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Tyll van de Voort

2nd May 2001, in Society section page 9

by  Tyll van de Voort

On April 18, the agriculture ministry sent the community farm at Oaklands a fax: "I should be grateful if your clients would co-operate in allowing us to organise the valuation and slaughter of Foot and Mouth Disease susceptible stock at Oaklands Park Community Farm. Yours sincerely, the MAFF Disease Centre Manager."

The Kafkaesque psyche of MAFF astonishes me. How can a huge bureaucratic machine, kept churning presumably by red-blooded human individuals, behave like a monolithic behemoth - seemingly without any internal discussion or dissent on an issue as controversial as the mass cull policy? In week nine of the epidemic, the machine has found its rhythm of robotic kill, burn and bury, leaving behind death and ashes, fields of silence and sorrow.

Finally the MAFF machine had arrived at Oaklands. Our village community of 116 people - effectively under house arrest for two weeks because of quarantine restrictions imposed on us for being next to an infected farm - gathered again to protect our healthy flock of ewes and lambs, a herd of 60 shorthorn cattle and the children's pet goats.

In the long hours of vigil on the barricades, erected along our drive to deter MAFF's henchmen, I found time to reflect. What had moved me and my wife almost 20 years ago to give up careers that promised reputation, second homes and the joy of driving Saab convertibles into the sunset, to go to a crumbling island ruled by an Iron Lady and offering mainly grey skies, filthy weather and post-industrial decay - to join a community determined to turn the world as I knew it not on its head but on to its feet?

Oaklands - near Newnham in Gloucestershire - promised only a life dedicated to the care of the environment and social renewal. As a Camphill community, it works with handicapped people; and its philosophy, based on Rudolph Steiner's work, is simple in the way life is simple: give and you shall be given. If everyone makes it his or her focus that the other one is "looked after", logically all will be cared for. If all grab for themselves, the weak and vulnerable will go empty.

So it was that our family started to live and work with the vulnerable. We live on, with and from a large farm: the waste goes for compost, we help with the harvest, support the farmer, celebrate the seasons and enjoy the animals and gardens. The surprise for me was that love, far from being a romantic idea, is a principle of order - the only logical principle of order for our time.

Love behaves like money in reverse: the more you spend, the more you get. It's the same with all creation - love is the reverse of entropy. So, the only appropriate attitude to nature is reverence and care. If they are there, abundance is inevitable. If they aren't, poverty, starvation and dejection ensue.

I hear the hyena laugh of materialists who look on the living world as dead matter ordered in sophisticated patterns and who regard self-regenerating and self-organising nature as a strip mine. The metaphor of the machine, with its image of combustion and exhaustion, is all-pervasive in our western thinking. It offers efficiency, expertise and exploitation and has a one-dimension simplicity. Its logic leads to the conclusion that man is the enemy of nature. But man is nature, so this means that man is enemy to himself and we behave accordingly.

Twenty years ago, I turned to biodynamic horticulture and now train people in the laws of life. I tell them that the patterns of life visible in plants pervade the universe. We think a lot about values and purpose in human existence. I use the words spirituality and love without embarrassment and without camouflaging them with irony.

A healthy social organism is impossible without a respectful, reverential attitude to nature. If we treat soil, plant and animals like commodities and waste, we will treat each other likewise. The laws of life are inherently different from the laws of industry. Land cannot be "owned", and consequently cannot be "inherited" as property. Nor can it be an object of speculation.

Finally, on the economic level, we have to realise that agriculture is intrinsically local, and thus needs trading arrangements other than those pushed by the WTO.

The solution of mass culling brought by the men in white coats is part of the problem. The problem is the industrial approach to agriculture - and to life and to people. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow put it well : "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everyone like a nail."

However, back to the barricades! On Thursday morning MAFF walked into the clenched fist of people power. By nine o clock, more than 200 people - friends, children, neighbours and distressed farmers - had turned up to celebrate and witness the power of community over bulldozers and stunguns.

But MAFF never came. Several police officers did, one of them asking if we would allow MAFF's men in. We declined. Would we be willing to talk to a MAFF official? Yes. They went away and hours later the media, not MAFF, told us that the ministry would reconsider our case. It became clear that MAFF had backed off and our healthy animals could live.

What saved us - and other farmers in Anglesey and elsewhere - was a spark of resistance and the support of other farmers, members of the public and solicitors. They helped restore our belief that sanity can prevail - if we so want, if we speak up and if we listen.

Tyll van de Voort is a gardener at Oaklands Park.
Its website is

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