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In Honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed Sherry Wildfeuer, who has significantly impacted the Anthroposophic and Biodynamic movements in the United States over the past sixty years. Sherry has been the editor of the Stella Natura Biodynamic planting calendar since 1978 and a co-worker at Camphill Village for 50 years. She is also an active member of the Anthroposophical Society and its Agriculture Section.
How did you first hear about anthroposophy and biodynamic agriculture?
I first heard about anthroposophy when I was a freshman in college. I learned about it from a senior named Joel Morrow (who became the editor of the Biodynamic Journal for several years much later), as he had just learned about it himself. It was life-changing. I had been looking for meaning in my life and wasn’t finding it in anything I had met so far. But when I read Rudolf Steiner, I felt like, “Oh, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.”
So then, you pursued training in biodynamic agriculture?
No, I didn’t know anything about biodynamics. I just knew about Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy. I wanted to know what people did who thought like that. I heard that there was a Camphill School in Pennsylvania, which was working out of anthroposophy, so I contacted them and asked if I could come as a co-worker. I interviewed there, and they said I could come, and Joel came too. That’s when I met Biodynamics for the first time.
There was an old woman, and it was her last year of gardening. So, in whatever free time I could find, I would help her. It’s not that she talked about Biodynamics. I had heard the word; I knew it was a biodynamic garden, but I was most impressed by her intimate, almost conversational relationship with the plants. And, for the first time in my life, I thought, well, maybe I could be a gardener. I left the Camphill school [in 1967] after a little over a year, but I decided to pursue my gardening training.
Where did you go after Camphill?
I worked in the garden in Spring Valley, which is now the Pfeiffer Center garden, for a summer to find out if I was capable of physical labor, which I had never done before. (I was.) Then I went back to college because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. But I left again, feeling I should get on with my gardening training. So I worked for a while and then went to California to work with a master gardener, Alan Chadwick, in Santa Cruz. While it was only five months, again, it was life-changing. Everything I did during those early years was significant for me, even if it was relatively short.
I needed more ideas on how to learn Biodynamics. So I called the Goetheanum in Switzerland, and they said, “well, we don’t have training here, but you could work in the garden.” It was not a giant garden, but it was large-scale preparation-making because they made it for many other people. I think we buried 3000 horns. It was amazing. Then I moved to England to attend Emerson College, where Dr. Koepf was starting his first year there teaching Biodynamics, and by the end of that, I didn’t know what else I was going to do.
What happened next?
Then somebody came from the Sacramento Waldorf School to recruit a gardening teacher. I decided to try it, and it was a wonderful experience. I started the Sacramento Waldorf School garden, which is now absolutely thriving. I did that for a year and three quarters, but I was looking for more community. I had that first experience at Camphill, and it called me back. So I wrote to the people in Camphill, and they said, “Well, actually, we’re just starting a new adult village based on Biodynamic agriculture. That seems like the right place for you to go.” And so that’s where I went, and that’s where I still am.
That’s a fantastic story. So you have been at Camphill for 50 years now? How has it changed?
Well, there are more people in this village, and the soil has gotten better. We’ve taken hold of the land, and many people carry responsibility. I remember in the first year, I had this rather foolish but sweet idea that I would write down every day everything that happened on the land. I got this big book, and I would go around and ask everyone, “What did you do?” And that soon became impossible. And so it did change in that it just got too much for one person to keep track of. We now have a dairy farm, a CSA garden, an orchard, and a herb garden, which I started, but it’s now run much more professionally and wonderfully than I did in the beginning. So all these things are carried by different people. Our land group meets regularly to bring the consciousness together for the whole. So instead of a book, we have a group of people that hold the self-awareness of the farm.
When you live so connected to other people, there are inevitable challenges, and we really work on remaining true to the ideals of anthroposophy in the community and finding ways to understand each other, educate each other, and accept each other. So it’s a maturing process. And it’s also a thrilling process because even though I’ve stayed in the same place, hundreds of people have flowed through the community, so I get to meet new young people all the time and maintain relationships, even if they go, and see people being drawn to the impulse and making their lives here.
Am I correct that you brought the Agricultural Section to the United States?
That is true, together with Rod Shouldice. We were at a conference when people from the Goetheanum came, and they encouraged that Section work should start on this continent. Before that, we had always thought the Agriculture Section was at the Goetheanum. But they said, “No, do something here.” So we just looked at each other and thought, “Okay, let’s do it.” And the following year, we had the first meeting, and it’s been going on since 1981. I co-lead that with Alex Tuchman now, and there’s a very strong Section Council of wise and active colleagues.
For the sake of myself, who’s not an expert on the Agricultural Section, can you tell me more about what’s in it and what it’s all about?
It’s a section of the School for Spiritual Science, which has many, you could say, departments or sections: the Pedagogical Section, the Medical Section, the Performing Arts Section, Literary Arts, and many others; that’s what it’s called the Section. My understanding from the start was that there was a call for research to deepen our relation to Biodynamics and maintain its connection to its source in anthroposophy. It’s very easy to reduce biodynamics to a method that people can follow or not, but if this happens, it can wander away from its original intentions.
