Guest Post: Aimless Musings on The E.C.O. School.

James has been working with us as an intern for five weeks. Here are some of his thoughts so far.

There are few who would consider farming and food production spiritual endeavors. I personally never connected the two seemingly-separate pursuits for years. My time at the Eco School in Whanganui has changed my view of what it means to be a farmer, and I can no longer imagine farming without taking spirituality into account. The complex systems involved in farming extend well beyond the material and physical world, and bring the spiritual dimension into clear view. Becoming an expert in a single pursuit often reveals insight into all other aspects of life. As Miyamoto Musashi states in the Book of Five Rings, “If you know the way broadly you will see it in all things.”

I hesitate to even use the term “farmer,” as it is not farming that is being done at the Eco School, in the traditional sense of the word. “Farming” is far too simplistic a term, conjuring up images of depressed barns, monotonous rows of wheat and corn, swaths of tired land, and maybe some dreary-eyed cows huddled together on a worn patch of mud. No, this certainly does not give an accurate picture of the Eco School. While difficult to label and neatly box up, the activities here consist of (but are not limited to) animal and crop husbandry, land management, forest and wilderness stewardship, regeneration of soil biology, and philosophical education. I do not think the casual observer would associate anything from the previous list of activities with farming other than “animal and crop husbandry” as I certainly did not so many years ago. However, all of these activities are interconnected, and one cannot be done without the other.

To raise animals or crops for human consumption, as the word “farming” implies, we must first have a piece of land. I have learned that in New Zealand, a solid and unmoving piece of land cannot be taken for granted the same way it can in, say, Nebraska. It is concerning to see the abundance of fallen chunks of earth on surrounding hillsides. These slips, as they are called, are due to unwise grazing practices and weather events, which are unfortunately increasing in both frequency and severity. If a farmer wishes to continue utilizing her piece of land, she cannot be a passive victim of these events. She must proactively deal with these slips before they arise by planting trees, avoiding over-grazing (or grazing at all depending on the slope of the hill), and safely diverting and diffusing floodwaters. Animal access to streams must be limited to reduce erosion and water pollution. A farmer must plant trees to save the hillsides from disintegrating into the rivers or streams below, where they will be washed into the ocean. Yes, New Zealand is literally being washed away to sea by these indiscriminate events of weather. The farmer must dig ditches to drain fast-moving and dangerous waters away from steep slopes; she must displace this water so it can slowly be absorbed and used purposefully, and she must plant native plants that typically thrive in these environments. As Nelson, the patriarchal figure of the Eco School says, she must turn a liability into an asset.


Drought is as much a pertinent issue as is flooding and erosion, and must be addressed as well. Water stores need to be utilized or created to effectively deal with drought, and nothing holds water more readily and efficiently than wetlands. At the Eco School, we have strategically planted several hundred individuals of native species that serve several purposes. In times of flooding, they hold the hillsides together. In times of drought, they hold moisture that can be redirected to other areas of the farm. These planted areas will soon resemble native wetlands/forest, requiring yet another set of management practices. The reader should keep in mind that we began with the simple endeavor of raising animals for food. We have progressed to planting trees and native wetland species to fight erosion and favorably manipulate water, entering into the surprisingly-complex realms of land management, forestry, and wilderness stewardship.


We can finally get to both the literal and metaphorical meat and potatoes of farming. Once a piece of land is established as stable and usable, it can be utilized for crops/animals for human consumption. Remember that a significant portion of the land is closed off to husbandry of any sort, as it is dedicated to wilderness area, forestry, or otherwise not feasible to raise animals or crops on. Pastures and crop fields can be made of the remaining land. Thinking ahead, one must wonder: how will these fields continue to produce food 1, 5, 10, 100 years from now? They will require some type of fertilization or regeneration. This is best done by use of animals and their by-products. Poultry and ruminant species are used in combination with food crops and pasture to mutually sustain one another. The animals produce fertilizer and compost to feed the crops and pasture, which in turn produce food for the animals. Over time, these grazing practices add matter and biological components to the topsoil. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this makes the land more productive over time as opposed to depleting soil fertility. This means that the farmer’s children and grandchildren will be able to produce more food per unit of land than the previous generation. This of course assumes that the farmer and each subsequent generation use some of the responsible and sustainable practices I have attempted to illustrate.


