Saturday, February 21, 2009


Geoff and I are artists. We live on a farm. I am a dancer and philosopher, writing about weaning bull calves. Geoff is a musician, who fixes cattle fences. Art and farming. Culture and Agriculture. Are they at all related? What are we doing here?

I am asking these questions again, as I do from time to time, trying to make sense of it all. The impetus at the moment is our upcoming performance. Next weekend, February 27 & 28, Geoff and I are reviving Genesis, an original music and dance production that we first performed in 2001. Then I was six months pregnant with my third child, Kyra. Now I am pregnant with our fifth child, “who?" There is a lot going on.

Meanwhile, as I read the papers and look around, the scene is daunting. The economy is in various degrees of crumble, corrosion, and collapse. Anxieties run high; bank accounts run low. How can we ask people to come and see a music and dance performance? Why would I want to spend my precious time creating one? Why dance?

There is no better time than now. When change is afoot and uncertainty abounds, it is more important than ever to stay in touch with our freedom and nourish our capacity to respond to whatever befalls. The performing arts can help.

Take the case of Genesis. These ideas about art and life lie at its heart.

In the Hebrew Bible, “Genesis” is a story of creation. “Genesis” is one story of how it all began, told with metaphors and images that came long after. Reading, we imagine words over the water, the separation of light from dark, the forming and falling and farming of female and male, as they learn to give birth to themselves, each other, and their progeny. As the stories suggest, we have a lot to learn. Creation is an ongoing event, and we are participants in it.

The implications are huge: if we are participating in the ongoing act of creation, then how we move in every instant of every day matters. What are we creating? What other possibilities for movement exist?

Here is where art proves its worth. What we know as possible is what appears to us within the ranges of what we are able to sense; and art brings our senses to life. Practicing art and appreciating art can offer us experiences that help us grasp possibilities for thinking, feeling, and acting that were previously unknown to us. We can imagine possibilities for moving—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling—that we didn’t before. Our range of experiences shifts. We find ourselves with new resources for making sense of the way things are and can be, and for participating in the ongoing act of creation.

So too in our dance, Genesis. Genesis is a lone woman on stage, whose rounded belly is full of new life. Emerging into time and space, she embarks on a journey through familiar shapes of human experience. With her, we discover, enjoy, lose, pursue, mourn, despair, heal, and begin again. She reminds us: we too can move. We too are always moving. And when we can see it, sense it, and affirm it, we are inspired to do it--to make new movements, create new shapes of experience, and find our freedom. When engaged in our work, we can shuffle or hop, skip, run or dance. Which will it be?

Isn't this what farming is all about too--learning to participate fruitfully in the ongoing act of creation? Farming, like the arts, also brings our senses to life--and in particular, our sense of interdependence with the natural world. In order to farm, we must learn to notice and negotiate differences that would baffle an urban dweller; and we do so to align our energies with the creative work of earth becoming. Our lives depend upon it.

I remember. Geoff and I are here on the farm because we believe that art is vital in this way—humans need to do it and appreciate it in order to bring sense to life. Geoff and I are here to create arts and ideas that remain faithful to the earth and our bodies of earth.

One particularly cold, gray day last week, a local farmer handed me a couple of bags of the greens that he and his wife are now growing in their greenhouses. Each bag was a distinct mixture of shades and shapes, light to dark, round to oval, curly and branched. When he handed me the bag, I nearly gasped. I was struck by the enormity of the gift. Such vibrant living color on such a dull day! It was alive. It was a blessing.

I thanked him profusely for the lettuces. “There is no lettuce in there,” he replied. “Lettuces don’t go in until next week.” I have much to learn.

Genesis reminds us: we can learn. We can because we are all bodies moving, constantly learning to sense and respond and give birth to ourselves. We are all blooming with new life. We all participate in the ongoing work of creation.

Our hope is that people will leave the concert inspired and encouraged to do whatever they are doing in their lives with greater awareness of why it matters.

What am I creating? There is no better time to ask than now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Meaning of Weaning

To wean: to withhold mother’s milk from; to detach from that to which one is accustomed or devoted

From Old English & Germanic roots (wen-): to desire, to strive for; to hope, expect, imagine; to win; a pleasure

From the Latin (ven-): love, as in Venus, the Goddess of Love; or in Old Norse, Venr, a god of fertility
We have weaned the bull calves. Now nearing three months, they are old enough and able enough to chew, swallow, rechew, and swallow again the grains and grasses that will support their next increments of growth.

The weaning went smoothly. The calves didn’t seem to mind. Every feeding for several days in a row, Jordan and Jessica would give each calf his same half gallon of liquid, warm and white, while slowly lowering the milk to water ratio until no milk remained. Meanwhile, the calves were tempted round the clock with sweet molasses covered baby grain and plenty of tasty hay.

One good weaning enables another. With the calves weaned, we are once again in the milk, and nearly weaned ourselves from the dairy aisle at the grocery store. We no longer need to purchase milk, cream, ice cream, yogurt, butter, or ricotta cheese. We have our own—or at least, the raw materials with which to make what we need.

Weaning is good for us, no question.

But what about for the calves? Is weaning good for them too? Are we depriving them of what they most desire—the glorious elixir of a mother’s milk?

I am not into deprivation. I nursed three of my children to age three. Then there was a time when it was time, for both of us. I know too that mother cow when the time is ripe will turn her tail on a growing calf and nudge its nose away. But still, would it be better to delay the (pain of the) inevitable?

Researching the roots of the word “to wean” pushed my thinking along. It is easy to think of weaning as “withholding,” or as “detaching from something desired.” Whole fields of psychology have been built on the task of curing our primordial wounds, often rendered as a loss of the mother.

Yet the nub of the word itself comes from Old English, Germanic, and Latin words meaning “desire,” “hope,” “strive for,” and even “love.” Is this a contradiction?

I think again. Perhaps weaning is not about denying our desire as much as it is about enabling our desire to evolve in line with our growing selves.

There is wisdom in desire. I have been writing about it for months, OK years. Part of that wisdom, as I suggest, lies in the fluidity of desire. Desire moves—it moves us, it is itself a movement towards what we believe will grant us the pleasure we seek. At the same time, this movement is not arbitrary. There is a rhythm to it. As we move towards what we desire, we learn whether or not we were right. We create patterns of sensation and response to guide us in the future.

In other words, as we get the nourishment we need to grow, what we need to grow changes in line with the growth our nourishment has enabled.

So what does that have to do with weaning? As desire evolves, what we want changes. Desires we have had in the past fall away. No deprivation about it. No forced detachment. We simply don’t want what we once did. We wean.

Take the bulls. They don’t seem to miss the milk at all. They just started eating more grain, with its belly-filling bounty, and chewing more crunchy hay, with its long-lasting, teeth-resisting flavor. Weaning means having the opportunity to enjoy the qualities of these foods—foods that the calves need to stimulate their own capacity to transform food to energy to muscle and bone.

Here on the farm we have weaned ourselves from aspects of contemporary culture that once seemed indispensable—and not only Ben & Jerry’s. We don’t play video games or eat fast foods. We rarely visit a restaurant or a movie theater. We don’t have a television. It is not that we are trying to deprive ourselves of things to which we were attached. Rather, the desire for these things has fallen away as other activities have emerged for us as more desirable, more enabling, and simply put, possible here in a way they never were when we lived in the suburbs.

Like raising a pair of bulls as oxen! Only here has it become possible, desirable, and even easy. The kids are finding in themselves a conviction they never had to wean themselves of technologies that harm the earth, so as to make more of what they love about this place for everyone.

To wean: to find our freedom and align ourselves with the ever-evolving wisdom in our desires.