Thursday, 8 January 2015

Method and Metaphor: A Special Sort of Pickle

CAT RIDING A NARWHAL (specially for Kerstin xx)

What is biodynamics? Over the last ten years or so, anyone with more than a passing interest in wine will have come across wines made from grapes farmed in accordance with Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural principles. Delve a little deeper than the standard ‘more than organic' description, and you uncover a bafflingly esoteric world of lunar calendars, homeopathic dilutions of herbal teas, buried horns filled with manure, cosmic energy waves and, in some cases, the etheric Jesus on a journey through the varying levels of the earth and back. What is a rational, educated person to make of all this? A look at the creator of the theory goes some way to providing an answer. 

Rudolph Steiner was born in 1861 to educated parents in modern-day Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a period of enormous upheaval, with new technologies and industrialization sweeping the population off the land and into the cities. In a relatively short period of time, central Europe witnessed the near-dissolution of the rural peasantry and the creation of an urban proletariat. Steiner, growing up amidst this maelstrom, was a talented student and quite conventional in many ways but he was also convinced that he was clairvoyant. His belief that he could commune with spirits and speak with the dead blossomed into a firmly-held belief that there was a deeper, unseen spiritual world underlying this one. 

Steiner took this curious brew of ideas to the Technical College in Vienna where he also found the time to attend lectures at the main university, providing himself with an introduction to philosophy, literature, medicine and psychology. He struck up a friendship with Felix Kogutski, who became Steiner’s muse and the inspiration behind his theory of biodynamics. Kogutski was a licensed herb-gatherer and, in Steiner's eyes, had a deep spiritual connection with the earth. 

Later in his life, Steiner was to describe how he had sought a philosophy that would touch on and embrace all aspects of peasant life: this was to be one of the central tenants of his concept of biodynamics. The other would emerge from the academic work of his formative years.

Steiner was a renowned scholar of Goethe, and began working on and editing the scientific papers of the German author. Goethe, while most famous for his literature and poetry, had maintained an active interest in science, pursuing detailed studies on the metamorphosis of plants. Goethe’s approach to biological science was holistic: he believed that the standard reductionist approach failed to take into account the complexity of interdependent interactions present in ecosystems.  Goethe spent many springs and summers walking in the Hochwald, studying plants, and looking for what he termed the ‘ur’ plant — the plant that would possess elements of all other plants within its form. He gradually came to realize that this plant couldn’t exist but rather that each plant represented both a whole in itself and an element of the greater whole. His final treatise on the subject is a beguilingly poetic piece of work that demonstrates a profound understanding of how plants grow. Steiner seems to have taken from Goethe the idea that a farm is a system of such complexity that a full understanding of its workings is never possible, but is something to be striven towards; that by constantly observing and trying to open oneself up to the subtleties of the natural world, a spiritual understanding can be reached. 

So, in Steiner we have an esoteric clairvoyant philosopher who has studied science, yet still feels a deep connection with the peasant traditions of the past: an interesting mix, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was late in life that Steiner was asked to deliver his lectures on agriculture. He looked back to the peasant lore that he had long held dear, and arranged it according to a system that owed much to Goethe’s approach to explaining the natural world. He brought this all together by drawing on his polytheistic spiritual beliefs — and so biodynamics was born.

What relevance does this have to modern agriculture, and why in God’s name are so many top winemakers adopting biodynamic practices? Firstly, the prevailing, reductionist understanding of agricultural ecosystems has caused an enormous number of problems. The discovery that potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are the key nutrients for plant growth led to the development of chemical fertilisers. This, in turn, led to a need for more irrigation — a bit like the way you get thirsty after eating lots of salty crisps — and thus to overgrown plants which, like bloated teenagers full of fast food and fizzy drinks, are more susceptible to pests and diseases (the pursuit of ever-larger monocultures did nothing to assuage the pest issue) and so pesticides and fungicides became a necessity. It didn’t take long before farmers were being told that to successfully cultivate the crops which had been grown in their region for hundreds of years, they needed to purchase a veritable pharmacy of expensive agrochemicals. Understandably, this caused many farmers to wonder about the alternatives. Nicolas Joly, a winemaker in the Loire Valley, is a prime example. He  first encountered biodynamics in the 1970s and subsequently embraced its principles on his family’s Savenni√®res estate, Clos de la Coul√©e de la Serrant. He is now one of the world’s foremost advocates of biodynamics and has inspired many other winemakers to follow suit. “In biodynamics we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs: like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamics permit it to do its job more. It is very simple.

Biodynamic practices can seem mystical and magical but in fact there is often a rational explanation. One of the most mocked practices is the burying of cow's manure in a fresh cow's horn over the winter months, supposedly while the earth is inhaling energy from the cosmos. It sounds less silly when you view it as burying manure in a partially permeable silica container over the cooler half of the year, allowing very slow bacterial decomposition and leaving stable and highly useable concentrated compost. Taking said compost and diluting it to homeopathic levels while stirring a certain number of times anticlockwise so as to energize the water before the preparation is used also seems to be verging on the batty. However, when making compost teas it’s important to ensure the water is hyper-oxygenated, as the anaerobic bacteria that can otherwise proliferate are pathogenic. The biodynamic focus on maintaining a high level of biodiversity in and around the vines does, in fact, lead to a much healthier vineyard. And the lunar planting calendar, while suffused with astrological nonsense, does make a degree of sense when you realise that a peasant would have put the rhythms of the earth at the centre of their routine. Indeed, all else would have been fitted in around these natural cycles. The lunar calendar, then, is a neat corrective to the desire to make the vineyard or farm follow modern human demands and routines.

I’m not going to pretend that I have exhaustively justified every practice advocated by Steiner, but there are enough that stand up to scrutiny to persuade me that the others may well do the same. Even if they’re not genuinely effective, at least they’re almost certainly harmless — something that can't be said about many conventional chemical practices. All things considered, the biodynamic method is one of the best currently available ways to look after a plot of land. 


There is an old Chinese proverb that states that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. It comes as no surprise to me that among my friends, it's the biodynamic growers - who know their vineyards inside out, and who speak of each vine as if it’s a member of their extended family - that make some of the very best wines I know.

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