At the Virginia Association of Biological Farming annual conference last January, I attended a session in which the presenter asked us to write a few thoughts about why we were doing what we wanted to do, then to gather in little knots throughout the room and share our writing. In reference to our work here at Tangly Woods, that moment was the first time I remember it coming home that there was an element of grief in it for me.
“Grief!” you might be thinking, “How does that have anything to do with the endeavor of sustainable agriculture?” Well, I have given it some thought since that time, and have had to realize the many ways in which losses, and coming to terms with them, have ended up shaping my thinking about what a truly sustainable agriculture is made of and implies.
The grief I feel daily as I go about my farming and gardening is a bit contradictory, or two-edged anyway. On the one hand I often find myself grieving the vast quantity of accumulated and beloved knowledge and wisdom that we have lost by way of modernity, that which changes wrought by the industrial revolution and now the digital age have made seem obsolete and so unworthy of preservation. By shunning a few of the technologies and practices of modern life and agriculture, we at Tangly Woods have put ourselves in a position to often wish we or our neighborhood still possessed the tools, knowledge, and life patterns that would make our goals easier to accomplish.
On the other hand I grieve modernity. I grieve a sort of innocence and trust that goes along with presuming that whatever makes sense for your bank account is the best course of action. That voting constitutes your only true civic duty. That you can have confidence in whatever appears on the shelves of the grocery store. That this “way of life” we USA Americans have come to cherish and declare ourselves ready to defend at all costs is good and clean and right. This economy depends on us blithely choosing goods on which to spend our hard-earned monetary power; the system resists us looking behind the label to see the colonization, the injustice, the abuse, the corruption, the devastation behind each shirt, each piece of lumber, each plum, each rubber tire.
And there are other elements of contemporary life that imply grief work, though I would contend that need is usually avoided or unrecognized, and therefore plagues us with dysfunction.
One of the elements, for many of us, is the loss of a home area when we move away from our place of origin, as so many of us do, and as I did. For me it is compounded by a recognition that I never really knew my home area in the way I am trying to know this valley. There is also the converse: the loss to a community of young folks who move on, though in my particular case I never got the impression that beyond my family my leaving was a loss that anybody really felt. Why, I sometimes wonder, was there nobody in the community who much missed me when I left? Did I fail to establish deep connections? Yes, but I also think our culture has adopted an attitude of nonchalance about these losses. This is just how it works now. People move around. You make do. Maybe that’s a healthy form of coping—it implies acceptance in a way—but it is hard to believe it reflects a well-integrated, interdependent community.
My case is a particular expression of a pattern we can probably agree is general, even almost universal. It seems to me that these larger patterns of loss are divisible into at least two types: “ordinary” or “natural” losses (arising from within) to be experienced in the course of life as it ebbs and flows its way through history, and systemic losses, which are the results of changes to the course of that history, often externally derived. Like the fact that rivers have always had periods of low flow and even running dry, and as a result creatures in the ecosystems around them experience losses. But a pattern of sucking so much water out for industrial and agricultural and civil uses that the river consistently no longer reaches the sea (like the Colorado) amounts to a systemic loss, and implies a change in the particular forms that the ordinary, natural losses take. The ecosystems react to the systemic change by supplying a new, sometimes novel matrix of life that continues the work of incorporating ordinary losses as they arise.
Perhaps this will clarify the distinction I am trying to make: A whale biologist will experience grief at the death of an individual known fondly to him or her. He or she will also experience grief at the extinction of that species. Both are losses, but they can’t be thought of as the same kind of loss. The first is an ordinary, natural loss. The second is systemic.
Applying this to economics, take this example: grocers die, and some percentage of grocery stores have always ended up going out of business. But a change in the economics of food and retail that results in minimal possibility for any local grocer to continue being a grocer or for any local grocery store to make a go of it…that is a different kind of loss.
How do we categorize the grief I feel at the knowledge that I have no one in my community to share grain harvesting with? That the much-pined-for simple, sustainable life depends utterly on a level of cooperation and knowledge held and practiced communally that is, in a word, gone? Does anyone else feel the denial, the anger, the anxiety in that?
I came of age during a time when it was beginning to dawn on some thinkers and some elements of certain subcultures (Mennonite was my subculture of origin) that maybe the hippies had been really, truly right about a few things, most especially the deepening environmental crisis, which is still barreling ahead full steam despite all the hype and international summits and whatnot. The more a person tries to establish a sustainable way of living from a piece of land (which can be thought of as a microcosm of the patterns needed for all of civilization), the more starkly our society’s current structures and institutions and assumptions show up as a city of cards, and our politics and economic policies begin to look like ways of running interference with the wind.
