The Mounting Imperatives of 21st Century Agrarianism: Farms & Food Face Fundamental Forces

May 20, 2013

co2The elemental wherewithal of our farms and our food is in motion. Whirlwinds of change bear upon our land, air, water and climate. Fundamental forces have shouldered their way front and center. The land calls urgently.

As reported worldwide this month, scientific evidence shows that the level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide (CO2), has mounted far beyond the danger zone. Heat is rising. Consequences are evident.

CO2 has now reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million, a level the Earth has not experienced for three million years. That was during an epoch called the Pliocene.

The overwhelming majority of scientists understand that this current rise in CO2 portends epic changes.

“Our food systems, our cities, our people and our very way of life developed within a stable range of climatic conditions on Earth,” former Vice President Al Gore observed in the wake of the CO2 report. “Without immediate and decisive action, these favorable conditions on Earth could become a memory.”

Following the front-page news about the rapid deterioration of the earth’s climate, came two other hard news stories that underscore the matter of food vulnerability: news of the disease-driven collapse of the staple food crop for more than 500 million human beings in Africa, and news of grave troubles for citrus fruits in America and around the world.

Climate change and crop disease are serious business. Here the land is not just calling, it’s shrieking.

Cassava root

Cassava root

In Africa the cassava plant – which produces a large, edible root – is succumbing to brown streak disease. Africa already suffers debilitating food shortages. Because casava is the staple food for the continent, this plant disease is calamitous.

Meanwhile, the citrus industry is grappling with an infernal bacterial disease that has now killed millions of plants in the southeastern United States and is threatening to spread across the entire country. The disease has also been found in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Citrus Greening, also called Huanglongbing or Yellow Dragon Disease, is fatal. The bacteria devastate trees, rendering bitter, misshapen oranges, then death for the entire organism. There is no known cure.

“This year (2012-13) was a real kick in the gut,” Florida’s agriculture commissioner told The New York Times. “It is now everywhere, and it’s just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be.”

* * * * * * * *

When I absorb this short stack of climate and food news — just a fraction of the farm and food factors in flux — I realize that we must dig in now more resolutely to build a clean, respectful, sacred and sustainable foundation for civilization. That is the direction forward.

Many thousands of local, organic agrarian farm-and-food initiatives have arisen across the Americas in the last 25 years. They offer a wide array of working models. Those models can and should be replicated and emulated far and wide. They represent intelligent and promising responses to the imperative call of the land.

buccolicOrganic farms and the cooperative food systems they are entwined with (the whole, broad range of 21st century agrarian initiatives) have manifold positive responses to the central issues, and a track record of evidence. They sequester carbon in the land and thereby mitigate CO2, helping stabilize climate. They offer clean, fresh food directly to people who live near the source. They provide dignified work in nature. They knit together healthy webs of relationship, both personal and digital, around concerns of a foundational nature to every human being. They teach essential ethical values. They establish oases of radiant environmental health. And they bring large numbers of people into a more direct and equitable relationship with the human beings who grow their food, and the land it is grown upon.

21st century agrarian initiatives also provide wholesome anchoring points (network nodes) for the brittle high-tech, digital-wave culture emerging so dynamically in our world. We are just at the beginning of that, really.

This 21st century agrarian initiatives – the many thousands of urban farms, CSAs, co-ops, community kitchens, church farms, and city gardens of all sizes shapes and descriptions – constitute core elements of a more wise and respectful human response to the imperative call of the land.

The cooperative development of clean local food systems is in no way a boutique idea or a passing fad. It is a key element of modern food security, and it is emerging not just as prudent but also as essential. It is also about the renewal of our overall human relationship with the earth that sustains us.


Cracks in the Land

August 23, 2012

“Our farmers and ranchers have never faced as many problems as they do today with drought, range fires, high gas prices…”
- Michael McCau

My cracked lawn.

The land is dry and cracking across the heart of America. Drought is the natural cracker, shriveling everything up till there are gaps that demand radical shifts for underground pipes and construction footings, doubtless as well for all forms of subterranean life.  Then there are mournful, moanful cracks in the land from the massively arrogant and suicidal impulse of industrial-scale fracking in a time of profound earth changes. Foundational cracks abound on planes both inner and outer.

Each day as I open my back door and step out into the world I see this inescapably. I’m confronted with a crazy quilt pattern of cracked land where once had been a lawn. It’s a troubling sight. Here at home all 93 of Nebraska’s vast, sprawling counties have been declared disaster areas because of the drought. Late August now, and the forecasters say we may not get substantial rain until Halloween.

