Tag Archives: animals

Ten Years of Rural Life

Ten years ago ago this week, Geoff and I were packing our belongings. We had bought a farm, sold our house, and were preparing to move to a place where we had no friends, no family, no connections, no jobs—a place where we had been only once before, two weeks earlier. I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child. It felt as if we were jumping off a cliff. We were so excited.

We wanted a place where we would be able to do our art, raise our kids, and grow our love in closer connection with the natural world. Sure, we were terrified, but that terror was tempered with intense curiosity. What would our new rural life be like?

It has been everything we wanted, more than we imagined, and far different than we anticipated. What we didn’t know would fill many books—some of which I have already written. Here are a few notes from the ten-year mark.

1. A place is not what you make; a place is what makes you.

As Geoff and I prepared to move, we had great visions of how we would make this farm our own. We would carve out a space for ourselves, put our stamp upon it, create it into the place we wanted it to be. Our home. Our center. Ours.

We quickly realized that this land and this farm had ideas of its own—existing structures, patterns of fertility and growth, vistas and views. And nothing we wanted to accomplish would succeed unless we paid attention. The garden would not grow. The water would not flow. The fence would not stand.

This place did not belong to us. We belonged to it.

We submitted. The place was too beautiful not to do so! It has made us into who it wanted and needed us to be—caretakers of its ongoing health and well-being. People who love it all the more for being so.

2. Perfection unfolds in time.

When we moved, there were so many things about the farm that were broken, run down, and just not quite right. At first we did not even think we would stay in the house for long. We would fix it up, and then build another house further up the hill, in the hayfields. We did not want to live so close to the road.

But the farm resisted. Who needs two houses? Why spoil the hayfields? Why abandon the lower part of the property? We contemplated selling this place and trying to find another piece of land in the area, but in the end, could not bear to leave this one. What were we to do?

Meanwhile, the septic system was failing, the front porch was falling off, the big barn was falling in, and suddenly, all of these glaring issues that had been nagging us for years came together in one glorious opportunity. We decided to do what we could to make the road not matter. We got some help, and took off the porch, took down the barn, built some fences, and opened up a soccer field on one side of the house and a barnyard on the other. We no longer wanted to live anywhere else.

3. The farm will provide.

Of course, once the big barn was down, the barnyard was a field of rubble. Trucking in topsoil was far too expensive to contemplate. What would we do? It was one of those moments that happens all the time: the farm provides.

While we did not have money for fine dirt, we did have cattle—to whom we feed large bales of hay cut from our fields all winter. So we put those bales on the rubble. Magic. Hay plus manure equals grass the following spring. Instead of feeling poor, we felt incredibly rich. We had what we needed.

4. We are nature when we work with it.

When we moved, we carried with us a certain romantic notion of the natural world—a back-to-the-land naiveté. I imagined walking through the fields, appreciating their beauty, feeling my connection to the earth, and then going to the grocery store for milk and cheese. I did not imagine that I’d be walking through nature while fixing a cattle fence, that I would be connecting to the earth by shoveling manure, or that I would be washing buckets and processing our own cow’s milk to meet all our dairy needs.

Humans do need to cultivate love for the earth, for themselves as earth, for sure. But humans also need to get their hands dirty, to sweat for the earth. In the daily work of taking care of particular animals and plants, and a particular patch of ground, we come to know how far from the natural world we really are so much of the time as we shop, communte, and surf the net.

Nature is work. Nature is always working, generating, creating. And we know ourselves as one with it when we allow it to work on us. Then we start asking questions that mean something to us. How are we spending our time? How are we spending our money? What are we planting? What are we raising? What are we creating?

5. No room for righteousness.

One of the challenges we set for ourselves after moving here was to provide as much of our own food as possible. It was fun. How far could we go? With milk from a cow, a coop full of hens, a fertile plot of land, a stove, a freezer, and some information, what could we do? We were well-trained to habits of eating branded, processed foods. So we took it slowly, food by food. We chose one and then another: what would it take to make this ourselves? Soft cheese? Hard cheese? Ice cream? Butter? Bread? Snacks? Granola?

The challenge wasn’t about adopting an ideal eating program and imposing it upon ourselves. It wasn’t about adhering to a principle or to the terms of contemporary debates over vegan, vegetarian, meat-eating, or other. It wasn’t just about the food. It was about being where we are—in this plot of a place—and learning how to participate in a workable system of production and consumption that would nourish both us and the earth.

