The Farmer and the Witch:
Replanting the Seeds of Indigeneity
By Nala Walla
THE SEEDS OF INDIGENEITY
Just as any store-bought apple will always sprout a unique wild variety when planted (Pollan, 2002), so every person on this globe—even the most domesticated among us—contains the feral seeds of our own indigenous origin. Though they may be deeply buried, so deeply that we may be unaware they exist, these seeds are of incalculable value to anyone interested in the germination of sane and sustainable cultures.
Mayan author and teacher Martin Prechtel (2012, p.53) shares his extraordinary insights about these seeds of indigeneity:
The world is populated with…[p]eople who’ve lost their seeds. They are not bad or useless people, but…[t]he real people they used to be, like the seeds, have vanished…to hide in an inner world inside modern, citified people. In some small, never-looked-at place in the forgotten wilderness of their souls, invisible to the forces that would invade and take over, their indigenous seeds of culture and lifeways live exiled from their everyday consciousness.
The quiescent kernels of indigeneity are resting patiently within all of us, waiting for our variously industrialized and wounded bodies to step outside our climate-controlled routines, into the nourishing rain and soil, so these seeds can flourish once again.
Yet, the “simple” act of spending time outdoors, working again with soil and seeds, animals and trees, has been enormously complicated by oppressive systems designed precisely to break human connection with earth, with each other, and with the wilderness embedded in our own psyches. A profound sense of meaninglessness and depression often results from this disconnection, as described by depth-psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin (2013, p.160):
Affective depression is, at root…the blockage of the wild, indigenous, emotive, erotic, and fully embodied dimension of our human wholeness. The best therapy for depression begins with the resuscitation, animation, and liberation of [our] Wild Indigenous One.
But accessing our indigenous wisdom is much more than just an excellent strategy for healing our personal psychological wounds. Such liberation involves the deep shift in consciousness needed in order to perceive solutions to seemingly intractable societal and ecological problems. These solutions may have been right in front of us all along, but it has been difficult for us to see them, embedded as we are within a paradigm of exploitation, separation and division. Writer and herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (2014, p.24-25) emphasizes the importance of our capacity to see beyond entrenched assumptions, to a deeper reality of connectedness with the whole of nature:
[T]here is every reason to view this capacity as a crucial evolutionary adaptation, a capacity hardwired into all living organisms, and which serves a specific purpose…Despite our culture’s willful ignorance, deeper perceptual experiences and paradigmatic shifts in cognition are spontaneously emerging with more frequency, and much more strongly, into the human species. For using this different kind of perception and thinking is the way out of our predicament, the way to solve the problems that those older kinds of thinking have caused. It is an evolutionary necessity.
The convoluted histories which taint our relationship with landscapes, both inner and outer, render earth-based work an extremely powerful catalyst for healing between individuals and families, between nations and races, as well as for the living planetary ecosystems of which we are all part. Our ability (and responsibility) to rebuild our connections with natural communities—human, animal, vegetal, bacterial—is underlined and potentiated by the severity and depth of our wounding. Though this type of paradigm-shifting work may not be easy, it can be extremely rewarding, and can be regarded, as both Prechtel and Buhner do, as an “evolutionary necessity.”
Whether we become advocates for youth naturalist programs, dig a garden in an urban pea-patch, create permaculture programs in prisons (Thomas, P. 2015, Vosper, 2015), or organize large-scale holistic land management (Savory, 2015), opportunities abound to reclaim our birthright as wild creatures on an awe-inspiring planet. Indeed, our ability to respond creatively and decisively to rising sea levels, to civil wars, to nuclear pollution, is directly dependent upon our ability to reconnect with our inner wildness, regarding it as a wellspring of wisdom, rather than an unruly riot which must quickly be tamed.
THE FARMER AND THE WITCH
As I write, the colorful Halloween holiday, with straw-stuffed scarecrows and spooky lil’ ghosts parading across homes and storefronts is approaching all over the Northern Hemisphere. It’s my favorite time of year.
Crooked-toothed icons of witches on their brooms are plastered everywhere, and I can’t help but marvel at how, even after centuries of efforts to hunt and exterminate her, “The Witch” nevertheless continues to capture our imaginations. Even through the thick synthetic cloak of modern culture, our subconscious selves dimly recognize the witch—that earthy woman stirring her pot of herbs and flying through a magical nighttime sky—as our ancestor.
