Dear Folks, It’s Friday morning, two days after my return from Hungary. On Sunday I leave again for a week in Arizona. I’m already so full of news that I’d better start this letter now, before the discoveries from the next trip cram themselves into my already overloaded brain and heart.
I’ll try to make this more full than my usual description of a Balaton meeting, because there are many new readers who don’t know what Balaton is, and because for fund-raising purposes I have to begin trying to express its essence in words — something I have always found impossible. I’m a word-person. I can produce a stream of verbiage about nearly any subject. But when something is at the very core of my heart, I find myself speechless. I get conscious of what cheap substitutes words are for the preciousness, the vitality, the mystery of actual experience. One of the friends and funders of the Balaton Group came to the meeting for the first time this year and said that NOW, having experienced it, he understood what I had been trying to tell him all these years. Clearly I hadn’t been able to tell him at all; he had mainly been trusting the light in my eyes. Well, now I’ll try to get that light down on paper.
I flew to Zurich on good old Swissair 127, almost a commuter flight for me, then a short hop to Budapest, and a taxi ride through the yellow-brown smog of the city (it gets worse every year) to the dormitory on Raday Street. The dorm is part of the Budapest University of Economics, which, thanks to Balaton member Csaba Csaki, the university’s rector, is available to us each year as a gathering point. It’s pretty minimal housing — puny little East European towels (I always wonder how they manage to make them so nonabsorbent), shared bathrooms with no toilet paper and no shower-heads — but hey, the price can’t be beat. And when I arrive I’m in no mood to complain, because the crescendo of arriving Balaton members is about to begin.
They are my best friends from around the world. Each one is, in my opinion, a great global resource. Each is working in his or her country to bring about a just and sustainable world. When I try to describe what makes a person a Balaton member, I make lists that look like this:
– Dedicated to long-term sustainability,
– Committed to action, not just study,
– Brilliant mind
– Expert in some area of resource management (we include foresters, economists, ecologists, energy experts, agronomists, engineers, geologists),
– Able to cross disciplinary boundaries and see systems whole,
– Able to cross cultural boundaries and learn from all sorts of people,
– Reliable and responsible,
– Makes jokes,
– Likes to hug.
I love these people. Who wouldn’t?
This year the crescendo was slower and longer than usual, because the Balaton meeting was preceded by the IFOAM conference (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), which several Balaton folks attended. The first one I saw was Qi Wenhu from China, who knocked on my door, having arrived just after I did. For obvious reasons he hasn’t been able to attend meetings for several years, but this year he’s on leave at our Balaton center in New Zealand, so he could get to Hungary. Shortly thereafter Chirapol Sintunawa arrived from Thailand and Alice Valerio from the Philippines.
The four of us walked a few blocks to the University, where 700 advocates of organic farming from all over the world were assembling. I’ve written a column about the IFOAM meeting, so I won’t say much about it here. It was chaotic and exciting. I skipped most of the formal sessions and chatted with friends in the halls.
IFOAM is always a wonderful mixture of high-level policy talk and down-to-earth farming. I learned from Engelhardt Boehnke of Germany that animals respond well to homeopathic treatment (hmmm, that must mean it isn’t a placebo effect). I listened to Soviet cooperative farmers planning to change their operations to organic. Hardy Vogtmann told me of his latest scheme for housing laying hens. I argued about land reform with Richard Bartak, Vice-Minister for Alternative Agriculture in Czechoslovakia. A long-time skeptic of my pitches for organic farming, Istvan Lang, Secretary of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, conferred with me about his plan for a scientific congress on the subject (! Maybe it was necessary, to be Secretary of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, not to admit sympathy with unorthodox ideas — and now in Eastern Europe one can admit sympathy with anything!). A farmer from Australia told me how he controls flea-beetles; another from California gave me good advice on green manuring.
I was in heaven. I love to talk about farming — almost as much as I love DOING farming!
The air was hot and humid and polluted. The food in the University cafeteria runs to the far-starchy end of the uninspired socialist “toss the swill to the masses” spectrum. But in Budapest stores the Hungarian harvest was coming in, so I lived on plums, peaches, green and yellow peppers, cucumbers, and organic grain-cakes the Czechs were selling at the conference.
