Knowing Where You Are

I come from a long line of farmers. Six generations ago, my great-great-great-great-greats settled in a rolling valley rich with dark soil in a small unincorporated farm town called Cream, Wisconsin. It was close to the Mississippi River, which surely had a hand in the creation of such good dirt. My dad would take me there at various times of the year, most often in the fall, driving through three counties on the map, and past many o’farm on the way. Sometimes we’d walk the land, up the hills, and through the woods before deer hunting season. We’d return to the big old white farmhouse and share a meal with my great Uncle Hank and his wife Gloria. Everything was harvested close by: tomatoes, sweet corn, Gloria’s pickled cucumbers with dill, strawberries—all fresh from the garden, venison from last hunting season, apple crumble, and milk straight from the cows they kept out back. I can still hear the screen door creak open and slam shut and smell the smokehouse, even when there was nothing in it.

Hank worked the land , rotating soy, corn, as well as other crops, keeping some of the harvest for his small herd of animals. The rest was sold to the feed co-op which wasn’t all that lucrative. As far as I know, it’s still some of the richest farming land around, but these days it’s not yielding much. It’s been parceled out between all the cousins to keep it in the family. A similar fate happened to the family farms of friends with whom I went to school: farming no longer pays the bills.

I’m not sure I appreciated it all back when I was younger, running around the farm chasing fireflies with my cousins in the pungent smell of the country night while the crickets sang. Yet, I choked up when I heard Kent Cavendar-Bares tell Jerry why he believes in his startup which combines robotics and traditional farming methods for sustainable methods of agriculture. It’s about farming and the future of sustainable food supply. Something so important and yet something that perhaps we don’t think much about anymore.

Hearing Kent respond to “why he does what he does” brought it all back for me. I could feel a sort of sacred conviction in the quiet pause before he answered, as he connected to what that meant for him. It resonated with my own convictions about one’s connection to the land: the knowing of place and how a landscape can etch into your bones to the point where you know what “home” feels like by the ridge lines, the undulating fields, the way the light hits the tall grass in the summer, and the quality of winter. Knowing where our water comes from; knowing our food was grown close and carefully, these are convictions we can’t stand to lose. The life of our planet depends on it. Our connection to the land is primal. It’s essential to our lives and where we belong in the ecological scheme of things. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

Farming, much like teaching, is one of those crucial lines of work that you don’t often see written up in the glossy tech magazines with headlines of massive valuations, yet it nourishes us far more than the latest app. Wendell Berry asserts that “Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can’t be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy.” Farming is the work that feeds neighborhoods and nations.

It’s the work that rises before the sun, keeps an eye to the phases of the moon, turns with the seasons, sows and reaps, has dirt under it’s nails, and a profound sense of patience as well as resilience in the face of the weather report. Farming is a dance with the elements dependent on so many factors in which one has no control. A lot can go wrong with one surprise rain shower—or lack thereof. As Mike Perry, my favorite author and farmer from my hometown, wrote: “It is the blessing of dumb work done close to the earth—one gritty minute at a time, we move forward.”

Work done close to the earth, is quiet, quintessential and un-glamorized. Former priest, poet and Celtic shaman John O’Donohue takes nod to this in his Blessing for a Farmer:

In these times when geography becomes virtual
And developers urbanize the earth,
May the farmer continue to hold true ground,
Keeping the intimate knowledge of the clay alive,
Nourishing us with the fruits of the earth,
Serving as custodian of that precious threshold where
The rhythm of nature with its serene pulse
And sublime patience restores our minds.

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope,” wrote Berry.

Late in my academic career I studied Deep Ecology in a way close to devotionalism. I was riveted by Arnae Naess’s maxim that in order to change the environmental crisis, we needed to change ourselves. For Naess, self-actualization was at the crux of his ethos. In other words, if we changed our relationship to our sense of self and found our selves nestled in amongst the ecological web of things. There’s an awareness that strikes you when you do the work of self actualization: it’s the realization that you are connected to everything else. Your place in space becomes righted in a way that puts things into perspective. “The sky is deep black, the stars pressing down brilliantly all around, and I am reminded that we are not beneath the constellations, but among them,” writes Mike Perry. It’s hard to un-see that. As such, it can affect the way you live, work, play. It can seep into your values, your ethos, and your organizations. (Boulder investor Chris Marks once asked me why I did what I did. Remembering my deep ecological roots, I responded at once cheekily and seriously: “I think we can revert the environmental crisis while helping entrepreneurs self actualize.”)

Adds Berry: “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.”

For Kent, the future he sees and the slice of the world he wants to change is the work in which he is particularly fitted. Sticking to it is a tough road when one feels as if they are going against the grain—to get the attention of investors when you’re endeavor doesn’t look as glossy as the others. If we question our worth by ways in which we feel inadequate, we diminish ourselves and erode our own connection to our core. “What if I’m not the right person to do this job?” you might wonder. But what if you are? What then?

Somewhere in claiming your calling you recognize what’s at stake for your heart’s convictions. That belief can fuel honest work and move you forward—while knowing you might fail. When you’re that connected, you’re so aligned in values, ethos and body, that it becomes nearly impossible to do anything else.

Why do you do what you do? What’s the deep belief in what you do that drives you? What is the conviction at your core?

Whatever that is for you, my hope is that it orients you to your roots and nourishes the seeds you plant in this lifetime.