The Agriculture Section is committed to maintaining that connection, not in a dogmatic way, but in a living way. We keep learning and working on themes together, making new breakthroughs, stimulating each other, and sharing our individual work. So it’s a real colleagueship, but more on a spiritual than a practical level. However, we have inaugurated several practical endeavors over the years when we saw that they were necessary for the Biodynamic movement.
So you have been editing the Stella Natura Biodynamic agriculture calendar since 1978. Is that correct? What do people use this calendar for?
If you want to explore harmonizing your sowing, transplanting and cultivating with the rhythms of the moon, this gives ephemeris year-by-year, with suggestions of what part of the plant will be enhanced at certain times. So, for example, you’re interested in having the fruit of the tomato plant or the pepper plant rather than big leafy bushes, or you hope to have large radish roots, as opposed to the radish flowers, which you’re not so happy to see. And so if you time your sowing according to where the moon is in the Zodiac, you can support the particular aspect of the plant you’re interested in. There are also times that are not so favorable for plant growth, and it’s good to know these so you can avoid them for your seed sowing.
So does every individual vegetable and every individual plant have a specific day? Or are they in groups? How does that work?
It’s grouped according to the four elements. So the root has to do with the earth element. The leaves and stems have to do with water, the flowers with air, and the fruits with fire since they require warmth to ripen. So fruits and seeds mean cucumbers, string beans, and squash, and all those would best be sown when the moon is passing through a constellation of the Zodiac that has an affinity with the element of fire.
Very cool. What’s your favorite prep to make?
We used to divide them up in the village, and I always made the stinging nettle preparation, but we make all of them.
How does Biodyamics compare to other forms of agriculture?
Most of the other approaches – permaculture, organic, etc. – have a kind of ideal of imitating nature. They look to nature as their teacher and try to imitate nature, whereas Biodynamics includes the human being as intrinsic to Earth’s evolution and asks us to take responsibility for bringing healing to the Earth that by itself actually would not be better off than with us. That’s not to deny all the destructive things that human beings have done to nature. That’s clear. But we also have to take responsibility for healing. So I see the preparations, in a certain sense, as medicines for the Earth; they are not copies of something that exists already. They are human creations. They’re no more weird than a fancy dish I make in the kitchen, where I bring this together with that and add a little of this and a little of that — much more complicated than the Biodynamic preparations. We bring things from the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom together in meals all the time, but this is actually for the express purpose of connecting with the cosmos and bringing those healing forces, focusing them into the compost, for example, or with the field sprays onto the soil directly.
I’ve read a couple of quotes where you talk about growing vegetables for nutritional value and that there’s also a life force component. Can you talk more about that?
There are many different ways you could enter into it. One is digestion. When we eat something, we destroy the form. It goes into our digestive process, breaking it down until it’s purely mineralized. But in the process of breaking it down, we are releasing life forces that make the plants grow. So nature is full of life forces, but we can also see the vitality waning in nature. If it’s conventionally grown food, it’s been poisoned and processed, so there’s not much life in it to be released once you digest it. But Biodynamics, from that point of view of nourishment, enhances the vitality of the food you grow so that there’s more for people when they eat it than just stomach filler, as Rudolf Steiner calls it. Conventionally grown food doesn’t look that pretty. It’s pale and watery and swollen because there’s no vitality. And I’m hoping that people will develop more of a sense of the vitality in their food and actually notice that we can distinguish what’s more alive and what’s less.
But another way to think about vitality is that we know that the Earth would not be alive without the Sun. In addition to light and warmth, there are also life forces streaming to the Earth from the Sun. And there are also influences from the moon. We know it’s strong enough to pull the whole ocean in the tides, so it’s got to have something powerful there. And the plants and we are all so much water, so there’s this basic connection, and Rudolf Steiner points out that it’s not just the Sun and the moon, but the planets as well. He describes how those influences belong to the life forces we’re discussing in the plants. In Biodynamics, we learn to observe what he describes as a kind of polarity between the inner and outer planets, in the tendency of plants to reproduce quickly, kind of like weeds do. Then the slower development puts on more substance that can then be of nutritive value for animals and humans. So the more concepts we have for this ineffable realm of life forces, the more our eyes are opened to see what’s all around us. We’re not adding something; we’re just cognizing it because we have concepts.
In contrast, the general level of science at this point is so limited to matter and to the mineral world. It doesn’t touch life. It just reduces everything to substance. So a tomato is so many grams of this or that, and you wouldn’t know that one is a better tomato than the other. It’s very limiting, and it is very destructive when it comes to the realm of life. You know, when you’re constructing a machine, that’s one thing, but when you are trying to work with living plants and animals, it’s awful because it reduces them just to machine parts, input-output.