What do hippies and Christians have in common? A lot more than you might think.
The stereotypes: Hippies are free-lovin', goddess-worshipping ultra-liberals who rebel against society's norms and customs; Christians are moralistic, hyper-conservative corporate capitalists; and never the twain shall break bread together.Quite the contrary. Christians and hippie types alike tend to look at society's conventions with a skeptical eye.
I first noticed this in the early days of homeschooling, when our "fellow travellers" were united by just one thing: an unconventional view of the meaning and purpose of education. This view made good friends and staunch allies of conservative Raymond Moore and liberal John Holt, vocal and active leaders in the movement who had little else in common.
Years later I saw the same pattern in the home birth movement. Then in small and home-based businesses, and on small, sustainable, organic farms.
The Good Shepherds is an inspiring and encouraging article on the last.
Scott was skeptical when his wife said that she felt God wanted the family to raise sheep. "Excuse me," Scott replied. "I can't even stand to mow my own yard. What makes you think I'm going to start doing things like that?" ... Today, Lamb of God farm supplies about 40 families every week of the summer with fresh fruits and vegetables, and sells produce at farmers' markets around Chicago. Wool from their sheep is sold at a nearby knitting store, owned by their daughter. ... It would [now] take a miracle to get him to suit up again for a corporate boardroom, Scott says. "[Farming] is the most satisfying work I've ever done. It's because God's got his hand in it. There's something very elemental about tending this piece of his creation."
Called Christian agrarians, these families are tapping into broader cultural trends: interest in organic and locally produced food, back-to-the-land movements, and conservation and environmental concerns. They are resisting other trends: large-scale conventional agriculture, population flight from rural communities, and fragmented suburban life.
Joel Salatin is a kind of elder statesman of this small movement. He's been working Polyface Farm in Virginia since he was a kid, and he has made a living at it since graduating from college. Though it would be fair to call him an evangelical and an environmentalist, Salatin fights labels. He calls himself a "Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist." He complains that evangelicals have been inconsistent. "We look at the liberal, who wants to abort babies and hug trees. We say, 'What is it with you?' " he says. "Well they look at you and me and say, 'What is this about you pro-lifers who want to genetically engineer food and eradicate everything?' "
Neither liberals nor traditional evangelicals are flocking to the countryside, but another group is, says Salatin. "Thirty years ago, 80 percent of all visitors to our farm were hippie, cosmic-worshipping, nirvana earth muffins," he says in his typical rambling manner. "Today, 80 percent are Christian homeschoolers."
"Once you opt out of the conventional paradigm [of public schooling] and find it satisfying, then you begin searching for other paradigms to opt out of," Salatin says. [F]amilies that homeschool often start looking for ways for fathers to leave their office jobs. "How do I leave my Dilbert cubicle at the end of an expressway," Salatin says, "and instead invest in my family, my kids, my community?"
Homeschoolers, home birthers, homemakers, family businesses, and small farmers—for whom I pray daily—may never be more than fringe groups in our society. Not everyone—and perhaps only a few—can follow all, or any of these paths. But we would do well to encourage them, to cultivate and not penalize their growth, for they may be the remnant that preserves the good we are rapidly forgetting, like the dedicated conservators who raise heritage crops and farm animals. As Neil Postman said, in another context, Those ... who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition.
Every year on his 550-acre farm, 450 acres of which is wooded, Joel Salatin produces 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broiler chickens, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan says the land, despite being used so intensely, "will be in no way diminished by the process—in fact it will be the better for it."
That's partly because Salatin's methods are vastly different from those of most contemporary farmers. In contrast to industrially produced chickens that can't leave their cages, that need to have their beaks cut off so they don't peck at each other, and that are ridden with disease, Salatin allows his chickens to poke freely around his pasture.
Salatin says he is just copying creation. "We use God's design and take it as a template," he says. "Our overriding question is not how do we grow the chicks bigger and faster and cheaper. The goal that we have is how do we … create a habitat that allows the chicken to fully express her 'chickenness.' "
Every day, Salatin moves his cows to a fresh spot of grass. The cows eat all day. At night, Salatin moves them to another spot. He then moves his chickens to where the cows were. The chickens eat the bugs and larvae growing in the cowpats. This "sanitation crew" cleans up after his cows. "Just like in nature, birds always follow herbivores, like the egret on the rhino's nose," he explains. Chickens' droppings, combined with cows', fertilize the grass, which in two weeks will have regrown enough to be ready for the cows again.
Symbiotic relationships are at work all over Salatin's farm. Without fertilizer, without hormones, and without cows and chickens forced into industrial factories, Salatin produces a healthy amount of food—and it is healthy food, too, for which customers come directly to him and pay top dollar. "What is it worth to have chicken that reduces your cholesterol instead of increasing it?" Salatin says. "We've had our chickens tested. They're 25 times cleaner than what's in the supermarket."