Our U.S. Midwestern drought — impacting over 62% of the entire nation — is having and will have  global consequences: “People in wealthy industrialized countries spend between 10 to 20 per cent of their income on food. Those in the developing world pay between 50 to 80 per cent of their income. According to Oxfam, a one per cent jump in the price of food results in 16 million more people crashing into poverty — accelerating what global agriculture ministers call The Spiral of Hunger.

Meanwhile, with at least one more long month of melting to go for the Arctic Sea Ice, the pace of heat-driven destruction to our North is staggering in proportion. Behold this brief composite animation. It’s a must see. Just about every record has been shattered, with a month more of melting to come.

Watching the world’s larger patterns unfold like this is profoundly unsettling, and can be unbalancing as well without some active, creative initiative to respond to the urgent call of the land.

Proactive response is a key element of 21st Century Agrarianism, and thousands upon thousands of people and communities are responding dynamically, helping to establish healthy new footings and foundations on the land as ballast and complement to the surging waves of digital culture. What is needed now — in this extreme state — is positive creative response from millions upon millions of people.

If you are among those who will no longer ignore the call of the land, then here is one place to initiate a response: to become informed, to find ways to cultivate the land to restore its health and beauty, as well to grow clean food for yourself, your family, and your community. Check out the possibilities.


Left Behind: Unraptured by the Transgenic Tsunami

January 24, 2012

When Stewart Brand spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in mid-January, he broadcast a vision of a Genetically Modified (GM) future toward which he felt we should all be charging with bright-eyed enthusiasm. “Get out there where it’s getting weird,” he exhorted, “and get weird with it.”

As I sat and listened to Brand talk of the future, I was carried in reverie not forward but backward to 1964. That’s the year my mom took my sister, my brothers and me to the New York City World’s Fair where we made a pilgrimage through the most celebrated exhibit of all, Futurama. Sponsored by another GM (General Motors), the exhibit offered a glimpse into what life would be like in the future — as GM engineers wanted to conceive of it. Of course, the future materialized its own way, not in accordance with immaculately engineered visions.

Likewise, Stewart Brand’s exhilarating vision of a corporately-owned, genetically-modified World of Tomorrow — a world subsisting on a diet of what he calls ‘Green Ag BioTech’ — seems to me unlikely and ill advised.

Stewart Brand

Founder of the famously countercultural Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968, Brand now styles himself as an “ecopragmatist.” He said that three global dynamics – climate change, urbanization and biotechnology – are causing people like himself to reverse long-held opinions and to embrace nuclear power and genetically modified food.

Brand is vivid and likeable on the stage, and his talk was expansive and entertaining. Because he is such a prominent convert to biotech, his philosophical reincarnation as an ecopragmatist advocate for nuclear power and GMO food might well have a measure of influence. But not with me.

His talk left me unconvinced and unraptured by the whole vast global laboratory experiment on nature and our food that is currently being executed with slam-bam systemic speed. I just don’t hear the call of the land as a plea for more industrially created, corporately owned genes and the petrochemicals necessary to sustain them. What I hear instead is a full-throated call for natural respect. Same as it ever was.

Special Pleading

Brand told the story of how on his way to Nebraska to speak he had flown over the Sierras. While in the air he saw that there was no snow pack at all on the mountains this year. This kind of ominous drought, he said, has not occurred since the 1880s. Climate change is catastrophically real, he then affirmed, saying it was a central motivating force for the work he does in the world.

In the context of our unfolding climate calamity, Brand asked rhetorically, “What is moral and ethical?” He answered his own question in the same breath, saying that nuclear power, genetically modified plants and animals, and geo-engineering are all essential ways to the future, and that we — corporations, universities, governments and amateurs — ought to go full steam ahead into a more fully nuclear-powered, genetically modified world.

Brand said that at this point in history environmentalists have only hand wringing to contribute to the future. He derided “enviros,” saying they are people caught up in a web of suspicions and superstitions. They are just “sad reactionaries,” he lamented.

A man of signal accomplishments, Brand at one point shifted and began declaiming. Aflame with the scripture of material technology, he allowed his rap to devolve and issued a disheartening damnation of unbelievers. In the years to come, Brand warned from his pulpit on stage, the leading edge of biotech will not be here in America but rather far afield in China, Africa and the Third World. Those places lack opposition, and have minimal regulation. In places like America where there is opposition to these thrusts, he warned, people such as organic and sustainable farmers and their supporters will be “left behind.” Organic farming will be more expensive and will yield food with less nutritional value than patented transgenic crops. Organics will become irrelevant.

