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Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Green Wheeling Initiative

My hands in the soil eco-theology transcending my nature-deficit-disorder Farm Yatra summer tour continues as I return to a place I called home for two very formative years in my life: the New Vrindaban bhakti-yoga spiritual community, located in the Appalachian foot-hills of the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, where I had previously lived as a monk in the bhakti tradition. New Vrindaban is the home to the Small Farm Training Center (SFTC) project, a "land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm" with the purpose of creating "community -- a web of supportive relationships -- by making locally grown organic foods readily available and affordable with the use of simple technology." The SFTC wants to create "paradigm warriors" who can "expand the conversation and are fluent in the language of inclusion, kinship and possibility" in relation to our existential ecological crisis. I'll be here for over a month and I will be blogging on the many facets of this dynamic and spiritually revolutionary project.
For my previous Yoga of Ecology blogs on my time with the biodynamic Episcopal sisters at Bluestone Farm in Brewster, NY, click here and here.
The photo above is an epitome of the potential and reality of urban agriculture. This is the 18th Street Overpass Garden in Wheeling, W. Va., one of the community gardens which is part of the Green Wheeling Initiative. The image juxtaposes so much of what it means to try to create a green-collar economy, a sense of ownership and empowerment over one's local community and local food sources. The beautiful garden, deep in its nourishing color and emanation of a literally life-giving aesthetic, stands in contrast to the huge modern sculpture of the overpass, a type of "artwork" which has long outlived its fashion and utility. The billboard in the background advertises for a local funeral home. One can suppose the ad is hardly needed. There are few more eternally profitable and stable businesses. In a place like Wheeling and in Appalachia, in the "belly of the beast." where nearly one in four people live below the poverty line and where West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in the country, questions of life, health, death, and food culture hang ominously in many spoken and unspoken places. If one can empower the people of Wheeling to create their own local, healthy, and ecologically-sound food culture, then one is creating justice, spiritual hope, and real honest-to-goodness happiness in a place where such things seem to have been long since lost in the most visceral and essential sense.
Standing in the Overpass Garden is Terry Sheldon, one of the founders and movers of the Green Wheeling Initiative, and the head of the Small Farm Training Center project at the New Vrindaban community near Wheeling. I had previously worked with Terry during my time as a monk in New Vrindaban, and I have also written about the SFTC project here. The GWI is an extension of Terry's vision of his own work and service to the local community, driven by his understanding and his spiritual obligation to share the wisdom of the true sustainability of the soul. It is a vision of "no-harm" farming, as Terry writes:
West Virginia is hurdling towards local foods. The day is coming when grocery store shelves will be stocked with blueberries from Beckley rather than Beijing. Kudos to the ag. economists, policy makers in state government, NGO think tanks (like The Hub) and the growing numbers of pioneer-spirited, small scale farmers and gardeners statewide. That's the good news.

Now the bad news. Most West Virginians aren't paying attention. They reside in urban and rural food deserts where affordable healthy food is out-of reach. They suffer from junk food malnutrition, buy inexpensive processed food, drink large amounts of soda and are reducing their life expectancy. Their diseases--chiefly diabetes and obesity--are not preventable without lifestyle change from the bottom-up.
Simply stated, the local foods movement is out-flanked and out-financed by the titans of the fast food industry. Following Big Tobacco's lead, fast food advertising is targeting youth, the poor and the uninformed. No number of feasibility studies or private foundation grants can usher-in a local food economy from the top down. Why? Because the food choices and self destructive eating addictions that drive West Virginia's health crises are the result of policies favoring commodity-based agriculture over community-based agriculture. It currently takes approximately 25 acres of land to satisfy the average West Virginian's appetite for an animal-centric diet.
Our vision of the future? Home economics classes returning to the public school curricula. Small scale organic "farmetts" dotting the suburban, city and small town horizons. Food mentors, not armed guards, in every school, every day-care and every housing project with the skills to teach every child the basics of a healthy-food lifestyle.
The Green Wheeling Initiative is a down-home, ground-up, grass-roots revolutionary food justice and cultural movement which is responding to the food crisis which threatens not only our health and well-being, but the integrity of life for so many living entities on this planet. It is those entities on the margins, because of their race, economic condition, their species and what is considered the correct utility of their existence, who are the most unjustly treated in the trenches of this crisis. The GWI is a response of environmental justice that represents real courage, clarity, and compassion.
The goal of the GWI is simply the restoration of the very idea of community that has been lost in the industrial-technological civilization of the overpass. The 18th Street Overpass Garden is not the first garden ever to rise in that particular neighborhood of Wheeling . Before the overpass went up, there was a real sense of place which has been now been paved over. The folks behind the GWI are trying to remind people that their backyards are something that truly belongs to them. They are trying to remind people that the bounties in those backyards can provide them with a quality and quantity of life which no corporation or outside interest has the right to co-op. It is the inalienable right of the people in this and any community to cultivate, grow, share, and enjoy the fruits of their very sustenance.
The motto of the GWI is "We Are Wheeling's green future... collaborate, collaborate, collaborate". In their mission statement they write:
Our mission is to build a local food production and distribution system that saves energy, creates jobs and circulates more money into the local economy. We partner with local farmers, community gardeners, schools and businesses to make fresh food available and easily available. We are Wheeling's green future.
In the past few years, Terry, along with co-founders Danny Swan, the pioneer of East Wheeling Community Gardens and a regular vendor at Wheeling's Farmer Market, and Gene Evans, an adjunct culinary arts professor who is currently teaching in Parkersburg, W. Va, have created a community garden network of 20+ gardens in the Wheeling area. In short time the GWI attracted the attention of private foundations such as the Hess Family Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, who have given the GWI over $80,000 in grant money. The GWI regularly offers organic community workshops in the Wheeling area and its influence and inspiration continues to grow (pun intended) upon a wide and diverse swath of peoples in the Wheeling area (check out local reports on the GWI hereherehere, and here.)
There are also five ongoing raised-bed garden projects in local schools in the Wheeling-Moundsville area. Some of the current initiatives of the GWI include a grant-funded study on "Bringing our Food Dollar Back Home", which would explore shifting 10 percent of the local economy towards community gardens and localized food cultivation, along with urban-gardening micro-grants which would serve as a clearing house for persons interested in start-up money for community gardens. The GWI is also developing a campus ecology project, which would help to create strategies for measuring the ecological footprint of local universities and colleges. Students would design their own audit projects for their schools. An initiative is also in the works to help make SNAP (food stamps) double in value at the Wheeling Farmer's Market when people use them to purchase healthy, locally grown foods.
In our next Yoga of Ecology piece we will take you on a tour of a day in the life of the Green Wheeling Initiative.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Yoga of Ecology: More From Bluestone Farm