Despite pervasive miseducation, and rampant dilution of her cultural history, the witch endures.
The means by which the long and rich history of witch culture has been eroded include all the typical mechanisms of exploitation we are familiar with today: terrorism, colonialism, genocide, propaganda. The medieval witch hunts themselves served as the proving grounds which developed and refined the above mechanisms, when combined forces of Church, State and media experimented with global violent crusades whose purpose was to sever the connection of the peasantry to the land (Federici, 2011). Only slightly different in style and scope today, these techniques remain favorites of belligerent governments and corporations around the world that wish to remove all resistance to exploitation.
Current cartoonish portrayals of witches—virtually devoid of any real meaning—are a testament to the “success” of these terror and slander campaigns, which have destroyed most of the detail about how ancestral pagan cultures actually functioned, and the extensive knowledge they contained. In just a few hundred years, common representations of the witch shifted from a revered, medicine woman embodying a culinary, shamanic, and healing tradition, to a warty, cackling buffoon in a pointy hat who exists only in picture books.
A similar fate has befallen another figure who, in the public view, once possessed extensive knowledge about the land: “The Farmer.” The infantilized image of the witch mentioned above is reminiscent of popular depictions of farmers, ranchers, and herders as clumsy hicks who are, at best, unsophisticated and out of touch with the slick urban “reality” of modern life, and, at worst, stupid and irrelevant to the river of progress.
As with witch culture, the details of once-hearty and self-reliant agrarian communities have been glossed over in the creation of the current degrading stereotypes. I was ashamed to find on Wikipedia a whole list of pejorative slang used to refer to rural people—the very people who negotiate our relationship to the land and are responsible for our sustenance: boor, bumpkin, churl, hayseed, hick, hillbilly, lob, redneck, rustic, and yokel.
These slurs wound on several levels, translating not only to a philosophical disrespect, but an actual biting of the hand that feeds us, as well. Even worse, they demonstrate the thoroughness with which we modern people have internalized our own oppression, colluding with the severing of our original connections with the land, slashing at the lineages of our own indigeneity.
Though references to farmers in the West today usually assume “white,” “Christian,” and “male,” both the farmer and the witch–with their millenia-long lineages, and bountiful knowledge of food, animals, herbs, handicrafts–are characters which grace the family trees of diverse ancestries. Men and women worldwide have pagan and agrarian roots of which we can be proud, yet despite rich historical links, the potential solidarity between the average modern, industrial citizen and figures such as witches and farmers has been cauterized, allowing for ignorant and dangerous stereotyping to spread.
To prepare for our harvest feast, my son and I are headed to the local market in our little town. He always loves coming here, helping to fill our basket with an assortment of the succulent fruits and veggies available this time of year. But as I put my hand on the door, I feel a small jolt of fright as I notice the illuminated witch-in-silhouette, flying across the face of the waning moon–and it’s not because I am “scared of witches.” Rather, I shudder to think about what falsehoods, what shallow slanders, this image will be conveying to him about his own ancestors?
For all its tiring over-generalizations, it can at least be said that this green-faced portrait is an accurate representation of how desperately little knowledge remains about my son’s own mixed heritage. How the outlines of his original Indigenous Body have been buffed and muted into a puffy caricature. I wonder how bewildering the Witch concept will likely be to his developing Jewish identity, since her image was influenced by and conflated with the anti-Semitic images developing in Europe during the same period as the witch hunts. Wow, Mama, look at how long that witch’s nose is! Will I really have to explain to him that since the entire populace of Europe was once wiccan, some had big noses, and some little? And how will I counteract the confusing fact that witches are pictured almost exclusively as women? You mean there’s such a thing as a boy witch, Mama? I’m merely trying to get some groceries, yet I’ve unwittingly exposed my son to a triple whammy: sexism, classism and anti-Semitism all rolled into one.
One of the eeriest things about this minstrelized Witch is how well-suited she is to the bland palate of modern industrial society in general, which is in such poor health it can hardly digest anything more than fluff, even as it starves for meaning and connection.
