Christianity, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Being a Biodynamic Farmer
Lately, I’ve been working on entries for a dictionary of Christianity. As ambivalent as I am about the entire “definition thing” (a product of my training in phenomenology and the insidious influence of Jacques Derrida in my intellectual make-up, no doubt), it has been a fun project. Of course, and not surprisingly, I was given the allegedly “weird stuff” to edit or create: Jakob Boehme, Paracelsus, sophiology, enthusiasm, Familists, kabbala, magic, animals, alchemy, and hermeticism.
Since my scholarly work examines not only sophiology, but also mysticism (particularly radical Protestant mysticism), not to mention alchemy and magic, I’m not surprised at my assignment. Animals, I suspect, came my way because I’m a farmer. To be more precise, I’m a biodynamic farmer.
I’ve been a practitioner of the biodynamic method since 1992, first in a series of gardens (I even had a business—Avalon Gardening!—spraying biodynamic preparations on gardens throughout the Detroit area), and then in farming. I learned the basics of biodynamics from my friend Mike, who had curated a beautiful garden for The Waldorf Institute in Southfield, Michigan housed at the (now gone) Duns Scotus Franciscan Monastery. The manager of the garden, Alan York, would later go on to single-handedly revolutionize the wine industry. If you’ve ever heard of biodynamic wines, it’s all because of Alan. Unfortunately, he died in 2014 at the age of sixty-two.
While my academic self might seem at odds with my farming self, that is not the case. At all. For biodynamic farming is, essentially, a modern form of alchemy. The biodynamic preparations—made from an interesting array of plant and animal substances—which strike some as weird, in actuality work with subtle cosmological and telluric forces and transform the dead into the living. Indeed, it is my contention that alchemy as practiced in the medieval and early modern periods was nothing if not a simultaneously contemplative and practical engagement with the possibilities of the resurrection body. And while biodynamics can hardly promise anyone resurrection from the dead, it can (and does) heal the seeming-dead of soil, plant, and animal life. In short: I’m in the resurrection business.
Another aspect of biodynamics, like alchemy, stems from hermeticism. Hermeticism is a philosophy (or, better, theosophy) that simultaneously engages the scientific and the spiritual. The Rosicrucianism of the early 17th century is a great example of this and some other representatives include the Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan as well as his twin brother, the Anglican priest and alchemist Thomas. Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamic agriculture as well as Waldorf education, had roots in the German hermetic tradition as well as in philosophical Idealism. But he transformed his influences into something (some things, actually) quite new.
Perhaps (post)modernity has a few things to learn from the Realm of Weirdness.
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
~ from Henry Vaughan, “The World”