One of the most amazing things that I heard about at our student orientation at Union Theological Seminary last fall was the existence of the "nun farm." Claire West, a Masters of Divinity student and one of the people behind the Edible Churchyard project at Union, told me about the Bluestone Farm community and the wonderful Sisters who were creating, harvesting, weeding, and living a simple yet grand experiment in spiritually-formed ecologically-sound living in upstate New York.

In my own anticipation to see what the "nun farm" was all about, I began to understand what communities like Bluestone were anticipating. Now, after having spent some actual time with the Sisters, in the dirt and sweat and joy, having left a little piece of my heart at the farm to make sure I return, this anticipation becomes tangible. I am becoming part of a group of seekers, both of the spirit and the land, who are shaping visions of community and civilization as we shift from industrial-technological civilization to ecological civilization.

Bluestone Farm is an anticipatory community, a community that by its very living example is anticipating the coming shape of our communities and civilization, a shape that we hope and work for in such a way that it will be in harmony with the shape of our Mother Earth. We hope, work, and anticipate that this shape of life will not become weakened by a romanticism or an idealism which doesn't have it's feet in the ground, its hands in the dirt, or which stands apart or aloof from the concerns of justice, which doesn't allow the voices of the marginalized, both human and non-human alike, from being heard, honored, and brought to the front.

The deep loving spiritual vision that the Sisters are trying to imbibe and present through their work on the farm is linked to a "new cosmology" of inter-being and inter-spirituality. They explain on their website:

The "new cosmology" is an important theological strand that weaves together great scientific discoveries of recent decades with the wisdom of mystics throughout the ages.  The late Thomas Berry was perhaps the first to use this phrase in its theological context, and it has since been further developed by many others, including mathematician Brian Swimme and Sister Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm. The new cosmology confirms for our current day what Jesus and prophets from all religious traditions have long said — all living beings are sacred, we are all interconnected and creation is our home and our very being.
Such a fantastic universe, with its great spiraling galaxies, its supernovas, our solar system, and this privileged planet Earth!  All this is held together in the vast curvature of space, poised so precisely in holding all things together in one embrace and yet so lightly that the creative expansion of the universe might continue into the future.  We ourselves, with our distinctive capabilities for reflexive thinking, are the most recent wonder of the universe, a special mode of reflecting this larger curvature of the universe itself.  If in recent centuries, we have sought to collapse this larger creative curve within the horizons of our own limited being, we must now understand that our own well-being can be achieved only through the well-being of the entire natural world about us.  The greater curvature of the universe and of the planet Earth must govern the curvature of our own being...
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth
In particular, we offer our companion "travelers" opportunities to experience what it might mean to recognize and embrace our essential spiritual nature as we are transformed from consumers into citizens. We feel our path is one more way in which human civilization might be transformed for the benefit of all.

