At the Orphan Wisdom School I teach with one weather eye on the rhythm of the kitchen. That means that I time the ebb and flow of my teaching day to the menu awaiting the scholars and to the considerable labours that underwrite it. For a few minutes early in the morning I stand back and watch Nathalie Roy and her faithful kitchen crew begin their conjuring of the day’s meals. Often they are preparing things the day before they are served. Nathalie’s blessed madnesses include a love of herding a thousand details and nearly that many ingredients towards the kitchen’s steady, amniotic warmth and hum. She does this often by murmuring prayers and singing tunes unknown to me that probably have their roots in the same part of the world that the ingredients and the recipes do. And, just about every time, the food anticipates what I am to teach that day, or the next day. I don’t know how she learned this skill, but I am glad she has it, and it schools me. So I often take my cues from the clang of pans and pots and the old world patter among the scullery royalty that accompanies it. This has been going on for a few years. I remind the scholars regularly that what I’m doing in the teaching hall is me trying to keep up with what is happening in the kitchen.
Which is to say that food is the mother of our school, in every way that can be meant, and the few of us that run the place are servant priest cooks, and those who come to learn are patrons of the old mystery religions of the hearth. That is a lot of heritage to burden our rickety enterprise with, but that is the truth of the thing. At the hearth, all manner of attention and devotion is given to the direction the broth is stirred, and with what spoon (there are left and right handed spoons), to the sequence of cool and warm additions to the slurry, dry and moistened. There are chalices of vitrified micaceous clay (that is what the cooking pots become), squatty ones, fulsome ones, statuesque ones, each of them resembling faithfully the soon to be full bellies that await them and the working bellies of the scullery royalty whose hands do the conjuring. These pots are handled gently, warmed before use and after cleaning, soothed into rest between meals. Stone mortars and metates each have a place of honour in the kitchen. To one side is a shrine, wherein live all the spirits of the place, overseeing the work, blessing the plates.
Which brings us to the food. When we began the school we knew it had to be planted deeply in it’s place. I myself had years of being parachuted into homeless, generic conference centres and retreat halls behind me, and I knew that the school would only live as a home for learning the mandatory human arts of living deeply and dying well if we made a home for it by employing those same mandatory arts. This meant knowing all we could about the food we were to serve those who were to labour so devotedly to learn. Learning is always learning unwelcome things about what you know, and the travail in learning about your food in our day and age is epic, truly. As many of you probably suspect, there are considerable barriers standing in the way of finding out about the food that keeps you alive, and the food that might be compromising your life. After seeing that struggle to get underneath the machinery of the food service industry for what it was, we knew that we had to grow the food to feed the people.
And so we began to farm. Which meant, as I’ve written here before, we had to grow dirt from sand and soil sanity from the chemical enterprise that farming has largely become in North America. It meant fences, furrows, broken tools. Without a tractor, a pump, electricity or running water, we were running an Iron Age operation. We had to enter into holy negotiations with the creek that roars down the mountain behind our place in spring and threatens to disappear into the ground by mid summer, in hopes that we could take some of that snow melt and beaver swill as the summer wore on and the rains tapered off. Each year our spring and our fall included a gathering of Orphan Wisdom scholars into the precinct of our fields for ceremonies of opening and closing, pleading and thanking, taking and offering. And we gathered, bought and traded for seeds and weaned animals.
All of this delivered us, as it would deliver you, to the irreducible, unnerving and mandatory altar of who plants and animals, seeds and soil are to us, and who we are to them.
I live and work in a culture where food is fuel. Pleasant fuel or not, tasty fuel or not, satisfying fuel or not, but fuel nonetheless. It is there to get us to the next monthly payment, the next appointment, the next day. It’s purpose in the world is to propel us through the world. When food becomes fuel – when anything becomes fuel – we lose sight of whatever once tethered it to the ground that gave it life, and we proceed as if it were in the world because our way of life requires it, as if it is an extension of us, part of the great need gratification engine that serves our relentless presence in the world. It becomes a homeless gorm of potential that carries cost but not indebtedness. Whenever we turn something into fuel, we make another slave in the world.