We end up coming full circle. I could have begun or ended the discussion with the necessity for philosophical education on a farm like the Eco School. There is no place for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or profit-centric thinking on a holistic farm that aims to be sustainable in its practice. A profit-centric view would scoff at turning potential grazing areas into forestry or wetlands, and would wonder why we need to bother with compost when we can simply treat pasture with chemical fertilizers each year. This is the prevailing view in our world, and unfortunately it is the same view that has so massively contributed to climate change, pollution, and arguably the diseases and disorders that now plague many western societies (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). When we eat an animal that has eaten herbicide-treated, chemical-fed grass or grain, it is a small wonder why we get sick. When this animal is free to defecate in rivers and stomp over steep hillsides, it does not take extensive investigation to uncover causes of water pollution and where the land is going. Thus, the issue at hand is not one of technological advancement or a matter of accumulating knowledge. We know what the problems are, where they are coming from, and how to fix them. The issue boils down to a fundamental difference in philosophies. A typical farmer chases dollars at the expense of all other factors, which is again why I am so hesitant to call what is done at the Eco School “farming.”


The “KAITIAKI” sign hangs above the main entrance to the house, a constant reminder of the farm’s philosophical foundation.

Signs hang over both the entrance to the driveway as well as main house inscribed with the word “KAITIAKI”. When I asked what this word meant at the dinner table one night, it led to an interesting and spirited discussion, as is typical here. My understanding of the word is that it refers to a guardian of the land, one who protects and manages in a responsible, productive, protective, and helpful way. This differs I think from a steward in that stewardship implies a superiority over the land, that the land was put here for our use, care, or exploitation. I find “Kaitiaki” to be a far superior descriptor for the happenings at the Eco School in Whanganui than “farmer.” A philosophy steeped in sustainability and responsibility to one’s community is embedded in that word, and a pursuit of monetary or material gain does not begin to come to mind.


A family member recently asked me how one can be spiritual without believing in God or something greater than ourselves. This prompted an extensive internal dialogue with myself, and I wondered how to articulate my thoughts on the subject in an eloquent way. I have settled on the thought that recognition of the spiritual dimension boils down not to necessarily believing that something external is greater than ourselves, but simply in recognizing that there is more to reality than the merely-physical.

Certainly, one can see that a kaitiaki is not concerned with the material world alone. In some sense, a kaitiaki must recognize that there is more to our occupation in life than pursuit of money or material gain. Otherwise, they would see the world as a means to an end, they would see their acreage as potential dollar signs. On the contrary, a kaitiaki sees value in each part of their acreage because of its relation to the whole. Each aspect of the land depends on every other aspect, and they create a workable system together. If one piece is missing from the puzzle, the big picture is not realized or even able to function. A kaitiaki takes a holistic view to food production.

I have come to see farming as intrinsically spiritual. A true farmer, or kaitiaki, sees the world as interconnected, each aspect just as valuable as the last. No part of the land is more important or valuable than another. When one can see the interconnectedness in something as simple as a piece of land, one begins to see the interconnectedness of all things. One acknowledges that CEOs of corporations could not produce if the garbagemen did not come pick up his waste, that the field cannot grow without decay, that birth cannot be without death. There is simply not one without the other. What is more spiritual than the realization that opposites are intrinsically contained within another—in other words, that all things are contained in another, that everything is ultimately made of the same “stuff,” that everything is ultimately unified as one?


A pumpkin plant sprouts from a decaying pile of compost, a vivid illustration that birth cannot exist without death.


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