We sat down to dinner and Catherine said, “Let’s offer up our thanks for this beautiful meal.” She paused and about to begin asks me, “Would you like to offer up the blessing, Lilly?” This blessing has been offered at every meal at my grandmother’s home since I can remember. The words come easily.
‘Thank you, Great Mystery for all in Creation who participated in bringing this meal to our table. Thank you for their time, their love, their service, and their sacrifice so that we may be nourished and we, in turn, may be of service to others.’
The blessing invoked, we now turn our attention to savoring the meal before us.
Summer is in full swing so there’s an abundance of just-picked vegetables and fruits. Some from Catherine’s gardens and others purchased at the local farmers’ market that she frequents every Saturday morning, having mentally rehearsed what is available on any given week from March through December. She plans her meals on the season’s current offerings: dandelions in the spring along with ramps and asparagus; lettuce and robust greens to purify the blood and awaken the body after Winter’s sedentary rhythms. But it is summer now and our feast is lavish: eggplant fantails, pesto pasta, heirloom tomatoes served with feta, Kalamata olives, fresh herbs, olive oil, and a balsamic reduction. The bounty from our farm was marinated in olive oil, with lots of garlic, lemon slices, and lemon juice. Berries are plentiful along with the super sweet melon that Catherine’s neighbor raises. There are bowls of lemon curd, crème-anglaise, and whipped cream to compliment the fruit.
As I look out past the pergola where we are seated, there is plenty of evidence of Catherine’s steadfast efforts; always the loving midwife assisting nature to bring forth her abundance. She studied and implemented Rudolf Steiner’s methods more than thirty years ago, his double-dug beds in evidence even now. She read Wendell Berry. Later bolstered by Bill Mollison’s permaculture and its departure from traditional agricultural practices and she’s coaxed many winter crops by implementing Eliot Coleman’s pioneering work with low tunnel houses and select crops that will withstand frigid temperatures. On her bookshelves you’ll still find copies of ‘The One Straw Revolution,’ ‘Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual’, ‘The Unsettling of America’, ‘What is Biodynamics?: A Way to Heal & Revitalize the Earth’, ‘Four Season Grower’, ‘The New Organic Grower’ shelved along with Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’ Thoreau and Emerson. This place is a tribute to her convictions; woven into the tapestry, the importance of place, growth, renewal and the expression of gratitude. Although rarely spoken of, Catherine is a mystic. She has always approached life with reverence and a great sense of wonder; always on the lookout for revelation, what knowledge might yet be garnered from nature’s unfolding mystery or apprehended in the unseen world.
The blueberries are plentiful now. There are varieties planted on the side facing the pasture that are native and more appealing to the birds. Just behind these, on the side bordering the house and gardens, she planted varieties that appeal to the human palate. Ever the pragmatist, she sees this as an act of diplomacy and respect for all in creation who wish to enjoy them. Living in harmony, everyone and everything is nurtured and supported.
The brambles are the handy work of bird droppings and become a habitat for mice, and rabbits too. The brambles create a natural fence along another border of the extensive gardens – nature’s defense against early frost, wind and unwanted scavengers who having been plied with berries are somewhat deterred before making their way to the Swiss chard, lettuce and leafy greens planted on the other side at the edge of the garden. Some sacrifices will be made, offerings of gratitude for all who contribute to making overabundance possible. The cycle of ‘give and take’ is ever-present in Catherine’s cultural practices.
This is the schoolroom that I grew up in. The spiritual lessons were gleaned from the wilds: the birds, the four-leggeds, insects, wind, rain, sun, decay, death and renewal, excess and lack. I could not have been more richly educated and rewarded. In time, I would learn to appreciate this extravagance as my inheritance and Catherine often wordlessly supplied the wisdom. In that ubiquitous schoolroom, a sense of wonder accompanied my playtime, my learning and eventually my work. As a child, I soon mastered the names of birds and their calls. I learned taxonomy long before I could fully understand the meaning of the word as if by osmosis, nature ever generous revealing its richness and secrets for the observant seeker.
And I would learn of Nature’s tempest, Nature’s torrent, and Nature’s withholding and to learn of nature’s profuse extravagance. And after nature’s devastation, we witnessed nature’s persistence, tenacity, and will. Each season its own spectacle offering up revelations, gems gathered along the path: hoarfrost, fog, ice storms, spring thaw, fireflies; the dismantling of milkweed pods in summer to reveal the mermaid inside; the song of the wood thrush, the mating dance of the woodcock – each informing of the splendor and the tragedy inherent in temporal and corporeal life. None of the lessons that would be thrust upon me as I stepped into adult life could have been apprehended with curiosity, imparting their wisdom had I been raised within the confines of a townhouse or the civility of town life.