It will take a mighty and unlikely turn in our every habit for food to reacquire the old alchemical and hierophanic power that once bound your ancestors and mine to the land they lived upon and to the deepening mysteries that gave that land life. In those times and places food was medicine. That means that all sources of food were known to be doctors to life. Not slaves of the living, but doctors to life, and they were courted, cared for, fed, recompensed and prayed over accordingly. Once, food was known to be the elder, wiser brother and sister of those who gathered and grew and prepared and ate it. That means that plants, and the animals who fed upon them, were all the proof anyone ever needed of Gods in the world. The plant medicine people still alive and working today are a thin thread of practice wisdom and dedication which make the understanding of that older time a reliable, if remote, possibility for us still. This devotional wisdom is what is at risk in the ruthless global machinations of Big Pharma and Big Agra to replicate and synthesize forest and jungle medicine.
So for the last five years we’ve stood at the crossroads that people probably first stood at in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age in Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica. Is it possible to grow plants and animals, kill them and eat them, propagate them, without enslaving them? Has it ever been possible?
Our way of cooking, feeding, farming and teaching the school is how we try to answer the question. The priesthood of farming, as Martin Prechtel has called it, is practiced and achieved by knowing, admitting to and trying to pay the inescapable debt incurred by farming, owed directly to the plants and animals, seeds and soil which together make the farm, and to Those which give life to seeds and soil … and by failing to bring the debt to zero. Ever. You cannot break even. There is a lot of grief in this way of farming, I assure you. But you cannot as a farmer buy your freedom from the spiritual debt of that enterprise by enslaving animals and plants and making them pay their way. Your debt accrues crushing interest in that enterprise, and that is exacted from your soul’s life.
So ours is a small mixed farm, which might be a part of the answer to the question. We don’t grow too much of anything, nor raise too much of anything. We rotate animals through pastures, plant in their wake, grow some of the food they will eat in winter, feed their aged dung to the plants, one eye on the sky and the other on the calendar, and from that endeavour feed the scholars and ourselves, and neighbours. The animals are fed organically and all the rest, but that doesn’t bring any human alertness to bear on the debt we owe to what gives us life. People concerned with food safety are generally mollified by the word ‘organic’ on the label. I am talking here about bringing honour to our deal with plants and animals; I’m not talking about food insurance for humans. This concern with food safety ushers us into a hall of barbershop mirrors, where every concern we get resolved brings another, more systemic concern forward, requiring another agri-solution, and so on without end: the system that enslaved the plants and animals sealing the moral fissures with more robust application of the enslavement system. ‘Organic’ likely has as much animal and plant indenturedness incurred as whatever it was intended to replace.
I don’t say that we’ve sorted any of this out; I say that we’re trying, every day, from the field to the plate and back again. It seems that what surrounds us here has some inkling of our effort. We’re not rewarded so much as we’re tolerated. So far, the plants and the animals have agreed to mate and bear their young close to our door, which might be their part of this deal we seem to have entered, a sign of some kind of fledgeling good faith on their part, a willingness to proceed towards a holy and honourable partnership with us despite the odds that civilized history demonstrates are against it all.
Early this spring, after some warm weather, the temperature plummeted again to -12C and lower, and these, as foretold by a farmer friend of ours, would be the nights (not the days) when the ewes would give birth. Up until those frigid nights the sheep kept well away from us, tolerating our presence during feeding time and otherwise bolting if we stood in one place in their pasture too long. But during those long nights, while emerald crystals hung in a cold black sky, our dogs assumed an uncommon calm and stood guard at the pasture gate, and the ewes seemed to give in to our intent to help the birthing. There was no skittishness. Nathalie rearranged those not yet born lambs that needed hooves pointed or legs straightened or heads pulled through. All the lambs lived, all the mothers lived. For two weeks or more, whenever we moved we could smell the ambrosial amniotic funk rise up from our clothes. It was in our pores, our noses, in the straw of the birthing stalls, everywhere, and it brought instant memories of those cold, holy nights.
It strikes me now that this was a kind of incense sparked by the Gods, a sign of recognition that we appeared willing to uncertainly, faithfully and at least this spring keep up our end of this riotous, grief soaked endeavour called caring for living things in the name of life. Life is fed by death, the world over, and animals and plants do die on our farm. Death is fed by noble, indebted treatment of what gives life, not by making sure that nobody dies. That scent of life, spilled over us and over a little corner of our farm, is a gift to those who keep the farm going day in and day out, and a bit of it hovers over the cooking pots of The Orphan Wisdom hearth. This is where the nourishment, the real medicine, is made.
Photo: Christopher Roy