After dropping off my back pack with the very friendly staff at a vegan cafe I made my way up the steep rolling green hill to Hawkwood College where they offer short courses and retreats. The courses include art, ecology, religion, therapies and personal development. But I was there to see Bernard, the gardener, of the unusual garden. Most of the land around the college is actually a farm rather than a garden and across it’s 42 acres. As it began suddenly to rain heavily as I came up the drive I sheltered under a large tree, looking over the hills.
Out from the 19th century listed building are gardens, pastures and woodland. I pass a marker stone alluringly carved with some sort of symbol and I feel very strongly that this is a place that people behave towards with respect and spirituality. There is also the great old tree that Jane’s sounding bowl came from, and next to it, a natural spring. Underneath the canopy of the tree is a semi-circular wall built into the ground and from it flows a gurgling spring. It was in a walled tiered garden behind the manor house that Bernard was to be found.
“Hawkwood College is a centre for adult education that’s been going since 1946.” Bernard tells me. “It runs all sorts of courses. It grew out of the Rudolf Steiner movement and was linked to other initiatives across the country. Further down there is a biodynamic community farm with cows and sheep. A biodynamic farm works from the premise that the whole farm is a living organism and that by working to improve the vitality of the soil, plants and animals really good quality food can be produced. As far as possible we make sure that the things needed by the farm are produced on the farm.”
Industrial agriculture focuses on yield and the appearance of food and as a result our food in England today is far less nutritious than in 1940. Government records reveal a steady decline in trace elements during that period. There is no way of telling just by looking at a vegetable what the trace nutrients are.
“Wine growers are really moving to biodynamics in quite a big way,” continued Bernard, “because wine is the one product whose quality is assessed almost entirely on taste. Demeter is the international certification for biodynamic food, so if you see that symbol, you know it has been grown using biodynamic methods.”
“So what sorts of things do you do in biodynamic farming?” I asked.
“In order to enhance the vitality of the farm, its animals and its plants, we try to work with the life processes. We don’t simply look at plant nutrients. The plant will be able to access most of the nutrients it needs if the soil is really living. We continually bring living material in the form of compost to the soil, not artificial fertilizers. Biodynamic preparations are used to increase the vitality in the plants and soil. There are compost preparations which regulate and bring balance to the compost and guide humus formation in the soil The other preparations guide the growth of plants, enhance their health and improve their quality.”
“So what’s in a preparation?” I asked.
“We work for example with cow horns, filling them with manure and burying them over winter. When they come out they are transformed and full of fungi. We take the substance out and stir it in water for an hour very carefully and spray it out in small droplets over the land. This helps the plants to find a right connection with the soil,penetrate into the earth and become more sensitive, so they can take up trace elements and find what they need. We’ve got some that are ready to dig up if you’d like to see?”
In the orchard Bernard clears an area of grass and digs a small hole. From underneath the soil he produces a cow horn, one of over a hundred that have been laid together in a tight-fitting circle. The material inside the horn is no longer recognisable as dung, it has a sweet soil smell and is full of little white balls and threads, which are the fungi.
Once the preparation is added to the bucket of water it is stirred for an hour continuously so Bernard does not begin this now, but instead just demonstrates the motion to me. With his hand he stirs the water into a conical vortex and then reverses the flow, forming another conical vortex.
“It is a process that dissolves the substance in water and brings its energy into rhythmic movement. It is this movement carried by the water and transferred to the soil which stimulates healthy growth.” he tells me.