But the wind is picking up…how long will this city of cards be defended? It seems to me that for those of us who recognize the peril, it is our duty to grieve the assumptions of our peers—the assumptions most of us grew up with. It’s a form of leaving home, knowing you can never go back. We have to try to make lives in the new reality to show the possibilities to others. You may call this a delusion of grandeur, that I am placing myself and my family in an elite group of innovators whose work is critically important to the future welfare of humankind. Hm. Sorry. The fact is I hope I am wrong in so many ways, and we don’t undertake this work lightly. Other members of this elite group include all our ancestors and resistant peasants all over the world.
I’d like to urge us to take seriously the role of alternative and sustainable farmers and their allies in leading the transformation of our civilization (if it can be transformed) to patterns of use that can be perpetuated indefinitely in a finite world, which is my definition of sustainability.
In order for us alternative and sustainable farmers to do this work with integrity, I believe we must not shy away from this aspect of grief. Grief is a matter of stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the conventional stages in the conventional order), and I think if we pay attention we will each find ourselves operating out of one or more of them. We’ve got to move beyond the denial stage! Having labored through this process, and when we have truly accepted the reality of the losses our communities and culture and ecosystems are suffering from, that is the ground we can stand on to participate in the regeneration of the places that belong to us, and to which we belong.
There is no avoiding the reality: loss is painful, and alters our lives in ways that can never be “fixed.” For example, there is a seven year age gap between our first two living children, because our second child, born when our first daughter was four, lived only seven months and it took some time for us to decide to try again. So that loss is not only recorded on our hearts, it is recorded in our family structure. Recently I was speaking with a good friend and the grandfather of a very young child in our neighborhood and friend circle who recently died suddenly of a freak complication of a common illness. He related feeling like a beautiful new shoot that had so recently appeared in his life—a life complicated by circuitous spiritual paths and a failed marriage—and had meant so much to him was cruelly and unceremoniously lopped off. He couldn’t understand why, or how his life’s tree was ever going to recover from such an insult. I offered that a tree in such a situation does typically recover, and usually very well. But if one looks closely one can always see, in the growth pattern of the trunk, the traumatic event that the tree endured. In a sense the tree never forgets. When trees are milled for lumber, the knots in the wood are reminders of the loss of limbs or central leaders, and though I hesitate to offer this perspective in times when loss is fresh, still it seems true to me that in the end the most beautiful wood grain is created around these knots as the tree responds to its losses with continued growth over time. To wit, I have created the following poem:
Lay it Down
oak knot? That elegant
turn of grain
in the board?
how layer after layer of
wood was laid
was lost! It’s
or die, my friend, and
beautiful of it if
Of course there
be no forgetting, and
can never be what it would
Can you see how the tree
This idea, I think, can be applied to the regeneration of our lands and communities. I think of the devastation of mountaintop removal mining, of which I do not intend to make light and the effects of which I am not minimizing. I am simply aware that Life is in the business of transformation. Time will show us what the world can make of these devastated places, and I would bet that though the scars will never go away, we will also find some beautiful surprises. Another example is the oyster mushrooms that have been bred to consume spilled petroleum. Who could have imagined that? How about the loss of communal knowledge, habits, and practice of grain harvest mentioned above? To move into a sustainable future for agriculture, which is to say for all of us and our relationship to the world, we will have to grow around these kinds of knots. A sustainable culture, agriculture, and society will be characterized by the growth that follows such traumas, and much of its beauty will derive from that growth.
A tree, an ecosystem, a culture can be shaped as much by their turbulent losses as by their successful peacetimes, and the astute eye can read in the emergent patterns of growth a living memory (not a dry record) of the traumas and resilience that have happened there. As often happens, I am reminded of Emily Saliers’ line from the Indigo Girls song Everything in its Own Time, “When the winds have blown things ‘round and back again, what was once your pain will be your home.”
I’ve been generalizing here, but another aspect of all this that fascinates me is how each bioregion, each community, each farm undergoes this same process of trauma and resilience. It will be interesting (in moments when we are not panicking) to see what forms emerge from the current and coming turbulence. Easy times induce uniformity (not exclusively) whereas adversity engenders diversity (except when it doesn’t), as each set of circumstances influences the shape of its own solutions. Like so many aspects of life on Earth, the principles are universal, many patterns are translatable, but the results are inevitably specific and particular. It’s like the pattern of highly populated herbivores browsing off all the lower leaves of the trees in an area (or in the case of giraffes and acacias, the upper leaves). It might be different herbivores, and different tree species, and that makes endemic, local combined patterns, but each pasture or woodlot—even each tree—is its own version of that pattern. I am also reminded (while I’m in the song lyric mode) of Paul Simon’s ironic Myth of Fingerprints lyric, “…I’ve seen them all and, man, they’re all the same.” This is a fertile paradox!
So our family structure reflects the loss of a daughter, but has grown to something beautiful it wouldn’t have been any other way. We appreciate the beauty, we remember the loss. The lovely oaks that populated the old fence row uphill from our house we regretfully took down to reduce risk of damage to our house. Those seven logs full of knots and twists from growing in the open all those decades ago became the flooring of our great room; we remember the loss of those tree and marvel at their beauty and will for years to come. Our farm bears the scars of devastating erosion: the legacy of wheat and barley monocultures in this valley. We’ll make use of the old gullies to direct water to a pond (we hope) someday. The systems that emerge from our specific histories become functional stories full of memory, and like trees they are often shaped as much by losses as by reaching for light.
This summer has felt especially full of this dynamic for our family. It has been valuable and challenging to accompany our daughter Kali as she navigates aging and illness in some of her pet poultry. The much-beloved Buttercup the Chicken is about six years old and beginning to ail at times. Recently she seemed to have a bout with an intestinal infection, and things didn’t look too good for a few days. Thankfully some probiotics in the form of fermented feed, some isolation, reduced grain intake, increased plant intake, vinegar in her water, exercise and time seem to have worked their wonders, and she’s back in the saddle! But she is still an old bird and I would bet on a fatty liver, given her lovely life of ample grain feeds. Meanwhile, the last of Kali’s original ducks, Dragonfly, who had been slowly declining over several months, began to show signs of increased weakness, but her ailments were overshadowed by the concern lavished on Buttercup. While Kali was in WVA with grandparents and cousins this week, one evening we noticed her almost unable to walk. I helped her into the coop at bedtime, feeling how emaciated she was, yet with a body full of fluid, and sometime during the night she died. Combined with our dear neighbor’s worsening health at end stages of cancer, and our little friend’s death mentioned above, this has resulted for me in a sense of the fullness of life and death all around us. The following poem emerged:
and the mat of
covers the ridges and shelves of bedrock, that
into the seas of their
flesh is surging
in earnest, many of its myriad forms—linked
in their life dance with the others—now
their children into
of beginnings and endings that pulsed them
There are so many
What does that
about death? For we who
life and each other,
is on all sides: long,
branches of it. The
invite you: Reach out
fill your hand, pluck and
own juicy piece of
Though this website is a public space and this year’s writing is devoted to public issues with which we are involved and to which we are dedicated, still I have purposely chosen to incorporate personal story into these thoughts on the usefulness and necessity of grief work in the development of an approach to sustainable agriculture that has integrity, because just as our farm can, I hope, be one of the microcosms and testing grounds for patterns of sustainable human land use, so, I hope, can our lives be microcosms for understanding how to incorporate loss into resilient forms of living in a broader sense. Will you join us in bringing your experiences honestly to bear on the project of healing our culture? Can we, together, be a forest of stories, memories so alive they burst off bark, a living record of years of deprivation, openings in the canopy, the breaking of our limbs, fire and lightning, disease and pestilence, growth and joy, and always a reaching for the light? Pain, loss, disappointment, suffering…we do not need these things and need not invite them. But our communities need to see and become familiar with our process of response to them, hopefully thereby gaining the courage to face the work of grief that we must all embrace together.
Which leads me to the last poem this month’s events and reflections have cast up on my shore. It is a response to a tree planting event that happened a few weeks back to commemorate the life of the toddler I mentioned above who so tragically passed away. We were among the group that came together to speak our memories, condolences, and grief pertaining to that special child and his unbelievable passing. The Red Maple came from our woods, and now stands alone on the side of a hill above the house he was living in with a soulful and spectacular mountain valley small town view.
Planting the Maple
We stood on a hill to plant a tree.
We gathered to leave it in the sun and wind.
We came to bury together what one had dug.
We changed a place; we started something new.
I will end with the following meditative story that I created in response to events around the impending loss (to prostate cancer) of my friend, mentor, and neighbor:
Versions of Paradise
Walking up my neighbors’ steep driveway, I startled some deer. Mildly, it would seem—the doe and her two fawns paced lightly across the pavement, then through a clearing and into the underbrush, not much concerned. They are surrounded, in this leafy season, with food and shelter. This was their paradise I was walking through.