Brand tossed off several ad hominem slams to imply that opposition to a GM future arises not from authentic, evidence- and ethics-based concerns, but rather from irrational fear. In that sense his presentation was a special pleading: a form of argumentation where a person excludes facts or details that would upend the case they are attempting to make. Enraptured with his subject, Brand stuck to sweeping generalizations, and neither acknowledged nor refuted the substantial body of legitimate concerns about GM corporate industrial farms and food. This struck me as a disservice to the debate.

Likewise, Brand said nothing about the ramifications of corporate ownership and monopoly over various life forms. He said nothing about informed choice or human free will, absolutely massive aspects of the GM miasma. He said nothing about the mounting studies and literature reviews documenting concern about the impact of GMOs on human health and the natural world over time. He said nothing of the Precautionary Principle. And he said not a word about the suicides in India of hundreds of thousands of farmers — the largest wave of suicides in human history — in consequence of the debt and suffering incurred by becoming involved with corporate biotech.

These matters – scientific concerns about GMOs, the free will of human beings, and a saddening, stupefying wave of suicides — must be addressed in any discussion of corporate industrial agriculture and GM seeds and food. To ignore them, or to gloss them over, creates a dangerous distortion of reality.

Sans Spectrum

At one point Brand showed a PowerPoint slide with a double-headed arrow to illustrate the spectrum of opinion on climate change: from total denial to full acceptance. But he made no allowance for a justifiable spectrum of opinion on GM food. In his view, at least as I heard him express it, there are only two stances: sanguine acceptance of corporate genetic manipulation of the food chain, or pitiful irrational fear of the future.

There are millions of people who, for sound ethical and scientific reasons, oppose GM farms and food. And there is a mounting library of research that should give any thoughtful person pause.

The health consequences of eating genetically modified organisms are still largely unknown. GMOs just have not been proven to be safe over the long term. Increasingly, studies are suggesting that grave health problems — for plants, animals and humans — may well be caused by GMOs. We’re all still guinea pigs. Make no mistake: the jury is still out.

Consider. Nearly 50 countries — including Brazil, China, South Korea and the European Union—already ban many genetically engineered foods altogether. They also generally require labeling of GMO products so their people will know what they are eating.

As expressed by UC Berkeley professor of microbial ecology, Ignacio Chapela, “…the fundamental truth stands that over the decades no real benefit has offset the proven harm caused by GMOs.”

Most Americans, however, are every day ingesting plate loads of lab-created DNA while having absolutely no idea about what they are doing, and no choice in the matter. There are no labels. Our free will has been rendered inconsequential, even though surveys show overwhelmingly (93%) that Americans do want labels. More than half a million people have already signed a petition to the FDA asking for the basic information and protection of labels.

For these and other reasons I have written about, I am altogether at peace with the idea of being left behind by the corporate GM onslaught. I remain unraptured. I’ll take my stand for the future on clean, organic land and food. Same as it ever was.

A Titanic Transgenic Courtroom Clash

The debate about GM food will amp up considerably this year, starting on January 31. That’s the day that the courts will hold a preliminary hearing on the lawsuit the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), and others have brought against Monsanto. The hearing will determine whether this landmark case goes forward.

Along with 83 family farmers and organic ag groups — a group totaling over 300,000 members — OSGTA is challenging Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed.  The plaintiffs are carrying a banner in a crucial courtroom stance for everyone concerned about GM transgenic food.

The 300,000 member plaintiff group will set their case out in opening remarks at the hearing: “Society stands on the precipice of forever being bound to transgenic agriculture and transgenic food. Coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed.”

The Plaintiffs say they are seeking relief from the court because organic, biodynamic, and other farmers need legal protection against contamination by Monsanto’s transgenic crops. They will present evidence to show transgenic food does not serve the public interest, nutritionally, environmentally, agronomically, or genetically.

This case is of resounding significance not just for farmers but also for consumers. There are far-reaching potential health consequences of transgenic food, particularly for future generations of plants, animals, and people. All this and more will arise for courtroom debate.