As a girl, nowhere was nature’s exuberance more apparent than in its flora. Learning the names of native plants and wildflowers eventually led to creating a unique calendar. Here, time is marked by the appearance and faithful return of native plants and wildflowers; their short-lived emanations adding to the spectacle. This calendar departs from convention and begs tolerance for variance in the start and length of season from year-to-year. Where some might appear early one season, the previous season’s insistence on remaining a week or so longer or passively moving on determines the emergence and disappearance of the next.
Should amnesia overtake me, I could name the season, regain my bearings by what my surroundings reveal: spring beauties, blood-root, trillium, hepatica, trout lily, bluets, anemone, blue cohosh, may apple, wild ginger, waterleaf, day lily, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, Joe Pie weed, ironweed, goldenrod, each in succession. The scent of the air lends confirmation; the cool earthiness of spring, the innocent, fragile growth that only spring can command – unwavering bravery on the heels of winter. Here the miraculous occurs at such a rapid rate as to nearly become unremarkable; the fullness of summer punctuated by the rhythmic rasping of locusts at nightfall, August’s enchantment; the fecund scent of fall; the vivid display of autumn foliage in riotous colors as a final tribute before the fall and winter’s inertia.
Winter offers its own magic; the frigid air deepening my awareness of my physical boundaries, a sharp demarcation of where I begin and where the environment envelops me. Bare trees and winter sunsets, the iteration of branches in ever diminishing likeness reaching up toward the heavens perceived against the refracted light of the season; the earth tilted away, the oblique sunlight and atmosphere traveled producing winter’s unique palette, intensifying color often absent in this dormant season. I sit here lost in pleasant memories; they were and are the architecture that informs and creates my perceptions, the blueprint that guides, yet never insists. I was born an innocent, as we all are, then dwarfed and misguided by the singularity of perception required by the world. But I always regain a sense of who I truly am when apprehended by this generous state.
There are summer days when the light of the sun shines upon the grasses, the trees, and fields with an intensity that lies beyond the ordinary. The hills and the marsh are charged with an energy that lies beyond the pale. My awareness is awakened; I am possessed by greater senses. Colors, sounds, and scents are vivid, experienced more acutely. In these moments, I experience immense gratitude, my heart swells and offers thanks to the Vast Benevolence that pierces and permeates this reality pouring its knowing into all things as if to say “I am here! I am everywhere!” I can never predict these moments. This Intelligence knows no vanity and is unimposing by nature. It is up to me to pick up the trail, never knowing what gifts it may bestow or what deceits it will illuminate and then reduce to rubble.
Just around the corner, I hear Catherine’s voice; it’s the retelling of a story often told, the unraveling of the prayer of gratitude. I pick up bits of the conversation. Julia, my daughter, is unknowingly being initiated. This rite of passage at the tender age of five is Catherine’s expanding upon the prayer’s meaning; the instruction, implications, and responsibilities that lie within its invocation. As I listen, I remember when the lesson was first imparted, much in the same way Julia is now being instructed. Grandma, a modern-day griot, tells a tale infused with wisdom. It is a story of interconnectedness, of our place in an intricate tapestry, this web that inextricably binds the micro and the macro, abundance and scarcity, ebb and flow, contraction and expansion. These are never entertained in a dualistic framework, but as incremental movements toward and away from, cyclical in nature. Rhythms long recognized by native cultures, a story embedded, rooted in their mythologies. Sadly, that rhythm has long been disrupted, marked by our departure, our slow and unconscious breach from our natural cycles, seeing ourselves as separate and above nature, reducing the aliveness of nature to commodities to be harnessed, subdued and modified for our benefit, missing the ramifications of these changes until reduced to obsolescence.
“The young farming family just down the road” Catherine begins, “came from Honduras twelve years ago. They have worked since that time at creating a way to make a living that brings them joy and a way to support their family. They love gardening, raising chickens and goats. They work hard and their efforts are rewarded. They came from the outskirts of La Esperanza, a region where life is centered primarily on agriculture. The cool climate in this area makes it possible to raise strawberries, potatoes, and apples, staples unique to this region. Here, they are gardeners and cheesemakers. The goats were a new venture for them and with study and effort they have become skilled and create what is called artisanal cheese.”