Our cows are not just milk machines. They are living creatures who link us to the land in mutually life-enabling ways. The cows enable us to take care of the land and the land to take care of us. We move the cattle through twelve different pastures to ensure that the grass keeps growing for them. We give them year round food, shelter from storms, and lots of chin scratches, not to mention mountain views. The cows feed and fertilize. The milk they make that we take is grass we gave them, now nourishing us, so that we can keep caring for them.

In this search for earth-friendly ways, there is no formula. There is no model for all to follow. All humans are caught up in a vast cultural net that wrecks havoc on the natural world, regardless of what we individually do. People live in different places with different resources and requirements. However, we all do have experiences to share and insights to offer, as we strive to steer the trajectory of humankind in ways that will support the ongoing life of the planet.

6. Dance is everywhere.

It is not immediately obvious why someone would move to a farm in order to dance. What does pulling weeds have to do with working a plie?

For me the connection was sensory. The inspiration to dance wells fullest in me when I am moved to move by the movement of the natural world. So I sought it out. And in seeking it out, my desire to dance evolved. Soon dance was no longer about creating concert productions for performance in a black box—as valuable and rewarding as such endeavors can be. It was about tapping into a primal, kinetic creativity that funds every moment of my life—and writing about it.

On the farm, I have come to realize that dance is everywhere, in everyone. In this place, where it is impossible to ignore how everything is constantly moving, changing, evolving, the importance of dancing appears anew.

If movement is all there is, then how humans move matters. And if how humans move matters, then dance appears as something more than physical exercise or an optional art. Dance appears as a way in which humans learn to participate in the ongoing creation of what is. It appears as a way of cultivating a sensory awareness that can guide humans to create relationships with sources of wonder and sustenance in their lives. And it has always been so.

Life on the farm has helped me to appreciate, as I never could before, how fundamental dancing has been to the evolution of the human species, how important it is to the development of individual humans and communities, and how important it may be to our collective future. Dancing is human.

What will the next ten years hold? I have no idea. But at least I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

Kimerer L LaMothe is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming

Our Sacred Earth: What does it mean to call the earth divine?

Everywhere I turn these days, I stumble across contemporary authors and religious writers seeking to mount a spiritual response to the current raft of environmental crises. For such writers, practical responses, as important as they are, will not go far enough in addressing the roots of our predicament. We need to go beyond a materialist picture of the universe and develop a concept of the earth itself as worthy of our highest regard—as sacred, as holy—as Gaia Herself. Only then, such teachers insist, will we care enough to resist and recraft the patterns of consumption that are depleting and destroying the earth’s natural resources. In the words of Vaughan-Lee, for example, editor of the star-studded collection Spiritual Ecology (2013):

“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong… [T]he deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature… [W]e are all part of one, living spiritual being” (i-ii)

While I want to cry “yes!,” I am stopped by a question that arises in response. What does it mean to remember the earth as sacred—or then again as a spiritual, living being?

*

Nine years ago, I moved with my family to a retired dairy farm in rural New York. I wanted to live in closer relationship to the natural world. I knew I needed it—my work needed it. I needed to live in a place where I could no longer ignore the rhythms of the natural world in order to think thoughts about dance, religion, and the earth that mattered to me.

Of the many constant surprises that this adventure has provided, one concerns this question about what is means to honor the earth as sacred. I have come to believe that the task goes beyond what is normally stated. Yes, it is good to acknowledge our utter dependence on the ongoing rhythms of creation for every breath we inhale, every sip we take, and every morsel we chew. Yes, it is good to appreciate human existence as one relational node in a complex living web whose mysteries extend far beyond our comprehending reach. Yes, it is good to admire and even love the irrepressible beauty of the natural world and all of its inhabitants. Yes, it is also important to bear witness to the violence and destructive capacity of natural processes themselves.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that the task of remembering the “sacred nature” of the earth involves something more. It entails coming face to face, heart to heart, with a horrifying and awe-full fact that appears to contradict our very urge to cherish and worship Her: we humans, in order to live, must, on a daily basis, kill what appears to us as beautiful.

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Here on the farm we are drenched in beauty. Let’s begin with babies. Baby cows and baby chicks; baby cucumber and baby basil; baby spruces and baby oaks—not to mention baby humans—are all undeniably relentlessly adorable. Their round shapes and fuzzy textures pull on human heartstrings, calling for care. And care we do. Whether waking up every 6 hours in the morning to bottlefeed orphaned kittens, taking a midnight walk into the barn to check on a pregnant cow ready to pop, or running to the chicken coop at 4 AM to investigate an ear-splitting shriek, we care. Whether hauling water to new tomato sprouts or rescuing delicate carrot fronds from encroaching weeds, we care.