Futurama – GM at the 1964 World’s Fair


Global Food Crisis Expands – Project Censored

December 14, 2011

Project Censored has identified the dramatic expansion of the global food crisis as one of the Top 25 ‘censored’ stories of 2011.  The food crisis was ranked #4 on the list in terms of its importance and low degree of media coverage

For over 30 years, Project Censored has examined the coverage of news and information, define ‘modern censorship’ as the subtle yet constant and sophisticated manipulation of reality in mass media outlets. One way of manipulating reality is to ignore it. That is where Project Censored places its focus. And this year, one story given scant media attention is the global food crisis, something of critical importance to everyone.

“A new worldwide spike in agricultural commodity and food prices is generating both predictable and extraordinary fallouts,” Project Censored reports.

“Over the past year, food prices around the world shot sharply upward, surpassing the previous price surge in 2007-2008 to set a new record, as measured by UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization…

“…The search for causes once again leads to a conjuncture of flawed policies in trade, environment, finance and agriculture that is likely to produce more dangerous volatility in years to come.”

Of note, Reuters News Service just this week – December 15 -brought a facet of the story into focus when it  reported that a growing number of families in the United States are struggling to put food on the table. Poverty is on the rise in America. Hunger is increasing greatly.

The land is calling loudly, urgently at home and all around the globe. Time to respond creatively and intelligently.


Sowing Seeds of Hope at Nuclear Disaster Site

July 21, 2011

As both gesture and deed, officials in Fukushima, Japan have this summer sowed sunflower seeds at a city plaza. The planting is part of their overall efforts to recover from the epic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant disaster by removing radioactive materials from the soil.

For many people the Sunflower plantings — and the majestic floral coronas and seeds they promise – bring spirals of hope. Sunflowers, it is said, have the healing capacity to absorb radioactive substances. Having been seriously compromised with toxic nuclear radiation, much of Japan is in need of creative efforts to respond to the call of the land and restore balance. The planting of sunflowers is one positive, proactive step in that direction.

In technical terms, this kind of planting to heal poisoned land is called phytoremediation – the use of plants to absorb pollutants from air, water, and soil.

The Fukushima sunflower project is one of many international efforts at phytoremediation, including an extensive planting at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in the Ukraine. Phytoremediation takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.

Many institutes and companies around the world are testing different plants’ effectiveness at removing a wide range of contaminants. Overall, phytoremediation has potential for responding creatively — and gracefully — to the call of the land by using flowers and other plants to clean up toxic metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives and nuclear radiation.

The Sunflowers

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,

their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun…

– by Mary Oliver


Letter from Alabama

May 5, 2011

(The following letter is from longtime friend Charla Hermann at Hawkwind Earth Renewal Cooperative in Valley Head, Alabama, northeast corner of the state at the foot of Lookout Mountain. She wrote in the aftermath of the great tornadic storms which ripped across the Southeast United States April 28-30, 2011, about a month after the historic earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11, just prior to the impending all-time record flood of the Mississippi River. – S.M)

In case any of you are waiting for the Earth Changes, please head on over to Alabama or Tennessee right now. Hawkwind IS the front row seat

For many, there is no electricity for maybe weeks with at least 90 towers down. No cell service. The neighbors did get a shower at the Hawkwind shower house, because we still had water. The Mayor is grateful that his wife can wash her hair at our place. No cell signal from all of the bent towers unless you drive out someplace. But you have to have gas to get there and in many places you can only buy $10 worth at a time. Go to Wal-mart and you are guided to be allowed to buy FIVE items. Try to find a way to fill or transfer a life impending prescription and you are pretty well screwed. Go to Dollar Store and you can knock on the door and tell them what you want and pay cash. They shop for you. The water must be boiled in many towns. Places have guards and check points. Granny Ruth and Tarwater played cards by candle- light, while she put up clotheslines to hang wet things. Most folks have no way to cook or clean. It’s getting smelly. Priorities shift when one knows how little is available to them.

The local police car is trapped under his overturned trailer. He had just purchased it, after his house burned down. They deputize locals to help with the protection process, which means you have untrained and sometimes gun bearing bad boys with some idea of new power. AND yet we are grateful that they are ready to help clean up in something that will take years to restore.

Oh yeah, and want to try to find a bank open or a credit card machine to use????? THINK ABOUT THIS.  TODAY IT IS OUR TOWN, TOMORROW IT COULD BE YOURS. They day it becomes all of us……………………get the drift. The portal of 2012 is alive and well in the South. We have had seven years of droughts, floods, worst winter, hurricanes, tornados, oil spills, and on and on and on.  The people are in chronic PTSD. We use lots of rescue remedy and pray more than ever.

