In the fall of 1980 I found myself on a hillside in Sussex England on a cold grey day, stuffing compost by the forkful into a deep hole in the ground, preparing it for nothing more essential than sweet peas, the flower beloved of English gardeners. I was a student in a course on biodynamic gardening at a quirky, rather winsome little college called Emerson. It was dedicated to the life and teaching of a quirky, and equally winsome, spiritual leader from Austro-Hungary whose special vision of the universe had promulgated a host of offshoot disciplines at obscure seats of learning like Emerson itself.
Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861, is generally pictured in a dark velvety suit, gazing, it seems, into the far distance (or more likely, into some inner, astral landscape). He was the child of ambitious class-bounders who had the good sense to put their only son into a science school. Perhaps they hoped to drum some common sense into the lad, as they were less than comfortable with his apparent ability to see through the physical world into a parallel, etheric universe.
It was this second sight which impelled Steiner to teach, invent, amalgamate, lecture and to gather a band of followers to study what he named anthroposophy. One of his primary interests was child development, about which he advanced many fascinating theories, and schools with the appellation Waldorf are his educational legacy. He was also intrigued by the relationship between movement, dance and communication, and this concentration spawned the semi-occult art of “eurythmy.” But perhaps the best known of his obsessions, and the one whose name falls most trippingly off the tongue, is biodynamics. Bio, for life, dynamic, for energy. This was arguably the brightest jewel in the anthroposophical crown, the work which has done the most to popularize Steiner and keep his name alive into the 21st century.
Because Steiner was able to see not merely the forms of all living things but their existence on a higher plane, he postulated that plants and animals are interdependent. Not one to stop at some simple scientific story about photosynthesis and chlorophyll, Steiner taught that a plant is nourished at every level, by the soil, the air and of course the warmth and moisture of the heavens. He believed that plants, like people, will differ according to the day and hour of their birth. And he proposed a unique “medicine” for plant health, the “biodynamic preparation” based on the principles of homeopathy.
Because Steiner himself was involved in so many different disciplines and an early exemplar of multi-tasking, he needed able lieutenants. Prominent among them was Dr Erhenfried Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer, about 40 years Steiner’s junior, codified many of the visionary’s teachings about agriculture by putting them into consistent practice. This was necessary work. Steiner was the idea man, leaving it to those around him to test out the many theories that seemed to flow out of him like beads on a string. Pfeiffer was a likeable, practical sort of bloke who suggested that one day mankind would erect a monument to the earthworm.
Unfortunately, Steiner himself tended to speak in long, fabulous rhapsodies, sometimes obfuscating the good sense of his utterances and possibly losing a great deal in the translation from the original German.
Here is one tiny example from the man’s prodigious lectures, giving a flavor not only of his ornate speaking style but also the fascination of his unique inner vision:
“Finally we get the impression that all quartz rocks are like eyes through which the Earth can see into the Cosmos. We are reminded of the many-faceted eyes of insects which divide into numbers of parts whatever comes toward them from the outside. We should, and indeed must, picture innumerable quartz and similar formations on the surface of the Earth as being eyes enabling the Earth inwardly to reflect and indeed inwardly perceive the cosmic environment. And gradually the knowledge dawns in us that every crystal formation present in the Earth is a sense organ for perceiving the Cosmos.”
If all this sounds a bit daunting, consider how I felt, as a newcomer to England, a lover of sunlight now totally deprived of the rays of warmth I had been accustomed to in my native North Carolina, and under the tutelage of people who seemed at best wooly-minded and eccentric. And the tuition, I must add, was high, with no chance for a Pell grant.
Had all of this not been clothed in the best of intentions and every attempt at trans-Atlantic friendship, I might not have been able to stand it. Luckily, I stayed, I listened, and I learned, so that now, years later, I never put a trowel in the earth without remembering some aspect of the training I received at Emerson College.
First of all I had to stop using the word “dirt.” Dirt, I was told, is what you collect in your vacuum cleaner. The place where a plant puts its head (not its feet, mind you) is soil, a life-affirming worm-engendering atmosphere divinely conceived for the nursing of our food, our animal’s fodder, and our flowers. Flowers enliven the spirit with color and fragrance. Steiner addressed the whole person. Hence the sweet peas.
I recall how lovingly our instructors handled the tender sweet pea shoots that we were to en-cradle in the soil – so concerned lest the wind dry out their little hairs, so solicitous of their feelings as we gently placed them in their new homes. Yes, their feelings. Of course plants have feelings and it was no joking matter. If I tried to crack wise about the scalding execution of a cabbage for our belly’s needs, some handsome German named Axel or wizened but wise Brazilian crone in a purple shawl would frown and shake a chiding finger in my direction.
Not only do plants feel, but they love – in order to grow properly, they must nestle just close enough to one another to touch, and form a green umbrella that will shade the earth underneath their outstretched arms. Water, too, has a sense of purpose, and the best watering devices are those in which the liquid has been swirled in kidney shaped descending bowls. This motion is called “sensitive chaos,” a phrase I found impossible to forget.
Companion planting was another vital piece of the biodynamic puzzle, and I grew to understand that if one plants tomatoes, one should without fail put some basil among the tomato plants. I came to respect the many uses of chamomile, nasturtium (which appeared in our communal salad bowl one fall day) angelica angelica, and the sine qua non of all good gardens, comfrey (which healed a rather deep cut on my pinky with a swiftness I am tempted to call miraculous).
