I was recently working in India. I met some of the members of a large farmer cooperative and the large NGO that works and supports with them. Many people, particularly from the NGO, kept talking about how the crops were organic [by default really, since the farmers were never able to afford the more heavily marketed, manufactured inputs] and biodynamic. Organic, fine. I understand that and support it. But biodynamic? Nope. This word meant nothing to me although I can see its etymological roots; bios is the ancient Greek for life and dynamis, ancient Greek for power or strength.
So naturally I asked what it was. People began to tell me about how it was about looking after the soil, the ways that seeds were planted and the way that plants were nurtured, manured, pruned and how the farmer must be aware of the environment and the weather. Erm….. yes. That’s pretty much what farming is isn’t it?
We visited a nursery for some of the things that would be distributed to the farmers. It was very nicely organised and the man who managed the place showed me around. We were in an area where some of the manures were prepared. There were some sheets pinned to a post. So I had a quick read.
As well as espousing a homeopathic approach [are those warning bells?], there were some instructions related to pest control.
Vertebrate pests are best dealt with by the application of the ash from “burning the skin of rodents [mice, rats, rabbits, opossum etc.] when Venus stands in Scorpio, and is behind the sun”. Pardon me? What quackery is this? Which mountebank has proclaimed this and how is this being taught to Indian farmers as the way forward?
The mountebank in question is Rudolf Steiner. Or was Rudolf Steiner, since he died the best part of ninety years ago. Steiner was a philosopher and also dabbled in architecture. He was an esoteric, i.e. he was involved in movements that usually have a small membership and that take an interest in preserving or adhering to, shall we say, obscure philosophies or religions. He even founded his own movement called Anthroposophy. This movement believes that there is a real spirit world that we can all access, should we develop our senses in the appropriate ways.
Now, on grounds of fairness, I’m going to ignore the Anthroposophy side of things and consider the biodynamics stuff. I’m not going to attack it, even though some of its processes and practices do make the life of a cynic like me particularly easy.
As I thought about this, it made me think about a couple of things.
One of them comes down to my approach. Why can’t I find any evidence for these practices? I can’t find any scientific papers researching these practices and confirming them? Of course I can find lots for manuring properly and on soil care etc. But none on rodent skin ash, particularly when linked to the sign of the Zodiac. Why? It may be that rodent skin ash is a wondrous treatment for dealing with vertebrate pests but there’s no proof.
Another is the power of ritual on belief and practice. There is a great deal of performance within biodynamics. Consider Preparation 500, or Cow Horn Manure. A cow horn [not a bull’s horn please…] is filled with the manure from a lactating cow [for the calcium] and then buried during the cooler months. This is so that “[d]uring the cooler months life breathes into the soil and the soil has the tendency to be full of growth energies, which energies are absorbed into the dung through the receptive nature of the horn.” Aye. Right. The resulting manure is heavily diluted [25g to 13 litres, across an acre of land] and sprayed. Again, there is no scientific evidence that I can find for this process but it seems to me that the ritual maybe hugely important here, perhaps engaging the farmer with the land and heightening awareness of the land and the seasons. I doubt the plants, manure and soil are too fussed about ritual.
Ritual is there in day to day life of course, aside from those found in religious practices. Going to the doctor’s surgery and having them evaluate you, listening through the stethoscope, taking blood pressure, looking into your eyes. I don’t have any idea about what the doctor’s looking for and, to be honest, it might not be important. I’m being looked at and it feels like I’m being assessed. It’s a little ritual and it makes me feel that my problem is being addressed. The same goes for any tablets that I’m prescribed. The placebo effect is well documented. These could be simple sugar pills but they will have a beneficial effect because I think that they will have a beneficial effect. The ritual of going to the doctors, getting a prescription, going to the chemists and then taking my medicine is crucial.
It may well be that the ritual of burying your cow horn is crucial to the perceptions of the efficacy of the manure and the treatment. Until the scientific evidence is there, it’s hard to tell.
The image in the title is of the cemetery and church at Teampull Eion, Isle of Lewis, taken from the NW. Copyright The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland