Super-Natural (August 2011)

It’s 5:30am, and I’m mucking out a chicken coop. Others are prying nails from 100-yr-old joists, wheelbarrowing scraps, scything weeds, harvesting vegetables or cutting lumber. I think I have the hardest job, because I have to spend my pre-breakfast hours inhaling stale layers of chicken shit straw. But I am dead wrong.

Three of my fellow SHC members are turning a large heap of compost. It’s their first day here on this simple, 100-acre sustainable farm run by James Graves and Sara Kurak, a radiant couple in their mid-thirties. A few of us have been at it for a several days already (we're here on a work retreat as we develop SATURN a play about food), and we sport our budding farmer tans and novel pride to prove it. But our new recruits have barely brushed the sleep from their eyes, and now they are coming face to face with decomposing horse parts.

Several months ago, a horse named Thunder died of a stomach infection. Full & By is not stamped with labels and certifications, nor does it need to be; all of their business is done through CSA (community supported agriculture): they deal solely and directly with 50 shareholders from the small community surrounding them.  And because James and Sara have no interest in growing bigger, they are able to farm the way they think most “natural”: rotational grazing, organic fertilization, and with two horses doing most of the fieldwork. So it is not an exaggeration to say that the passing of Thunder saw the death of one of the hardest-working and most beloved farm hands.

What do you do with a dead horse? Traditional farming (that is, pre-industrial) produces virtually zero waste; any scrap is either burned for heat, salvaged for the future, fed to the animals or spread on the garden as fertilizer. On a farm like Full & By where both the environment and the harvest are constantly considered, allowing Thunder to become fertilizer seems the most natural thing to do.

But the very act of farming is not natural. The invention of agriculture (around 7000 BC) was the first time the fabric and patterns of the natural world were forcibly and consciously altered to any great extent by a living thing. Since then, what agriculture has evolved into has arguably had more negative impact on the environment than any other human action in history (it is certainly one of the major causes of global warming). Small farms like James and Sara’s aren’t in league with heavily-footprinted factory farms, of course, but the question still arises: Amidst an operation intended to systematize the wilderness, how do you determine what is natural? Where do you draw the line?

To many, Full & By is a paragon of “natural” farming, in that it is a stellar example of minimal-impact, high-quality agriculture (even their water is sustainable: the farm is positioned conveniently between river and mountains, and an abundant natural spring runs directly under the property). Still, James & Sara dominate the land, they raise animals to be eaten, they decide which plants are desirable and which are weeds—processes that could easily be deemed “unnatural”. It could be said that Thunder himself was unnatural: horses were domesticated to work for us, and certainly spreading his remains on a garden for the direct purpose of feeding humans is far from what happens when wild horses die.

Thunder the horse was as close as kin, and we non-farmers relate to this sentiment such that all of the people I shared this story with when I returned from Full & By were mortified—not just that my collaborators were made to spend a morning uncovering rotten horse guts, but that the horse was butchered and composted in the first place.

Is it unnatural to chop up your dead son and put him in the compost? Is it more natural to lock our fertile bodies in giant lacquered caskets six feet beneath the earth where they have little chance of participating in the circle of life? Have we strayed entirely from the natural order of things? Or have our adopted rituals become what is natural?

A similar “natural/unnatural” conundrum arose during our afternoon rehearsal sessions, in which, after long mornings working on a farm, we proceeded to pretend we were working on a farm. Being in the early stages of SATURN’s development, we wanted to immediately capture the essence of our real farm experiences and translate them to the stage, for the ultimate purpose of igniting a larger conversation about food with our future audiences. But while rehearsing, the dichotomy was palpable: just down the road our real farmer friends were returning to their real farm work just as they did every day of the year, and here we were making a dance about it.  Our heads spun a little.

But isn’t this the very nature of art, forging the narrow chasm between fabrication and reality knowing truth lies somewhere in between?  Aren't we artists constantly chopping up, burying and sowing the remains of our ancestors in order for our culture to grow?

Then maybe farmers like James and Sara are modern artists; aware of their ineluctable 21st-century relationship with the natural world, they simultaneously command and cultivate nature because it is the closest they can come to the truth.

Perhaps we need a new definition of "natural"-- a super-natural (!), a route in between the pre-agricultural wild and our ultra-industrial society, a hybrid of contemporary considerations (evolution, the needs of our bursting population, the threat our actions pose to the environment, etc.), something that provides solutions and coexistence.  Whether this new super-natural will be defined by scientists creating meat in petri-dishes, companies perfecting GMOs and governments subsidizing mass-produced crops, or by small communities and dead horses in compost heaps, is unclear. But whatever the new natural, it will likely be groundbreaking, and possibly backbreaking, for farming is just that.

On a side note, we had an extraordinary experience at Full & By Farm, a ripe week full of work, research, rehearsal and the best meals this side of Kentucky. Immense thanks are owed to James Graves and Sara Kurak, their apprentice farmers Tyler Sildve and Emily Jaquish, Tom, Margaret and David Graves and Hannah Kenah.