During the last purification lodge I reminded everyone what Chief Phil Lane and Grandfather Arvol Lookinghorse had recently shared about the dates and times of shifts along with the prophecies and the need to stay alert. I reminded them of Sun Bear and Grandpa Wallace’s lessons of survival back -packs and preparedness. I told them of the Mayan predictions of the Angel of Death passing the South Gate in April. Along with many other brilliant messages we had received from councils all over the world. KNOWING THIS DOESN’T MAKE IT EASIER. We have an advantage, because we practiced living in a tipi and tiny cabin with no utilities for several years. We are way older now and it is not so much fun. Oddly right now my being in Atlanta is easier than being on the land. That could change just as fast with another storm. AND MY BACKPACK IS AT HAWKWIND. DAHHHHHH.

Oh my, bedlam has many faces. We are seeing many of them right before our eyes. Fear has many responses and we are only seeing a few of them and are keenly aware that they could change on a dime. We place ourselves in that protective bubble and pray it won’t burst open with crazed, hungry folks. Not that we have any food for them to snag, as we had just taken everything from the cupboards to the shelters and had planned to restock as soon as we made some bucks with the tax season. OOOOPS. And still we are glad someone got to eat the food that was about to expire.

I have spent the weekend in North Carolina at Wise Wolf Council, attempting to wax wise. I have been being blessed with acupuncture and biofeedback daily to guide me back to Atlanta to the infectious disease center next week. I already know that this storm means I might not be able to get back to Hawkwind for weeks or months, and my favorite clothes are there, or my latest project is there. I am here, loving the grandkids and holding space for my family as best I can. I limp forward having hoped to be much more graceful in this dance of change. I thank creator each moment for the safe haven of the soul.

Tarwater and Lulu invite you all to come to the Mother’s Day lodge and pray for all the mothers. AND MOTHER EARTH. You can bring things for the local shelters, like soaps, shampoos and cleaning supplies. They will get delivered to the designated places. We will try to publish a list of what is needed, but please don’t bring us more things for us to sort through, as we have plenty of our own challenges.

We are asking folks to be mindful that we have limited resources as well. Our propane costs have doubled, as have all of the utilities to keep the place going.  If you want to come early and help chop wood or mow the camp- grounds, awesome. If you have time to help in the garden, that would be great. Tarwater is trying to do everything he can by himself and we are SO GRATEFUL for Jay, Doug, Lee, and Ben. Michelle, Krista and a few more who have been dropping in to help when they can. I am simply not able to do any of this right now.  Lulu sews for a few hours, tattoos for five days, tills the garden and loves her grandchild who comes to help as well. Then she gets up to sing for the lodges that I can no longer help lead. She hauls the lodge covers to Granny Ruth to wash, and then Granny smiles as she does the dishes and cleans the mess hall. She plans the next menu and heads to the store to buy more food to feed the next folks who will arrive. She is in her mid-80’s and is helping keep the place going.

We are working on time appropriate Spirit Dance instructions and will send them out later in the month. Right now we have a few personal challenges to address before we can vision that bigger piece for everyone else. It’s a pretty intense time in our family, just like many more of you. We are grateful to have Medicine tools, insights and faith. And still some days that just doesn’t feel like enough. No pity parties here, just the facts.

Life style just changed for everyone.  Pray for everyone and all of the elements no matter where you are, PLEASE. Pray for children who thought it was fun that school closed, until they saw that they had to stay home with no video games.  When the batteries ran dead, there weren’t any for the flashlights. Pray for folks who have no place to go or are trying to bury family while they have no means to even take a bath, much less get proper funeral services. Pray for the stranded old folks who can’t get out to get help or a phone signal and no one knows they are in trouble, alone at home. Pray for the animals that are in trauma. Tarwater tells me when the storms hit, Mr. Muggins our dog-child tried to hide in the downstairs bathroom shaking like a leaf.  Pray for harmony and compassion as people get more and more stressed by the day.   Remember Katrina, the oils spills, the waves of destruction in Japan and beyond. Pray for the wars that keep dropping bombs when we just need to feed and hug the children. Pray for someone, everyone to WAKE UP and hold each other in love and devotion. Pray like you never prayed before. IT MATTERS. Pray that the super bowl of earth destruction is not being held in your arena anytime soon.

We send you all gratitude and blessings. We accept those blessing back.

