Archives for the month of: April, 2021

In the early years of our current century I lived in New Mexico, far away from the place I was born. I was a student in the department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and during the summers of the early 2000’s I was part of a bilateral US-Mexico project conducted near the site of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico. Crossing the Columbus/Palomas US – Mexico border for the first time for this project I was in for a surprise. In the little trailer where we had to have our visa’s stamped we joined a line in which a family stared at me as if they’d seen a ghost. It is not impossible they interpreted my gaze in the same way. I was told the family belonged to the Mennonite community, returning home in northern Chihuahua. 


Remembering the Chihuahuan Desert, Homeland of the Rarámuri 



Fast forward to 2021. Just moved from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany to -culturally related- Friesland in the Netherlands, a place where, according to my mother, my relatives from my mother’s father’s side come from. Only in the back of my mind do I recall the Mennonites coming from this region, but I have very little knowledge regarding their history. But since I live in these different worlds, I am curious about the relationships between these places I feel connected to, the histories of cultivators of the land.

It is a complicated history, for which I need a bit more time to flesh out, but alas, in a nutshell the Mennonites are a religious group, anabaptists, rising up during the Reformation in Europe, and are named after Menno Simons (1496-1561) of Friesland. The Mennonites followed the teachings of the Bible, initially following Luther. After Luther condemned the German peasant Revolt (1524-25) and chose a state-church model, their relationships changed dramatically as the Mennonites believed in a peoples’ church, with room for multiple denominations. The anabaptists were persecuted and because of their commitment to pacifism, many chose to move rather than to fight for their religious freedom in place. Taking the word of the Bible very seriously, the Mennonites have always been dedicated and successful farmers of the land that was given to them to cultivate. 

Their path first took the Anabaptist from Friesland to Russia where they lived for about 250 years, then around 1880 many migrated to the United States, Canada and Latin America. Around 1920, Mennonites who had settled in Canada in Manitoba, moved and established themselves in Chihuahua and later in Durango and Guanajuato in Mexico. 

During the time I worked in Mexico almost a century later, things however changed quickly, and in recent years, growing poverty, water shortage and drug-related violence has made many Mennonite families decide to leave Chihuahua and migrate to Canada. I remember the Mennonite families as very distinct people of the community in Chihuahua, their clothing, houses and agricultural practices. Especially, all my colleagues in the project praised the Mennonite cheese, well known and popular all over Mexico.

Today, I am in Friesland, land of dairy cattle and the land of Menno Simons, and since not all Anabaptist left, the communities in the area I live, Holwerd, Dokkum, Ameland, all are considered Anabaptist. The majority of dairy farmers do not make their own cheese anymore, their milk is  collected and mostly processed in large dairy plants especially by Friesland-Campina, following production-oriented conventional farming methods, heavily subsidized by our state, cows and potatoes. 

And so I wonder, the teachings of Menno Simons, the peasant revolt of 1524-25, the defeat that left the peasants with little rights at the mercy of the justice system operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher. And I wonder, has anything changed since that time, farmers are still at the mercy of the ‘wealthy burghers’, politics, banks, and corporations.

During our  present time, voices rise up to live and cultivate sustainably, we desperately seek other voices, we invite Indigenous leaders to share their stories. Do we listen? And what I wonder, does the Bible have to say, the stories that underpin the road the Anabaptists took from Friesland all over the world. A peasant revolt, maybe this time it can be successful. 

Northern Friesland today

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/05/coronavirus-global-south-pandemic-food-production-farmers

https://corporateeurope.org/en

https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/08/07/we-are-very-good-friends-two-school-directors-build-bridges-between-mennonite-and-raramuri-communities-in-chihuahua-mexico/

The title is a Dutch proverb, its meaning is something like, ‘doing something in a relaxed way’, the origin of the phrase is unclear. Strangely in English it translates literally into something like “in my dead field”

So I was happy to see the first cows in the pasture last week in the green fields. Not sure about their diet, it looks homogeneously green, no unruly flowers sticking up. Not complaining though, cows in pasture is encouraging, hope to see it again and more. 

Further changes in the land around, tractor activity is increasing, preparing the fields for new crops, potatoes and sugar beets mainly. I haven’t gotten all my facts in, but I look at it all with a bit of suspicion, since the ground looks pretty poor to me, coming from the lush biodynamic world. On some fields, left-over vegetation is turning browny-orange and maybe an indication that Roundup remains the rage in agriculture, even though in the Netherlands it is prohibited to use for home/garden use since 2014. But again, I have to do some fact-checking to ground my suspicions. 

Walking and running through the fields, my daily activity, tractors left and right, temperatures are rising a bit this week and I can smell the salty air coming in from the sea, a reminder that we are close, even though separated from the water by the sea dike. Last summer also happened to be the driest year ever measured in the Netherlands, a problem for the agricultural sector. A shortage of water is a bit ironic in a country that is for about half of its area below sea-level. If we let the Earth’s water run its course, it would look very different here. Water shortage never seem to become a problem, until now. Watermanagement still focused on keeping the water in check.

This is of course the pride of the Dutch. Where elsewhere in the world I have learned to welcome and reverence water, the relationship with water in the Netherlands is different. 

