I had just finished a Kettlebells class the other day and was sitting in a limp heap on the floor trying to maneuver my socks when a classmate asked about what was happening on our farm this week. I briefly described how we had just finished processing three pigs (by ourselves for the first time) and how the next step was to brine the hams and bacon in the root cellar and then hang them in the smokehouse. Wincing, she asked, “Did they have names?” and when I replied yes, “Ron, Fred and George after the Weasley brothers in Harry Potter” she replied, “Wow, that’s really real, you guys are really living it” (yes, three ‘reals’). This exchange got me thinking about “real” vs. fantasy, about embracing rawness vs. seeking the comfort of oblivion, about directing ourselves vs. allowing ourselves to be directed. It’s sort of ironic that the conversation should arise there, since I go to Kettlebells twice a week to be purposefully directed – for somebody else to push me and tell me every minute for an hour what I should be doing while I empty my brain and breathe and sweat, essentially into oblivion.
I believe firmly in the benefits of living a “raw” life – that having an intimate and visceral connection with the creation of our basic needs, food, clothing, and shelter, will help us realize the true value of things, reduce our consumption and teach our children stewardship. I am also fully aware of just how uncomfortable this “rawness” makes most people feel. Each time we slaughter an animal on the farm, whether it’s chickens, sheep or pigs, friends ask us “Did the slaughter upset the girls?”, and each time the answer is no, they were not afraid at all but genuinely curious. Their lack of fear actually surprised me the first time – I was expecting tears and protests – but it became obvious to us that they would only be afraid or upset if we were, and yes it was a powerful experience, but not painful or dangerous. I think that most people prefer to have their food “packaged” and separated from its raw state because touching the web of life makes us feel vulnerable. I see clients react the same way about dirt and weeds all the time. I am not saying we all need to regress back to the 1800s and live in houses with dirt floors (I enjoy modern comfort as much as anybody) but I do think we need a societal reality check. We occasionally need to rest in the comfort of oblivion, but if it defines our experience we miss the root of who we are and how we are connected.
In December I helped a group of 8-yr old children make Holiday Bird treats – the idea was to spread lard (from our pigs) on a bagel and then coat it with birdseed and decorate it with dried fruit and hang them from trees in the woods. Three-quarters of the kids didn’t want to do the project because it looked “yucky” – they were afraid to touch something unfamiliar and get their hands dirty. It took some serious reassuring that it was okay. I had similar experiences while I was teaching environmental education to sixth graders from wealthy suburbs of NYC 20 years ago (they were afraid to sit on the grass, let alone get their hands dirty) but here we are in rural VT and the story is the same. It was an alarm bell in my brain – Messy is scary – maybe we’re doing our protection job as parents a bit too well. What I find really scary is our increasing separation from experience, both our insulation from the natural world and the people around us. And if I see it in children who are naturally more open, how insulated are we becoming as adults? How can we practice compassion if we don’t get our hands dirty? Why will we want to save nature or help our fellow humans if we don’t get to know them through authentic experiences?