Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Creative Urge

It has been so long since I've even read my old poems (let alone added to that immense body of work) that I can't remember which of the thick type-written (as in pre-computer: some even pre-electronic-typewriter!) volumes holds the poem "Midas: Well" which as I recall contains the following lines:

To create,
To be great,
To sing and to celebrate
All that I am,
And can never, be.

I've been reflecting on the subject of creativity in farming while driving the bus through the bright blue shining SPRING day today--the kind of day when all CREATION seems to be surging towards spring, new growth, flowers, nests, a magnificent crescendo of everything pushing back the chill of winter.

Several recent apprentice applicants have offered "creativity" as one of the strengths they would bring to the farm. I press for details, and listen between their words to seek the sense they bring to this word, this image of themselves.

The overall conclusion of my ponderings today: That we really need several different words in order to keep track of what exactly we mean when we say we are "creative."

Creativity is a significant factor in my own life, one of the original seeds from which the farm grew--or evolved--or was created. I often trace the genesis of the farm back to learning to crochet a chain with my fingers when I was very young. That led to more and more advanced crochet, including a blue ribbon at State Fair for a most hideous garment crocheted to technical perfection according to a printed pattern with pastel pink, blue and white variegated acrylic yarn from Wal-Mart. My drive to create more artistic, original, non-functional fiber pieces pushed me into spinning, to acheive more interesting yarn; then I learned to lust for better wool for spinning; and then emerged my desire to raise sheep someday: the beginnings of that treacherous disease known as Ovine Progressive Obsession.

And today I do raise sheep. But I rarely spin, and more rarely knit or crochet; when I do, it's pragmatic things like hats and socks and half-mittens. And I don't think of it as creativity. It's production, plain and simple. And after awhile, it's production, long and boring. I suppose at one time such handwork was therapeutic, but evidently I'm not so in need of therapy now. I'm more inclined to rest, to watch, to engage directly with others rather than sit on the sideline, half-focussed on my handwork.

I was richly nurtured in various arts when I was young; encouraged to draw and paint and create, create, create--to turn my imagination loose upon whatever unsuspecting materials might be at hand. Today, if I draw something, it's most likely a rough sketch of the farm layout, by way of explaining the location of something to an apprentice or Zoning official. Or it's a tool for working out the details of some construction or fabrication project. Very rarely, it's the design for a patchwork hanging to keep cold drafts out of the kitchen, or to veil a window: how best to use the available colors and sizes of old corduroy pants.

I have substantially left the visual arts behind, along with the fiber arts. I still express myself through music, humming at my work until some new hymn invents itself, or a prayer crystallizes into a chant. And I write a lot, but rarely poetry or actual fiction. Though there is a creative aspect to my writing, the goal is education and communication, not gratuituous self-expression or vain advertizement of my talents. These days, my creativity in writing mainly lies in searching out just the right words to convey the mystery and awe of farming and nature to others, to weave the threads of diverse thoughts together into a coherent essay that explicates some of the interdisciplinary nature of my activities.

I'm sure that within me lie a thousand uninked drawings, hours of enchanting music the world will never hear, profoundly moving fiber sculptures. Someday in my older years, when younger generations carry on the great work of the farm, I may return to these pleasures of my youth. But if not, I am very well content to leave those things undone. No one will miss them.

So when an apprentice offers to bring her--for it is invariably a "her"--creativity to the farm, I'm a bit cautious. For many of them, this means she is harboring a similar vision to mine in high school: sitting picturesquely on a cabin porch, lovingly crafting hand-made items that I sell to support myself in quaint rustic fashion. When I ask about their farming goals, they want to press and dry flowers and make gorgeous handcrafted candles and paper and wreaths and.... They want to make beautiful molded soaps. They want to spin and weave and quilt unique one-of-a-kind objects--and do all of this at leisure, for a living.