It may come as a surprise to many readers that people of European ancestry were (and arguably still are) subjected to the same processes of pauperization, industrialization and commodification that are currently occurring in so-called “developing” countries. In fact, we are so accustomed to seeing “white” people in a privileged, oppressor role, we assume it must have always been this way. We forget to inquire how Europeans got so disconnected from the their lands? Is it possible that people of European descent—is it possible that white people—also have indigenous roots?
Like existing indigenous peoples all over the globe, pre-conquest Europeans were earth-centered, pagan peoples—a term derived from Latin paganus, meaning “not cultivated” or “wild”—and intimately connected to a living, breathing land that they revered as the source of all life. Similar to tribal people worldwide, ancient European tribes had no formal money systems, and had no need for them, as they inhabited a gift culture based on careful stewardship of the commons—that great interlocking web of physical, cultural, and spiritual relationships. Lo and behold! Europeans once displayed the same connective qualities and behaviors we currently attribute to indigenous people.
Please allow me to propose a journey of kinship and solidarity with a larger family of pagan cultures: if the old European clans practice of “wicca” or “witchcraft” (a more modern term) was similar to that of current tribes worldwide, then can we reclaim and revalorize the term “witch” as a loose description of any intact, nature-centered culture?
In the Dark Ages, the witch-hunting authorities themselves certainly did not limit the label “witch” to European pagans, and they still do not. Snared in that same net—a net cast broadly enough to encompass almost any subversive activity, as “conveniently and strategically vague” (Federici, 2005) as the word terrorist–were colonial subjects from Africa to the Americas, at whom were hurled the same accusations of flesh-eating, fornication with the devil, and infant-stealing, and who suffered the very same torture rooms, pyres, and gallows that so efficiently broke the communities of their European counterparts overseas. And the witch-hunting violence continues to this day, for example in the contemporary murder in London of accused Congolese “witch” Kristy Bamu (La Fontaine, 2012).
Previously just a name for European pagan culture, the brand “Witch” was appropriated and became a slur used to describe anyone viewed a threat to authoritarian control—black, brown and white alike. Just a handful of generations ago, then, before mechanization, before colonization, before Christianization, we were all witches.
Amazingly, even after centuries of terrorism heaped upon the witch on at least four continents–despite her constant demonization, degradation, minstrelization, and Disneyfication–her image continues to haunt the collective soul, even penetrating the bubbliest halls of pop culture. Bovenschen et al. (1987, p. 87) describe the irony and importance of the witch’s staying power:
In the image of the witch, elements of the past and of myth oscillate, but along with them, elements of a real and present dilemma, as well. In the surviving myth, nature and fleeting history are preserved…In turning to an historical image, [we] do not address the historical phenomenon, but rather its symbolic potential…To elevate the historical witch…to an archetypal image of female freedom and vigor would be unimaginably cynical, given the magnitude of her suffering. On the other hand, the revival of the witch image today makes possible a resistance which was denied to historical witches.
I reconsider the witch cartoon on the front door of our local market: at least this image can serve as a segue for conversation with my son. Maybe, as Bovenschen, et al. (1987, p. 85) suggest, the omni-presence of this image evidences a collective ‘return of the repressed.’ Perhaps she can is being re-claimed for purposes of liberation, as seen with the label “queer” in the LGBTQ-rights movement, for example? To be certain, the sheer persistence of the witch to this day is indicative of an archetype not easily forgotten. Perhaps The Witch endures, because she is our collective grandmother?
THE COP IN THE HEAD
As my son and I wait in the checkout line, I overhear a woman describing an argument with her friend, exclaiming “Geez, what a witch!” I cringe at the harshness of this internalized oppression, as she not only denigrates a fellow woman in this small community, but also slanders her honorary grandmother. One of the main symptoms by which people in advanced stages of colonization can be recognized is that they have been recruited to participate in their own degradation and destruction, mostly unwittingly.
Using a marginalized person or group (such as “witches,” “terrorists,” or “ Jews,” e.g.) as a scapegoat upon which to blame virtually anything is an all-too-common human response to stress. And it is one that elite classes have long encouraged, since it successfully diverts attention away from the real source of the stress: the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the very few. And because scapegoating is but a mere temporary release-valve for tensions, the original problem eventually boomerangs back upon the thrower, destroying families, communities and ecologies in the process. Today “isms” are being hurled on a massive scale in the form of rampant racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, all overlying an anthropocentrism nearly as ever-present as the air that surrounds us.
