Magic. Farmer Ron’s thickly calloused hands unscrewed the brass lid and, with casual dexterity, reached inside with fingers as thick as potatoes. Extracting a generous pinch of dark brown powder from the jar, he smiled and dropped it into the bucket of rain water sitting in front of one eager child – rain water – then urged her to stir. There were eleven of us huddled under the shade of an old peach tree, thankful to be sheltered from the full light of the sun. The powder, I knew, contained the light of the moon. And cow shit. This was real magic, after all. You need gross stuff.
A little over a year ago, I visited Ron Boyd’s farm for the first time. He was an old friend of Silke’s, I understood, his daughter having been in Silke’s kindergarten years ago (she’s now in college). When our caravan of kids piled out, we ogled Ron’s apple trees for a minute, then watched as a mid-sized man with a small paunch came around the corner on a tricycle. I glared dumbly as he pulled up next to us, his wide-brimmed hat bobbing slightly in the breeze, then invited the kids to hop on back for a tour.
The tricycle, custom designed by Ron himself, was roomy enough for a driver, an assortment of tools, and twenty-odd sacks of grain (or children), and entirely foot-powered. I walked alongside, listening as he explained the mechanism by which he deployed the plow from underneath. It was only much later that I saw the water wheel that drives the pump that pressurizes Ron’s water lines and irrigates his cornfields. He carves his own spoons. He makes his own shoes. At one point, he even made a living selling hand-made moccasins to a shoe store in Japan.
Shortly after that first visit, I stood with a bucket of magic cow shit for the first time. Vigorously mixed with water, I watched incredulously as ten children ran back and forth to dip their wands – basil wands – into my bucket of water and sprinkle it all over Ron’s fields. And me. And each other. It was a blessing of sorts, a homeopathic dose of good juju meant to induce fertility in the land and heart.
“Here’s how it works,” Ron said. “See, the cows are outside with their horns,” and here he turned his hand, as if outlining a horn, “pointing up in the light of the sun.”
“When the cow dies we take the horn, fill it with cow dung…”
“…then bury it upside down in the earth to absorb the light of the moon.”
To be fair, our conversation wasn’t exactly like that (the cows might have been upside down, then buried right side up), but it was close. These days, Ron makes his living growing heirloom seed corn for Baker Creek Seeds, one of the world’s largest heirloom seed suppliers, coupled with his stand at the farmers market. His farm is literally a paradise of food – raspberries, cherries, peaches, apples, pears. Corn that looks like it belongs in a Gustav Klimt painting. Last fall, he took a trip to Peru to source ancient varieties of beans and corn. He grows heirloom wheat, all the while pedaling around his fields. At first, I had a hard time understanding why someone of such obvious skill would play with potions. Today, I’m writing to explain why. Magic is real.
After Ron had placed a generous pinch of composted cow dung in each child’s bucket, we mixed the solution first clockwise (befitting the northern hemisphere), then counterclockwise (preferred by the devil). Throughout, we sang songs to the earth, the water, the plants and spirit. You have not lived until you have mixed poop water with children in the shade of an old peach tree while singing songs to the earth.
“Dad, can I put these in?” Agnes asked, holding a fistful of rose petals under my nose. Before we began stirring, we had taken turns smelling the various rose bushes nearby. There were dozens of varieties, pink and yellow and white, each with a unique fragrance. There were enough rose petals on the ground to require a good raking. I shrugged at Agnes, unsure if beauty would spoil the shit. “Ask Farmer Ron,” I said.
“Farmer Ron,” Agnes said, holding her petals up for him to see, “can I…?” She indicated the bucket.
“Sure!” he answered. The man is as good-natured as sunlight.
I grew up in a city, Catholic, with a strong secular foundation and a friendly, but competitive older brother. My father was a lawyer, kind and compassionate, but reasonable and to the point. My childhood was happy, but there was little room in it for magic. I cannot recall believing in even the smallest item of wonder in our home. Instead, I remember sarcasm, a playful sort of sarcasm that wasn’t ill-natured, but did cut straight through the heart of any bullshit fairytale. We prided ourselves on it. We excelled in school.
