Reflections On Biodynamics

Ξ February 9th, 2011 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

I have been working for past weeks on my documentary about historical Portuguese wines, now with the official title of Mother Vine. But I took time out to participate in a worthwhile event. What follows is an expanded version of my presentation at the recently concluded Unified Wine and Grape Symposium. I was one of four panel members discussing what was titled Biodynamics: Point/Counterpoint. Having subtracted myself some months ago from modest winemaking duties here in Santa Cruz, I was quite the odd man out among such accomplished fellow panelists: Ginny Lambrix, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking at Truett-Hurst, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone, and Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich. Hence I made the decision to provide some useful cultural, historical context on the subject of Rudolf Steiner; and then to get out of the way so that the pros might speak.

Well aware of Mr. Smith’s open hostility to Biodynamics, I was hoping for follow-up questions on any of a number of unelaborated points I’d made. Sadly (or thankfully) the audience, a full house, did not put to me a single query. This collective decision paid dividends, however, serving to keep the discussion more narrowly focussed on the everyday practice of BioD. The room was, after all, populated largely of winegrowers and industry professionals. On the other hand, Mr. Smith managed to tone down the inflammatory, insulting rhetoric for which his blog, Biodynamics is a Hoax, is justly known. Indeed, there appeared from him a glimmer of hope for civil debate and mutual respect, for it is nearly impossible to sustain the lazy contempt encouraged by a blogger’s isolation from targets now standing in front of him, face to face; a bit like road rage when a driver, after nursing fantasies of insult and injury at being cut off by a stranger in heavy traffic, drops the tire iron, horrified at what he was about to do to the mother cowering in the mini-van. Yet, despite the goodwill shared on the panel, Mr. Smith seems, unfortunately, unwilling to recall any of it. His
latest post finds him back behind the wheel, alone.
My Unified Presentation
What the University of Pennsylvania’s Prof. Patrick McGovern, pioneer in the field of Biomolecular Archaeology, has called ‘extreme beverages’, those wild mixes of all things fermentable, fruits, grains, and vegetables, are as old as humanity itself. Indeed, whether elephants, birds, or apes, old world and new, to our paleolithic and neolithic origins, the universal pleasure of alcohol and intoxicants may allow us to one day construct an exhaustive variation of kinship and continuum within the animal kingdom based solely upon degrees of inebriation. Among the many themes and qualified speculations in his book Uncorking the Past, is that the origins of human settlement itself may lay in our urge, our addiction: farming begins as the need to secure dependable access to fermentables and, hence, alcohol.
From ancient China, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, there is virtually no culture, apart from frigid or Arctic climes, where alcohol or hallucinogenic substances are not known from the archaeological record. And often, as far as is known, as independent acts discovery.
The library archive, oral histories, folklore, parchments, and stone tablets, all are sources and repositories of the evidence of this truth; as are mute remains, the seeds, stained pottery chards, burial chambers, and other artifacts and debris from which Prof. McGovern draws support.
But it was not just intoxication our primitives to ancients were after. Early written records, including cave paintings, point to an equally universal, persistent spiritual dimension as well. Whether it be the shaman, medicine man, or village priest, we may read in the historical record, linking us across the millennia, an unbroken continuity of spiritual advisors with their pouches, baskets, jars and chalices brimming with transformational substances. I would argue –I am hardly alone in this– that inebriation, intoxication was, in effect and fact, the royal road to humanity’s discovery and obsession with the divine, the other-worldly; and when moderated by rituals of a spiritual agency, of social cohesion and cultural development, innovation and invention. So did the world become populated with spirits, so to speak.
And wine, isolated from other fruits to be made from grapes alone, is certainly one drink, rather more recent, to take its place among humanity’s endlessly inventive stock of alcoholic beverages.