Indeed, the breaking of the power of communities to resist subjugation and appropriation of their resources is the original and primary goal of all the “isms.” The campaign of terror against witches was designed with this exact intention in mind—to attack the women who were the foundations of pagan, peasant communities, as well as the backbone of the resistance to the “Enclosures”—the medieval version of the unrelenting privatization that continues to this day.
In Caliban and the Witch (2002), scholar Silvia Federici reveals how persecutions of witches in Europe in the years leading up to the industrial revolution were overwhelmingly aimed at poor and working-class women, stereotypically represented in ragged clothing (not unlike today’s popular culture depictions of the lazy and tattered cowpoke). Old women who retained their abilities to subsist on the landbase were especially singled out for targeting, since they were the most likely to embody the cultural knowledge and heritage of ancient ways like raising crops and animals, herbal remedies, midwifery, community ritual, and so forth—skills which preserved the health and independence, and thus the power of the peasantry to resist exploitation.
This disturbing strategy by which community strength is efficiently broken by sexist targeting of women leaders was “perfected” in this era. As described by feminist theorist Maria Mies (1986, p.81)
Recent feminist literature on the witches and their persecution has brought to light that women were not passively giving up their economic and sexual independence, but that they resisted in many forms the onslaught of church, state and capital. One form of resistance were the many heterodox sects in which women either played a prominent role or which in their ideology propagated freedom and equality for women and a condemnation of sexual repression, property, and monogamy. Thus the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’, a sect which existed over several hundred years, established communal living, abolished marriage, and rejected the authority of the Church. Many women, some of them extraordinary scholars, belonged to this sect. Several were burnt as heretics…Some argue that the witches had been an organized sect…where all poor people gathered and already practised the new free society without masters and serfs.
Unfortunately, modern attempts to manifest a “new free society” are still being hampered by sexist infighting. The consequent scourges of mistrust and abuse remain primary factors in the weakening of community resistance movements which oppose the separation of people from their lands and means of subsistence.
Today, the mechanization of industrial agriculture ensures that a minimum of people know how to grow food or medicine, the remainder being completely dependent upon service and high-tech for their work and their sustenance. During any current election year, the thoroughness with which modern people have been disciplined to accept roles as “workers” can be heard in the constant clamor for “More Jobs!” By contrast, the early sixteenth century European peasant would rather risk the gallows than submit to wage labor. Hence the irony that the wristwatch–once a symbol of slavery and an artificially imposed time, disconnected from the natural rhythms of the land—has become a modern status symbol (Federici, 2004).
The horror of separation from the land created the stressful conditions ripe for scapegoating. As mistrust was sown within pagan communities, peasants began accusing each other and cooperating with their own marginalization. This is the terrorized and disturbed ground in which the “isms” took root, and continue to “flourish” today. In modern, industrialized peoples for whom a subsistent, nature-connected life is already long-gone, these “isms” have become the preferred method of social control: an internalized, instead of overt, oppressor with whom we cooperate in the effective policing of ourselves. Much tidier, and a lot cheaper than inquisitions and bombing, we become, as Brazilian activist Augusto Boal describes in Theater of the Oppressed (1993) our own “cop in the head.”
During the harvest season where I live in the northwest United States, I see examples of this self-inflicted oppression everywhere, as people routinely consume and propagate over-simplified, “pin-up” versions of witches and bucktoothed, grinning farmers with their pants falling down. In an astonishing ignorance of our own pagan and agrarian past (and future!), we conspire in the turning of both witches and farmers into cackling, guffawing minstrels.
Yet, we are beginning to understand that large-scale human estrangement from the land is threatening the extinction of our and many other species. Instead of taking crude potshots at farmers or witches, perhaps it is wiser for those of us who have lost our connection to the land to seek out the people who have been safeguarding it for centuries against all odds? Perhaps we might recuperate this wisdom–preserved within each of our indigenous lineages–and do our best to enact it, learning more about our food systems, our ancient healing customs and remedies, about working with animals, plants, and the cycles of the moon?
In the shallow images of the farmer and the witch lie the remnants of our very own ancestral cultures, and therefore, they deserve to be paid some much deeper attention. As we embrace them with an attitude of openness and curiosity, can our historical traditions and lifeways reveal potential solutions to serious cultural and ecological problems? Could our heritages, for example, contain a key to reversing climate change?
