Imagine a wheel. At the hub of this wheel is the energy of the Universe that is everything and anything needed to support the life shooting out each of its spokes. The spokes are held together at their closest point by this powerful center and are connected at their widest, most independent point by a circular rim, allowing all the spokes to work together, to move the wheel forward, to create more energy, cover more ground, spin eternally.
I was at Dayempur Farm: Center for Sustainable Living near the end of April, learning about this self-sufficient Sufi community’s sustainable spin on farming and living in Southern Illinois. The journey took me to the edge of the Shawnee National Forest, onto 100 acres of pristine land, some cultivated, some left wild and wooded, but none sprayed by the pesticides and herbicides that mar most modern commercial agriculture.
The name Dayempur,” means “Ancient, Eternal Place.” For the 60 or so people who call Dayempur home–who work the land, raise crops, volunteer time, run the associated businesses, educate anyone willing to learn, and come together as a spiritual community to worship, eat, play and grow–this ancient eternal place is the rim that holds them and their many interconnections fast to the center of that wheel.
Dayempur is a successful organic farm, a sustainable operation that supplies food and herbal supplements to its own farm family—residents, visitors, volunteers and interns—to two local restaurants and the small market that the farm is affiliated, to area food co-ops and farmers markets, and to nearby community members in need.
Because the people who actually live on the farm focus their daily activities around common spiritual, social, economic and environmental goals, you might think of Dayempur Farm as a sort of commune—you know, like the one your crazy uncle Larry left for some time after Woodstock, never to be heard from again. But that is not Dayempur Farm. Dayempur is a successful working farm: driven by a well-thought-out business plan; expanding its farm production little by little based on careful trial, error and continual research, embracing independence and sustainability through investments in clean, renewable energy; and banking on a solid return on investment so the farm continues into the future. All decisions are weighed, new ventures calculated, and hard, honest work rewarded. Not Haight Ashbury.
The Basler House: at the heart of the farm
Geneva Basler was the last surviving member of her family who lived on Basler dairy farm–the land that is now Dayempur Farm. Geneva entrusted this land to a group of people she felt would care for it, love it and preserve it in the same fashion she and her husband and the three family generations before them had done. Elaine Ramseyer, who spent years on Geneva’s farm as a college student, came home to the farm and the house she knew so well to tend Geneva’s memories, cook in her kitchen and watch over her land. Elaine is a member of the Dayempur Farm community.
Elaine is also a writer by trade, the author of an historical novel called King that tells of a significant moment in Geneva’s past and then allows this moment to grow a narrative, weaving together history, culture, racism and people’s ability to attain grace through kindness. Elaine is currently working on a memoire and a cookbook, too.
In her other day job, Elaine runs the Longbranch Café & Bakery in downtown Carbondale, IL, one of only a few highly successful eateries in the area and a Dayempur Farm affiliate. The Longbranch has been in business since 1998, growing steadily from a small coffeehouse to a full-menu restaurant that specializes in vegetarian fare and a farm-to-table approach. There is a fresh juice bar, fair trade coffee and continual cultural and community events on the property. Their Sustainable Living Film Series began this month and continues through October on the first Wednesday of every month. They hold an annual art auction to benefit orphans and students in Bangladesh and serve up the BEST avocado, scrambled egg and goat cheese toast I’ve ever tasted. Just sayin’.
But if you ask Elaine what her role is on the farm, she will tell you she’s the farm’s “momma.” Her website and blog are rich in observations and impressions of her life at Dayempur and of her heart-opening personal memories, with the following excerpt being one of the most mythic, timeless and profound:
One spring evening I was sitting out on the deck of the farmhouse, plopped in a metal clam back chair. The busy day was over, and everyone was gone. Running the Longbranch Café in town, I often see two or three hundred people a day, and when I come home at night, I savor the stillness of the farm. It’s the perfect antidote to all that daytime activity. As I sat there in my nightgown enjoying the breeze coming over the hill, the moist air like velvet on my skin, I felt an energy begin to pulse through me. Starting at the top of my head, moving through my core and passing out of my womb, it was the gentle rhythm of the land and the season. As I relaxed, the sensation intensified until I felt as if the entire farm were moving through me. It was the closest experience to birth I have ever had. I have never had a child, but I have had a farm.
If you walk out Elaine’s backdoor and head cross the yard past the smaller barn and wash house, you will find Geneva’s original vegetable patch, except there are no longer vegetables growing along its pretty paths and fertile beds. The garden has been transformed to grow the myriad of medicinal organic herbs that service the farm’s successful Dayempur Herbals operation.
Terry Hickey is another member of the Dayempur Farm community and the general manager for Dayempur Herbals. She’s found in the herb garden at the start of most days—weather permitting—often joined by fellow farm members Aliya Tollman, Flora Fletter (in the photo from left with Terry on the right). Then later in the day, Terry heads to the office—it’s a business remember—making everything run, filling orders, answering emails, tracking shipments–all the stuff involved in a successful business… with one significant difference: this is Dayempur, where every activity from the most routine daily task to the special community meals and prayers are all seen as important contributions to the whole—to the spiritual, environmental, social, and educational way of life that defines life on the farm.
“Working here each day reminds me that I am a part of something bigger than myself,” said Terry. “I’m connected to all other people and the Earth itself. It’s a way of life that takes constant work,” she said smiling. “But I wouldn’t be anywhere else…doing anything else.
“There are many forms of activism,” Terry continued. “There’s protest in the streets, there’s speaking out against injustices, but we are practicing activism, too, by living this chosen life and in how we treat the Earth and our neighbors.” If I had to choose one word to describe Terry, I’d choose contented.
That constant work she speaks of has paid off for Dayempur Herbals, though I really doubt anyone on the farm is interested in material wealth beyond sustainability. Sustainability is the goal, as is helping people—anyone–find her or his own ways to that healthy contentment. Yet, there is no denying that Dayempur Herbals is a business success, handled with the utmost care and integrity.
“We grow our own organic herbs right here on the farm and source what we don’t grow only from known sources,” Terry explained. “We use traditional methods to handcraft all our products.” And the array of products is pretty impressive—liquid extracts and tinctures, infused oils, healing salves, and medicinal syrups. I will say right now that I have a personal favorite—their best-selling Elderberry Syrup. It is an amazing little tonic for colds, allergies and just that puny feeling we all get from time to time. It’s a regular part of my spring and fall routine now, when seasonal allergies bring me down.
You can order Dayempur Herbals online or find them at health food stores and independent retailers throughout the Midwest. This “spoke of the wheel” also offers workshops as part of community outreach. There’s a great one coming up on Tuesday, June 18 from 5-7:30 p.m. out at the farm, 35 Nubbin Ridge Lane, Anna, IL.
Heading down the hill past the herb garden, you can find an orchard and nestled among the fruit trees, beehives. It’s a reminder that the space at Dayempur, while abundant and seemingly left to its own beauty, is carefully managed in the most responsible ways. Honey is a Dayempur product, but the bees are busy pollinating all the coming bounty of summer and fall at the same time…turning the wheel.
Up the hill where the land is relatively flat and open, there are nearly three acres of row crops, a high tunnel and chicken coops. It is the space that most resembles the average small farm. Talib-Mark Fletter, General Manager of Dayempur Farm is in charge of most crop production here, growing close to 40 different vegetables. They are experimenting constantly with cover crops, new vegetable varieties, crop rotation and composting. I learned later that Dayempur Farm distributes up to nine tons of food to the local community, in one fashion or another. So somebody’s doing something right.
“The soil in Southern Illinois is compacted clay and not the best for growing vegetables,” said Fletter “But we use this rich black vermiculture from our worm farm to enhance the soil, making it great for our vegetable crops.” Worms….Toni backs away.
The worms, despite my wimpy reaction, are critical to the health of the soil; their castings (read poop) make the material they produce super rich in nutrients, without any additional synthetic fertilizer needed. “In fact, coffee grounds and food scraps from The Longbranch Café come back here to feed the worms,” Fletter explained. And the wheel goes round and round.
Coming back up to the house, you pass by acres and acres of woodlands that climb the steep hills in front of the farm house—some are part of the Shawnee National Forest and some are part of Dayempur. In the lowland at the foot of these hills is one of the farm’s larger ponds, complete with decking for an afternoon swim or some serious evening fishing. Whether it is Farm Days—an educational event every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the farm hosts local families, allowing them to explore organic gardening, farm-to-table cooking, poultry raising, beekeeing, or woodworking—or one of the many spiritual retreats, or the popular sustainability workshops–the pond is a major source of enjoyment, as well as a food and water source for the farm community.
Near the Hub of the Wheel
It is not possible, I think, to visit Dayempur Farm and feel unmoved. There is unmistakable peace and calm here—the kind you read about but wonder if it truly exists. I’m sure it is partly due to the location, the physical distance from the busy world, but, of course, there’s more.
So I asked the person who is the founder of Dayempur Farm and the spiritual leader for the farm community, Din Dayemi, how people come to live there. Who gets in? “If you live what you believe, the right people show up,” he said, as if the answer were so obvious it need not be asked. He pointed to the big barn that houses solar panels and to the community building to the barn’s right. “We repair and build new buildings and use modern technology that we feel fits in with our beliefs. They don’t feel new or look different. They fit in.” And it’s true, from where I stood on the hill, I couldn’t tell the new parts of the barn from the old or if the large, attractive community house was recent construction or had been there all along. And while I’m sure a close look might reveal them as recent additions or repairs, how they look and how they work is in concert with how the entire farm looks and works. A place where everything that’s there belongs.
Din Dayemi had just returned from global travels—he travels a lot, and I said I bet he was glad to be back home. There was this wry smile. “Yes, I am glad to be back on the farm, but if we could only remember that there is no away and are no others, home would be everywhere.”
I guess if that were the case, everything would belong and help turn the wheel.