Reflections on IMA's 2019 Winter Workshop: “Belonging – Agriculture as the heart of Environmentalism”

“Agriculture as the Heart of Environmentalism: Belonging to the Earth, the Soil, Each Other.” This was the title of the recent workshop that the Institute for Mindful Agriculture (IMA) hosted at Hawthorne Valley from February 21st to 23rd 2019.

 “Love, Belonging and Connection are the universal sources of well-being”

 “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” (Aldo Leopold)

These two quotes beautifully and poignantly express why we chose this theme. And judging by our current ecological and climate disruptions, by the global socio-economic tensions, injustices and inequities, and by a pervasive moral/spiritual disorientation all around us I would argue that an understanding of and feeling for belonging and right relationship to our Earth, to each other and to ourselves are at the heart of any path towards a future that brings well-being for all. Another way of looking at it would be that there are three aspects of our world and lives from which we can draw healing—ourselves and our bodies, our social community, and nature. These three areas are interconnected and when integrated mindfully, can dissolve conflict and dis-ease and bring about more optimal states of both physical, social and spiritual health.  

 This recognition frames our work at IMA. And agriculture offers a unique gateway into these three areas as it forms the nexus between them; it provides our food and thus affects our diet, it forms the basis of many socio-economic relationships, it shapes our cultural stories and it is rooted in nature.

Another working premise of IMA is that the best generative solutions arise out of dialogue and conversation among diverse, multiple perspective groups, in other words multi-stakeholder groups. This insight informs the processes we work with. Thus, the workshop was a facilitated mix of short impulse presentations, small group conversations, mindfulness practice, sensory attunement, and whole group conversation and sharing.


Dan McKanan, the Emerson Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School opened the event with an evening lecture based on elements of his recently published book “Eco-Alchemy”. He presented a comprehensive historical overview of the homeopathic but significant influence of anthroposophical thought on the environmental movement. He also drew a fascinating, sad and true parallel between farmers and people with disabilities, in as far as we today have stigmatized and disempowered them because, as Dan suggested, both groups resist “commodification”.

Building on this context were Karen Washington and Lorrie Clevenger, co-founders of the “Black Urban Growers” and farmers at “Rise and Root Farm”.  Through their biographical sketches they awoke in us an awareness of and feeling for the dark and deep “wounds” that much if not all agriculture on the North American Continent is based on – we farm on stolen land and much of the work and know-how that built our agricultural economy was introduced and implemented through the hard work of “stolen people”. What a difficult truth to face for all of us that farm and eat!

 What are possible steps of healing and ways forward into the future with this as a more deeply felt reality in all of us?

“Can we consider arriving at justice as a way of hospitality and not as a way of correcting something.”

With this amazing and somewhat puzzling statement, I am paraphrasing Orland Bishop (founder and director of ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles). He proposed this in his keynote remarks during the National Biodynamic Conference in Portland, Oregon in November 2018.

 For us it became a leading thought and imagination in our continued work together.

 Are we not all guests of our Earth? Can our agriculture show good guest manners by being good hosts to others in nature? In society? Who is setting the table? Who is currently missing at the “table” of our industrial food system? Who is missing at the “tables” of our sustainable, regenerative food movement work? These questions and others loomed in the background as we learned more about the history of the land in our county, walked “into” the farmscape of Hawthorne Valley with expert guidance from the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape team – Claudia Knab-Vispo, Conrad Vispo and Anna Duhon, who introduced us to some of the other plants and animals living with the farm, and the concept of habitat analogues as a way for native species conservation and productive farm acreage to work together.

 We also considered barriers to belonging in our current farm and food landscapes. Barriers that make it impossible or difficult to have inclusive and open seats at the aforementioned “table”. Economic pressures, pricing and valuation of food and also the work that goes into growing it, land access, the commodification of food and labor, these are all standing in the way of “an inclusive meal” around the table we all share on our planet today.

 When thinking more deeply about “hospitality” something altogether beautiful, amazing and also difficult emerges. We became aware of this when we considered the following quotes in a “gallery walk” and subsequent “journaling exercise”.


“Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions - for and to - express it all.” (Danny Meyer)


“True hospitality is welcoming the stranger on her own terms. This kind of hospitality can only be offered by those who’ve found the center of their lives in their own hearts.” (Henri Nouwen)


“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”  (Henri J.M. Nouwen)

Is it possible to create/host free spaces where we can invite and support each other to be trusting and vulnerable? Could that create an opening for deeper understanding and empathy for our individual pain which often can also limit us?


Can I come with the inner attitude of true interest in what someone might want (recognizing one’s agency) rather than what someone might need (creating a feeling of deficit)?

 Can we commit to be uncomfortable before we get comfortable?


I come away from our time together reflecting on questions like these and the renewed intention to weave the three strands of “my belonging” to the Earth, to my fellow human travelers and to myself ever more diligently and consciously. Earth and humanity are one.

And maybe it’s appropriate to end these “musings” with another quote by Orland Bishop:

“Earth is the school of love. Earth is where we form relationships and learn to connect through service for the sake of the whole. Nowhere else is this possible but on Earth. In this sense, Earth is the great evolutionary experiment, upon which the whole universe depends. Earth and humanity are one. There is no such thing as a single human being. A human being is always in relation.”


We are intending to build on this work with our next IMA winter workshop in 2020, so please “stay tuned”.