a strong sense of belonging not only to his church, but to his community, his country, and his world.

But we wonder too. How can Warren be so sure? Was it really God speaking to him? (Can God speak to me? What would God say?)
All we know comes to us through our senses. As we are born and grow, our senses evolve as the pathways through which our inner consciousness and outer awareness come to exist for us at all.

We are familiar with five primary senses—touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing—but the dimensions of each go far beyond the immediate impressions they register. As we use our senses, we open up an internal sensory space. We remember what we sensed; we anticipate what we will sense; we imagine what we might sense. And these memories, anticipations, and imaginings come together as a rich mesh that sifts our sensations. We learn to sense. We educate our senses to notice, to recognize, to compare and contrast.

An eye scans, an eardrum vibrates, nose and skin hairs tremble. We move; things appear to us. We create and become the patterns of sensation and response that orient and guide us in the world.

All that we can ever know or think or feel, then, arises in us by virtue of our sensing, moving bodily selves. Even when we believe we hear God speaking to us, even when we believe we encounter the presence of something Other we are, even when we enter into a state of otherworldly consciousness, we do so because of what our sensing, moving selves have sensed, are sensing, and can imagine sensing.

Which is not to say there is no God or spirits or states of altered consciousness. It is only to say that we will not be able to experience and know any of these things unless we believe in the possibility, educate our senses along the lines of those beliefs, and bend ourselves to listen.
I remember a time when I was obsessed with the Will of God for my life. I was paralyzed, unable to move, constantly in tears. I wanted some Voice to speak to me out of Nowhere, loudly and clearly, telling me in no unquestionable terms who I was, where I should go, what I should do with my life. I prayed to God desperately, alone and with others. I read the Bible constantly, looking for clues. I attended church regularly, hoping for a sign. Nothing.

I finally talked with a pastor who said: Sounds like you’ve been working pretty hard on God. Why don’t you let God work on you.

I let it all go. Everything. God, Will, worry, faith. Whatever comes back will be mine. I walked and walked. I healed. Perhaps God isn’t limited to words. Perhaps God is speaking to me through what I desire most.
“You were not put on this earth for your own satisfaction. You were not put on this earth for your own fulfillment. You were not put on this earth for your own happiness. God made you for His purposes.” –Rick Warren

Warren's teaching seems to go against everything I am writing. The only desire that matters here is God’s. God’s Will not yours. God’s Will is why you exist. God’s purpose will satisfy your desire for spirit. God versus you.

But the question remains: how do we know God’s Will for our lives? Only through our own senses. Only through the sensory, sensing movement of our bodily selves.

In the end it is you and only you who can know. You and only you who must make the decision to say, yes I know. Yes I have heard. In the end, it is all about you. But who are “you”?
Can we know something that exists far beyond our sensory selves as their source and guide? Can we access other states of consciousness that allow us to know something we otherwise don’t? Can we escape from our ignorant, finite selves into some kind of larger intelligence?

The questions mislead us. For the questions presume that we are individuals, living as autonomous being. We are not. They presume that there is a clear break between the world inside of us and the world outside of us, between ourselves and everything else that exists. There is not.

We are moments in a seamless eternal web that is constantly moving, creating and becoming itself, at every level of existence, microscopic to macrocosmic. There is no inside or outside, only an infinite Movement of life becoming what it is. We are that movement, we participate in that movement, and we do so as we make the sensing movements that make us who we are.

The implications are radical. Our senses are not and cannot be merely physical. What we sense is always shaped and pulled by what we can imagine. For this reason, we sense-bound humans are inherently spiritual beings. We cannot not try to imagine what might be true. We cannot not keep creating sense-enabled pictures of the forces that blast through us—pictures of our relationship to these forces imaged in terms of words or visions or dream quest journeys. God speaking. Animal spirits guiding. Visions appearing. Healing energy rising.

All are possible. All can be real for us as life changing encounters. For we can imagine them. We can imagine them because of what we have sensed; we can sense them because of what we imagine. And what is it that constantly impels us to keep sensing, imagining, and encountering that which transcends what we have known? Our desire for spirit—our desire to find the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we need in order to discover who we are and unfold what we have to give.
The hard and fast distinction between spirit and sense is one that is fading in many realms, as people seek resources for embracing the spirituality of their bodily selves. However, the distinction continues to haunt us in the lingering sense of ourselves as minds who must choose or lose the best Will to authorize and reveal our bodies' way.

We need a model of spirituality, an understanding of spiritual practice, that emerges from the movement of our bodily selves. An understanding that begins with the idea: How you move shapes what you are able to sense as real and true.

Next week: a model of spirituality enabled by the cycle of breaths

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Cycle of Breaths: Revealed

I have called upon the cycle three times now, to help us sort through our desires for food, sex, and spirit, so that we can discern what it is these desires are trying to teach us about how to move in ways that will synchronize our health and well being. Each time, I have given an example of how to use it, when to use it, but I have not explained how and why it works.

