Sometimes I wonder why I, as a philosopher of religion and dancer, am writing a blog about life on a farm. How did I get here? Then I think again. Despite what it seems, this blog is not just about farming. It is about issues I have been working on for years: it is about the relationships we must to cultivate with ourselves and with others in order to survive as individuals, communities, and a planet.
How so? We are on the verge of an ecological crisis whose urgency is increasingly apparent. Voices from all over the world–scientists, philosophers, journalists, religious leaders, and scholars of religion–are all calling for changes not only in the way we transport our bodies, grow our food, and heat our homes, but in the values we rely on to guide us in doing so.
While our addiction to fossil fuels bears much of the responsibility for the warming of the planet, the deterioration of food-producing soil, and the pollution of water, air, and earth, so too do the values that have been guiding our use of them–values that privilege the individual human as the mastermind of the created order, existing over and above all others.
Instead, as commentators like Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, and Sallie McFague aver, we need to cultivate values of interdependence, interconnectedness, and community. We need to value our relationships to each other and to the natural world as essential to our individual health and well being. Such ecological values, many argue, will foster care and compassion towards others, a sense of responsibility and a willingness to sacrifice. In cultivating such values, we will become better humans, and better citizens of this precious planet. Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson goes so far as to say that our spiritual well-being is at stake.
I agree. Still, I find that something is missing from these discussions of ecological values–something that I am learning from our life on the farm. What?
This past week we had quite a scare. Jessica comes in from chores, reporting an observation that concerns us all. Her Jersey heifer, Precious, has a swath of blood-streaked mucous on her tail–a sign of being in heat. According to our calculations, however, Precious should be seven months pregnant and two months shy of giving birth. We are counting on the milk she will make–for her calf and for us. How could she be in heat?
Our future is suddenly in flux. Will we have milk? Especially this summer during those two months when we give Daisy (our two-year old) a health-preserving break before she gives birth to her second calf?
The milk shortage we are currently experiencing due to our thirsty bull babes (see New Arrivals!) is already challenging. The thought of relinquishing our dairy independence completely is downright disheartening. Sure, we can always go to the store and grab a bottle (as well as a pound of butter, a carton of ice cream, yogurt, cream, and cheese and all the other goods we make from Daisy’s donations), but it feels so good not to be spending our dollars in support of fossil-fuel-driven agricultural practices that deplete our soils and warm our earth. We are completely dependent upon Daisy for this pleasure, as well as for her delicious milk. In this moment we know viscerally how dependent we are.
So what is it? Precious, are you pregnant?
What is missing from debates over ecological values is what a body knows. The model of ethics in play relies on the same mind over body sense of ourselves as individuals that critics critique. Somehow it is assumed that we simply need to articulate these new values, recognize their relevance, and then impose them on our wayward selves. It is diet plan logic. Just come up with a plan and stick to it. Tighten your belt. You have no choice. As Bill McKibben insists, the costs of doing nothing are and will be greater than the pain of making changes.
Nevertheless, the challenge is ever evident. People don’t just switch values, even if they can argue themselves blue in the face about why such values are rational, practical, and even life-saving. Scare tactics only go so far. People resist change unless the need for it strikes them in the gut. Thus critics aim to communicate a visceral sense of urgency by showing time-lapse photographs of the ice caps melting, and of polar bears swimming for miles in search of a solid surface. We are moved indeed, but not far enough. The polar bears, as endearing as they are, are too far from home.
In the shift to a fossil fuel economy, we have lost more than the family farm. We have lost the living contexts within which values of interdependence, interconnection, and community are necessary. The same life ways that are negatively impacting our environment are ones that also separate us from the experience of our sensory selves–from what our bodies know.
To cultivate ecological values, we need to know in our own sensory selves why those values are, dare I say, valuable. Our values grow in us. They take shape as patterns of sensation and response. We develop a sense of what to notice, how to evaluate it, and how to respond. If we are constantly making movements in our lives that reinforce our sense of ourselves as minds living in and over our bodies, our ability to embrace ecological values is limited.
We are the movements that are making us. Here on the farm the movements we are making are making us. They are making us into a family of persons needed to run the farm, yes, and into persons who appreciate our dependence on one another for sustaining our common project. We are members of a calf-caring team.
Yet even more, the challenges are providing us with an immediate sensory experience of our absolute dependence on the natural world–its elements, plants, animals, and other humans–for every aspect of our living. This is no mere “inter” dependence. We are nothing more or less than moments in greater currents of life that sustain our every waking moment.
Jessica decides to make some further observations. I go to the computer to research signs of early labor. What could it be? Was Precious ever pregnant? Will she give birth to a premature calf? Sounds messy. And dangerous.
Jessica enters the house, a burst of hope. “Dandelion is in heat! She and Precious have been sleeping in the same place. Maybe it’s not Precious… but Dandi.”
The sense of apprehension releases. It looks like we will have milk after all.
The change we need cannot be limited to imposing new values on our excesses. We need an experience of doing the work that is required to make and produce what we take for granted as given.
Milk hits closer to the gut than polar bears.
I am not suggesting that everyone should move to the country or buy a cow. But we will need to seek out adventures and experiences that give us a sensory education to our absolute dependence on the natural world for our food, our water, our warmth, our health, and our life. Such sensory education will help us grow the values that can guide us beyond this time when our current practices are no longer sustainable.