BRING BACK THE BUFFALO: HOW ANIMALS CAN REVERSE CLIMATE CHANGE
Perhaps this is the first time that you’ve encountered the hopeful idea that animals can help heal large-scale weather- and ecosystems, but I hope it won’t be the last. What follows is one example of how stunningly straightforward reversing climate change can be.
The research of Allan Savory has not yet made it into breakfast-table conversation in mainstream, industrial society, as the television stuffs us instead full of pop culture and trivia, yet he and his colleagues in the field of Holistic Resource Management (HMI, 2015) have discovered something of extreme importance for anyone interested in climate change: a method for swiftly and drastically reducing atmospheric carbon levels that uses no technologies other than livestock.
Livestock? You mean ranchers and cowpokes—those backwards, lazy, know-nothings—can help reverse climate change?
All grasslands–prairies, savannahs, steppes, and so forth–originally co-evolved with dense herds of grazing animals whose natural ranging behaviors provided the mowing, mulching, fertilizing, soil aeration, and seed dispersal functions essential to the health of these ecosystems. For decades, in a misguided attempt to stop “overgrazing,” standard land-management policies worldwide have removed herds—and the herding peoples whose lives were intertwined with them–from these lands. The result has been a drastic acceleration of desertification and therefore, of climate change, as well as displacement and pauperization of countless indigenous people (Schwartz, 2013).
What does desertification have to do with climate change?
As enormous amounts of carbon contained in grassland soil is plowed up and subsequently released into the atmosphere (think of the American Dustbowl), Savory emphasizes that desertification is as big or bigger of a contributor to global warming as burning fossil fuels (Savory, 2013). Savory’s efforts have been assisting people on 40 million acres in Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States to bring back the herds, recreating, out of barren desert, both healthy grassland ecologies and right livelihood for pastoral peoples. Simply by returning the animals to desertified places, and helping to ensure their natural movement patterns in the landscape, soil and range management scientists estimate that we could again achieve preindustrial levels of atmospheric carbon in less than 40 years (Sacks et al., 2013, p. 15).
Amazingly, pastoral skills are now being revealed as an integral part of reversing climate change, as carbon moves out of the atmosphere back into grassland soils (White, 2014). It seems that a restoration of respect for these skills—some of the very same skills witches worldwide gave their lives to protect—is as important as restoration of the land itself. If we are serious about reversing climate change, animal husbandry will necessarily become again, a respectable occupation. Imagine shepherding as the preferred profession for the hip and fashionable, the next “cool” thing to do!
Indeed, many people are being inspired by the example of Joel Salatin, dubbed ‘World’s Most Innovative Farmer’ by TIME magazine in 2011. Salatin is rapidly becoming a well-known example of how using the simple, low-tech strategies of holistic management is not only good for soils, animals, and humans, but can also be economically viable, as well. Salatin’s (relatively) small 550-acre Polyface Farm in Virginia, USA had over $2 million dollars in yearly sales (Gabor, 2011), an impressive accomplishment for an independent farm. Polyface’s success, completely independent of the enormous subsidies given to many US agribusiness, casts doubt upon the assumed “necessity” of ever-escalating investments in hi-tech and government subsidization, and points in a more hopeful and healthier direction.
As more and more people embrace the instinctual impulse towards reverence of the land that is the source of all sustenance, reestablishing a holistic and sustainable relationship to it, all kinds of unanticipated resolutions to ecological impasses like the example above will arise. A huge accomplishment will be to perceive the stereotypes we hold for what they are: examples of internalized oppression, and a disrespect of our own ancestors, the witches and the farmers. It is time for every citizen of this precious planet to identify as a creature indigenous to earth, and to reclaim a history full of herbalists, shepherds, and agrarians. Can we imagine a world where our educational systems encourage our children to cultivate “green-collar” careers in fields such as holistic ranching, dairying, and farming? Where “Bring Back the Buffalo!” becomes a rallying cry for the sustainability movement?
