© 2022

An Artist Born From Farming



I have planted seeds in raised beds with my kids for over a decade. In my formative years, I worked a farming job to earn coveted spending money. Later in my career, sustainable farming and eventually meat processing came into view as I explored further and deeper the impacts of every part of our food systems. Soil got even closer and into my hands a few years later as clay became the central driving force of my life. It has been a slow path, returning to the earth that birthed us all.

The smell of dry soil, the heat of the sun, the snap of fresh green beans pulling off a plant- those were some of the sounds of my youth that have come back into focus through my pursuit of ceramics. It is the simplicity of what sustains that interests me, which is leading me to discover that my happiness lies in soaking up the most fundamental parts of life.

I wish I had known to follow the path of interest and beauty from a young age, that I was so attuned to my inner voice and guide I couldn’t possibly go astray. Seeds and plants endure harsh conditions at times and thrive eventually nonetheless- the persistent dogwood trees in my backyard are a testament to nature’s ability to prosper in spite of sub-optimal soil. Time spent working in meat processing, a field I viewed as a natural extension of my love for animals, nature, health, and humanity turned out to be my own sub-optimal soil. Although the environment in which I should have grown strong proved to be unhealthy, I’m thriving nonetheless alongside my now-blooming dogwood trees.

There’s a mystery to the ritual of planting a garden in late March as I dig out the old packet of peas and salad greens. My 5 year-old nudges me along through the steps- “can I put the seeds in yet, mama?” – as we eagerly prepare for the highly anticipated planting. We plant seeds because the activity is fun and the future possibilities are endless. It is an act of optimism and anticipation. More than once we have forgotten the harvest until it’s nearly gone to seed, snapping the plump peas off the branch just before they split. It is so very much not about the destination– any potter or 4 year-old can tell you that the magic is in the moment. Could the ancient ways of life be calling to us through our children, inviting us to be healed?  Are we slowing down enough to hear the call?

The popularity of cooking shows, and cooking itself as a trend, is evidence of the modern desire to go back to the root of things, to simplify life, to simplify our focus. Spices we use today stem from civilizations we can only imagine. Cumin, coriander, parsley, salt, lemon. Mediterranean inhabitants have been eating tomatoes and basil for centuries, growing citrus in the south, and fishing along the coasts. Foods are rarely new. The fruits, vegetables, and grains we cook with today are the same as generations back. In Bolivia, a country with a thriving indigenous population, there are over 10,000 varieties of potatoes, while in the US there are only 200 that are produced primarily on massive industrial farms. If we stray from our roots, we lose the richness. Only now have we barely begun to see that when we try to change too much, we often move too far away from the original, too far from center.

Take our consumption of meat, for example. Cows were domesticated 10,500 years ago. Beef has been an honored, respected, and invaluable part of the ancient diets. We have been slaughtering and consuming cattle, respecting an animal that allowed for the lives we live today. We’ve been eating cattle for ten thousand years, and only in the last 100 years has it become a modern practice of abuse and cruelty.

The question is no longer about what happened; we know what got us here. As famed activist and author Jonathan Safron Froer states: “The factory farm has succeeded by divorcing people from their food, eliminating farmers, and ruling agriculture by corporate fiat.” The Industrial Revolution roared through a young nation, implementing ideas of technology, efficiency, and urbanization into the collective consciousness, affecting all areas of life. Farming, food production, along with manufacturing were early targets for streamlining and technological advances. Cows are confined and raised on grains which are grown thousands of miles from the animals. They became less healthy and the lack of grazing meant that the land they were confined to became over-trampled, dusty or muddy depending on the weather, and unhealthy. Further, the monocrop grain fields became void of nutrient biodiversity, requiring an input of synthetic fertilizers, leading to a cycle of inputs necessary to produce on unbalanced lands.

Had the land enjoyed cattle grazing, the natural fertilizer of manure would have regenerated the land itself and allowed a rich diversity of pasture to grow and nourish the animals and the soil. No synthetic fertilizers, no additional inputs, nor any needed grain. The cows fertilize the soil, control overgrowth and reap the benefits of a diversified diet through grazing. Healthy land, healthy animals, healthy meat. Balance in the basics.

