Tip of the iceberg

This weekend I gave a lecture twice in ‘Het Klooster’ (The Convent) at Oerol, a famous week-long festival with theatre, performance and music at 63 locations on the Wadden Island Terschelling. Het Klooster features at Oerol this year and in its full capacity next year. The Dutch State Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer) Firma Rieks Swarte and Peergroup will remove the topsoil of lines drawn at a field this year. The lines represent the layout of the Convent of St Gall, a detailed model from the 8th C for a monastery that was never built but nevertheless served as a ‘roadmap’ for many convents all over Europe in the middle-ages. Removal of top soil will give older seeds of rare species a chance while the map will be visible from a tower in the middle of the field and will be part of a theatre show at next year’s Oerol.

IMG_0208What if the monastery was built at Terschelling? The geometric beauty and symbolism of the design is what fascinates Rieks, how man organises man is what fascinates the PeerGroup, and in line with that, what did they eat? That’s where I came in. Food culture before the invention of the printed book in the 15th C is always surrounded with many doubts and insecurities for lack of evidence. But in the case of Convent of St Gall, everything within the walls (a village almost) was detailed to the point of which herbs were grown in the herbal medicine garden. It was fascinating to see the books in which the plan has been studied. My earlier doubts based on other historical sources about how realistic this design would be in practice were confirmed.

One small example; the vegetable garden was divided in 2 x 9 beds of equal size with 1 vegetable planned for each bed. This then meant that cabbage received equal space to dill and that unions were occupying one bed whereas chervil a complete other. While the vegetable garden as a whole was far to small to feed the approx 200 people who would live there (where did we hear that discussion lately?), it seems highly impractical to have as many lettuces as poppy, unless they had a good use for poppy of course……..

Fruits of internship labor

IMG_0168Last week I visited Clara, a Master of Organic Agriculture student at her internship with the PeerGroup in Donderen near Groningen. This theatre group located at an old ammunition depot advertised a while ago that they were looking for a student who could set up their farming activity (see earlier blog). Over the past few months she worked hard to design and construct the first step, a vegetable garden near the communal and office spaces. At the same time of building a greenhouse and raised beds she kept a nursery going and when the weather (finally!) got better, planted the seedlings. Now the water pump is working, it will go fast.

This is just step one of a long-term plan to integrate more farming in the area, in collaboration with the community in the village and the care farm nearby. The PeerGroup is open to future students with skills to develop other parts of their unique location which inhabits rare species and special biotope, and is at the same time military heritage, creative work space and publicly open and connected to nearby recreation forests.

Set-up vegetable farm: Internship at PeerGroup

Set up of small-scale vegetable farm in Donderen – Province of Drenthe

Location: the headquarters of the PeerGroup, Depot Donderen. The vacated ammunition Depot Donderen was built in the time of the Cold War and is working space of the PeerGroup since January 2011. The bunker complex sits in a small forest and has several ammunition buildings of varying sizes with open space in between. The PeerGroup shares the grounds with care farm Peest. The site, with the neighbouring farms is popularly called ‘Donderboerkamp’.

Commissioner: PeerGroup, a theatrical group that specializes in site-specific theatre in the northern provinces of the Netherlands working with themes of, in and for rural communities.

STA73745The PeerGroup is looking for a student who relates to the creative energy of the artist community of PeerGroup while bringing along collaborative skills, agro-ecology knowledge and an open mind for co-creation and learning. The student will be selected on the basis of an intake on the site. The student develops a plan and makes it happen with the support of the PeerGroup. The student can live on-site during the internship.

Applications with a motivation letter: Petra.derkzen@wur.nl

Sus Rinus: November

The pig slaughter process is not a visible part of our daily relation to food anymore. In fact hardly anything of the growing, rearing, processing and slaughtering is visible to us. We can therefore assume to be more civilised than our ancestors while eating meat because it is so easy to close our eyes for the killing and chopping done by others. How horrified would we be if we had to chop the head of the chicken that we intend to cook tonight. How awful and sad it would be to slaughter Rinus after you got to know him intimately.

Increasingly, I come to think the other way around; how awful that I eat an anonymous pig who had an anonymous life together with a few million others and who’s parts are being used in at least 187 products without us knowing. How horrible that this piece of meat sealed in a plastic box with a number of ‘stars’ (see Keuringsdienst van Waarde) does not really link my thoughts to a concrete animal. How outrageous that I shovel my food in without thoughts about that little piglet grubbing around, to the wiggling of a fully grown pig tail while he is playing pig, to the socializing that they do, to the little naps they take, to the way they run to be fed.