The landscape I currently reside in is land that is ‘won’ by the people in their struggle against the water, their ongoing ‘fight against the sea’. War-like metaphors characterize the relationship of the Dutch with the water. The land is theirs, conquered in this fight, the landscape a manufactured feat. A different mindset altogether. These kind of metaphors are all around us now, in our so-called fights against climate change. How is it we made nature our enemy. What we should struggle with is maybe our own behavior. Climate is doing its thing, always has, like water. Maybe it is time to ditch the war-like metaphors and embrace nature as a friend. An altogether different mindset. Focus on the living fields. 

Last weekend I went to buy some vegetables at the lone biofarm for miles. The weather was nice, not too much wind, a lovely bike ride through the fields. Far off I see tractors plowing, spraying and seeding, although I am not exactly sure what they are using. Slowly a green sheen starts to appear on the clayey surfaces. 

It is the month of Earth day (April 22), it is also the month of international day of peasant struggle (April 17). A few days apart, only one day a year. I wonder how many people think about the relationship between the focus of these days. 

Last year I was fortunate to be witness of a process of language revitalization, within a land-based knowledge system where language, cultural practice is intimately related to the surrounding land. Respect for the land is at the core of thinking and doing. 

Along my years of working in bio and biodynamic farms I have learned a thing or two about the importance of the land for us people. How taking care of the land, your natural environment, gives so much in return, much more than mere sustenance. 

Even though I have always enjoyed nature and shared that with family and friends, I realize that within the culture I was raised, northern Europe, I didn’t get educated with the same kind of respect for the land on a day to day basis. Of course, awareness is growing that we are doing our supportive environment a disservice with our current, often exploitative, behavior and we need to change. We also (begin) realize nature can heal us, and we seek nature’s therapeutic assistance. 

Cycling and walking along the roads through the fields that are dissected by narrow ditches, endless view, a land dotted with farm houses and barn, but nearly a soul in sight, I ask myself what I am doing here. Not in a so much in an existential way, although a bit, but more from a practical viewpoint. Is there something I can do. How do I nurture the kind of respect for the land that I have experienced elsewhere. I wonder how wealthy countries like the Netherlands like to ‘do good’ elsewhere, but seem to neglect their own hinterland. Respect, I start from the backyard, and contemplate the challenge ahead of me further afield. 

https://viacampesina.org/en/events/

Walking across the land, trying to optimize my wind exposure in such a way that my home stretch is driven by tailwind. My paths lead along ditches that criss cross the fields. Although the fields are not always hospitable to the birds, I get acquainted with a specific set, the waterfowl. The ducks fly up in tandem when they sense my approach. Always a female and male mallard, always just two of them. They are not monogamous, something I thought seeing them in this way, they are serial monogamists, each year they form a new couple. That is different for other couples, swan couples. They are not as abundant as the ducks, but wherever I look there seem to be a swan couple somewhere in the field. My daily morning runs provide me with some wonderful sightings, unfortunately I don’t carry my camera all the time while doing short runs. Swans are partners for life, and their persistent presence in the fields make me wonder if they have some special meaning in this cultural landscape. 

There are some other indications that this may be the case and I don’t have look far. From my bedroom window I see the top of my neighbors house carrying two stylized swans. Uilenbord in Dutch, ûleboerd in Frisian, is something that I cannot translate in English, but ‘uil’ means owl. So what has an owl to do with swans. 

The uilenbord, is an architectural element, a triangular wooden cover on the side/top of a gabled roof. The board functions as ventilation while protecting it against water entering the interior. The hole also allows owls to fly in and out. The presence of an owl on the farm is considered a good omen and the owl is also a welcome guest who eats mice. The top part of the board, the stick called ‘makelaar’ and the swans are stylized elements.

View from my current window and roof elements

I remember seeing similar elements in Germany, north of Hamburg, where I lived before coming to Friesland. Here however, it was not swans but horses that adorned the roofs. Time to break down borders. Friesland, where I live now, has long been a part of the Netherlands, but historically it is much more connected to the regions along the coast, covering present day northern Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark. And even though the presence of these boards may date back only to the 16th century, the symbolism of swans and horses is likely more ancient, going back to old Nordic mythology. At least that is what some people argue and it makes sense to me. For those of you who read Dutch the article by Boppo Grimsma tells an interesting story (see link below). 

Around my previous home north of Hamburg

The Frisians, a germanic people who came to present day Friesland via northern Germany, migrated back to Germany in the 12th century, especially the region north of Hamburg, das Alte Land, the region where I just moved from, the region with the horse symbols. 

There is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the swan and horse symbolism, but there seems to be some general consensus that swans are companions of the sun, specifically, they take the sun in the fall and bring the sun in spring. They are in this way related to the seasons. In old nordic mythology a similar role is suggested for both horses (earlier) and swans (later), accompanying the sun during the day along the living world and during the night around the world of the dead. The change of seasons, day and night, the living and the dead. Interesting stuff. I am happy to see the swans in the fields. 

http://www.stellingwerven.dds.nl/folklore/Oeleborden/uleboerd.pdf 

https://nds-nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oelebred

Schild-dak image: Arend041, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons