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Zen and the Art of Agriculture

March 29, 2009

motoI set out from my home in Boston and it was below freezing at 10am when I left my mom and brother in the driveway.  Traveling on a motorcycle in the cold is a strange version of meditation because it focuses your mind on nothing but the various leaks you have in your insulation that chill that part of your body.  As I drove thought the forgotten parts of Massachusetts, New York and Ontario it was clear that people often forget about the places where their food comes from.

Through run-down towns, to upscale vacation homes, to Mennonite and Amish communities the scenery changed little from the cold, snow-spotted hills of the North East.  Though the setting was different I could not help but think of a book that I have been reading.  It is titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  As my mind found respite in the warmth inside my head I began to think about Mr. Pirsig’s physical and metaphysical journeys as I watched the road whiz by under my own two wheels.

In his book Mr. Pirsig pursues and redefines the every-day word “quality.”  For me this book caught me at a time of transition, though statistically speaking that is not hard to do these days.  And his theory and philosophy about quality has shaped the way I look at both motorcycles and farming.  Quality, as applied to farming, helps me define my personal dilemma of defining my aversion to industrial agricultural processes.

The books begins with four people taking a motorcycle trip across the north country of the United States.  They are two very different parties.  One is a couple, riding a new 1970s BMW and the other is the narrator and his son riding a smaller more “finicky” bike.  The couple is your quintessential 60s hippies that have grown up a little, have jobs, trimmed their hair perhaps, but still they have the need to “get away from it all” and they have this fear of what they define as “technology.”  They purchased the BMW on the assumption that its maintenance-free reputation would liberate them from having to interact with the very vehicle that they need to escape.

This fear, Mr. Pirsig theorizes, stems from a separation between a generation and the role it has in creating its everyday life.  That is no one has any real connection to the things that run their life: the cars that move them around, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and more recently the computers they use.  And while I say “they” I am very much a part of this generation that has become disconnected from what drives life.

Food shapes my life like nothing else.  And so this book helped me reconcile the empty feeling that I had when I first realized I have no part in where my food comes from and sometimes what it is made of.  That ignorance, or perhaps just innocence, fosters a blindness.  In the agricultural world that means that hamburgers are hardly related to the living, breathing, mooing cow where you get the meat.  My hope is to get closer to that processes, to explore what that means philosophically and eat some good food.

And so, with about as much luggage as a motorcycle can handle I arrived at my long-awaited destination: Meeting Place Farm.  The rain was threatening to get us all wet, but everything else felt welcoming; or maybe I was just relieved to be off the motorcycle and out of the wind.

One of the joys of a farm is the food.  And sure enough food was waiting.  We had beef stake that was braised with a wonderful mix of spices, some frozen corn and peas from last years garden and a hearty bowl of brown rice.  All to be topped off with some apple crisp from some of the remaining apples from last fall, with some organic ice cream from a dairy down the road.

With visions of cracks in asphalt drawing lines below me, and Mr. Pirsig’s philosophy connecting lines of confusion in my head I fell asleep under the warm flannel covers of my new bed.  My first day, albeit short, was over.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 8:12 pm

    We’ve talked a lot about all this, so I’ll just comment that maybe my love for rocks, (and the love of many others geologists around the world), it’s another way of shortening the “separation between a generation and the role it has in creating its everyday life” you wrote here.
    The difference is that we go further, we are not just worried about our separation from everyday life, but from our planet too. It’s amazing how little the humans can know (and care) about the place that they live in, the place that gave birth to them and the place that, yes!, gives them food and the energy and materials in which they base their everyday life.
    Hugs from Spain!

    (Mi padre está esperando ya algún comentario en español para poder entenderlo y comentarlo).

  2. April 1, 2009 5:00 am

    Hola, de nuevo, Nate.
    He estado buscando “Zen y el arte del mantenimiento de la motocicleta” por las librerías de Madrid, y te sorprenderá saber que es imposible encontrarlo. Se reeditó en 1994, se agotó y no se ha vuelto a hablar de él. Lo buscaba porque mi padre vio tu blog y quiso saber qué era eso de “zen y las motocicletas o no sé qué”. Pobre, no entendía nada, pero vio que tenía buena pinta.
    Lo he tenido que sacar de la biblioteca de Filosofía, (pero no te preocupes, no lo leeré en español, seguiré esperando a que me lo regales), para dejárselo. El que he encontrado es una traducción sudamericana que se llama “Zen y el arte de la mantención (¿?¿?) de la motocicleta” y en la contraportada tiene unas palabras interesantes:
    “Zen es la actitud. Y la motocicleta puede ser cada uno de nosotros, nuestro medio ambiente e incluso el planeta”.
    No estaba yo muy desencaminado con mi comentario anterior sobre los geólgos, las piedras y nuestro planeta.


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