Anna, Bom, Rinus and Alie were not only literally digging up the border but they also symbolise the border between a pig and our food (see the wonderful report with lots of pictures of assistant farmer Onno van Eijk). A culture that values their food, is a culture that knows their food. Once you know, fed and cared for Rinus, his meat becomes precious, the slaughtering an intense and difficult ritual and nothing of him will be spoilt or mindlessly consumed (see also the Volkskrant article).

The care and attention which naturally appear when you are involved in all aspects of the food leads to a quality which is recognised elsewhere in the world as a strong food culture. The majority of us, however, are made to value brands instead of food.

Sus Anna; The Peergroup

The story continues with the feeding (see earlier blogs). Feeding Alie, Rinus, Anna and Bom was my task. For the afternoon snack I collected half a bucket of acorns along the street. They looked like vacuum cleaners, quickly hovering up the spread around acorns. For dinner they first ate some bananas, spread around again to make it possible for me to reach the feeding hod with cooked potatoes. The moment the potatoes hit the hod they stormed at it to be the first. The second round of soaked muesli in milk ended in my a narrow escape from being run over.

A proverb goes like ‘one pig won’t get fat’. Alone, they eat gently from your hand. It is the peer group which makes the pigs extremely competitive. How human. Among peers they aggressively have to assert themselves. It reminded me of someone’s story. Growing up in a family with ten kids in the early sixties, the fiancées of bigger sisters were put to the test at the dinner table. Leaving the precious meat for the last bite they always found an empty plate once their fork finally reached out for it.

Alie, is the leader of this small group and therefore the biggest. Anna is the smallest. She is always struggling to get enough. She only eats when she has assured herself that no one is coming after her. When I threw in some spread around bread pieces she just ate one, walking around with it searching a safe place while the others were grabbing the next pieces coming from me.

Sus Bom; digging up the border

The mobile ‘farm’ is built as self contained solar artist-in-residence (see earlier blog) with an upstairs sea container as a living unit and a downstairs working shed, now in use as pig barn. Looking at Coevorden’s industry on the horizon, I spent a stormy night literally located on the border between the Netherlands and Germany. Border markers run through the middle of the field. The pigs freely walk to Germany and back, with no worries about different rules and regulations. 

Their snouts are not ringed – something which still is allowed in Germany. This means they can do what they most like; digging up the soil. Their border walkway looks like a freshly ploughed field with an occasional mud pool where they dug a particularly deep hole. They spend most of the day re-doing their previous digging, if not sleeping, taking a mud bath, eating grass and being fed. 

border marker

Pigs have bad vision but have extremely good ears. Bom keeps an ear on me when they all go for an afternoon nap. Piled on top of each other they lightly sleep. If one moves it takes a while with small talk oink’s before they sleep again. I try to be silent but a click of the camera is enough for Bom’s ear to raise. It stays alertly horizontal and a subsequent oink wakes up all for a new digging round.

Sus domestica Alie; Bunte Bentheimers

I am living with Alie, Rinus, Anna and Bom today. I am assistant-farmer for 24 hours. This means I have the responsibility for the care and well-being of four ‘Bunte Bentheimer’ pigs. This breed is known to be very social but also a bit slower in growth and with a bit fattier meat. Such meat is not in fashion at the moment. The breed almost disappeared. 

Alie, Rinus, Anna and Bom are part of the art project “The year of the pig” of Elles Kiers and Sjef Meijman which connects visual and culinary art with animal husbandry (see also tomorrow’s Volkskrant). The industrial production of meat – and food in general – is more and more seen problematic. Pig production takes place behind closed doors and hygienic corridors. The confined and artificial circumstances alters their natural behaviour. Today’s livestock industry is a complex story with many different points of view. To make rearing pigs visible, such as is done here, is a guarantee for debate. 

Alie

 Nearby farmers came to visit. Afraid of contamination they were extremely careful. And angry. For the difference in what they have to comply with and take into account in contrast to the simple way in which the pigs are held here. Vegetarians have been angry too. For the fact that these pigs are reared to be eaten. Rinus – the gentle red-haired male – is most likely the first candidate being the larger of the two men.