Notes from Windward: #70


A Material Life Part II

Completing the Cycle


March 4, 2010

     This morning I started reading the preface to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I know, I know, who sits down to read a cookbook? But there is good information there, I recommend trying it. What I read this morning, in the second sentence of this 1,000 page book, gave me pause enough to stop reading. The editor Marrion Cunningham writes in her preface, published in 1994, "with our busy, complicated, high-tech lives, there seems to be a yearning to be in touch with a simpler, more natural world." She goes onto to explain how preparing home-cooked meals and eating with family and friends is one way we manifest this desire.

     Even sixteen years ago, this wasn't exactly a new observation, but it certainly seems to be one that continues to resonate with many people. I struggle to use the words "simple" and "natural" together, as I have found over the past year of living on this plateau, that rarely is the natural world, including our own human nature, simple. But I understand what Cunningham is trying to say--that many people are longing to lead a real and meaningful life--even if they don't know what that looks like. I hope that this is the driving force behind this current resurgence--this "green" or "sustainability" movement--though, quite frankly, sometimes I am not so sure. The people who have come to Windward over the past few years have come for a variety of reasons and what they often find, whether they were looking for it or not, is a life that is intentional, connected and free.

     Connected. This is how I want to live my life--connected to people, connected to this earth. Our understanding of the world around us is intricately linked to the words, metaphors and mental frameworks that we use, and this influence often escapes our conscious thought process. I have found that using language such as "simple" and "natural" leads even more to the gap between reality and our own fantasies that we will ultimately have to cross if we do seriously endeavor to live what is real and what is true (I have little idea, by the way, what this actually means--in color and in detail--but I have an inkling as to the direction and to the teacher).

     I am perhaps so sensitive to this language because I am beginning to come to terms, at the age of 24, with the gaps between reality and my own fantasies, however grounded and real I thought they were. And it is challenging to reconcile my observations of this physical world with ideas I grew to hold true, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, while living a life apart from the world these ideas were describing. Sometimes nature works in ways counter to our initial understandings--it's not a matter of how we want it to be, it's just a matter of how it is, and it is our responsibility to act accordingly.

     I realize I am being rather vague. But I can assure you, most anyone who seriously endeavors to live a life that is "real" and "true", "simple" and "natural", "connected" and "meaningful", "green" and "sustainable", whatever the words may be, will have to reconcile previously held notions about themselves, human nature and nature itself, with what they see, time and time again, in the physical world. For each person, the details will be different, but the pattern will likely be the same.

     For me, the deepest and most rewarding challenge this past year has evolved around what that great Lion King song said so well--"till we find our place, on the path unwinding, in the circle, the circle of life." We all have come to understand life and death in our own ways, in part because many of us, at least in the U.S., live so separately from the processes that make life possible. Even in the small, rural town in Massachusetts where I grew up, most people were born in hospitals, died in nursing homes, and food, and most every other material we used in our lives, came from the store. So my only real interactions with such notions as "eat or be eaten" and "live and let live" came from watching my cats catch chipmunks and other similar observations I made while playing outside--the rest came from books and Hollywood. And so formed my notions about the world and my place in it--much of it existing simply as ideas, unchallenged, in my head.

     If you are paying attention, on a spring day on this south facing plateau, it is hard not to see life abounding in its most vibrant and delicate of ways. The warmer temperatures and longer days transform the landscape from a dormant hillside into a humming ecosystem. The wildflowers arrive for their brief moment in the sun and along with every other tree, bush and grass partner with the wind and insects in the dance of pollination. Spring is when the goats and sheep give birth, letting the cycle continue for at least one more round. But it is amidst this vibrancy, this creation of new, that life shows its deepest vulnerability. With every bend for sunlight and hunt for pollen, with every budding flower and kidding goat, comes an endless struggle for life that many, if not most, do not survive. Fall and winter may be the seasons that bring an end to the year's abundance and a time of dormancy, but only for the survivors; spring is where the battle takes place, where struggle runs abreast with fervor.

Newborns Lily and Joker are watched over by Dolly

     The most vivid example of this for me is kidding and lambing. We let the boys and girls play together starting around Halloween. With their five month gestation period, the mothers then give birth in the beginning of April, when the worst of the winter is over, and the burst of green is not far off. Helping with the timing, however, is about all we do to assist the mothers. Since we are not a commercial operation, we want quality not quantity in our animals. We want sheep and goats that are well adapted to our climate and conditions, mothers that can care for their young, kids and lambs that are survivors.

Luna, an abandoned lamb

     Occasionally we will step in to "save" and bottle raise an abandoned lamb, as we did with Pip this past year, or assist in a difficult birthing, as we did with Jewell, but these are more exceptions than the rule. In nature, less than half of the young survive each year, and it is not necessarily our role to change this. So with every season of birthing, there are kids and lambs that simply do not survive. This spring, with Jewell's death, it became readily clear how dangerous the birthing process, the very step necessary to create new life, is for the mother too.

     It is this apparent paradox that is the foundation of life. Life comes from death and death from life, it is all part of this intricate and never ending cycle. Perhaps nowhere is this more readily apparent than with food. The food we put into our bodies transforms life from one form into another and is one of our most intimate connections with the world around us. And if you eat from your own garden or raise your own animals, you are literally eating the land you live on--you are connected, in your very cells, to that place and its processes. As you tighten the cycle of nutrients that enable the life support systems to function, and supply more and more of the resources you use from the land base you live on, the connected web becomes ever more intricate and complicated. The fat, the blood, the bone--it all gets used, to make soaps and creams, to make fertilizers for the soil. These are the materials of life. They are at times disgusting to deal with, but if you want to live from this earth and not rely on fossil fuels to recreate the material world, they will always be essential.

     We recently harvested one of the sheep, Pepper, a mother who abandoned her lambs last spring. Click Here for a picture of Opalyn, Lindsay and Sarah watching as Carina tries her hand at skinning [warning: graphic imagry].

      With each birthing season, the herd can at least double in size and so we have to cull out animals--the weakest or the least adapted to our program-- in order to respect the carrying capacity of the land. Over the past year, I have participated in the killing and butchering of many animals here, primarily chickens and rabbits, gaining an increasingly deeper understanding of the process. However, Pepper was the first creature that we invited to dinner that I really knew and interacted with as an individual. It only felt right to calm her, head in hands, in the moments prior to her death, knowing that a sharp knife cuts painlessly. I have not eaten meat in 14 years, and as I watched Pepper drift into unconsciousness, and then die, I knew that the only way I could truly honor her life was to make part of her body my own.

     This is a strange desire, but it is a deep one--wanting her life to nourish mine. From body to body. It is not a simple desire, but it sure does feel like a natural one. Living life without engaging directly in the processes and materials that give us life certainly is less messy and allows us to continue with our fantasies of how the world works. But at what cost? To ourselves, to other people, and to the earth?

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70