RECONNECTING WITH THE LAND: THE KEY TO ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION
Since moving to a rural island over fifteen years ago, my own experience with farmers—especially small farmsteaders seeking to steward their lands organically and sustainably—has consistently contradicted the stereotypes I grew up with in suburbia. Far from naïve simpletons, most small-scale farmers and ranchers I know are astoundingly savvy and resourceful. In order for their farms and gardens to survive as businesses, today’s agrarians are required not only to become proficient with a hundred related skills (including entomologist, plant pathologist, vehicle mechanic, on-farm veternarian, and so on) but, as fellow citizens of the Information Age, they also are expected to maintain websites, intern programs, and community outreach calendars, as well as possess enough shrewdness to navigate a veritable gauntlet of health and food regulations, cutthroat subsidies and strategic marketing climates. One local farmer in our valley earned an MBA before starting his farm, and our local butcher originally learned his skills as a working surgeon. It would be very difficult to consider them “simpletons.”
The farmers and ranchers in our county are part of a larger national trend of young people and white-collar professionals who cherish having their “hands in the dirt,” and are voluntarily trading in their high-tech futures for trowels and tractors, returning to our neglected farms, fields and forests (Markham, 2011). In search of deeper nourishment, they are spitting out the thin gruel that our larger exploitative society tries to pass-off as sustenance, and rejecting the dominant cultural memes of our time that denigrate working with ones’ hands. For many, this means leaving urban environments and moving back to the land, in a small, but encouraging reversal of the demographic shift towards urbanization that has been in place since the beginning of land privatization.
And many others are digging right into the urban environments where they live, in the process, healing trampled land as well as tired clichés about where our food comes from and who grows it. The urban agriculture movement in the USA is headed-up by many people of color, and helps heal the ironic and innaccurate idea that all farmers are white. An example: Through its creative and inspiring New Roots program, the International Rescue Committee (2015) is helping refugees to share their farming expertise with their families and neighbors. These innovative programs are often located in “urban food deserts” where residents otherwise have little access to fresh food.
The opportunity to witness and work alongside other people of color who are expert farmers, right in their own neighborhoods, is healing for those whose land was taken from them, including African Americans, for whom the very idea of farming has been tainted with the traumatic legacies of slavery, sharecropping, and racist government policies (Thomas, M., 2015). Urban gardens give people of color a way to reestablish agrarian skills without having to move away from the safety of their own communities into rural areas, which they, often correctly, perceive as racist and hostile.
Other organizations encourage people of color to work in rural areas, such as the Fresno-based African American Farmers of California, which trains African Americans in essential skills such as irrigation and operating farm equipment on their Central Valley farm, and then helps them to sell their produce at farmer’s markets all over California (Scott, 2013). John Boyd–founder of the National Black Farmer’s Association–worked for decades to expose the widespread discrimination and abuse against blacks by the US Department of Agriculture, and eventually won back the farm that was taken from him. Though Boyd agrees that growing food in your own backyard is a huge step towards reconnecting with the land, he urges fellow black Americans to take a “second look” at farming because, “when we lose our land, we are also losing a part of our history” (Thomas, M., 2015).
In the UK, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones founded the Young City Farmers program based on a similar sentiment. After leaving his inner-city upbringing to realize his dream of owning a farm on the rural Devon/Cornwall border, he wanted to help others do the same. “Exposing ‘hardcore urbanites’ to the rural environment…can trigger a deep seated affinity with the land…it opens up a huge amount of options to someone who may have thought they were headed for life’s dustbin heap” (The Black Farmer, 2009).
In both urban and rural environments, people everywhere are breaking with conventional notions that have dictated how and where they interact with the land, and getting involved however they can. Perhaps the time has finally come for us to recognize that it is not required to become landlords of large swaths of land in order to access a meaningful relationship to earth; is not necessary to first become a paragon of virtue before we can begin healing familial, intertribal and interracial patterns; we need not have all the answers before attempting to reshape our culture to be friendlier, more humane, more connected. We can begin wherever we are, just as we are. Prechtel (2013, p. 313) describes this start-small attitude as a type of “sacred farming”:
[A]ny worthy culture has to sprout right out of the slag heap of the world’s present condition…These cultures…start in many ugly places in ways hardly noticed at first…For we, as “sacred farmers”…know we must learn to metabolize our grief into a nutrient…compost the failures of civilization’s present course, and cultivate…a future worth living in, all smack-dab in the middle of modernity’s meaningless waste.