“Now imagine Julia, a day in the lives of the Solorzano family. Up early during the growing season and working late into the evening,” Catherine continues. “They rely on the sun, the rain, the warmth and long days of the season to feed their chickens, their goats and their crops which in turn feed them and many of us. Without their dedication and labor sometimes late into the night, we would not be the beneficiaries of their loving efforts. Then, we must consider the soil itself, the tiny microorganisms and nutrients that make it possible for those strawberries, potatoes and other crops to grow and nourish us; and so, we thank all of them.” Catherine pauses now allowing Julia to take this in.
Soon the story will take a turn and Julia will be introduced to Rumi. For this occasion, Catherine will select Coleman Barks’ translation of “Chickpea to Cook” chosen for the lesson it imparts about how we are all in service to one another. Later, Catherine will talk of the Farmers Market and the beautiful foods made available to us for our growth, so that as the prayer says “we too might be of service to others.” “And what is our unique contribution? How will be assist others?” Catherine will ask. “Doing what we love, Julia; doing what fills our hearts with purpose.” She will conclude for the night and pick up the thread at a later time knowing the importance of repetition in keeping this knowledge present and alive. Next time the emphasis may fall on the goat droppings and chicken litter and worm castings and their contribution to creating a living medium and nourishment for seeds that grow into plants, herbs, trees and more seeds. Pollination will be explained in terms Julia can appreciate and understand. The story will grow in complexity to match Julia’s growing ability to take in more sophisticated concepts over time.
The ramifications of my education in Catherine’s care were to create an insatiable curiosity that would lead me to explore the inner workings and the diversity of this magnificent organic world, specifically, the tether joining the visible and the invisible. This inner longing would take me to Siberia, the Amazon River Basin, and the Andes to study the medicine of the Shamanic tradition. My Western perspective would be challenged; my understanding broken open. A coherent vision would eventually emerge, a fusion of ancient knowledge, blending the sacred with modern-day science. I would return to my Western origins with a fresh vision and with purpose. In the end, I would return to Catherine’s farm with an agenda of my own, to build upon her empire, if only to add a brick or two to her well-established dream.
Now years later, I have people showing up for the opportunity alone to implement their ideas and innovations, not seeking or needing the accolades of degrees earned or acronyms to follow their names. They are motivated by invention, restorative solutions, and service. Projects are implemented on a small scale, studied for their long-term impact and viability. Caution is informed by the disastrous results of the past so often driven by profitability, swift implementation and professed superior effects. They apply exacting scientific protocol, but before their projects begin to take shape, they already possess a vision and conviction that almost always proves out empirically. There is an intuitiveness that seems to inform their research before the process of proof begins.
There are times of frenetic activity when their projects are fueled by passion, the need to know if their hunches will play out, and the demands of the research. Preliminary results from their trials demand that adjustments be made, a new set of variables implemented based on small intuitive nudges the research subtly suggests; their need to know demands that they step into the unknown. When success is achieved, they celebrate whole-heartedly, offering support for each other’s efforts and victories, all achievements equally acknowledged.
There are periods that follow where little activity is apparent. This seemingly passive period too is fertile; a gestation, a pause allowing for new inspiration to surface and take hold. Some take their leave, going off with backpacks and tents some in groups, others alone. They leave for distant and remote places in pursuit of selfless endeavors; their destinations, where many live in poverty and remain dependent on international aid to feed themselves. They learn the language, become an integral part of village life, participate in ancient rituals. Their authenticity bridges the cultural gap. Once trust is established, work begins. They remediate habitat and implement soil-building methods, water harvesting, and conservation. In time, perennial cropping and edible landscaping replace what was once an arid and infertile landscape adding beauty and providing much-needed nourishment. Empowered and fed, the community is uplifted and inspired and moves from the cares of daily survival to entertaining further progress. A new vision for the future can now take root.
My own research is secondary now. My focus has shifted to mentoring and supporting this dynamic and inventive community. My task is to ask curious questions, fueling their imaginations. There is plenty of evidence to support that invention is fueled by a source beyond this tangible realm. And I am reminded of Catherine’s legacy and the power of a simple prayer invoked at mealtime and its capacity to awaken awareness and set change in motion in ways I could not have imagined or anticipated.