While a lot can be said for well researched books, fine-tuned ideologies, and gurus, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about growing food and raising livestock have come from mistakes, observation, and my continually developing relationship to living systems. With so many authors, activists, and agriculturalists touting their own (sometimes dogmatic) approach to growing food as the solution to all crises in our changing climate, I can’t help but think, “Yes, more of all of it, please.”
Whether you’re raising livestock on grassland ecosystems, growing crops utilizing no-till principles, streamlining organic production for economic viability, or planting out elaborate orchards with dynamic biological relationships, it’s all necessary, needed, and your own particular spin on things is the absolute epitome of co-creation with the Universe.
As a woman in agriculture, I’ve been forced to confront endless suspicions that my own choices on a particular landscape are wrong or misguided. In this new age of internet trolling, I’ve been encouraged time and time again to seek out the prominent theories of men, usually white (always?), dead and alive, holding all of the answers to the absolute correct methods for deriving nourishment from land. I have swallowed all of my gut reactions about the stymying of diverse voices in this realm and done my best to let my work speak for itself.
I’ve decided that I like to think of myself less as an expert, practitioner, or guide and more as a poet. It is safer this way on these internet streets and helps keep me out of trouble. I’m just a human, out here interacting with the land, literally learning something new everyday. My success doesn’t come from a set of rules that I’ve come to follow, but more from a dedication to adaptation, to intimacy with my natural spaces, and from a deep curiosity and reverence that tunes me to the flow of my landscape. It doesn’t always rhyme, but sometimes, lordy, does it sing.
For someone who is just beginning their journey getting to know the land they intend to grow with, I suggest taking some time for the wide lens approach. Many books will delve deeply into the specific details that brought success to the author and this is very important inspiration. It can give you added tools for achieving your own goals with the land and may even become something you riff on and make better within your own operation. What a book can’t give you is a sense of place. Getting to know the ecological resonance of your own little piece of heaven is a challenging journey you must face on your own.
What works seamlessly on one operation, housed within one ecotype, may not fit so perfectly within the mineral, biological, and meteorological setting you’re working with. The good news is, through observation and obsessive tweaking, you can use the inspiration you get from other growers as a jump off point for how you may adapt your own operation to synchronize with what’s already happening on your land. Below I’d like to take us all the way out--out of the fields and into the biggest picture possible--and talk about the 5 Elements. These forces are not only present in the big picture, they are working tirelessly in every single nook and cranny of your farm or garden and their formative dynamics, when balanced, can bring long term productivity and fertility to the landscape.
I know that the elements bring many different ideas into your mind depending on your own experiences. Some of y’all are thinking of Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine, while others still are getting stoked on some Avatar the Last Airbender. While all of these versions of the elements are slightly different, the concept is the same. There are archetypal rhythms and signatures that facilitate the dynamic interplay of life on Earth and they each contribute something important to our living world. Below I will call them forward and give a brief overview of how you might begin to observe them within your own operation in hopes of inspiring the development of systems that harmonize with their more predictable rhythms.
Water is life and you’d better not forget it. Farming now in Vermont, it is easier than ever to take this most rare and precious living mineral for granted. I need only remember the hot drought conditions that brought incredible vulnerability to my gardens in south and central Georgia or take a peak at any news outlet for the current state of California for a harsh reminder of how essential this life force truly is. Like all of the elements, when it is harmonized within the system it can bring longevity, even during times of stress. When it is imbalanced, it can flood, erode, and devastate. When working with this element you have to let your thoughts flow.
If you are working in an area where there isn’t enough of it, you have to observe where it comes from and when (seasonal rains, transpiration, morning dew, etc.) You have to set up ways of catching it, slowing it down, and increasing the amount of surface area it touches before it descends into the water table. As water disappears from a sun caked landscape it can reduce the plant’s access to nutrients which can lead to poor harvests and unhealthy livestock. Increasing organic matter in beds helps build a biological sponge that can retain water, even as it becomes less available from lack of rain.
When you are working in an area where it is abundant, you have to think about how it moves. How does it flow through the property? What does it pick up and deposit? Where does it want to go and how can you get it there with the least disturbance to your own goals on the land as possible? Too much water in a growing space can lead to overly lush conditions; the cells of plants and animals can become engorged, making them more susceptible to fungus and disease. Over watering a garden can weaken plants in a similar way and contribute to shallow root growth, limiting the plant’s essential relationships to organisms mining for the micronutrients the plants seek from the subsoil.
In both areas of lack and excess it is important to think about what goes into the water. Water being involved in the chemical life processes, is prone to picking up soluble materials and carrying them downstream. What potential soluble materials are entering or leaving your system through the water? What remedial landscape features (wetlands, riparian buffers, native plantings,) can you add to your property to reduce these pollutants? Seeing healthy frogs in standing water and macroinvertebrates in streams and rivers are a good sign that your operation is contributing to water wellness as opposed to reducing it.
The importance of managing the air element on the property is most obvious in situations where strong winds knock over livestock shelters, lodge corn or cover crops, and playfully destroy high tunnels and greenhouses. Air flow is increasingly becoming more severe during storms and setting up appropriate buffers around cultivated fields, greenhouses, and in and around livestock pasture can prevent serious damage to costly infrastructure and eliminate constant stress in valuable stock. Trees, with their leaves, needles and branches, have the power to take strong winds and break them into eddies that are much less destructive.