Other Balaton members were already at IFOAM — Jorgen Norgard from Denmark, Ulrich Loening from Scotland, Bill Moody from the USA, and Ginger Gyene from Hungary, who organized it. And just as IFOAM was ending, the rest of the group came pouring in — Joan from Switzerland, Aro from India, Niels from Denmark, Gerardo and Carlos from Costa Rica, Genady from Russia, and more. How GREAT to see everyone! Hugs all around! Rapid-fire conversations about the Thai ban on forest cutting, the Portuguese water system, the newest Danish grandchildren. First-time attendees watched old-timers welcome each other with uninhibited warmth and began to realize that this is not going to be quite like other scientific meetings.
On Wednesday night, with about half the group assembled, we had dinner on a cruise boat plying up the Danube. With some sort of wierd symbolism, an ancient Hungarian helicopter that looked like a relic from World War II swooped down and sprayed insecticide on the river as we went. The river had fallen too low to dock at the ancient village we were going to walk through (several summers have been unusually dry — the greenhouse effect?). So we docked elsewhere and walked through a piece of dusty, cluttered, Hungarian suburbia. It is going to take so long, so long, for this part of the world to reclaim its public places and build itself back up with pride. Finally we sailed back downstream into the lighted city. The Budapest riverfront at night is still a splendid sight. When this city does clean up its pollution and junk, it will be one of the urban gems of the world.
The next day Bela and his bus appeared to take us to Lake Balaton. White-haired, rotund Bela has been our driver at all nine Balaton meetings and is an integral part of the group, though he speaks only Hungarian. It takes him about an hour and a half to drive us from Budapest to Csopak on the lake. The smoggy air clears, the countryside takes on the neat, prosperous look of the Balaton vacationland, enriched by tourists and by Hungarian second-home owners. By East European standards, which aren’t very high, Hungary is comfortably upper-middle-class.
Finally there’s the Hotel Petrol, the resthouse for oil-and-gas-industry workers, which is our home. I think the staff really looks forward to our return each year. As opposed to the vacationers who stay there, we work hard, we don’t complain, and we come from all over the world. They seem to feel honored to host us, and they make the place beautiful for us. Flower gardens color the lawns, there’s a new tennis court, and our Balaton Group tree, an Atlantic cedar they planted for us on our fifth anniversary, has grown by several feet.
On our first night together we go around the room and introduce ourselves. It’s always a breathtaking exercise. Joe Alcamo has just become an advisor to the environment minister of Poland. Gerardo Budowski is a consultant to the CGIAR group of agricultural research institutes. Genady Golubev and Niels Meyer are both helping to plan the 1992 U.N. conference on the environment. Hartmut Bossel is teaching forest ecology modeling in Malaysia, China, and Borneo. Herman Daly is trying to get the World Bank to see its role in environmental as well as economic reconstruction. Wim Hafkamp has just accepted a new chair in environmental economics at the University of Tilberg in the Netherlands. Chirapol has been invited to lecture Thai students, teachers, and journalists about the greenhouse effect. And so on. It’s the moment when I begin to sense not only all the love in this group, but all the power — much more power when we act together than when we act separately — and that is the reason for the existence of the Balaton Group.
In the mornings we have plenary lectures on a subject the group has decided it wants to know more about — this year environmental economics. Herman Daly and John Sterman lead off with a couple of dazzling lectures on the economics of a sustainable world, and the psychological barriers and traps that are in our way. In the afternoons the group members organize themselves into working groups to plan projects, learn computer techniques, brainstorm, do whatever they like. Bicycles and windsurfers are available, but this is a hard-working bunch.
On the first afternoon, a lovely sunny one, a big group assembled on the lawn to talk about the best way of bringing environmental help to East Europe. I met under a tree with a group that is planning a joint project in sustainable agriculture. In one corner of the resthouse two Danes and two Russians leaned together to exchange information on energy conservation. In the main hall the computers were surrounded with huddles of people teaching and learning.
About those computers. The Balaton Group runs on miracles, and the computers are the result of one. In Budapest Joan Davis had bumped into a stranger on the street and unthinkingly said “entschuldigung,” instead of whatever the Hungarian is for excuse me. The man said in German, “oh, you speak German?” Within less than a minute the ensuing conversation (which I witnessed) had established what the Balaton meeting was; that the man was the licensed distributor of Macintosh computers in Hungary; that he’d like to join us; and that he’d bring to Csopak on the following day several demonstration computers and a laser printer. Which he did. He stayed all week, excited to be learning about the application of computers to environmental problems. And we made good use of his computers.
That’s how Balaton seems to work. I’ve stopped wondering at it. I just chant prayers of thanks.
