Fields of Vision: On Biodynamic Farming, Ecological Entanglement, and the Nature of Knowledge

Bovine observations on a misty morning. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Bradley M. Jones, Washington University in St. Louis §

Bovine observations on a misty morning. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: This paper examines biodynamic agriculture, an unorthodox form of farming rooted in a seemingly strange way of knowing nature. Drawing on ethnographic research in the United States with agroecological farmers, biodynamic practitioners, and the alternative knowledge communities they foster, I first introduce biodynamics and its extra-ordinary elements—complete with homeopathic compost tinctures, planetary consciousness, a perspective of people as plants/plants as people, and alchemical transmutations of matter. I contrast such perspectives against dominant Western modes of agricultural science and practice that disregard much in their myopia, approaches characterized by command-and-control designs on Nature and radical simplifications born of the reductionist techno-scientific lens. The ethnographic analysis is grounded in a series of experiential workshops employing alter-scientific practices that, I argue, are oriented to cultivating a community of skilled practitioners with a holistic way of seeing environmental entanglement. Through these workshops, instructors strive to instill a conceptual approach that re-educates attention, expanding fields of vision while integrating knowers as ecologically co-constitutive. I suggest that the situated knowledge at the heart of biodynamic praxis offers “ontological openings” and important insights into the cultivation of more livable worlds (de la Cadena 2015).

Biodynamic agriculture is often dismissed as merely a fringe form of organic farming. It is frequently derided as pseudo-scientific mysticism, a cult of neo-pagans burying cow horns and planting by the stars. But with practitioners in more than fifty countries, half-a-million acres in cultivation, and its own colleges, scholarly societies, training programs, and audit bodies, biodynamics increasingly flourishes. Rather than facile dismissal or disdain, in this paper I ask what it would mean to take biodynamic praxis seriously, to stay with the trouble of an aberrant agriculture rooted in an orthodox way of knowing. How do such alter-scientific approaches to food production relate, respond to, and even resist conventional agro-industrial modes? What might they tell us about agricultural transition, the politics and paradigms of knowledge production, and indeed the plighted future of farming?

To get at these questions, this paper’s ethnographic analysis is grounded in a series of experiential biodynamic workshops that employ biodynamics’ unique mode of Goethean science. These workshops, such as a guided pasture-walk in patient observation of ruminant animals, are oriented to cultivating a community of practice with a holistic way of seeing known as “delicate empiricism.” As Goethe’s particular and seemingly peculiar method of careful consideration of lively phenomena in-context, I suggest that through “delicate empiricism” instructors strive to instill a scientific approach that re-educates attention, expanding fields of vision while integrating knowers as ecologically co-constitutive. In other words, they collapse the nature/culture divide, offering a situated knowledge in which human/environmental relations are reconfigured.

Such approaches stand in stark contrast to dominant forms of knowledge in modern agriculture. The fields of vision visible through the techno-scientific lens are always-already simplifications (Scott 1998), projects of legibility that render complex phenomena intelligible to the reductionist gaze. As James Scott observes of high-modernist forests and farms, the tunnel vision of scientific simplification “makes the phenomena at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation” (1998: 11). The synoptic view offers gods-eye observations obscuring the intricate relations between parts in favor of isolated variables. What drops out of the frame, rendered invisible through inattention, are the side-effects of such simplifications. Aspects once a vital part of functioning systems become excess, indeed pollution, under the techno-scientific managerial regime.

Biodynamic farmers, as well as the other alternative agrarians at the center of my dissertation research, strive to not only cultivate healthy, sustainable produce, but also—perhaps more importantly— to attune attentions otherwise, moving beyond the myopic fields of vision seeding and seeded by the agro-industrial complex. They do so through a variety of approaches that place neophyte farmers at the center of ecological relationships: from careful compost production that captures planetary impulses, to deliberate observation of nature’s cyclical rhythms of growth and decay, and even trainings in quantum relativity theory that (as Karen Barad [2007] has argued) entangle meaning and matter and seemingly have little to do with agriculture at all. Through ethnographic renderings of such more-than-human engagements, this paper shows that the biodynamic model of working with and knowing nature seeks to cultivate a more complex, context-informed understanding of the material-semiotic entanglements of people, plant, and planet. Despite remaining marginal to and marginalized by mainstream reductionist knowledge regimes, such approaches challenge the “monocultures” of modernity and mind (Shiva 1993).

This paper is situated at the intersection of environmental anthropology and feminist science studies, sharing situated stories in the service of a “successor science” (Harding 1986). It responds to calls to notice alternative forms of life emerging in the ruins of Modernity and its problematic logics as well as efforts to stage more-than-human relations otherwise (Tsing 2015; Myers 2019), suggesting that biodynamics offers “ontological openings” and important insights into the cultivation of more livable worlds (de la Cadena 2015; also de la Cadena and Blaser 2019). Born of “arts of noticing” and “attentiveness” (Tsing 2015; van Dooren et al. 2016), such alter-scientific approaches expand awareness and cultivate response-abilities—for agrarians and anthropologists alike.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol and Mario Blaser, eds. 2019. A World of Many Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harding, Sandra. 1986. The Science Questions in Feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Myers, Natasha. 2019. “From Edenic Apocalypse to Gardens Against Eden: Plant and People in and after the Anthropocene.” In Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene. Kregg Hetherington, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. New York, NY: Zed Books.

Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

van Dooren, Thom, Eben Kirksey, and Ursula Munster. 2016. “Multispecies Studies: Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness.” Environmental Humanities 8(1): 1-23.

Bradley M. Jones is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. His Wenner-Gren and NSF funded research explores the emergence of alternative ways of working with and knowing nature, primarily through the efforts of U.S. sustainable farmers and the knowledge communities they foster.

This post is part of our series, 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.