Of course, now often a social scourge, frequently abused, alcohols have become subject to prohibition, religious proscription, regulation, medical and legal, at the very least. Curiously, Steiner himself was said to be a tea-totaler. In any event, it is important to keep in mind alcohol’s shared origin with the sacred. And we still catch glimpses of this heritage in tasting notes, or when a wine writer speaks of being magically transported to Tuscany; or when a certain wine felt to be a ‘revelation’, a life-changing experience; not to mention alcohol’s durable social dimension, its rituals and occasions.
But that is only part of the story, the consuming side. It was also farming itself, production, the guarantee of ready access to fermentable sugar sources following upon human settlement, that is of fundamental importance. So it is hardly surprising that just as intoxication opened humanity’s imagination to the mysteries of its own mind, to strange and pleasurable experiences otherwise unknown in so short, often brutal a life, a life of hunger, disease, and fear, so was agricultural practice imbued with mystery and magic. The cycle of life, its inexorable march to death as the seasons rolled by, is of particular antiquity. Out of the body of the earth springs the shoot, the leaf, the flower and fruit; then comes senescence and death. Knowledge from experience, tradition, ancestral stories, all mediated through the sacred, this was farming, and for centuries.
So did the earth, the soil, and its regenerative powers and failures, long remain an intellectual space of speculation and experiment, a space of fantastic imaginative leaps. And I would argue that biodynamics, or more accurately Steiner’s Agricultural lectures partake and borrow from this historical imagination, with one foot in a general, pre-modern farming practice, informed by the sacred, collective local memory and peasant experimental wisdom, European in the main; and the other foot in the profane, modern scientific world.
Some of Steiner’s concerns, widely shared at a time (still alive today) of the great expansion of what we’ve come to call industrial agriculture, was the growing use of synthetic fertilizers; collectivization, whether through force or coercive policy, taxation, for example, by belligerent, revolutionary or capitalistic states of productive arable land and consequent destruction of traditional, pre-modern farming practices and communities; and the increasing influence of an agricultural science rationalized by loudly promoted social engineering imperatives. From food stuffs to machine guns, positivistic science and its technology was leading a full frontal assault on traditional cultural modes of production, and so accelerated the dehumanization of work. Steiner’s world, at that of the landowners gathered for his lecture series, were fast witnessing the very destruction of all they’d ever known. As had all of Europe on the WW1 battlefields of France.
Indeed, reading successive turn of the century editions of the American farmer’s bible of the period, the Sears Catalogue, amply reveal the massive reorganization of farming methods and practices well underway even here.
So Steiner, far from being an isolated figure, a crazed voice in Europe’s new wilderness of machines and monocultures, he was, in fact, a part of a far larger chorus of anti-modernist agriculturalist.
So it is that farm animals are of considerable interest to Steiner. In pre-modern Europe it was a given that livestock was of fundamental importance. The peasantry relied upon domestic animals “for food, clothing, manure, drought power, transport, and even warmth”. Continuing along in Stephen Wilson’s magnificent book, The Magical Universe, we read,
“Animals were often housed under the same roof as humans…. In many ways, animals were regarded and treated as members of the household. Animals were present at wedding feasts and wakes in the barns; they were talked to; they were often specifically informed when people died.”
And of the moon, of great significance for centuries of Europeans, farmers and those hoping to make a family in particular. According to lore, passed from fathers to sons, farmers would plant on a new moon, just as husbands and wives would copulate. From Jacques Gélis’ History of Childbirth,
“The sowing of the seed of man, like that of plants, depended on the great determiner of the forms of species. The moon was believed to have an influence over all life on earth; the germination of plants, the growth of animals, depended on this luminary of the night.
The moon was widely thought to have a power of attraction not only over the tides, but over the shoots of plants as they thrust through the earth. She made all things swell. The female womb was no exception to this universal dilatation, and as the attraction was supposed to be strongest and most benign when the moon was new, it was at that time that childless wives performed their fertility rites.
Farmers and gardeners were scrupulous in following the lunar cycle; they sowed and planted at the time of the new moon, which ensured good growth in ‘outside’ crops (i.e. not roots) and helped them set seed. The old moon was good only for plants which developed underground, tubers and roots.”