I’d better eclipse the description of the meeting, or this letter will never end. The second morning plenary was a set of four stunning presentations on the state of the environment in four places — Taiwan (“if you drop one more car into Taipei, the whole place will stop”), the Netherlands, Hungary, and Bihar State in India. Very different places with different problems, and every one of them unsustainable. Those four short pictures drawn together added up to a classic summary of the state of the world in all its dilemmas, all its potentials, all the variety and yet the commonality of its problems.
I don’t think we furthered the world’s thinking on environmental economics, but we educated ourselves about it, and I know (because it happens every year) that the members will take home what they learned and do surprising things with it. And other potent things were happening in the halls, at meals, in the evenings, as this lovely group of people interacted.
They watched three of the WGBH Race to Save the Planet videotapes, which are just finished. Many members of the Balaton group helped with the planning and logistics of those shows. It was the first time after two years of working on them that I had seen the effect of the shows on an audience. The Balaton Group was very moved by them. It was fun to watch the faces of the Russians in the group when the parts shot in the USSR came on, the British when the British parts came on, and so forth. The Balaton Group will be able to use these tapes in many ways in their teaching and policy work. They were excited about them.
Sometimes at the meeting I was in deep conversation with one or two people — about Indian philosophy or a project for changing the way the U.S. reports its GNP statistics, or exchanging the experience of having cancer. Sometimes I chaired or sat in on working groups. Sometimes I just walked through the hall and appreciated the buzz of activity. In one room Dennis is running his fish game that illustrates the tragedy of the commons. Just outside the Asian members have gathered to write a proposal for an Asian regional Balaton group. In an alcove Malcolm from Scotland is teaching a small group how to use his carrying capacity computer model. Otto Soemarwoto from India and Gerardo Budowski from Costa Rica are holding a session on tropical forestry. Some folks are reading around the literature table.
One thing that was different about this year’s meeting was the presence of several funders. Bill Moody of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Steve Viederman of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation have been almost the sole supporters of the Balaton Group for the last few years. As part of the general Balaton miracle, they have turned out to be not just essential money sources but dear friends and co-conspirators, welcome and fully participatory in our meetings. People from other foundations were present this year too, and they turned out to be very helpful. How have you managed to pull this off? they kept asking. And why do you do it this way and not that way? And, as they got into the swing of the meeting, this is really wonderful, how can we spread it to more people? Their questioning got me thinking hard, and as the week went on we laid plans to write proposals and ask for more money (Balaton has always run on a shoestring, primarily by volunteer contributions from its members) and get really serious for a change. I’ll be working hard on that over the next few months. I’m even going to ask (gasp!) for a salary for myself, so I can spend more than unpaid part time on Balaton — something I’ve long wanted to do.
On our last night together we have a farewell dinner, which this year was especially sweet. We give out funny prizes — Joan Davis started this tradition, and she and Dennis are the main prize-givers, but the group has democratized the process, so anyone is likely to stand up and give a prize, serious or comic, to anyone. After that the singing starts. Some songs we all sing together. Malcolm, Jane, and Ulrich stand up and give us a rowdy rewording of “Men of Harlech.” We Americans create a medley that starts out, “This land is your land, this land is our land, from the halls of Montezuma to the Gulf of Aqaba.” Sweet, shy Elena sings a Russian folksong — beautifully. She gets such a rousing reception that she does an encore. That emboldens Qi from China and Lucia from Taiwan. And Alice from the Philippines — there are a LOT of good voices in the group this year! The concert goes on into the night, and ends with a midnight swim in warm Lake Balaton.
The hard part of the meeting is the end, when we have to say goodbye. The group splits up slowly, some people leaving before the bus, to catch early planes. The bus drops off others at the train station — more goodbyes. A diminished bunch stays one last night at the Raday dorm. Betty and I go early to the airport the next morning, and I experience a strange transitory phenomenon that happens every year after Balaton. I find myself automatically approaching every person in the airport with the love that has been habitual for days at Balaton. I have no shield. I am open to each person as if he or she were a precious friend. It takes hours for my normal defenses to come back into place.
It’s sad that they have to. I am a different person at Balaton, more, I think, as God meant me to be. We all are. And we all see each other that way. Having been thoroughly reminded of who we are, and that we are by no means alone, we go back to practice sustainability, love, justice, peace, and holism as best we can in a world that does not exactly welcome our efforts. I often wonder whether, if I were not sustained by the Balaton Group, I could go on.
Well, I don’t have to wonder that; I am sustained by the Balaton Group. The contacts go on all year, through the telephone, mail, FAX, computer conferencing, newsletters, and visits. This is an ongoing network, held together by friendship and shared purpose. It’s one of the most precious things in my life.
