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The Yield of Magical Thinking: Better Agriculture Through Cosmic Rituals

Can the wizardry of biodynamic farming save organics? Or even your soul?

after red was killed, a small crowd assembled as a traveling butcher skinned the carcass and winched it into the air. The entrails, the size of a small sofa, slid out in one giant blob and were laid out in the afternoon sunlight. Then the volunteers set out to harvest the rest of the prep-making materials. We walked around the pasture, heads bowed, looking for the holy in cow pies. Harald Hoven, a biodynamic farmer and instructor at California's Rudolf Steiner College, paused to consider a fresh specimen. "Notice how it is perfectly round," he said with a slight German accent, remarking on "how much life and vitality it has."

Flies and yellow jackets buzzed a couple stuffing chamomile flowers into a soggy section of small intestine. Hoven deposited Red's head near a hose, where two girls were on brain-removal detail. Normally, these sights would have sent me running, but the group was calm and purposeful. Its faith in the importance of what it was doing had a mesmerizing effect. "By collecting the manure and further contracting it into a cow's horn, we're sort of filing away the energy of the farm for the winter," explained Marney Blair, who runs a biodynamic farm. She said she's been called crazy for believing in things like Preparation 503. "Sometimes it feels like we're floating way out there. But there's a longing to connect in an extremely deep way. It's gospel."

As the day came to a close, the group filed over to a large pit that Decater and his three teenage sons had dug the day before. I gasped. I had already witnessed the death and dismantling of a large mammal and magic-potion making. But nothing prepared me for this: four feet of topsoil the color of a moist fudge brownie. Over the decades, millions of worms and billions of microbes had created this loamy home. Maybe they really do like yarrow, dandelion, chamomile, and cow poop. Hoven reached into the hole and began to stack the manure-laden horns, tips up. The chamomile-and-intestine sausages were to be taken to a place where snow would eventually cover them so, as Steiner had proclaimed, "the cosmic-astral influences will work down into the soil where the sausages are buried."

The ritual was over, and so was the season. It was up to the subterranean creatures to finish the job. Before I took my leave, I remembered my initial visit to the farm. One morning, I had met Decater in a sweet-smelling herb field, where he patiently demonstrated the proper way to clip basil. As we picked, I noticed that his basil had a durability to it that the plants in my backyard garden lacked. The leaves and stems felt stronger.

When Decater carried away a full lug box, I snuck a leaf into my mouth. It certainly tasted better than my own crop. Somehow it seemed richer, with a complex tingle that stayed on my tongue. Or maybe I was imagining things.

Grape Britain?

Grape Britain?

the last time England had a reputation for its wine was more than 700 years ago, when British monks took advantage of the 400-year-long Medieval Warm Period to grow and press grapes. Today, a new round of climate change is putting the island's wines back on the map.

Thanks to its newly hot, dry summers, the south of England is now considered wine country. Nearly 400 vineyards are producing $31 million worth of wine annually, and they're drawing attention for their surprisingly good rosés, whites, and sparkling wines. England swept the sparkling wine category at the 2006 International Wine and Spirit Competition; the Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 1998 from West Sussex was named the world's best sparkling wine outside of France's Champagne region.

As the latitudinally challenged English wine biz heats up, climate studies predict that established grape-growing regions like France, Spain, and California will be struggling; Napa Valley could see its wine production drop up to 80 percent in this century. Meanwhile, formerly gauche newcomers such as Tasmania and Canada are being touted as the next "star regions." Last year, British vintner Thomas Shaw released his vintage three weeks before Beaujolais Nouveau, a French wine that is traditionally the first of the season. "The temperatures made a huge difference," Shaw told a British paper. "The fruit was coming off faster than had ever been known before." —Jen Phillips

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