The vision for the future of the Bluestone Farm community as a whole includes an inter-spiritual center that would give space and facility to many different wisdom traditions to give of their hearts and to receive, to add their own seeds to the farm and their own angles of theological vision. The community also anticipates the shape of spirituality as we move into the dynamically uncertain waves of the 21st Century. They want to provide a integrative space for the spiritual and ecological seeker who may not necessarily be inclined to monastic life or other traditional religious and spiritual vocations. Yet it is the strength of the Sisters' vocation, based in what has worked and open to what will work, and the strength of the community they have built around their vocation, which provides a structure for the 21st Century person willingly or unwillingly immersed in the post-structural and the post-modern.

At the center of it all is the land and the cow and the spirituality of farming. The Sisters write:

With the passing of each season, on the farm and through the church calendar, we are coming to know how agricultural, environmental, and spiritual practices are truly intertwined. Our study and our prayers have moved us toward living more sustainably in the city, and toward building a new sustainable and energy-efficient convent with an architecture that allows us to live out our values.  Our work to cultivate Bluestone Farm has given us farmers' hearts, which resonate and rejoice in the Scriptures' charge to tend the land, to give thanks for the harvest, and to see God's hand in every living thing.

Our call to heal the soil, live sustainably, reskill, and worship on this our plot of land is upheld by friends, neighbors, and Church in an ever-widening and deepening social geography.  We find that our Community's desire to live in ever-increasing appreciation of the wonder of creation is shared widely, beyond the church, by small farmers, local food advocates, and environmentalists.  It gives us great joy to share our understanding of the spirituality of farming with this growing network: our farm is at once a gift, a work, an invitation, and a prayer.  

The philosophy the Sisters are developing in their work on the farm is based much more than just the obvious, much more than what can only be seen with our eyes or directly perceived by our senses. They have been developing biodynamic methods based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. They are convinced, as generations and generations before them, of the miraculous utility of cow manure. In my own small way, in my recovery from nature-deficit disorder, I have begun to develop a set of "soft eyes" which lets me see all the peas or asparagus I need to pick, and all the specific weeds I need to pull. In fact weeding, the eternal art, is a kind of Zen activity if one is able to simply disconnect from the urbanized, carbonized, and digitized whoosh that seems to be blowing like a gale through our minds constantly.

Here again are some images of life at Bluestone Farm which illustrate our values, joy, and abundance

A little baby cucumber enters into this mad, mad world

Beautiful broccoli waiting to be fully bloomed, harvested, cooked, buttered, and enjoyed

A mystical rainy afternoon on the Farm...but too much damn rain this summer!

Mashing comfrey leaves to make comfrey tea, a permacultural (and very smelly) prep designed to prevent bad bacteria, fungi, and pests from wreaking havoc.

Halfway to my nine-pound harvest of champagne currants

"Sister" Katie Ferrari uncovers a cow horn filled with cow manure that had been buried in the garden all winter.

This is a biodynamic technique, based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner, in which the energy-drawing design of the horn helps to maximize the nourishment potential of the manure

Sister Helena Marie removes the manure from the cow-horn

Cow manure, God's greatest invention

Sister Carol Bernice, the sacred cow-woman of Bluestone Farm, lovingly cares for her favorite girls, Jiffy and Mercy

Our worship at Bluestone Farm is like everything else we do, rooted in traditional wisdom but always seeking to integrate the threads of spirituality which we all share in the 21st Century. One of the most unique creations the Sisters have grown is the Celebration of Life eucharist, in which the traditional elements of communion, such as the bread and wine, are exchanged with bounties from the garden, such as fresh blueberries and buttermilk. The liturgy is also geared towards an understanding of the Earth as Eucharist. To whit:

Today we continue to participate in this dance of life, taking in and releasing energy just as our ancestors the first particles learned to do. Our duty and our joy is twofold: to speak the glad celebration of all creation, and to participate in the evolutionary journey of consciousness with mindfulness and awe.

We celebrate our own place in the community of Mother Earth, giving praise to the Holy Dream that transformed a cloud of hydrogen into stars, otters, and rosebushes. We remember that this miracle of transformation occurs because the journey of life in this Universe in deeply Eucharistic.

The worship at the Farm is also deeply inter-spiritual. In my time there we took part in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony led by our friends and Community Associates Kay and Anne from New Mexico, and I led a kirtan from the bhakti-yoga tradition of India. The community also incorporates elements of Sufi zikr.

The bell that calls us to worship in the chapel

Our chapel space, prepared for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony

The Divine Mother

and Divine Mother Earth

Our Summer Solstice drum circle

Anne and Kay bang the drum slowly

as does Matthew

To everyone at Bluestone Farm, all of my love, blessings, and gratitude for opening your home and making me feel at home. To any ecologically-minded spiritual seekers, worshipers of Divine Mother Earth, any time spent with the Sisters is an experience you will cherish.

For more information on internships and volunteering, check out the Farm online.