June 21, 2017
Today is the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the tilt of the earth’s axis is most inclined toward the sun. This first day of summer is also called Midsummer, the word I prefer for the day of longest light. It’s called Litha (LEE-ha) by Wiccans, who mark the turning point at which the sun’s brilliance reaches its height at the very same moment the light begins to wane. From today until the Winter Solstice in December, each day will be a tiny bit shorter, until we flow all the way to the shortest day of Yule. The Oak King, at the height of his abundance, surrenders his reign to the Holly King, and the descent begins.
We humans have followed this cycle since we first existed, though the light was doing its thing long before we showed up to poetically invent Oak Kings and Holly Kings. The light will continue long after we’re gone. We trust the light’s descent because, following the Winter Solstice, we know the light will rise. The cycles of light will endure regardless of what we believe. Our faith, or lack thereof, can’t destroy the light. But it can possibly destroy ourselves.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY. The setting was lush and green, the chickens scruffy, the eggs new, the sheep ravenous, the pigs rambunctious. The herbs were diverse, medicinal, fragrant, and in some cases, delicious. The buildings were made of stone: solid and practical and pleasing to the eye. It’s the kind of place that makes you wonder why you ever need to be anywhere else.
Folk religion appeals to me because it centers on our experience in the physical environment. We humans not only utterly depend on the physical environment for our survival, but as physical bodies, we are a piece of that environment. Our “spirits” and “flesh” are one. In revering the seasons, we sanctify the religious practice of our lives, which is feeding ourselves and growing, and tending our natural environment so that the lives we depend upon for our own existence can coexist with us. We feed and nurture ourselves, our fellows, our children, our animals and our land, and learn to function cooperatively with one another. We share.
Stone Barns is in part a school for future farmers, and CEO Jill Isenbarger recognizes that “our future hinges on the investments we make today in the next generation of farmers growing nutritious food in ways that respect the earth, animals and people; in ways that are resilient, diverse and adaptable.”
Seasonal celebrations venerate air, fire and water. These traditions evolved sensibly around the agricultural calendar, around what grows when, how we plant and when we harvest, to what we turn for nourishment. If nourishment is both “physical” and “spiritual,” both physically tangible and emotionally resonant, then what happens to our spirits if our farming fails? How do we nourish our souls when we’ve squandered our ability to nourish our bodies?
Stone Barns counts itself committed to “whole-systems” thinking, and works to convene scientists, nonprofit leaders, government administrators, farmers, entrepreneurs and business people, challenging them to think of the food system in its entirety, to bring all parts to bear in their quest for “a better, more sustainable, more healthful and more just system.” The ways we eat and grow our food affects the world around us: our health, our lands, waters, wildlife, atmosphere, economy and communities. Our rapidly changing climate plays an enormous role, making the act of farming more challenging than ever, with “droughts, plagues of insects and pathogens, or one ‘freak’ storm after another.”
There’s a concept called “holism” that is based on the need to address interrelated variables. The many parts of the whole are in intimate interconnection such that one part can’t be understood without reverence to the whole. From food to folktales, as the early conservationist John Muir wisely pointed out, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So the personal—the morsel of food you deposit into your own mouth—is political, and of course, the political is personal. Our current president’s stunning decision to abdicate responsibility for the health of our physical environment is a cynically short-sighted attack on us all. It hits us right where we live. On the day of longest light, shine a light on this: How do we blind ourselves to the state of the world that supports us? Nature will proceed regardless of what we believe or claim. Lies may abound, but Trumpism isn’t going to destroy the environment. Trumpism is going to destroy our collective ability to survive in the environment.
When the seasons turn, the “veil between worlds” feels thin: we savor the opportunity to extend our psychic borders, to touch something a little past the limits of our understanding. We’re poets and magicians, and the universe is unfathomable. We create art and saviors and faeries and prophets and goddesses to open the portal and allow us a glimpse.
While I sincerely wish differing viewpoints or “faiths” flowed cooperatively together, I’m at a loss about certain “establishment” religions, and can only view them as similarly reductive, irresponsible and self-serving. What story are they telling? Could Trump be their prophet of doom leading us through a foretold transition? As far as I’m concerned, they can keep their Anti-Christs and pussy-grabbers, and I’ll trust my gut and trust the light, which will continue to blaze no matter how much carbon we pump into the air or how much coal we deposit in streams, when our tomfoolery has resulted in our extinction. But I’ll hope for better as I make my seasonal observance, as I gather with my neighbors to collectively savor foods that evoke the sun–tomatoes and peppers and berries–as we burn sage and light the bonfire of our community garden grill. When I recite my Midsummer blessing, I’ll also pray that the American people, in the form of cities and states, universities, companies and organizations, will be bold and bright and massive, will rise to defend our EPA and unite around our planet-wide climate accord regardless of what agenda one destructive and deluded elected official pursues, to share our world in a way that preserves us all.
So mote it be.
Stone Barns Center exists to be a laboratory for learning about and demonstrating agroecological farming, and for catalyzing a culture of eating based on ecosystem health. Central to their work is helping more young farmers succeed on the brink of what will be the largest retirement of farmers in U.S. history; their average age is 58 and climbing, and only 6 percent are under the age of 35. They offer technical training, apprenticeships, business planning, the annual Young Farmers Conference and many other ways of growing farmers.
On a Saturday or Sunday visit to Stone Barns in April through November, participate in seasonal, hands-on activities and drop-in tours, all included with your one-day admission ticket.