Living in the Spirit -The story of St Francis CW Farm, Hokianga
A kingdom, like a body, has many parts. This is our part: a ‘finger nail’ perhaps, unmanicured. Dawn, light the fire, make a ‘cuppa’, kids stirring, feed the chooks, sweep the porch, prayers, breakfast, talk about the day ahead. That’s the rhythm. We try to keep it – though sometimes we get left behind.
No machinery, no power, no phone, no ‘off to school’, voluntary poverty, wanting to be Third World subsistence farmers in a First World country. Easy to state: hard to explain. We have so far evaded definition, as, have most other Catholic Worker houses and farms.
We live in Hokianga on a fairly rugged piece of land. We moved here in 1978 as a nuclear family, my parents, Peter and Judith, and seven of their nine children. We lived simply on a small income, and were mostly occupied in trying to establish basic amenities. There was an openness to anyone joining us as visitors or community. No one stayed longer than a year, until we, the children, started marrying.
All through the 80s there was much coming and going, building houses and a small purchase of next-door land. By the mid-90s we had become seven households of 25, and increasing, with three more families living half an hour up the road.
This all came about as a product of our unique upbringing, determined by my parents’ deliberately thought out choice of how to live. We were taught to question and evaluate the practices and motives of the society around us. We were to hold fast to the values of the primacy of God, integrity of thoughts and actions, voluntary simplicity and Christian charity, among others.
This tended to hold us together as an extended family. Though we often discussed these things, the hurly-burly of bringing up young families somewhat obscured any original or future vision. Occasional family ‘community meetings’ emphasised the growing realisation that we didn’t really have a common agenda that was strong enough to keep us living in community.
In 2001 our population halved, leaving us with three households, not committed to living in community but wanting to continue this lifestyle to some degree. This shake-up was well motivated: families were exploring what would be most life-giving for themselves and acting accordingly.
Catherine’s and my journey through this time went from ‘roughing it’ initially to a drifting into the normal rationale in New Zealand of work-for-money-for-things. About 1988 we realised what was happening and changed direction back to the land, with a much greater emphasis on viability ie. productivity, than we had previously pursued. Since then we have followed this course with an ever-deepening attraction to voluntary poverty and a searching for more ways to live the works of mercy.
So–enter Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker. Up till then (about four years ago) we had felt fairly isolated in our chosen life. We related, each separately, to our church, to social justice and peace groups, ecologists and alternative farmers; and as espousers of voluntary poverty, to no one! Now here were people who, at least on paper, professed all these values simultaneously. It was hard to resist. We decided to become a ‘Catholic Worker’ farm.
Hokianga called and holds us for several reasons. The land is poor, the climate wet. In New Zealand terms the word is ‘marginal.’ Our local economy is depressed. These aren’t usually considered attractions, but for us they are. The spirit is so easily quenched by affluence but rejoices in simple sufficiency. That’s not to say we aren’t tarred with that human brush of always trying to ‘improve our lot.’ But we try to keep it in check.
More Maori than Pakeha live in Hokianga. So, a part of our life here is our connection with Te Hikutu – the local hapu, especially in our church. We share biculturally our Catholic spirituality and faith, and we share friendship.
A much repeated whakatauki here is: He o ha te mea nui o tenei ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (‘What is the greatest thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people’) The ethos of this proverb is that people matter, each and every one matters: that the complete well-being of people is the number one consideration in any policy making – what CW calls ‘personalism’ This inherent quality of Maoritanga and their spirituality, uniting Te Atua, Te Tangata, Te Whenua, has helped form us.
We attempt to live what we call ‘preventative social justice.’ Our vocation lies in trying to build a spiritual, just and ecologically sound environment. We see this way of life as a credible model of farming which could provide a good living anywhere. ‘Good’ measured by global standards, not those of Western affluence. Peter Maurin insisted that a radical analysis of social problems would always lead back to the land. Are we getting there? By little and by little.
Fundamental to this lifestyle is Te Whenua, the Earth: nurturer, source of life. We are developing with increasing success a way of farming that is both sustaining and sustainable, producing good quantities of food on previously unproductive land. The rewards are many: good organic food; a shift from being dependent on the multinational, capitalist economy that is swallowing this world; a security based on the ups and downs of nature; a knowledge that we are trying not to be on the side of the oppressors (well aware that to live in one of the richest 20% of countries makes us de facto deprivers of the poor); and a great sense of hope for the possibilities ahead.
From my earliest years I have lived in a home whose door has been open and hospitable. Catherine and I have tried to maintain this in our home, and being CW is providing more opportunities to share our life. The sense of support we get from other CWs here and overseas is uplifting. We look forward with some trepidation – but with much joy and hope.
I sustain my family through manual labour. Other avenues were, and still are, open to me but fail even to tempt. As a teenager seeking a well-balanced lifestyle, I considered how I knew some few labourers who philosophised, thought, read and talked; but no academics who worked – really worked – manually. I love working manually. It is very ‘grounding’ in the here and now. It is eminently satisfying. Contrary to popular opinion, it is dignified.
When Peruvian peasants grow potatoes, they use only simple handtools and their own muscles, supplemented occasionally by donkey or ox power. They take the harvested potatoes the short distance to their homes and eat them. No machinery has been used. These potatoes represent 20 times more energy than has been used to produce them. Such is the bounty of the earth.
And the other side? A hamburger from Macdonald’s has taken 20 times more energy to produce than it represents. The plethora of labour-saving machinery involved – tractors and trucks to slicers and warmers – are killing the earth.
We grow our potatoes like the Peruvians. The knowledge of the rightness of this, of the ‘energy positive’ equation, makes us stand tall, assured. It gives us dignity. All our manual labour is like this. There are no hidden agendas. What you put in is what you get back, plus a natural increase, when you are growing something.
