On February 16-18, the Oregon Biodynamic Group sponsored a workshop with Dennis Klocek on "The Alchemy of Substance." The workshop focused on the elements, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon and how they behave and relate to each other in nature and in agriculture. He also spoke about the role of the farmer as an alchemist, bringing the proper elements together and especially in the composting, leading the elements through death and back to life in new forms.
Biodynamic farming principles are based on a lecture series that Rudolf Steiner gave in 1924. Steiner developed an ability to access esoteric knowledge, which he called spiritual science, and out of that he gave indications for many activities. These included Waldorf education, art, medicine, community structures and farming.
Dennis Klocek teaches at the Rudolf Steiner College in California. He runs the Goethean Studies Program (named for the German poet/scientist Johann von Goethe), which includes the natural sciences, art and meditation. He is also a long time Biodynamic gardener.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dennis during one of our breaks from the workshop. The following is a transcript of our conversation with minimal revision for brevity. The notes in [ ] are my additions for the sake of clarity.
Tobias: There are many ways to look at the world, at nature and at science. Scientific and industrial farming methods are based on a dead analysis of the world. This analysis tells us that nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are what they are and that where they come from doesn't affect the biology of the soil or the plants. Water soluble salts of chemical NPK are considered equal to the nutrition available to the soil and crops from manure, organic matter or biodynamic compost. No thought is given to the ways these are available, or to the sources of these nutrients. Even a lot of organic farming is based on this dead analysis, with the organic fertilizers that are still focused on NPK ratios, etc. I wonder if you could say something about the Biodynamic world view and how it is different? Also what practical differences you see, that allow Biodynamic food to have more life energy, and a different kind of nutrition that can further enliven us?
Dennis Klocek: It's funny you mention NPK. Even in the organic realm you still have NPK and even in Biodynamics you have NPK, so it's not NPK per se that's the problem, it's really looking more at the whole. When you look at the whole, you still need to maintain certain carbon to nitrogen ratios, we still need to have breathing in the soil, and oxygen and things like that, but how do you do that? What are you bringing to the soil that is different than someone getting a bag of cottonseed meal and throwing it around, or fish meal, what's different? When you're feeding the soil as part of your organic work, the crops that come off of it are one thing, you're really working on the humus content of the soil. Whereas if you're just putting down fish emulsion, you're still mining in a certain way. Not to say anything bad about fish emulsion, I don't think, as a way of helping you get by the rough spots, because I know that often a little bit of fish emulsion can go a long way. But the fish emulsion doesn't really feed the soil and cottonseed meal doesn't feed the soil, it actually takes stuff out of the soil. The thing that really feeds the soil are things that have been through life and that go back from life into a death process. Then you take the way they've been formed and make that stable again. That's your composting. The making of the carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen stable or available to the plants that follow, or the crop that you put the compost on is secondary. The feeding of carbon, nitrogen oxygen and hydrogen through humus is primary. My understanding is that in Biodynamics, the preparations are there to make it so that when elements come into the soil, they're brought in, in such a way that it's always in the context of the life of the organism that produced whatever it is that you're bringing to the soil, so Steiner says it's ideal if the animals that are on the place produce the manure needed on the crops. I mean the ideal is the whole farm working as an organism. [ In terms of a closed fertility cycle.]
T: Steiner talks about the farm as an organism, but he talks also about the cosmos as an organism and the idea of the earth as an organ of the cosmic organism. The same way that the cow, or the soil, for instance, is an organ of the farm organism....
DK: That's why in this course I've been trying to bring the cosmos as the theme, but I'm hearing a little bit of a reaction: "Well where's the compost?" We've been talking about carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen as cosmic entities, but it's really that picture that Steiner's trying to bring. So that when the agriculturist goes to turn the soil or goes to make a compost heap they have one eye cocked to the compost heap, but another eye cocked to, "Where is Jupiter? Where is Venus? Where's Saturn? What day is this?" These days people don't want to hear too much about the cosmos, they want to get to something more practical, but what I feel is different about Biodynamics is that it has a cosmology and it really does point to the farm organism and the earth as members of a cosmic family. That's different. You won't get that in farm school, you don't get that in some of the organic movements. That's where Biodynamics really comes to the fore, in providing a cosmology.
T: Also wanting to tie in something about the role of the farmer, or the alchemist, in all of this. How does the energy and consciousness of the farmer affect what happens on the farm?
DK: The alchemist would say it's more important when you do something than what you do. In Steiner's time there was a real focus on research into planetary influences, moon cycles, planting calendars and a lot of work being done because it was understood that the greatest help you could have was to act in the context of the cosmos. It's very rare that you'd find articles about that today in the Biodynamic journals.
T: Maybe people have a hard time seeing the relevance or the practical applications of some of these things.