Outwardly, I have changed tremendously since then, but you can’t slough off twenty-odd years of skepticism overnight. By the time my brother, whom I loved dearly, and I were young men the pattern of mental attack was so ingrained that no fairy, no magic spell, could penetrate. Then I had a kid.
Nothing destroys your sense of well-being like a child. If you ever think you’ve got it figured out, just have a baby. Your stupidity will be revealed daily. The mask of togetherness you may have managed to piece together will be revealed for the skimpy patch of rags that it is. This is cause for alarm, but it can also be a great reward. I stopped believing in myself.
This is too tidy a description to be completely true, but I believe that most parents will see an element of truth here. Put simply, as I began to watch the world through my daughter’s eyes, eyes which had their innocence intact, I began to see what I had lost long ago. I didn’t even recall having it, but as I fostered the seed of wonder in my daughter, it took root inside me too.
More than anything or anyone else, my daughter rekindled my imagination and wonder, transforming my protective coating of jokes and cynicism into a full-blown love affair with everything real and unseen. One has to watch children, the way they turn a handful of colored pencils into a family with elaborate rituals, to grasp just how subtle a creature we actually are. There are few things more healing (or aggravating) because one is forced to recognize that the immaterial is of the greatest importance in almost everything we do.
“Okay,” Farmer Ron said, grasping a bucket in his leathery hands, “let’s get to the fields.” We had finished mixing our potions, stirring our songs and dreams into the shit-water (along with the rose petals, a few unripe peaches and a dead wasp). It was finally time to get down to business. The adults grabbed buckets. Each child was given a sprig of willow (no basil this time). I watched as Ron limped ahead, leading us down the dirt lane. For all of Ron’s strength, he has a bad knee, giving him a sideways motion to his gait, not unlike a penguin. He is almost always wearing suspenders. We followed.
“Who wants to go to the north field?” Ron called out. Silke stepped off the road, disappearing behind a medium-sized cherry tree. Three girls followed. I looked around uncertainly, eyeing the rest of the children. Seeing that the others were attached to Farmer Ron, I turned and slipped into the orchard to find Silke. The girls were already laughing.
There were dozens of peach trees in three or four rows, creating a nearly unbroken canopy above our heads, and a sea of grass below. Freckled patches of sunlight sprinkled our shoulders, and the girls, in an assortment of colorful fabrics, darted in and out of the thickly gnarled trees.
I quickly set about waving my magic wand – to life! to health! - Silke and I taking adjacent rows. The girls dodged between, shoving their willows and wrists into the water, then chasing after each other. It was murderous hot and the errant sprinkles were welcome. The cow shit, after all, was minimal – just a pinch – and there’s something unholy about being such a priss. I think Noah said that.
Within a few minutes, we reached the end of the peach orchard and exited onto a recently plowed field, a la the trike-tor, where last fall we had harvested blue Hopi corn. At one point, the kids had taken down all the dry corn stalks and piled them into the center for a make-shift trampoline. Ron took one look at the bouncing kids and dove right into the pile, gimpy leg and all. I laughed and thought about all the itchy bits of corn stalk in his shirt and pants, then jumped in too. Noah would have been proud. We sprinkled that field too, then moved onto the raspberries.
Ron has rows of raspberries, then blackberries, then grapes. Even after he sells the best of them at the farmers market and stores some for himself, it is a gleaner’s paradise, not just for humans but for the thousands of fruit wasps that make their home here. Ron’s farm is certified organic, but even without that certification he wouldn’t be using chemicals on his fields. He’s not shy of “relocating” the occasional raccoon under the ground, but he has a deep relationship to the general fertility of the land, the humans that visit, and the plants and animals that live on it. Poison isn’t an option. Last year, when the grasshoppers were in plague-like proportions, he did everything he could to protect his crops, but in the end he had to accept that they are part of the ecosystem too. This year, thankfully, there’s not so many.