I was on my way to help my dear friend into the car, or rather to help his wife help him into the car. They needed to visit the hospital for a CT scan to troubleshoot his symptoms, and the cancer has been taking his abilities rapidly…this is the first time I was called to help.
I remember many times he and I spent together when I was his farm employee, pruning and picking peaches, blueberries, grapes, the hours laced with laughter and with talk of religion, agriculture theory, our histories, music, and psychology.
As his health deteriorated from several causes, some mysterious, some clear, I worked more alone. But his knowledgeable voice rang in my ears the while, and of course the evidence of his thought and care were all over the land. We’d try not to get too distracted by our mutual interests when I checked in for more instructions or with a question. We were not always successful. Eating my packed lunch in their little kitchen was always a highlight, since that is when we would get to indulge our friendship more. He’d put on some music he wanted me to hear, or we’d talk about current events, personal or public, or whatever else was on our minds.
The time then came when his health was depleted enough that most of the fruit work had to be turned over to a hired farm manager, and since my family life did not allow me to assume that role, my employment there, always part time, came to be even more sporadic. I was on call for special tasks in need of doing around the farm and house, including problem solving and remodeling to improve the health, comfort, and function of their home environment as well as the farm buildings, and some involvement with his chicken raising and breeding hobby—a strong mutual interest and a privilege for me. Eventually, most of the systems got the bugs worked out, so my employment there trickled to a stop. And for my family it was just as well: our home, gardens, animals, and family life had been on a steady crescendo all this time, and now it was getting to where there were no truly spare hours. I was glad for the chance to focus on what I am vocationally about in this world (understanding and practicing sustainable food systems), but I missed those moments of connection. However, several years after I started working for them, we had taken an opportunity to buy the deed to a six acre place adjoining the farm. Being neighbors gave us reasons to interact other than employment, and though it wasn’t as frequent as we all would have liked, we did stay in touch and visited back and forth regularly.
In the years since his prostate cancer diagnosis, we have all lived with the knowledge that the time might well come when the art of medicine would run out of tricks for holding the disease at bay, and it would claim him. A year or two back it became clear that indefinite remission was sorely unlikely. Now, when I was walking up to help maneuver him into his car, his body too wasted by disease and treatments to support its own transport, it was heavy on my mind that that fearsome moment was bearing down on us.
Entering their small, cozy house again—the house he’d built himself and I’d helped repair and modify—I found him disoriented but pleasant. He fumbled to put his handkerchief somewhere (He couldn’t figure out where…at his wife’s gentle suggestion he chose his shirt pocket), then asked for help knowing where to put his hands to hoist himself off the loveseat and into the wheelchair. The three of us made our way safely out the door and to the car. One more careful transfer to the car seat, and another treacherous passage had been traversed. While we waited for his steadfast and patient caregiver (his wife) to get some things together, I decided for both of our sakes to try some small talk, farmer style. “Well, we could use a little rain”, I think I said. In a moment his eyes cleared and his gaze leveled; his mouth formed a small smile. “Are things getting pretty dry?” He asked. We went on to talk about a gardening item or two, and the breed of hogs we are trying this year. He was right there with all of it.
Later that day, I was walking past the garden, where I had just set the sprinkler to heaving its scattered stream of pumped subterranean water (old rain stored deep in the soil) into the hot breeze; the peppers and sweet potatoes drank in the relief. My boots scuffed on the dusty, hard soil. In that summer afternoon I just wanted to lay down and close my eyes against the heat, the brightness, the grief. But there was work to do, so I kept moving.
By the garden gate, something caught my eye. In the middle of all the green and brown, there by the filbert bush, a dot of blue on the ground. When I reached it I found it was a male Indigo Bunting, alive but consumed with panting: apparently exhausted in the heat. I could lift him in my hand; he offered no resistance, couldn’t seem to muster fear. Any foraging, omnivorous small mammal would have snapped him down in a few seconds, and any snake large enough to swallow him would have been delighted…he was a helpless morsel. But what happened is that I, instead, found him. Not that I knew I could do him any good, but thinking it could be that he had simply run out of water, I placed him in the shade of a sweet potato leaf inside the garden fence and left him there with cool water falling all around.
The next day I was walking near the garden again and suddenly remembered the bunting. I went right to the place I had left him, thinking maybe I would find him curled against the earth in death, or there would be a few of his cobalt iridescent feathers scattered where an owl had found him in the night. But I could find no trace of him.