Technology has not improved animal husbandry. The basic needs of animals have not changed in the ten thousand years of this practice. Animals need access to and clean pasture and water, space to roam with protection from predators, and the ability to reproduce. That is all. It really is that simple, and technology has mostly complicated those basics in the spirit of efficiency and at the cost of both the animal and the consumer. It has improved efficiency and mass production, more meat for less money and effort. Pain, heartache, and broken spirits be damned.

The costs in the name of efficiency are profound and ironic. The quality of the meat we eat is significantly less nutritious, full of hormones from stress and artificial hormones added to the diet as part of the livestock raising process. Commodity meat is full of soy, GMO grains, and carries the moral and spiritual weight of an animal mistreated. The health of livestock is deeply tied to plant diversity due to phytochemical richness, which is enhanced when livestock forage. Grain-fed cattle result in nutritionally less rich meat. Humanity is suffering from our own pursuit of efficiency.

In working for a small-scale meat processor, I was able to bear witness to the pursuit of slaughter as a deliberate, spiritual act. I collaborated with farmers shunning glyphosate and other chemicals and pursuing deep knowledge of native plants to control weeds for optimal grazing. What I have witnessed in our society through responsible meat processing and the rise in popularity of clay art is society’s collective soul seeking to rebalance. We’re trying to correct for the many ways we’ve gone wrong, the many ways our world is imbalanced and tipped toward the cruel, the inhumane, the unnecessarily damaging. For some it’s an inner urge, a flicker of an idea like the decision to order vegetarian at a restaurant or, in my case, to take a clay class. It is barely an idea, with barely an impact–but an important start to listening to the inner voice of the soul that is desperate to be heard. Our souls are pure and will help us balance, as individuals, as societies.

Then I gaze at my art studio which I opened a year after I left the meat packing industry, in a nod to my own return to soil. This pottery studio is at times full of women deep in clay creations. Some are simply trying to make a good mug, others are working on more elaborate art installations. I spend 3 – 10 hours most days with my hands deep in clay- either making pieces or teaching, firing, and cleaning. Work as hard or harder than farming, rendering me fit and strong like my early days of stacking hay. After long, exhausting, and exhilarating days I believe we are all reaching for similar things: a component of life that is simple and straightforward. Holding this space is a way for me to have a larger and rippling impact; by allowing people the ability to pursue creativity and simplicity, their lives are richer, more complete. I witness and participate in the exploration of simplicity every day.

My father and his brothers were all raised sheep farming in the middle of Sardinia. As each entered his retirement year they have gone back to work with the earth. One of them purchased a house in “the country,” about a ten-minute drive from his apartment in a small Sardinian city, as soon as he was able. He began going to the country house each weekend, sometimes weekday evenings in the spring, to get the garden ready, plant rows and rows of pear trees, fig trees, and fruiting shrubs. Pull the weeds and get the hardest work done before the midday heat. He proudly told me of his fabrica biologico, organic fruits and vegetable garden. He was famous for spending hours in the garden, tending his vegetables, to the occasional frustration of my aunt who might have been waiting.

In their middle years, they focused on professional endeavours that allowed them to raise families and contribute to the world as best they could. As those needs slowly wound down, they looked back to the earth, back to their origins, back to the feeling of home. They made a conscious return to simple, ancient practices.

My father now has an annual, hearty stock of animals on his farm including pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, and the dogs who bark enough to keep predators away. My youngest son is his pal on the farm. This last little guy has spent the most time of all my kids with his now-retired grandfather as they enjoy long days playing with animals. They make fires the size we never allow at home, plant rows of grape vines, and tend to sheep all day.

My son has learned that with animals on farms, “some we keep, some we eat.” He sees plays with animals grazing, picks up the ones he can catch, and learns that animals foraging is the norm. He drinks water out of cups I’ve thrown. He enjoys his hands in clay and soil in equal measure. This is a boy of the earth, loving ancient practices passed down through generations.

This is a boy of the next generation who loves working with soil and minerals to create food and contain and consume it. It seems like the world is not big enough to contain all of his ideas and enthusiasm for farming. I wonder if his energy will be quashed by adult concepts I’ve had a hard time with myself, external concepts such as efficiency and (other people’s) reality. My parental worries recede when I hold on to one sacred part of his foundation: he knows how to pursue simplicity by returning his focus to the earth, soil & clay.

Gena Mavuli is a writer, potter, and small business owner in Boston, MA.  She has written work published in Mamalode and the compilation book Quarter Passed.


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