So why does it work? Why should bending my attention to four measly breaths have any effect at all?

We are so practical. So rational. We want concrete proof before we try a new thing. So we surf for the ratings, the reviews, the consumer reports. We don’t want to be had. We don’t want to waste our time. We want to be informed. We want more.

Me too. So here I am, speaking to the rationalist in me.

The cycle of breaths works. Why?

1. A breather. Most basically, it provides us with a time out. The sheer fact of pulling our attention away from what we are doing for a mere 60 seconds can give us the space we need to reconsider our initial impulses, our emotional habits, our ingrained patterns of sensation and response. Such time and space is crucial—not so that we can attain mastery over ourselves or our desires, but so that we can stay in touch with our freedom. We want to be free to sense and respond in the moment and to the moment in ways that coordinate all of who we are and have been with what is going on now. The cycle of breaths gives us a minute to breathe.

2. A paradigm for problem solving. As a breather, the cycle of breaths is far from unique. Anything that times us out could serve the same function. The cycle of breaths is unique, however, in how it occupies that time. It provides us with a paradigm for problem solving—that is, for solving the kinds of problems that arise with the eruption of a tangled, frustrated, or otherwise very intense sensation of desire.

The cycle of breaths does this by leading us through four different perspectives on whatever it is we are feeling. With each shift in perspective, we find a bit more wiggle room. It is like trying to untie a knot, when you turn it one way and pull, then another and then pull again. It is the shifting from one perspective to another that helps us find our freedom in the moment—not freedom from our desires, but freedom to discern what they are telling us.

This paradigm works something like this. (Earth) Find your ground; steady yourself in the moment. (Air) Open up the feeling, and explore its reach and depth. (Fire) Find where that desire connects with what is most real and true for you; clarify its and your fiery core. (Water) Release that truth, let it flow, and listen for impulses to move. Repeat as needed.

3. Elemental reminders. This paradigm, however, is not your average formula for solving problems. It doesn’t direct us to fixate on an object or a thing or even on a part of ourselves. As we cycle through the breaths, it is the fact of paying attention to a force—a creative, elemental force that is making us who we are—that trips open each perspective.

We are always pushing against and being pushed up by the ground. We are always filling and emptying ourselves with air. We are always simmering in our vital core, and we are always flowing with the fluids passing in and through us. We are these elemental movements whether or not we pay attention to their rhythms. They are who we are. But when we do pay attention to them, we inevitably enhance our experience of them; we can deepen our engagement with them, and we can use these forces as resources for helping us create ourselves anew in the moment.

How? This recreation is subtle but strong. Just remembering that we walk on earth can help us let go of extraneous burdens we may be carrying. Just remembering that we are breathing, can give us a felt sense of the movement in our lives. Just attuning to our fiery core can give us a sense of agency and possibility. Just feeling the flow of our own blood and breath and fire and feelings can help us affirm our capacity to create, to become, and to move in ways that will not recreate whatever discomfort we are feeling.

Practicing this cycle, then, is not about imagining what might be true, or pretending that what we want to be true already is so, or conjuring up visions of spirits and entities from a parallel world to grant us our desires. It is rather about tapping into and releasing the ever present, ongoing, creative potential inherent within our moving bodies.

4. A catalyst for sensory awareness. Of course, as I have been saying all along, the cycle of breaths helps us cultivate a sensory awareness of the movement that is making us. Here I add that it does so because of the three qualities listed above.

Yet there is more here too. For when we allow ourselves to feel our connection to the ground, our breathing, our fiery core, our creative flow, we are drawn into a different experience of ourselves, others, and the worlds. Our whole sense of being in the world shifts, and we find that we are no longer operating out of a mind over body perspective.

This effect is the most powerful, for it carries with it the most radical possibilities. It is also the one that can only be confirmed through practice. With this shift in experience, we have what we need to discern wisdom in our desires. We have the sensory awareness to recognize our desires, the space and time and paradigm for honoring them as containing wisdom, the sense of freedom and creativity that enables us to notice the impulses to move they represent. And at that point, it just happens. We are able to feel and receive impulses to move in ways that will not recreate our dissatisfaction.

At that point, it is a mystery. Just as we never really know why or how an idea pops into our mind, so we can never really grasp why or how an impulse to move does either. What we do know, is that when we cultivate this vulnerability something will happen, and that something will emerge from, as an expression of, the sensory awareness we are cultivating. We will move in love.
At its best, religion works in similar ways. It is not a matter of right belief or doctrine. Religion works and we believe when the movements we make as a member provide us with the breather, the paradigms for problem solving, the elemental reminders, and the sensory awareness that empower us to participate consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming, creating a world we love that loves us.

Next week: More on religion. Or, why, in creating ourselves, we create the world.