Thursday, September 3, 2009

Biodynamic Gardening

Should Timber Publish a Book on Biodynamic Gardening?

This was the question of our publications board today, and I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a more contentious meeting!

For the uninitiated, biodynamic gardening can be considered the progenitor of all organic gardening. Begun right at the height of the industrial revolution by theologian Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics were clearly ahead of their time. (Steiner also founded the Waldorf Schools that are sprinkled around in high-income neighborhoods.) His essential belief was that any farm should be self-sufficient--no sending away to Monsanto for GMO seeds, no fertilizers other than compost you make yourself. In an era before we knew about carbon-free offsets and lowering environmental inputs, Rudolf Steiner had it all figured out. And he would have voted for Al Gore, too.

But here’s the problem--Steiner’s reasons for doing all the things that biodynamickers do were primarily spiritual, not scientific. There is a lot of stuff about moon phases and superstitious burying of sheeps’ bladders--and biodynamic types are not innovators. They follow the practices that have been laid down because they’re “right,” not necessarily because they yield 3.5% more tonnage per crop. They can’t really explain why they do what they do other than it really does work (and there IS some research out there to back that up). Biodynamic practices are regulated by a very traditional certifying authority in Switzerland that is more concerned with slowing change in biodynamic practices than with making improvements. In the end, you become a biodynamic gardener because of a spiritual relationship with the land. You take it on faith.

You can probably tell that I’m pretty sympathetic to biodynamic gardeners. I believe we owe more to the land--to all the millions of organisms in one teaspoon of soil--than just some rational analysis of which growing techniques give OUR SPECIES the most benefit. Are we stewards of the land or plunderers?

Saying all this, I don’t think Timber Press will be publishing a book on biodynamics. We have a fundamentally scientific outlook on plants, gardening, horticulture, and nature--we see our job as providing the information that is proven to be accurate, not spiritually more comforting. I must admit, however, that I say this with more than a dose of sadness. There are a lot of farmers in my family history (none of them even remotely organic, God forbid), and I know that the land meant more to them than they could put into words. It was a spiritual thing, although they’d be embarrassed to talk about it. The miracle of a dry little pebble being put into the ground and turning into a six foot high stalk of corn is still the most amazing trick on earth. Biodynamic gardeners have a language that allows for the wonder of such things, and my hat is off to them.

Neal Maillet, publisher

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