“Dad, I need more!” Agnes squealed. The front of her shirt was wet and her willow wand was bent in half. The look on her face was pure delight, turning to playful anxiety as another girl approached with a vengeful and soggy wand. I didn’t say anything. Last year, I had encouraged the kids to take the job seriously. This year, I realized their job was to be joyful, not efficient.
Do plants and animals feel our excitement? Does the earth soak up our fun? Do prayers and magic potions actually work? There are all kinds of quasi-experiments touted in new-age circles, like Dr. Emoto’s water crystals, or Cleve Backster’s infamous experiments with houseplants and lie-detectors. Like all things amusing and weird, these kinds of stories grab our attention but most of us don’t take them seriously. I don’t.
But if that’s true, if I don’t believe in miracle juju or mysterious forces, then why do I enjoy sprinkling Ron’s magic water over the earth? What do I get out of it? Why would I value a man placing cow dung in a horn, burying it in the earth, then digging it up and mixing it in a cauldron of water while chanting with kids? Because the truth is I do like it, and I’d like to know why.
Here’s my best answer. Sprinkling magic cow shit water on the earth, along with our laughter and tears, isn’t, I believe, so much about the water, the cow shit, or the earth. It’s about the intention inside the individual when it’s applied. That intention, that joyfulness (if it’s joyful, because pain and grief and anger can be applied to the earth just as potently) fertilizes the person inside and has a meaningful impact on the world. What’s more, it’s infectious. Ron’s fields aren’t fertile because they have microscopic doses of magic, they’re fertile because he loves and cares for them every day, and everyone who visits feels it and participates in that constant renewal. The occasional sprinkling of magic (and it goes well beyond shit water) is merely a sign of that love and intention, but – and this is the important part – it’s not a trivial one.
It’s not trivial because anything we do to heal ourselves and bring joy and positivity into our lives and the world is worth the effort. It doesn’t exactly matter whether it’s true or not. And the people (like me) who doubt and scoff at the magician’s art are precisely the ones who are suffering in the world, not the magicians. Skepticism and doubt have their place. They are important skills to have and cultivate. But if they crowd out one’s ability to playfully engage in the wonder of life then one has lost something very tangible.
You can find evidence of this everywhere today, men and women who cannot sing because they’re embarrassed. Teenagers who can no longer feel the thrill in a game of chase because they’re too busy being cool. Mothers and fathers who are too tired from work to build sandcastles with their kids. Kids who are too isolated and lonely to go outside and play. It’s not strange that we find comfort in private rooms with personal screens. It takes a lot of effort to believe in magic, that is, ourselves. For many of us, it will take our entire lives.
“Dad, over here.” I heard Agnes’s voice calling from…
“Agnes, where are you?”
“Over here, in the roses.”
I took a few steps and found three girls huddled in a thicket of lilacs and roses. “What are you guys doing in there?” I asked, bending low to inspect their fortress, only to find myself baptized with a wet willow and unstoppable giggles.
Farmer Ron is a magician. He is unlike any man I have ever met. Bright, sure-footed (even with the limp) and capable, he exudes a joyful and humble patience. What impresses me most is that he always has time for people, time to answer a question, to talk about the weather, or demonstrate his tricycle plowing techniques. He loves his work with all of his heart, but not so much that he can’t share it with others. That is real magic. We need to celebrate men like him. And women. We need to call them out and make sure that everyone knows, and that they know that we recognize them. I have met many capable and successful folks in my life, but I have met so few (including myself) who know how to share that success (and time) with others, and particularly with children. It’s a big question for me. There are a handful of women in their sixties and seventies who I have no hesitation calling an elder with the full meaning of that word. I know very few men.
I am sure Ron would correct much of what I’ve written here. He knows considerably more than I do. But I believe the kernel is sound. A few years ago, I made a decisive promise to myself - to become the greatest gift I can give to the world, not merely what the world needs, but what I am capable of becoming. This is what I recognize in Ron, and he is way ahead of me. He is a farmer, a husband, a father and friend, and a great example of a man who is doing it right. I am grateful to have him in my life, and in the lives of the children in my care. I may never reach my goals, but he proves to me that it’s possible and that sometimes it requires stirring up a great big batch of shit.