Rev. CJ Pumpkin (Charla) picking up the pieces in the patch
Hawkwind Earth Renewal Cooperative


Sacred Tobacco Teachings Illuminate Bee Colony Collapse Catastrophe

April 23, 2011

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Poster by Meghan Stratham for a screening of 'Queen of the Sun' - Ross Theater, Lincoln, Nebraska.

In bleakly immense numbers, billions of bees, birds and bats continue to perish. These massive, mysterious pollinator exterminations are steadily stinging our food supply and the whole of the natural world.

One out of every three bites of food that we consume is directly linked to pollinators. Thus, as the bees go, so go we.

While the precise cause of bee colony collapse is still argued, clues continue to emerge. Suspects still include mites, viruses, funguses, chemicals, genetically modified plants and associated pathogens, as well as EMF radiation from wireless technology.

According to a widely noted paper in the journal PLoS One, an active part of the problem is a tag-team consisting of a virus and a fungus. Exactly how these micro-entities kill bees remains uncertain. However, researchers did confirm that both the virus and the fungus have their impact in the bee gut. Somehow, the bees’ guts are being rendered vulnerable; then the virus and fungus have their fatal impact.

As for beekeepers, they are increasingly convinced that an underlying cause of this gut-weakening, global death plague is a family of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They are chemicals which mimic the form and function of nicotine, the naturally occurring alkaloid in tobacco. In synthetic, chemical form the neonicotinoids are sprayed on seeds or crops to keep them clear of marauding insects.

By now the neonicotinoids, in combination with a ‘chemical soup‘ of other substances, are widely believed to be a major player in losses being described collectively as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). (See recent comments on this from the USDA top bee scientist.)

Note well the tobacco aspect of this story. It may prove key to a multitude of mysteries. For thousands of years tobacco has been recognized in native North America as chief of the plant world. It is the first and most important plant.

As chief of the plant realm, tobacco can be employed for great good, or for great harm. This has been understood for generations. In this context, the widespread, commercial use of manufactured, synthetic, chemical tobacco — a substance reduced to a base material form — appears as a matter of resounding agricultural and spiritual significance.

Subtle Mysteries

Mystery lives in the hive. Bees emerging from the hexagonal form of their homes, guided by the position of the Sun, are drawn into engagement with life via the colors and fragrances of flowers. From the exquisite forms of the flowers they draw the dew-moistened essences of nectar and pollen. This they refine within their bodies into the warming, golden, hive-filling elixir that is honey, a sublime food.

Queen of the Sun, a new film opening May 13 in Lincoln — and on other dates around North America this spring — explores the bee, hive, honey, and pollination mysteries with art and intelligence. The film is being widely praised for its nature cinematography, and for serving up insights both scientific and esoteric.

Queen of the Sun explores how our natural, rhythmic relationship with bees has been fundamentally altered by mechanized, chemicalized, and edgily efficient industrial practices. The film explores also the possibilities and pathways of human beings responding intelligently and helpfully to the death murmurings of the bees by restoring our lands to full, natural, organic health and vitality, while also reorienting bee-keeping practices.

The bee mysteries explored in the film, in combination with the suspected role of neonicotinoids in the collapse of the bees, put me strongly in mind of traditional Native teachings about tobacco. Having traveled and studied with Native elders for nearly 40 years, I am aware of some of the core cultural and spiritual understandings about tobacco, and I regard them as significant.

Because tobacco is understood to play such a key role in the natural world and in human life, and because the derangement and collapse of the bee colonies is so important to our survival, the subject merits both physical and metaphysical study.

The Four Sacred Medicines

As held in the millennia-old teachings of Turtle Island (North America), tobacco is appreciated as the first plant that Creator gave to the human beings. Tobacco, part of the nightshade family of plants, has a special role, and is chief among the plants — the most significant medicine. Three other plants, sage, cedar and sweetgrass, follow tobacco. Together, since antiquity, they have been spoken of as the four sacred medicines.

As the ancient teachings maintain, tobacco was given to human beings so people could communicate with the spirit world. Said to be powerful beyond contemporary reckoning, tobacco opens the portal allowing that communication to take place in a safe, conscious, and wholesome manner. Traditional people say “always through tobacco.” Tobacco is always first, used as an offering for most everything and in every ceremony.

Tobacco has been used for many generations as offerings of gratitude, for planting, for harvesting, for healings and for acknowledgments. Tobacco pathways streaming prayerful thoughts have characteristic qualities of respect, protection and healing. Tobacco is Big Medicine, Chief Medicine, the main activator of all the plant relatives.

In the past, the naturally occurring alkaloid of nicotine from the tobacco plant was used as an insecticide. In our era a synthetic form of nicotine — the neonicotinoid family of chemical insecticides — has come into wide use. Those commercially sold nicotine analogs bear names such as clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, and thiamethoxam.

Using tobacco with wisdom brings protection and communication; using tobacco without wisdom is exceedingly dangerous. Most people are aware of how habitually smoking and inhaling the plant leads to acute health problems, often to cancerous death.

Correspondingly, using a reductionist synthetic form of tobacco as an agricultural or backyard insecticide can lead — and many beekeepers believe is leading — to sickness and death for our essential bee relatives.

Correspondences

Queen Bee

Queen of the Sun notes that the pollinator catastrophe of today was foreseen as early as 1923. That’s when, in a series of lectures entitled “The Bees,” Rudolf Steiner stated that within 80 to 100 years we would see the consequences of our tendency to mechanize the hive forces that had previously operated organically.

Born in Austria (1861–1925), Steiner made his mark as a literary and philosophical scholar credited with dozens of important observations and initiatives. He gave the starting impulse for the biodynamic approach to agriculture. He indicated that as a consequence of meddling with hives, manipulating the queen bees (Queens of the Sun), and a generally mechanistic approach to the otherwise healthy, natural rhythms of the colonies, we would create conditions causing the mass disappearance of the bees. So it has come to pass.

One of Steiner’s related ideas was that an essential spiritual requirement of the modern age is to be aware of the increasingly powerful influence of regressive, materialistic impulses which tend to numb or deaden the living spirit. He cautioned that if mechanical strategies of efficiency were imposed upon the hives, they would wither and fail. With the widespread  use of chemicals, and mechanistic processes such as interrupting brood production, artificial insemination of queens, and clipping queens’ wings, the complex masterpiece of the hive has been tamed into its modern condition.

In metaphysics, the doctrine of analogy and correspondence is the classic approach for exploring the relationship between natural and spiritual realms. The doctrine posits that as the whole of existence is one, all parts are in relationship with all other parts, and different levels (realms or worlds) have correspondences. The parts of the whole are in relationship with one another, and we can learn something about a given realm by examining the corresponding part in another realm.

The ancient Hermetic teachings expressed this doctrine of correspondence in the familiar maxim, “As above, so below; as below, so above.”

In this context, consider the synthetic forms of nicotine-tobacco, the neonicotinoids. They are created in a manufacturing plant as a chemical that mimics some of the properties of natural, sacred tobacco, and then used to protect plants by killing insects.

Head - Hive

Neonicotinoids act as neurotoxins. Bees exposed to them — especially in the context of the modern day ‘chemical soup’ in the environment — exhibit symptoms similar to humans afflicted with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They become deranged: normal mind and body functions are disturbed. Derangement leads to progressive paralysis which leads to death.

As derangement and colony collapse surge in the realm of the bees, we can meanwhile observe a corresponding surge – of staggering proportions — in the realm of human beings afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

As with the bees being negatively impacted by chemicals, a mounting list of studies shows the connection between other chemicals and the soaring rates of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

These observations stand as no absolute, physical scientific proof of a connection. But as apparent correspondences, they absolutely merit metaphysical consideration.

Stark Realities

The whole picture of bee colony collapse was cast in the light of stark reality on March 11. That’s when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insects. According to that report, “The increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including systemic insecticides and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees.”

This decline of bee populations, the UNEP report adds, has serious consequences for global food security. Beekeeper Gunther Hauk, who is featured in Queen of the Sun, observes that “colony collapse disorder and the decline of the honeybee is more important even than global warming. Without pollinators doing their tireless work, we wouldn’t have our flowering world, nor 40% of the food we eat and drink.”

Despite numerous red flags, the droning rattle of bee death may grow louder yet this year as farm fields are planted in North America. Despite UN warnings, despite outright bans in Europe, and despite beekeeper protests in the USA, the EPA is again allowing the use of neonicotinoids in 2011.

Late in 2010, thanks to an internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo that came to light via Wikileaks, beekeepers learned that EPA scientists were reporting that a crucial study for the insecticide clothianidin — one of the most widely used neonicotinoids — had been downgraded from “acceptable” to “supplemental.”

The memo stated: “[S]tudies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis….When bees consume guttation (dew drops) collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds they encounter death within a few minutes.”

The leaked EPA memo recommended that a new field study be undertaken along with at least one other study to ensure that the clothianidin, now widely used on crops in the country’s agricultural centers, is not harmful to pollinators.

The memo also made it apparent that the EPA had allowed the neonicotinoid to stay on the market while the crucial study on the subject had been deemed inadequate. Of note, that study had been submitted to the EPA by Bayer, the multinational corporation that is both the maker and the marketer of the insecticide.

In December, right after the leak of the EPA memo, a coalition of beekeeping groups sent a letter urging the agency to issue a stop use order immediately. “Our nation cannot afford, and the environment cannot tolerate, another growing season of clothianidin use,” the letter read.

The letter to the EPA was signed by a host of heavy hitters from the realm of the bees: the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, American Honey Producers Association, American Beekeeping Federation, Pesticide Action Network of North America, Center for Biological Diversity, and Beyond Pesticides.

The groups received the EPA response to their letter on February 18, 2011. Basically, the EPA asserted that “insufficient data exists” to make a conclusive case. “Based on the EPA’s thorough review of the scientific information,” the letter reads, “EPA does not intend at this time to initiate suspension or cancellation actions against the registered used of clothianidin.”

The letter went on to say that “given the concern about the neonicotinoid class of pesticides and protection of bees, the Agency has also accelerated scheduling the comprehensive re-valuation of these pesticides…”

The die is cast for 2011 in North America. Throughout the growing season across the land, the synthetic tobacco that has aroused so much concern – even among EPA scientists — will be in full and widespread use.

Our Cumulative Power

“Who knows what losses the earth has suffered? One who, with sounds that nonetheless praise, can sing the heart born into the whole. “ – Rainer Maria Rilke

As suggested poetically by Rilke and as taught by Steiner, a first step in addressing the realm of nature is to deepen our understanding of the whole, and the web of corresponding relationships that constitute the whole. We have much to gain from penetrating the mysteries via science and intuition, and much to contribute in response if we authentically engage the call of the bees as one key chorus in the overall call of the land.

In this matter as in so many others that characterize our era, it appears that individuals of good conscience must make their own determinations, set their will, and take their own positive actions.

Toward that end, here are some suggestions for steps one might take on the path toward penetrating the mysteries and establishing conditions which allow the bees and other pollinators to prosper in good health, that we human beings may in turn prosper in good health.

  • Educate yourself about bees and the food chain. Read a book or see the film Queen of the Sun.
  • Provide habitat by planting bee-friendly flowers in your yard such as Black-Eyed Susan, Buttercups, Clematis, and Dhalias. Gardens with 10 or more bee-friendly plants support the most apian visitors.
  • Respect plants typically identified as ‘weeds.’ Plants such as dandelions and clover are popular with bees. Consider letting some of these weeds come to flower, then pull them up after they’ve gone to seed.
  • Reduce or eliminate lawn chemicals. Many lawn and garden chemicals are lethal to bees, while others may weaken their immune systems. Consider switching to integrated pest management for lawns, or using natural, organic fertilizers and biological controls.

  • Join the community of beekeepers in urging the EPA to fulfill it’s core responsibilities to protect us against toxins, derangement, and death and thereby to safeguard the nation.  Sign the petition for a National Honey Bee Day. You can print out copies of the petition if you want to seek further signatures at local garden clubs, coops, farmers markets, CSAs, and so forth.
  • Support local organic farms. They are oases of environmental health and thus sanctuaries for bees. Support local beekeepers by buying their honey.
  • Consider becoming a beekeeper yourself.  As a simple search will reveal, the Net is loaded with resources for learning.
  • Grow a tobacco plant (Nicotiana rustica)  in your yard or in a pot.  Contemplate the plant’s form and qualities
  • Offer a pinch of dried tobacco leaf to the land if it meshes with your spiritual practice. Offer, then relax and listen. Tobacco is said to help to open a path of communication, but it is not a one-way path for broadcasting thoughts and desires. We have with this practice a chance to listen to the call of the land and the creatures such as the bees, and thereby to be informed on a necessary level of relationship.
  • Check out the resources on the links page for The Call of the Land. Some of the models listed there may help you find a way to add some positive energy in response to the diminishing buzz of the bees and other pollinators.

These may all appear to be small, insignificant steps. They are not. Consider how small is the packet of pollen and nectar that an individual bee carries to the hive. In combination with the efforts of all the other bees, quarts of golden honey flow forth. Likewise, the individual and shared efforts of people to heal our relationship with the land and the hives brings a cumulative, healing power more fully into the world.

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