Maybe somewhat less obvious is when air becomes stagnant in a place and contributes to acidification. We can see this more easily in situations involving water, where the lack of air contributes to the anaerobic breakdown of materials and attracts acid loving flora and fauna, but this lack of air is equally powerful in changing the nature of soil. In soils where airflow has been stamped out through compaction, the acidification of the landscape becomes evident in the types of plants and mosses that grow and the lack of wellness achieved by our crops. Keeping soil biology stimulated through the introduction of rock powders, kelp, and other minerals and limiting tilling regimes can encourage soil organisms to build back into the soil the precious airways that keep the soil breathing and healthy.
Stagnant air can also be a problem in the garden when it comes to densely planted crops in situations of high humidity. If certain tender plants, like tomatoes, are grown without proper airflow in hot and steamy conditions, they can become more susceptible to disease. Similarly, air pollution can reduce the vitality of your farm system by clogging up stomata and pores and the incorporation of woody and herbaceous perennials can help mitigate some of the negative effects.
Being the carrier of light and the gaseous forms of all elements, air and openness are essential in allowing plants and animals to derive proper nourishment from the life giving rays of the sun and the nutritious, roaming nutrients of the atmosphere.
While warmth and light are partners in creation, it is important to note that light often travels to while warmth radiates from. Fire is an essential element in the establishment of biological communities both in the way that warmth is a life giving phenomenon and equally in the fiery processes of reproduction. We see fire most obviously in its most basic form as the burning of carbonaceous materials. Burning, in this way, is a very cleansing activity and has been used in forest management schemes all over the world throughout the ages. Fire, like all of the 5 elements, is incredibly dangerous when it is imbalanced and can instantly cleanse the life force right out of large patches of ecological communities. Fire can also be used to refine materials, such as the carbon structures of plant materials in biochar, to produce a differently charged, porous material with the power of slowly releasing nutrients and stabilizing heavy metals in soils.
When it comes to managing the fire element on a property, this can be as simple as managing a proper woodlot for producing the literal fire that will warm the homestead or cook the meals, to the more complex management of the energies that lead to seed formation and fruit. Thinking of fire as warmth, we draw special attention to the early blooms of fruiting perennials during the threats of late spring frosts and the incredible friction that occurs when a baby sheep gets pushed from the womb.
The fire element is an important aspect of the kinetic energy of the landscape, or the farm’s ability to support organisms capable of high levels of activity through movement. When the fire element on a farm is in good balance, animals of all kinds are able to derive sustenance from the land and impart their significant gifts. One of the essential gifts that comes from managing a landscape where diverse, mobile organisms interact is the proper balancing of predator and prey ratios. Similarly, a farm that can support the health and well being of large ruminants such as cows is typically operating from a deep and nourishing ecological wellness derived from all of the elements in flux.
When it comes to farming, the earth element may be easiest to identify. The carbon realms of formative structure that we interact with on a daily basis are literally grounded in soil, which we often call earth. Earth as an element is definitely a serious governing force for the mysterious communities of the soil, but the earth element is present in everything from worms to the birds that eat them. When we are managing our farm for earthen energies, we are looking closely at the ways in which our farm is built.
The bones and stems, the way the timber grows and grows; all of the materials that are finely crafted from the elusive and ambient energies that make their way into our landscapes are sorted by this dynamic energy. Taking the soft whispers of the cosmos and weaving them into material form is a specialty of the earth element and its powerful relationship to the other elements.
When imbalanced, this element can find our fields desertifying and lifeless, unable to muster up the strength to lift any organisms from the soil into the atmosphere. Where the earthen energies are too great, the garden will produce leaf after leaf of beautiful, lush growth without fruit set or seed. This over abundance of form and structure must be balanced with fire and the other elements for the land to move from simple productivity to long term regeneration and fertility.
There are many definitions for the term ether and I’m not here to say that I am the guru knowing the right and proper meaning. My understanding of ether may be slightly different from what you come up with from your own experiences and I think that’s an important part of our time on this planet: to see things through different eyes. In my own experience, ether is the essence or signature of each of the elements. While ether can be defined and classified on its own, it is gives a voice to each of the elements and is the conductor of their great orchestration. Ether, to me, is not so much the forces themselves, but the space in time or consciousness that brings their essence to life.
These different signatures or archetypes of the elements are given life or activity through the consciousness of the present moment. Just as our deeds start out as thoughts and dreams, the physical manifestation of life within our farms and gardens must coalesce from forces beyond the physical. Our real power in working with ether is to observe and understand the elements in our operations and think behind them. What does the farm dream about in the winter before the first sprouts and tubers break free from the Earth? How is our own consciousness tied to the land, stirring up what may manifest in our harvest totes and on our market tables?
Our mindfulness in the garden can allow the different ethers of each element to bring balance into the greater picture. The elements themselves, once identified, can be monitored through their relationships to measurable rhythms such as the seasons, the movements of the cosmic bodies, and the rhythmic dancing of water, stimulated by the orbiting moon.
Darby Weaver has spent the last decade growing Biodynamic produce in the Southeast and teaching holistic and ecological methods to learners of all ages and backgrounds through articles, agriculture intensives, workshops, and lectures. She has recently moved to the Northeast with her husband to begin a new venture on 20 acres in Wolcott, Vermont. You can read all of Darby's Mother Earth News posts here.
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