DK: I think it's a question of food. Because it's the food that you eat that allows you to gain access to the imaginations. [ or spiritual realm] That and meditation. I really think the whole question of the meditative life is an essential one. It's not considered to be essential, even in Biodynamic circles. But an alchemist is deeply meditative. Steiner talks about the peasants meditating on their farms during the winter.
T: You've done research into the relationships between the weather and the cosmos. Have you found direct connections between planetary movements and our experience of meteorological phenomena that might help tie the earthly/cosmic interplay together for people?
DK: Yeah, sure, my work is based on Kepler's "Harmony of the Spheres." He had ways of showing that certain planetary angles could be a kind of sounding...I was just talking to this alchemist about, if you're standing in a particular direction on a particular day and you know that there are configurations happening around you, your consciousness can work in a certain way that's much beyond simply going out and doing something. If you're aware that at a certain time there is a certain something going on and you act during that time, there's windows in time where things become available, and 20 minutes later they're not there anymore. I think in the future that is really the work. It gets difficult in Biodynamic circles, there is a lot of controversy around the work of Maria Thun [and her cosmological planting calendar,] and whether or not it was actually viable, because nobody could replicate it. My understanding is that she had a certain plot of land that really allowed things to happen, she manured in a particular way over time and then things happened. If you just take any plant and you just work at any time on any piece of land, you're not going to see the same things. I think her inner work would also have a great effect as to whether or not the things were effective. That's the great thing and that's the danger. That's why the alchemists had lost their credibility. It's because they would say "this person has a certain way of working that does things and not everyone can do it." So technically that's magic. But it doesn't have to be. It can be objective. What I've seen in the weather is that it can be made objective, but it's not completely objective. It's not analytical science. Science will really be more like an art in the future, and it will have much more of an artistic element, where you'll have to enter in, in a different way. I think that's what Steiner's talking about, is entering in, in a new way, like an artist would, not like a scientist.
T: Steiner got a lot of inspiration from the science work of Johann von Goethe.
DK: Exactly, and his science is rejected by scientists, because he had an artistic element. I've talked to heads of Germanic studies at universities that were Goethe scholars that were unaware that he did science work. But to us in Biodynamic circles, that's what we recognize, is the way he did science. So that artistic realm is what the alchemist would have as an approach and I think that's what Steiner is calling on the farmer to do. The danger is that being an art it will tend to be seen as more subjective. If we go too far into the objective realm we get dead analysis and we're back on the NPK side of things. Really we need a balance between the subjective and objective, and it's a dynamic balance. I had the greatest shock the other day. I went and looked in a dictionary and there was "biodynamics". But it's a term that's used to designate, in biology, the difference between studying systems that are dynamic and systems that are static. So that was known before there was Biodynamics by Steiner, but I think really that the dynamic side is the important part. And to me the ultimate dynamic is the cosmos, that's where all the periodicities come from. That's why I've been trying to focus this course on the cosmic side of things, because that's what's different. You can go anywhere and learn about chemical bonding and valences, but when we try to connect them up in a living way to pictures and feelings a scientist would have a hard time with that. They would say: "That's shoddy science." But that's what Steiner's really asking us to do, to see these elements, especially when they form albumen, [ egg white] especially when we get into humus formation, not just as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as we would know them through analysis, but really as beings, life.
T: Steiner talks about the soil as having soul-like qualities...
DK: When I talked about carbon as being kind of stodgy in a certain way, it has the imaginations but they've fallen to a fixed form, and hydrogen as being sort of flighty. Nitrogen and oxygen bring sentience, life and sensitivity, those are soul qualities. We can think of these too as far reaching cosmic archetypes. The carbon represents the spirit coming down into the flesh and hydrogen represents the corpus separating from the life and the life goes back and the corpus falls, that's hydrogen.
T: Steiner also talks about the hydrogen process of seed formation as a lifting up of the plant to the cosmos.....
DK: Hydrogen lifts the plant into the realm of chaos or potentiality. Just at the farthest reaches of the realm of chaos where the archetype can touch in, because the plant has lost its affinity to the forms that have become it has to open up to the new. So when hydrogen drives it through the flowering process, or the fruiting, or the oil process actually is the hydrogen, the plant is riding up and up and finally releases into essential oils and protein structures within the seed that can be imprinted in the farther realms. Unless it is driven into that chaos, it still retains the form that it had when it was growing. So the archetype needs to keep giving new impulses to the plant on how it evolves based on the individual plants here and their life experience. They give their hydrogen back to the cosmos again, that reinforms the archetype, and the seed comes up and touches that and gets a new form again, a new impulse.
T: So in the generations you can really see the interplay.
DK: That's right. The earth and the cosmos, once again, the earth and the cosmos. That's the theme.
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