Agritherapy on the Farm
Reprinted from Biodynamics Journal, Nov. 2009
When I first suggested our farm guest, Nina, spend time lying under the path of the bees, I sensed her self-consciousness and hesitancy. We walked up to the hive where a thick clump of bees filled the air around the entrance. We chose a spot about ten feet from the hive to lie on our backs in the grass. I said, “Let’s see what we notice about the bees, about ourselves.”
The bees flew above us, revealing their travel paths, their pollen-laden bodies swooping in and out of the hive with precision and grace. The air vibrated with the enlivening sound, folding us into a place where our small sense of self disappeared into a far larger presence. I felt the bees’ enthusiastic anticipation of the honey fields beyond the trees.
After a few minutes I left quietly. Nina spent another hour watching the hive, then, as she described it, “drifted off into a deep sleep listening to the bees.”
Nina came to us on the recommendation of her sister who found us on the internet. NinaÕs boss suggested she take time off to recharge her batteries. The emotional stress of her job had taken its toll. She struggled with exhaustion, insomnia and worry.
Despite weekly sessions with a counselor, she felt drained and weak, like she had no more to give. Obviously she needed a restful vacation, but she also needed more than time off from work. She needed to find a path back to joy, to generosity, to love.
Like many people who function while surrounded by stress and trauma, she hardened herself, closed down her senses to keep from being overloaded with information that didn’t nurture her. While that may seem a rational way to deal with a harsh environment, is it healthy to stay cut off from the natural world? Without a connection with Nature, can we live up to our full potential? Can we fruitfully interact with friends and family?
Nature is the well we drink from and without it we lose touch with the source of life. Daily we need to replenish and invigorate our souls. A heartfelt connection to Nature brings us back into the primal co-creative partnership with the world around us and shows us how to contribute to our community.
Dear little hens
We earn our living by teaching farm classes and offering farm-stays to people who want to awaken their senses. Unlike a bed and breakfast, our guests make their own beds, eat with us and help with dishes. Then they take part in whatever we’re doing that day — lugging hay, prepping compost, packing or digging up cow horns, preparing meals, grooming the animals, singing to seeds we’re planting, or turning the day’s harvest into dinner.
In our classes we provide groups with practical step-by-step instruction in orchard skills, cooking, composting, food preservation, caring for bees, horses and chickens and other topics. Our agritherapy guests, however, get more personal one-on-one direction that leads them to learn more about nature and themselves.
Our friend, John Takacs, an anthroposophic physician in nearby Portland, OR, insightfully told us, “I can trace every disease my patients have back to a disconnection with nature.” His encouraging words and our own observations led us to ask our farm to help bring people back to harmony.
For the past six years we’ve invited people to stay in our roomy farmhouse, immersing them in our nature-filled life. Though we didn’t start out with a goal of changing their lives, we surely noticed, as did they, that something marvelous happened to them after a few days on the farm.
We don’t have alarm clocks, cable TV or newspapers to unnerve us. Instead we have birdsong. No automatic dishwasher either; we’ve found those machines altered the pleasant after-dinner time when we continue conversation while we all clean up. Our days begin with a leisurely breakfast, animal and garden time, and the pleasure of each others’ company in tasks done together throughout the day interspersed with private time in Nature’s hands.
Shared time is just as important as the tasks we do. These times bond us and open us to caring how each of us comes through the day. It helps us know each person, and through that knowing, invites caring about them.
I grew up in a small town and an unstructured life surrounded by animals, pastures, orchards, farm gardens and wildflowers. Unlike many people today, I had plenty of free time in my childhood. After school I went outside and spent nearly every day until dinner exploring field and forest, learning about flowers, fruit, wild edibles and farm animals. I tracked small wild animals and passed immeasurable hours studying the swamp, watching water ripple where it drained into the lake. I taught myself to weave grasses, identify bird songs, and predict the bloom times of trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits. I learned the valuable skills of compassionate observation and focused thinking.