After observing their contemporaries growing ever more hunched and pale in front of computer screens, people of all stripes are choosing to buck the technological tide by embracing traditional skills—starting small dairies, organic gardens, natural building co-ops, wildcrafting herbal medicines, and focusing on classic occupations such as tanning, smithing, orcharding, shepherding, masonry, and boat building. Simultaneously, people everywhere are fostering a world where the time-honored arts that grease the wheels of social and inner harmony–dance, storytelling, music and theater–are celebrated and integrated into everything we do. Innovations which incorporate nature into the healing arts are becoming more and more common, as well. All of the above, and more, qualifies as “sacred farming.”
In revaluing these timeless and enduring skills, we are growing real roots into our communities, and into the ground, gaining a visceral understanding how the fate of the trees, the animals, the plants, the waters are bound up with our own. Working amidst a tearful rain of human gratitude, we are making it possible to sprout forth the seeds of indigeneity that have been dormant within our bodies since our cultures were uprooted, perhaps hundreds, or even thousands of years ago.
These trends towards re-skilling instinctively recognize that when we are connected in a tangible way with the Earth are much more likely to act in reverence and stewardship of it. As Wendell Berry (2003, p.85) elucidates:
In a state of total consumerism—which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves—all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms of either what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and…people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.
Only when we risk rekindling a messy love-affair with our estranged beloved Earth will we gain the inspiration and the courage required to act resolutely when confronted with challenges such as melting sea ice, species extinction, massive pollution and “permanent” war. Thus, a human race moving robustly into a healthy, ongoing future, is destined to be a life which involves a reclaiming of our indigenous heritage—the basic right, and the basic pleasure of working, in community, with wood, with soil, with Earth. For more and more people, a healthy life will be determined by how much dirt we have under our fingernails.
THE WHEELBARROW ACTIVIST
Sometimes, on a windy October night like this one, I can actually catch a glimpse of the ghostly forebodings of my immigrant forefathers wafting around: Gotta get into a good school. You don’t wanna end up a dirt-farmer, like your poor grandfather! You’re smart enough to be a doctor or a lawyer! In these voices, which are threaded deep into the fabric of my personality, I can hear the echoes of a long history of exile from the land. Even after over a decade of living elbow-deep in a food-forest, I can still perceive the cop in my head trying to convince me that working with the land is despicable, suitable only for “peasants,” or, more pointedly in a hyperphobic and racist America, for “Mexicans.”
In response, I heft my wheelbarrow full of leaves and manure into our garden, and blanket the beds for their winter slumber. I laugh with my toddler as he affectionately labels the pile “Big Poop!” and encourage him help dig with his tiny shovel. I thank the cleansing winds as those voices catch an updraft and blow out to sea, and replace them with gratitude for the chance to work with earth–a freedom for which our ancestors sacrificed their lives, and for which people everywhere are still fighting—from Indian farmers resisting the exploits of Monsanto, to Amish farmers battling for the right to drink raw milk from their own cows, to modern herbalists preserving their grandmother’s healing recipes despite increasing regulatory pressure from Big Pharma, to urban farmers markets which sell food grown exclusively by African-Americans.
Like the green leaves that can always be found pushing their weedy heads through cracks in the sidewalk, no matter how many times they are torched, weedwhacked and herbicided, the unceasing sprouting of wild human ingenuity consistently thwarts every attempt to pave it over. For modern people to recognize and repair the disconnection to our “Body” on multiple levels—our personal body, the social body, and the larger earthly body—is perhaps the pivotal task of our generation. It is for this reason that I stand in solidarity with farmers and witches all over the globe, and reclaim them as titles of distinction and pride. I am a Farmer, and I am a Witch.
A FUTURE WORTH LIVING IN
In putting these words on “paper,” I hope to contribute to the enormous task of piecing back together what Prechtel calls the “tribal shards” of original human culture, shards from which we can reconstruct the blueprint for an ample and sturdy cooking vessel. Only in a pot as miraculous as this, made up of pieces recovered from deep within each of us, can we simmer up the deliciously innovative responses needed to sate the rowdy ecological and social crises currently seated at our dining table and “begin remembering our Indigenous belonging on the Earth back to life” (2012, p. 10). As we reach out to the banished farmers and witches exiled within us, we will welcome also the wild solutions we need to transform travails into triumphs, and give birth to “a future worth living in.”
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