Examples of the above in agriculture and pregnancy lore are numerous, countless really. But more than that, the fertility of the earth, its rhythms, were intimately associated with, and nearly thematically superimposable upon, the body of a woman. Hence, I would also argue, though I’ve not searched for supporting scholarly texts, that beginning in earnest in the last century and a half, the rapid transformation of traditional farming practice by institutionalized agricultural sciences shares a similar social logic to that of the transformation of traditional pregnancy practice by the emerging sciences of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Although too complex to explicate here, I think it can be shown that just as institutionalized agricultural sciences came of objectify land, labor, and soil additions, so was there a parallel application of such a statist logic to a woman’s body. A certain kind of science came to replace a farming community’s collective agricultural experience and wisdom, just as Obstetrics and Gynecology stripped, or made irrelevant, a woman’s self-understanding of her own body.
Midwifery, for example, shares many philosophical themes with biodynamics and what we now call organic farming. Both seek to place trust in natural processes; both the body of the earth and that of a woman are felt, or believed, to partake of a greater wisdom, as it were. Often discouraged by doctors, the midwife’s role, after all, is to help a woman understand what her own body is experiencing, to return to her biological priority and authority. So might we think of a traditional European farmer at his experimental best.
In any event, according to lore, all spiritualized material forces believed by pre-modern European farmers to influence and inform their agricultural practice also gathered, or intersected, in the womb: water, fire, air, excrement, the moon, even old souls waiting to be reborn. These forces, and many more, cavorted in both the infant and the seedling. Now, what has always surprised me about Steiner is that he never, though married twice, seems to have fully explored anywhere in his massive writings the obvious philosophical isomorphism of farming and pregnancy, of the earth and a woman’s body. I have my suspicions as to why, but I’ll save such speculation for another time, if ever.
Winding up, urbanization has ushered in a new era –decades in the making– of profoundly damaging ignorance of the natural world. Not only among adults, but many children have never seen a cow or a chicken in the flesh. Clean water comes from a tap; dirt is what you quickly remove from your shoes; and food is miraculously created in the supermarket itself. And we are routinely told knowledge of these things is out of our hands, almost dispensed on a ‘need to know’ basis. We are only consumers, after all. Indeed, our passivity is richly rewarded with smartly packaged commodities. Wine is no different.
Biodynamic, organic, and to some degree sustainable farming are programs, each with their strengths and weaknesses, that seek to reintroduce the natural world into our purchasing decisions, if not to get us to think of our place on the planet. But rather than be passively serviced by a primary science, I believe that the best farming practices still can have an experimental role; I believe farmers are still on the front lines of primary agricultural research, despite what Monsanto may say. The glorification and deference now shown the agricultural sciences threatens, once and for all, to extinguish what remains of the inquisitive, innovative imagination of the farmer.
Special thanks to Cyril Penn of for the use of his Pic from the Unified.


4 Responses to ' Reflections On Biodynamics '

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  1. greg bell said,

    on February 11th, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Biodynamics doesn’t necessarily offer the much-needed path back to connection with Nature. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

    To my knowledge, no rigorous tests have ever shown it to work.

    Let’s connect back with Nature, but we can use real effects, real relationships, real facts. And techniques that work.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on February 11th, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Thank you for the comment, Greg. I agree. When you populate the natural world with forces and agencies not currently known or understood, you may unwittingly move further away from Nature. There are, for example, elements within the Christian frame which, believing the end is near, see no point in shepherding our finite resources. But this is equally true of industrial agriculture, its associated technologies and downstream refinement processes. What is being contested or negotiated by diverse agricultural practices is the very meaning of Nature and the natural world.
    But my piece is a bit subtler than that, more modest in its aims. I’ve attempted to draw a distinction between biodynamics and Steiner. My personal feeling is that Demeter may not really understand their founder. I suspect that by formalizing the Ag Lectures, by rigorously policing and claiming ownership of his name, they may, in effect, be discouraging any experimental program. The genius of the farmer, informed by patient, loving observation of the land, learns things, knows things. But by insisting on formal first principles, Demeter may not be willing or able to hear to what a farmer tells them. This is the danger for industrial ag as well. ALL agricultural systems develop and change, often led by farmers themselves. Whether it be Monsanto-driven science or Demeter’s formality, priority and deference must be given to those on the front lines: farmers.

  3. Alan said,

    on March 11th, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Excellent article.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on March 11th, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Thank you, Alan.

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