The world of biodynamics is a strange, dreamy place and one that has attracted xenophobia, outrage, hostility, distrust, passion, love, devotion and committment. In other words, a compelling topic, one that seduced Oregon writer, Katherine Cole to write a book, perhaps the first understandable one about the hard to pin down form of agriculture.
Voodoo Vintners, Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, is a lovely little book, which, while it may not convince a farmer to take the plunge, or critics to put down their vitriol, all who want to know more about the agriculture's roots and how it flourished, will find plenty of answers as they travel through the vines with Cole as she talks with winemakers; religious devotées, dabblers and naysayers. She also gives good insight into the man who started it all.
said, talking to me the other week, from Oregon. "I think more of us might be interested in him if his biographers hand't all been so earnest. Most accounts of the man's life were scribbled by starry-eyes disciples, who have nothing but banal things to say about the man."
The strength of this book is the lovely writing as well as the lack of starry eyes, and she succeeds in putting forth the teetotaling, brilliant, if nutty, professor in full-frontal light. From his not drinking to his talking to spirits on the other side of life, she places him in the sane context of this farming movement that whether you believe in it or not, doesn't deserve the crap and the vitriol that gets slung around. After all, there is Steiner worship, and then there is Biodynamics as it has become today.
After being taken to task for my own title, in my previous book, I am gun shy about taking on use of Voodoo in the title as a selling point. But, here I go. Confusing passages show up on page 83 when Cole draws an analogy to Voodoo as perhaps an attempt to justify the title. "The biodynamic practitioners who describe their discipline as similar to voodoo appear to have a better sense of the religion as it is practiced traditionally in Haiti.."
I've talked to scores of Biodynamic practitioners and several consultants and I've never come across any who invoke the word voodoo. The press and editors looking to sex up the topic, sure. To get the uninitiated to turn the page. After all those shit-stuffed horns and the moon can make for great copy and intrigue.
In her explanation, Cole calls on the spirit (as the assist to magic here) as the connection between the two. While I am not a student of Steiner, I will say from my extensive conversations with practitioners, mostly in Europe, and from my own readings, biodynamic has less in common with evoking anything magical or spirit than it does rely on an ancient way of agriculture through observation. In the treatments exist man against the elements, treating nature with nature.
Spirit evoking is very different in spiritual connection.
On the great side of the book, is both the pleasure in reading, the straightforward explanation of the preparations and the stories of those who found failure or salvation through the farming. A great story is the triumph of the method over phylloxera (at Montinore). There's a great illustration of the pepper plant that discovered a pot of biodynamic prep and turned into some bionic nightshade. There are stories such as Alex Sokol-Blosser who sprinted away from BioD during a scary wet season. She gives us both sides.The take away is that there's more than one way to till (or not) the land.
Some of my favorites quotes are given by Jim Fullmer , executive director of Demeter USA. On page 8, he summed up an often forgotten viewpoint of Biodynamic farming; "We are farmers. We are pragmatic , practical people. We don't take a lot of bullshit. You can't just feed us something; we have to experience it." The roots of biodynamics come from Goethe. It's really simple. Just shut up and observe nature.""
In the end, this is a cogent presentation of the facts, the myths and the hopes of the farming method, and one that survived the title of Voodoo, which is more tongue in cheek than serious. Even though the narrative is Oregon farmer based, these are universal stories, and an enjoyable read.
When asked about whether Cole learned anything by the time she wrote the end, however, she responded. "If someone is spending more time in the vines, observing and being kind to the environment, what can be bad?"