As an adult these skills serve well. Nature taught me to pay attention to everything around me. I feel welcome and comfortable in most situations or, like when given an invitation to leave by a territorial bee, know when it’s wise to go elsewhere.
When someone like Nina arrives, I sit down with her over tea and pie and talk. I ask about her life, her work, stresses she lives with, and what she’d like to learn to take home with her. Answers may range from wanting “a good night’s sleep” to “how to stop,” to “how to remember that childhood sense of connection with the land.”
This conversation is important. It helps me know where to start our Agritherapy and gives permission for this person to step consciously into the natural world with each action we undertake. I come out of this conversation with ideas about how to re-introduce Nature to her.
Though these conversations I begin to recognize what feels strong in them and where they seem to have a “gap” in their presence. As they talk I visit their physical presence and their energetic impress, noticing where they seem resilient or weak, and what their capacity for self-reflection is. Out of these observations I start to design ideas that will begin to reconnect them with Nature and Spirit.
Most often I find people don’t know how to turn off the constant mind talk. They don’t know how to begin to pay attention to the natural world around them.
Most people who come for Agritherapy are sensorily deficient. People who have lost connection with their senses seem to wander in a joyless place, out of touch with the world around them, knowing they are missing something but at a loss to know what it is or how to find it again.
I am thankful for our beloved farm, our main teacher. The farm presents us with constant life- affirming presence in a myriad of ways that encourage observation, deep listening, perception of natural patterns, “blending” time, and the richness of being in harmony with one’s environment.
When Nina and I first approached the bee hive, I described to her all the tasks the bees were doing — going out in search of flowers, returning with nectar and pollen, the midday observation flights of the days’ newest field foragers, the sweet dispositions of the drones, the earnest work of the foragers. I helped her identify the bee-line so we didn’t accidentally stand in it and get a bee tangled in our hair.
Then we laid on the ground under them and I encouraged her to open all her senses and notice sights, scent, sound, subtle taste and feelings. When I left her there, I trusted that the powerfully persistent work ethic of the bees would work their magic on her. An hour later she came back to the farmhouse, journaled for a brief bit and fell into a restful nap that lasted two hours.
I tried my best not to guide her experience too narrowly. I wanted her to see what she noticed, not what I led her to seeing. Autonomy of experience is more important than directing her perception.
Many people don’t know what to do in a garden other than weed and pick, and theyÕre often not very good at either because these tasks are often done without much presence. At the farm we work on heightening our senses to inform our knowing.
Rather than weeding everything but the carrots, I asked her to study what grew nearby, to notice if any plant impinged on the growth of the carrots. I asked her to find one plant that seemed to protect the soil beneath the plants. Then to find another that might be a bit over eager; and another that doesn’t seem to have as much life force as the rest. I encouraged her to notice vibrancy of color, tone and texture. How do different insects interact with these plants? What’s the nature of the soil? How does the breeze affect the plants? What do you feel when you’re noticing all this?
I am not sure what to call these exercises because even naming them takes one out of the experience, and that’s counter to what my intent is. So we take another breath and go deeper.
Over the days to follow we fill the unmeasured time with reflection, dipping into the sensual world that surrounds and embraces us. Our conversations center on truly current events: the enchantment of cows chewing their cud in the field, the warm fullness of the teat, the earnest bleating of the young heifer calling from outside the barn, the vanilla sweet smell of frothy milk in the pail, the heartful satisfaction of Nature’s enfoldment.
Every action, every moment, brings a gift. As the days pass, Nina becomes calmer, more open, softer.
She arrived head down and caught in a loop of worrisome thought, disconnected from her surroundings, with diminished access to her creativity. On her first day I felt her tension even before she entered the room. Now I barely notice her as she journals on the front porch, so quiet has her presence become.
A few times a day she heads off into the fields, gardens or forest, often barefoot, her mouth pleasantly upturned, eyes keen to birds in air. Our ever-generous farm has returned another soul to a conscious life bathed in Spirit.
She’s fitting back into Nature, becoming one with the world again.