Discovering my roots on a biodynamic farm. A personal reflection by Zoë Allen
It seems like the perfect moment to submit this blog post, just after the full Super Worm Moon!
I was initially inspired to write after reading a paragraph in Mark Boyle’s ‘A Way Home’ (which I highly recommend). He talks about planting trees in Norfolk on land which was being farmed industrially (with artificial fertilizers and pesticides) and says over the two days of digging he came across three earthworms. Three.
A week earlier, I had been planting trees up at Tablehurst (as a part of a grant given to us by The Woodland Trust) and the number of earthworms I came across was off the charts! Every square foot or so that myself, the 3 other volunteers and 3 farmers dug in order to plant each sapling was literally heaving with worms. When I lifted the soil out, the sod was alive! In fact, we felt bad digging in this way for fear of disturbing our amazing friends and natural composters. But we were very careful and I often pulled up the soil and moved the worms aside by hand while I positioned the tree. They were then gently placed back in with their new home of tree roots, the soil put back on top. I felt sure that after this initial disturbance they would be thrilled with their new landscape.
Worms are amazing. After years of being afraid to touch their squirming slimy mass (in fact they are not slimy at all), and now understanding their vital role in soil health, I love them and if I ever see one in peril I happily reach to save it, talk to it and find the best possible home for it. Yes indeed, I am a reformed character! Thank you Tablehurst!
How could I have underestimated these amazing creatures? Well, I just didn’t know. The part they play is so fundamental that we simply couldn’t do without them. They are a sign that the soil is healthy. They improve it by eating organic matter under the surface, thus producing waste (know as worm castings) which are essentially free fertiliser. Earthworms tunnel into the deep soil bringing the subsoil towards the surface which mixes it with topsoil. To propel themselves they produce a slime which contains nitrogen which is an important nutrient vital to all plants. The tunnels they create help to break up compacted soil thus making it more aerated to allow more oxygen to get to plant roots. So basically earth worms dig the soil, spread fertiliser, dispose of organic material and create nitrogen, and here was I, 30 years ago, thinking worm casts made our lawn look ugly!
The fact that so many thrive at Tablehurst is largely due to our land being biodynamic, something else I didn’t know before I moved to Forest Row five years ago. (I only found out about Rudolph Steiner when asked if my kids went to Michael Hall, my bewildered response was “who is Michael Hall?”). Again, if you had told me that the soil gets potentized by a liquid ‘sprayed’ by humans with a wooden dustpan brush, I would have come up with a similarly confused response. But I didn’t need to because I fell into it and now, much like the worms, I can say I not only understand it, but I am a convert to its principles.
When I moved here I was not in terribly good shape health wise, had just lost my dad and had never really lived in the UK as an adult, plus I didn’t know a single person in Forest Row. I came up to Tablehurst as (I believe) it naturally drew me in like an invisible magnet! But I was also seeking local food without packaging. Who’d have known a year later I would be a director on the board and a year after that running events and a regular volunteer day! Plus being in much better shape. I was fascinated by the ‘magic’ of the land and the people, the diversity. But the food…. Perhaps the convert in me was borne out of my returning health but also, how can a beetroot taste that good? I would eat them raw like apples. When Chris (Marshall) suggested a new big bold ‘Harvest Celebration’ I couldn’t wait to get involved and found myself up there more regularly planning, visualising, researching, and generally being nosey and learning along the way. What were these biodynamic methods that were interwoven into the farm, the land, the people? And I met Briony and it all became clear….
A good portion of our time spent on ‘Volunteer Wednesdays’ (which we started in 2019 but sadly had to drop for the foreseeable) was with Briony working on the biodynamic preparations. We would get together with our buckets full of spring water and put this dry substance called CPP (Cow Pat Prep) into it and mix it with our hands, which is called stirring. We had a lot of fun together making vortices in all directions then we would line in in rows and walk while sprinkling it onto the land, which activates the soil and pastures creating soil fertility. This adds vitality – you enliven the soil, the plants are then enlivened, the animals are then enlivened because they eat the plants, then the humans are enlivened because, as Briony says, “you are what you eat eats”. We are creating these chains, webs and living systems, reducing toxic load as we don’t use chemicals on the land and in turn making a difference. With Biodynamics, we are increasing the living processes in the food web therefore increasing the living vitality in the food. No wonder I felt so much better!
What I really liked was the idea that we humans play such a vital role in all of this, and we can in fact be part of the solution to the problem by upping the ante in this way - we can help the earth. It gives me enormous faith and I really need that. Biodynamics means Bio = life, dynamics = activities/processes, and this resonates with me so much that in a way it helps me understand what I can’t - why I am so drawn to be being here and why I love the farm so much.
One volunteer day we went out in head to toe gear (the forerunner to PPE!) and harvested nettles. We brought back at least 3 trailers worth then worked out how to chop them up (like you would parsley) using shears – both kneeling, one holds a bunch together and essentially feeds it into the shears while the other moves the handles up and down. You have to be focussed, communicative but quiet, work as a team, and there are 4 or 5 ‘teams’ around the space. It was quite an amazing moment having us all efficiently working away. It was peaceful somehow, humble. There was respect for the plant, care for what we were doing, for each other. There was a lot of warmth that day and the sense of achievement was tangible, seeing our trays and trays of chopped up nettles ready to be mixed with cow pat! This was our reward; being together, the satisfaction, hugs, healthy fatigue, back patting, good humour. I will never forget that day.
Another volunteer day, my nephews who were 11 and 14 and keen video gamers (yikes!) came up with my mum and rifled through Horn Manure* with their fingertips removing creatures and eggs. I watched from afar through my fingers over my eyes waiting for the moment of boredom and the “what can we eat?” chat. But there was none of it and the youngest had said that he really enjoyed it and would do it again!
On other days we have picked chamomile quietly in the sun, yarrow and valerian on others, these being part of the preparations such as the Horn Manure. It feels wonderful to be a part of such a system and I am extremely grateful to Briony for allowing myself and the other volunteers access and wisdom on this incredible underbelly.
From the beginnings of our humble worm, to this highly technical feat of agricultural prowess, we need all of it in order to restore the depleted land that Mark Boyle speaks of. Thank goodness for Tablehurst, Plaw Hatch, other biodynamics farms nationally and around the world, and the people, animals and plants all doing their bit to help us get there.
I am particularly grateful to Tablehurst for helping me find my place in this evolving and significant landscape, thank you to the fabulous team up there who work so incredibly hard and have taught me so much.
I would also like to say a huge THANK YOU to all those amazing volunteers I have worked with over the years, whose company I have enjoyed profusely. I will see you all again!
*Horn Manure is one of the Biodynamic spray preparations. To read more about these fascinating methods and how it all works, have a look here.
(A day after I wrote this, I told a friend about what I had just written and he opened a book at his side and read me the poem “To the Gentle Worm”. It is from a book called Soul Gardening by Jeremy Naydler. It seemed absolutely fitting to this so please enjoy it as a little pudding after this post!)