(I want to insert a disclaimer here. Several of you readers have steam coming out of your ears by now, because how DARE I quote you here in public without your permission. But honest, this is a composite sketch. There are a LOT of you "unique" creative women out there. And I dreamed all this myself, when you yourselves hadn't even been created yet.)

This picture so many paint of themselves and try to live up to is: a) not realistic, especially in today's economy b) not part of the mission or business plan for Pinwheel Farm and c) not something that is going to happen here even as a hobby for a long, long time for any of us, and when it does, I get first dibs because my "creativity" has been in a box on the shelf longer than a lot of yours!

Does that mean I don't value others' creativity, that I won't let them express themselves, that I'm bossy and controlling and stifling? Certainly not!

One of the things I love about farming is how creative it is. But it's a very different kind of creativity. It's not about imagining some fanciful household object and then sitting down and following that mental pattern to bring into being a representation of that image. It's not about replicating some lovely thing seen in a store, that "I could make cheaper myself, and better, and with all-natural materials". It's not about doing something better or different or more clever than anyone else has ever done.

It's a pragmatic creativity, one that only another person attuned to the subtleties of farming would notice. It's the solving of one problem after another. It's the improving of one tool, the novel use of another, the insight that weaves together a cropping system that might only be effective on this particular farm, the puzzling out of an animal health issue, the perfecting of a motion of work that becomes a dance.

It's a response to the real world around me, rather than an expression of an idea or feeling inside me.

It's a making, rather than an imagining.

The great thing about this kind of creativity is that it's self-perpetuating, because its genesis is outside myself. There is no equivalent of "writer's block" because entropy automatically creates new occaisions for this kind of creativity. I look outward, rather than inward, and no matter how empty I am, the world around me is always full, indeed--generally of challenges! I create constantly because I have to rise to the occasion. The problem is there, in front of me, needing solved. It's up to me. Improv, 24-7.

Only the stakes can be really high. This is serious stuff. And sometimes there isn't much time. A true example: The top has blown off the turbine ventilator in the middle of sweltering summer and it's midnight and I wake up to a mighty thunder clap and know that the torrential downpour forecast for tomorrow night is here a day early and it's going to soak the 20" of cellulose insulation in the attic and stain and/or collapse the 1/2" sheet rock ceiling (not to mention the mold that will grow, which I'm allergic to) and there isn't time to think about it too much. So creativity is grabbing a big, heavy canning kettle because it will fit over the stub of the ventilator and probably not blow off, and not break if it does (realizing if I tried to tape plastic over the hole, the tape wouldn't stick in the rain) and go streaking out the door, up the ladder, entirely nude in full view of the entire neighborhood but it's midnight and who would think to look up on our roof during a random lightning flash, anyhow? --And what would be the point of putting clothes on because they will just be drenched by the time I get down, and the insulation would be drenchedif I took the time to get dressed first....

The creativity that's welcome here is the one willing to lend itself gladly to this group effort, colloquially known to us humans as Pinwheel Farm, whether for a day or a year or a lifetime. It's a creativity that doesn't creave acclaim, that's happy just to have solved the problem. Oh, there will be opportunities to have the fun of making felt balls and dying silk scarves, but for the most part it will be a long time before we can afford the frivolity of pressed flowers in our soap. For the right person, the person who will truly love being here and love farming enough to be a success at it, the satisfactions of those little fleeting efforts at self-expression and manufacturing will seem small indeed compared to the deep contentment of perfecting a method of planting a bed of vegetables with efficient specialty tools made by one's own hands out of stuff that was about to be thrown away.

Are you creative enough to recognize this kind of creativity? Does it draw you into a passionate pursuit of the practical? It's a creativity the color of baling twine (the 12,345th uniquely original use thereof) and bent paperclips, the shape of duct tape (did you know it cures warts? My doctor offered to show me the medical journal article) and tallow, the smell of wd-40 and wood chips and plastic barrels being sawn...

...the sound of the gears turning in our heads night and day, non-stop.

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