But the two most important components of biodynamic gardening are the digging and the preparations, or “preps.” The digging arguably has its roots, so to speak, in the best husbandry practiced by European small-holders and truck farmers. Leaving little room for paths (those elaborately designed fripperies of the upper classes) the biodynamic garden may look a little like an ancient Native American burial site, with compost mounds up to four feet in height in one area, and mounds of double (or triple) dug beds in another.
Double digging has as its purpose the re-enrichment of the soil with organic matter and special homeopathic meds (preps) and it works like this: A gardener cuts into the earth to the depth of two spades. The cuts would typically be about three feet across and a foot along to an over-all bed length of about 8 feet. The soil from the initial cut is saved on one side of the trench. Organic matter of a rough texture such as straw is put in the first cut to the height of one spade’s depth. Then another cut, again a foot forward, is made to one spade’s depth and this topsoil (with all its attendant grassy nutrients) is turned upside down on top of the straw in the first spit. Over that is placed fine mulch/compost which has been blessed with preps. Then the second spit is cut to the second spade’s depth, and the very fine lowest layer of refined soil from spit two is dressed on the top of spit one. Spit two is now open and ready to be treated like spit one, and so on down the line. Straw, topsoil, compost, and rich dark loam – this is the order of the layers in double digging. The result is a gentle mound of churning vital materials creating the ideal home for our plant friends.
Seeing it illustrated is better than any verbal description. For that one can consult the colorful books of John Jeavons, an enthusiastic English proponent of the method who claimed abundant yields from double digging. Practicing it until your back screams is better still.
What are the preps? Steiner, whose upbringing was a slow drift from rural to urban with a life-long respect for peasant wisdom, adored the cow. Sometimes I wondered (to myself – it wouldn’t have been cool to speculate out loud) if he’d been a Hindu in a previous incarnation, so much did he respect humble Bossey. He dubbed her milk “the perfect food” long before the American dairy pundits used that slogan. He “saw” the peasant farmer and his bovine partners living in perfect symbiosis, and cherished all cow production, including her manure. Preps, we were told, are a combination of cow manure and “certain herbs.” Their precise chemical combinations were not revealed to mere mortals such as me. Indeed the composition of biodynamic preps is a secret reserved only for those who have been welcomed into the innermost sanctum of biodynamic gnosis.
This is not only where the rubber meets the biodynamic road but also where the logical may depart from it. Preps are concocted in secret and administered in tiny homeopathic doses in carefully proscribed rituals involving lunar cycles and the correct stirring techniques. Remember the sensitive chaos of water? Well, preps have to be handled using an arcane set of movements. An important ingredient in one of the most common preps, Number 501, is horn silica, incorporated into the mix, I was given to understand, by compressing manure and herbs into a cow horn (generously donated by Bossey, posthumously, of course).
As one biodynamic practitioner reports, “When sprayed on the plant 501 works as a sense organ for the plant to feel and thus perceive the light coming from the sun and the entire cosmos. This enables the plant to become a better material image of its heavenly archetype on earth.” Prose that Steiner himself might have envied.
The classes I was taking at Emerson were geared toward working in Third World communities, and one classmate from Cote D’Ivoire opined, politely of course, that in his country, if someone were to make secret potions, pack them in a cow horn and insist on applying them to the fields by the light of the moon with ritualistic stirring motions, there would be rumblings of “witchcraft.” It would not, he felt, be a welcome intervention. But he, like me, stayed the course because he could see that biodynamics was a method that, in general, enriched and enlivened the soil and resulted in delicious vegetables and luminous flowers.
In color, in size, in bloom and in beauty, you could scarcely hope to find a more inviting broccoli than one grown biodynamically, and it is this quality that attracts the proponents of the method.
Be advised: the majority of information currently floating in cyberspace about “biodynamics” is a mishmash of organic best practice and some passing respectful references to Steiner and the preps. Generally, American gardeners want to keep the baby and send the bathwater spiraling sensitively down the drain. Preps are used only by a very few, mostly in Camphill and other Steiner based communities. Almost no-one outside the Steiner sect would attempt to apply biodynamic principles to anything other than small home gardens, because of the incredibly intensive labor involved, and the reluctance to get into the arcana of the preps.
Hardcore Steiner followers are a generally cheerful robust lot, idealistic and willing to give over their logical processes in favor of the magical thinking that biodynamics, in the end, requires.
Communities gathered around Steiner’s teachings often include the loving care of the extremely mentally handicapped, people whom modern medicine has despaired of helping. There is a strong Christian element, but very far from the church-going mainstream. There is usually a lot of good natured coming and going as the newly converted soon burn out on the hard work and the cultic ambience.
Loving obeisance to the great leader is valued more highly in the biodynamic world than competence or scientific method, which begs the question, “What would Steiner do?” It’s doubtful that he would have preferred to see people follow him unquestioningly without continuing to experiment and break new ground (or soil).
But still I believe that the practices – double digging, reverence for the entirety of the plant’s earthly home, avoidance of chemicals, companion planting, respect for the interactions of herbs with one another, and the building of rich soil – are optimal. And so, even when I plant something as non-utilitarian as a rose bush, I plunge the spade in two spits deep, put in some straw, and so on and on.