The North American Biodynamic Conference on Sacred Agriculture: Creating a New Relationship with the Earth, hosted by the Biodynamic Farming and Garden Association (BFGA), held at Monona Terrace last week showed all the signs of a traditional conference: name tags, visitors having traveled from New York to Hawaii and in between, and those like me who came from only a bus trip away.
There were exhibitors from gardening, farming, and businesses and movements on board with healthy, sustainable ways to feed ourselves. There were speakers, workshops, sidewalk consultations, and windows for socialization and even performances by musicians and poets. And there was a presence, energy if you will, which I immediately tapped into.
Maybe it's that's that biodynamics is, by nature, a "spiritual science." Sure, there are practicalities and logistics associated with the how-to's of homeopathic preparations, or timing a planting, or simply being in the right place, at the right time, and taking notice of a symbol in nature that produces profound feeling, and therefore, meaning: a numinous experience, as keynote speaker Dennis Klocek might define it -- a sense of the profound in the ordinary. The sacred.
Maybe it was the pair of ornamental, gold-edged horns at the front of the stage that took me back to a sense of something old -- very old: Ancestors, the earth itself, and the wisdom therein. I learned that we all have access to it if we pay attention. Biodynamics has direct applications for farmers, gardeners, and anyone connected to food and the land. Isn't that all of us who eat and walk the earth?
Might we look at the world differently and derive meaning in a whole new way if we were to try on the idea that we are all separate, and yet connected, and that the symbols our hearts and brains choose to notice could provide insight? BFGA executive director Robert Karp warmed the audience up to Klocek's talk.
"This is where we build a movement together in addition to what we do at home," he said, speaking to an audience that included both veterans of and newcomers to the biodynamics movement. I admit, some of it was over my head. Preparations involving fermented cow manure in the hollow of a female cow horn are still a mystery to me, but maybe that's inherent.
I got the sense it was a bit of a mystery to most people, and perhaps that parts of the biodynamics movement require a leap of faith. People swear that it works, and you know, after listening to the speakers, I can buy it.
"The theme of what is sacred requires a little massaging to understand the difference between a sacred experience and a mystical experience," Klocek said.
Mystery is at the crux of the sacred; Klocek's training delves deeply into mystery schools of thought such as alchemy and Goethean studies.
But take mystery on an even less-involved level: "In the natural world we are always running into mysteries that are presented very clearly," Klocek said. And in those mysteries are created experiences, and when we find meaning in those experiences, we find the sacred.
Our ice breaker that morning was to turn to someone we hadn't met and ask the about an experience they've had in nature that was seemingly unexplainable.
I spoke with Jeanette Pazlamatcher, 50, from Airmont, New York, where she owns 1.3 acres on which she raises chickens. She came to biodynamics because "Somehow, the land is become alive" she says. "It's calling and I'm heeding the call."
I needed to think about the ice breaker question. "Well, I can go first," Pazlamatcher began. "It's subtle," she explained, but she feels her natural surroundings speak to her -- the wind, the trees, the movements of animals. I nod. "I see a lot of messages in nature," I said. "Especially in birds." I recalled a period in my life at which I was at a crossroads. I had to choose to stay in, or leave something. And, as Klocek will affirm, your heart's intelligence in an instant can tell you the answer, but the heart speaks not in words but in more of a charade -- and those symbols can be presented to us, in say, the flying V of geese I saw passing over head just as I popped my head out of my place of work for a cigarette that I was only smoking because I was stressed.
It was approaching twilight and I saw their neat formation swoop low overhead. They knew exactly where they were going. Leaving. Each one knew its exact place in the V. And that was the meaning I derived: knowing how I fit in, in a grander scheme of leaving. In that moment, I found the sacred, I suppose.
What becomes of these sacred moments? Klocek would point to symbols reflecting back ancestral knowledge. In this knowledge, and even in our dreams, we can enter into a pattern of intuiting guidance, making corrections in our lives. These changes are needed because, as the BFGA notes, the earth is sick.
"Even the eagles are flying through trash heaps and dumpsters. We are not healthy," said Arvol Lookinghorse, who spoke with Devon Strong on the topic "Bison, Biodynamics, and Native American Wisdom."
Strong heads the Four Eagles Farm in Montague, California, where he raises bison, a foundational animal in many Native American ceremonies and particularly so in Lakota culture. "We use the buffalo in every part of our ceremonies," Strong said. Strong explained that he has taken a new approach to biodynamic preparations by using buffalo in place of cow horns and organs.
"Preps in any shape or form are like a ceremony in any shape or form. If you do it right, spirits are going to try to be involved in it," he said.
After the talk, attendees sniffed bags of biodynamic preparations like gourmands sniffing coffee.
Others attended workshops on starting a biodynamic farm, or listened to panels of young farmers entering the movement. There were workshops on the sacredness of water, and even comparative studies about biodynamics in Mexico.
If my failed herb garden is any indication of my green thumb, I will likely not be stocking up on cow horns anytime soon. But I did take home a revived sense of meaning in the mysteries around us. As speaker Lookinghorse put it, "Look at Mother Earth, a source of life, not [just] a resource."