This caring, moreover, is contagious. When we care for the young and vulnerable, our own acts of feeding and stroking, watching and watering grow in tandem with those we tend into feelings of attachment and even love. We may grow to appreciate our adult animals for the eggs they provide, the milk they produce, the rides they give, or the sheer power they extend; we may feel gratitude for the fruits and roots and shoots that our garden plants send forth, but we love them for the pleasure that taking care of them yields. We love them for the pleasure they seem to experience as they thrive.

It is this kind of love that inspires us to keep caring—even when our cow Daisy breaks her foot and requires us to carry extra buckets of water. It is the kind of love that impels us to plunge outside in freezing temperatures and pelting rain to deliver hay or relieve a swollen udder. It is this love that persists as the enabling matrix within which the work of caring and tending gets done.

Moreover, it is the kind of love that many environmentalists and others believe will impel people who feel it to reject: the practices of resource extraction that destroy the landscape; the practices of fuel consumption that pollute the atmosphere, and the practices of factory farming that deplete our soils of the plant-enabling nutrients and deny animals a connection to the earth.

Indeed. But is this care for the earth all that is involved in remembering the earth as “sacred”? Is it enough?

*

To every idyllic image of humans, animals, and plants living in mutually enabling community with one another, there is a dark side—not a “bad” side, but a contrasting dimension that is as essential to the rhythms of life as images of peaceful coexistence.

Suffice to say, humans too must eat to live. Humans must nourish the ability to care for the animals and plants who give to us. To do so, we must kill. We must kill things that are not obviously bad or ugly or worthless. We must kill organisms whose sheer beauty enlivens us and inspires us to care for them. And we must do so regularly. No human is exempt from this need to kill and consume—not vegetarians, vegans or paleo practitioners.

More than any other time of year, I am reminded of this fact in the spring. In these brilliant, long-lit days, as the world around me erupts with joyous newness, my job is to plant and nurture and celebrate and… kill.

For example, I plant seeds. Those seeds send forth shoots—pure expressions of kinetic excitement. In response, it is my job to thin those green hopes to distances that will enable the remaining plants to grow healthy and strong. I choose. I pluck. I deny life to what otherwise appears to me as beautiful and true. I try to transplant as many seedlings as I can, but many cannot survive the move. I also pull out “weeds” by the reaching roots, beautiful too as vibrant expressions of living life. What right have I to pick one plant over another?

The sadness I feel tempers my joy, even as that joy grows deeper still. The garden will grow. The plants I leave will thrive. I am taking care of them, of myself, of my family, enriching the ability of the earth to keep giving to me. The sadness chastens me.

The farm produces and reproduces, and its ability to do so depends upon my conscious participation in a constant rhythm of selecting what to nourish, and consuming, killing, or giving away the rest. These acts of “selection” do not occur miles away, by someone else’s hand. I make them myself, in plain view, consciously and not. Living on our homestead, as we do, it is impossible to gloss over this dynamic and others like it. (I have described this situation with our dairy animals as well.)

What do I do with this knowledge? How do I digest it? How do I respond?

The response that makes the most sense to me is to fall on my knees (if I am not already there in the garden) in humilty and wonder and awe at the gifts of life–being given to me through my own participation in the work of creation. The response that makes sense is a downward thud of appreciation for the cost, the generosity, the beauty of the movements that sustain me. The response that makes sense is to honor earth–in its multiple folds and forms–as worthy of the highest praise. As divine.

This “divinity” is not a transcendent omnipotence that resides in some far off place. Nor is it an immanence that dwells within material forms. It is not a matter of matter itself, in its being and relating. Rather, this divinity is more a matter of the movement which the earth is—the movement by which the earth makes more of itself, for itself, coming to life in a human form who can affirm and mourn the loss of any moment of earth’s ever-unfolding beauty.

Central to the deep and nourishing joy of receiving earth-bound bounty is a sadness at the loss of what is giving its life for me—a sadness that both acts as a natural check on patterns of behavior that would kill and consume more of the earth’s fertile beauty than I must, and propels me to do as much for its ongoing life as I can. It is my responsibility.

It is here, I suggest, that a sense of the sacred strong enough to propel us in creating new actions and attitudes can and must be rooted. Gratitude and love are essential, but they are not enough. Nor are feelings of debt or dependence. We also need to cultivate a clear and compelling awe for this paradox—this knot of living and dying—of which our every movement consists. What are we creating?