Manual labour keeps us fit (while still being productive). Our bodies are not just houses for our minds. They are part of our very being, integrated with mind and spirit. Physical work is a real pleasure when you are fit, and can also be uplifting for the spirit.
One warning. Just as ‘book’ people have trouble finding space for that bit of manual labour, so too we labourers easily neglect the reading and writing (though not necessarily the thinking and discussing). Prolonged heavy labour can sap all one’s energy and just leave a husk. To hold all these factors in a life-giving harmony is a skill we are still learning.
‘Human beings were intended by God to become co-creators by virtue of their labour.’ (Peter Maurin)
I love this life that Joseph and I have chosen. When I first came to live here with the Land family 23 years ago I was a town girl, and although very impressed with the startlingly radical way of life, I also thought that if/when I had a family of my own I would find it too difficult in these conditions. Well – here I am all these years and seven children later, and I can truly say it is the best way of life I could wish for.
Things have changed from those first years of extreme simplicity whereby the family had virtually started from scratch. We have been able to purchase some adjacent land for the big gardens. The process of Joseph’s and my journey into choosing voluntary poverty for ourselves has been a gradual one as we became more and more convinced and drawn into it.
Perhaps by New Zealand standards of living our life would be considered substandard, because we have no electricity, washing machine, phone or television in our home, and we don’t use tractors and chainsaws or any other machinery. However, it is actually very enriching living without these things. We do our work by hand and cook on a fire. Sometimes it is hard, but always it is good.
By world standards we are still extremely wealthy. We have to acknowledge that we are part of the rich and powerful elite of the world. We have our own land, we have self-motivation and learning and physical strength, and we are able and free to choose to be different. We have been taught that Jesus had a clear preference for uplifting and favouring the poor. We believe that it is important for us, the rich and powerful, to live simply – not acquiring more than we need, and seeking to be ‘go-givers’, not go-getters, as Peter Maurin put it.
Joseph goes out to work for money when we need some (usually for fencing or other farm work), which happens about four days out of a month. The gardens provide an abundance of organic food all year round. It is quite worrying to me that many young people out there are growing up without the delicious wholesomeness of vegetables. Processed food has ruined appetites and caused other disconnections with Mother Earth. We also have a good supply of milk, butter, yoghurt, fruit and eggs in season – and occasionally meat.
Food cooked on a fire has a really good taste, especially bread. I cook on an open fire. Hearth and home are cosy and warm. Except, I have to admit, there are some windy days when the smoke gets blown back into the room, and then it is not so pleasant! We bake our bread and other food in ‘camp ovens’, which go on the hot plate and have hot coals shovelled onto their flat lids. My hands are often black and sometimes my face gets streaked. It is one of the ways of praising God.
One of the most rewarding things of our life is seeing the young people having such a wholesome life. They play and work and learn and have a great time. They are often up in the bush, enjoying life together, with their many cousins who live nearby. In the evenings we sit together by the fireside with a book read by Joseph or myself. We love all the old classic stories the best. We teach the children at home, which gives an integrated education and is very rewarding for us all. Their play and work on the land or in the home is part of their education too. We are not opposed to technology as such (indeed we have 12 volt lighting powered by solar panels), but we sometimes wonder if the industrial revolution has caused more greed and less love in the world. In our morning prayer time together our favourite and guiding prayer is that of St Francis: Lord, make us an instrument of your peace. . .
On manual labour:
It was the handwashing that was the hardest thing for me. With a young family of seven, it was a big load at times, but I kept thinking about how our grandmothers or great-grandmothers did it when there was no other way, and that made me get staunch about it.
The grace and dignity of manual labour are stronger with the jobs that need doing every day. You can get into a routine of being with God. Or, if you have someone with you, there is something bonding and satisfying about doing the work together. Don’t get me wrong though – some days it is just a plain drag!
But I know for sure that if we installed a washing machine my life would not be better. I would lose much more than I would gain. I’m not advocating drudgery but I don’t see that the extra leisure time gained since modern appliances have been used, has meant less stress, or more connection with God.
For Joseph, the recurring requirement is firewood. He chops it down – a 20-minute walk from the house, and brings it back by horse and sled. We stack it near the house, and the bigger children saw it up each day. They do it quite cheerfully They have discovered for themselves that work isn’t something to be negative about, but is satisfying and enjoyable.
Some jobs are such that we often feel a reluctance to go and do them, but to do them with noisy machinery does not take away the fact that they need doing regularly – and the whole mentality about getting it over as quickly as possible can make us more negative about them. I am talking about the rhythm and routine – a flow of grace and peace, an attitude of being with God. The vegetable garden is a good place to experience this. It is also the place to develop community – if community is desired. Here I speak mostly as an observer – unlike Joseph and our four eldest who have spent many hours with their uncles (and occasionally with friends) hoeing, weeding, planting and harvesting. Many people comment we have chosen a hard way, but I really think that compared with the modern life of high pressure – always ‘on the go’ – this choice is easier.
‘Yes, we would have more time with modern conveniences, but we will not have more love. We need to be fools for Christ. Let us rejoice in poverty because Christ was poor. When we are weary with manual labour and think ‘what foolishness to shovel out ashes and build fires, when we can have steam heat… Why bake bread when we can buy so cheaply.’ Such thoughts have deprived the world of good manual labour, and substituted shoddy, shop-bought goods, clothes and bread. Poverty and manual labour go together. They are weapons of the spirit – and practical ones too.’ (Dorothy Day)
Reproduced with permission from Tui Motu and The Radical Christian, a new publication of The Catholic Worker. For further information write to St Francis Farm, Jacksons Rd, Whirinaki, RD 3 Kaikohe.