September 19, 1990
Well, it’s two weeks later, and I have had more adventures!
The farm was beautiful when I got back from Hungary. September is one of the most glorious months around here. I had three days to hug Heather, can tomatoes, write two columns, eat good veggies, bake bread, and catch up a little on mail, and then I was off to Arizona.
Phoenix is a terrible place. It was over 110 every day I was there (and had been for four straight months) and everyone just dashed from one air conditioner to the next. Dr Harvey Bigelson (to whom the psychic sent me, remember?) practices in a suburb called Mesa, a typical sunbelt spread of undistinguished shopping malls superimposed on a flat, brown desert. No one dares to walk anywhere in the punishing sun. I am not going to like this, I thought, as the air-conditioned hotel van dropped me off in front of the air-conditioned mall, the first floor of which bore the sign Center for Progressive Medicine (No Drugs on Premises).
Well, I did like it. I spent three days there, getting acupunctured and massaged and chiropracted and homeopathed and interviewing Bigelson, who is a character, a far-out physician, and simply perfect for the book I want to write on alternative cancer therapy.
It’s as if Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital were Earth, and the Ayurvedic Health Center in Massachusetts were Venus, and the Center for Progressive Medicine in Mesa were Mars. Different planets. They don’t speak the same language.
When Dr. Bigelson wanted to find out if I still have any cancer, he pricked my finger, put a spot of blood on a slide, and shoved it under a microscope (with a projected image so I could see it too.) “Cancer’s all gone,” he said, in his quick, brusque way. “But the trigger’s still cocked. And I can see some radiation damage. Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed right up.”
He says that cancer is a communicable disease, caused by germs. He showed them to me, wiggling around in my blood, about 1/100 the size of the red cells and nearly invisible. “Regular doctors don’t know what those little mites are, so they ignore them entirely,” he said. Everyone has them, he believes, just as everyone has cold viruses all the time. The important question is not how to get rid of the cancer, but how to keep the body in such good natural balance that the cancer never takes off.
So that’s what he and his crew worked on with me, while I interviewed them and many of their patients. There’s too much to tell you in this letter, and I’ll be going back, as soon as I can start that book in earnest. For Bigelson I’ll need a tape recorder — he moves and talks fast, and with tremendous enthusiasm, and he has moved through so many strange worlds in the fifteen years since he stopped being an ophthalmologist in New Jersey that I could barely follow him. He loaned me books about homeopathy, which I read in the hotel at night, so by the third day I was beginning to understand him a little, but I have a lot of homework to do here — as I had to with Ayurveda.
Much of what I read and what he told me does severe violence to my scientific training. There were times I had to back off the questioning because the answers were getting too loony for me. But, as with Ayurveda, some of the answers hit home with such a ring of truth that I WANT to accept them, scientific training or not. And not only were Bigelson’s patients full of praise for him, but his staff was too. One nurse, who had practiced for years in standard medicine, told me that it seemed wierd to her too at first, but she had seen better results in this clinic than any other she’d ever worked at.
The clinic does not just treat cancer, as I had thought. Patients are there for all kinds of complaints. “Arthritis is easy to treat my way,” says Bigelson. “Osteoporosis is a piece of cake.” He thinks cancer and AIDS are the only hard diseases, and he feels he’s finally getting a handle on both of them. He tells me he can’t give me proper double-blind clinical trial statistics, because in homeopathy it is considered immoral NOT to treat a patient or to PRETEND to treat one. But he has stacks of patent records, which he’s willing to make available to me.
It will be fun to tell Bigelson’s story. I am really looking forward to doing that book!
Well, on the third day I rented a little car and headed with relief out of Phoenix and into the desert on my way to Tucson. I had forgotten how much I like deserts, and this is a great one, full of fascinating plants with lovely names, which the Arizona highway department is courteous enough to teach the casual driver through signs along the way. Saguaro. Ocatillo. Palo verde. Mesquite. With hawks soaring overhead. And mountains in the distance. And views for miles. It seemed to take no time to come to the turnoff for Biosphere II.
Ah, Biosphere II. It’s amazing what many million dollars and a bit of water can do in a desert. There’s a column about that included here too, so I won’t go into it, though I could, for pages and pages and pages. I loved it. I wanted to stay forever and watch the whole experiment work itself out. It’s in a gorgeous place, and it’s one of the most interesting things happening on this planet. I strongly recommend a tour, if you find yourself near Tucson. I guess I’ll be writing about it a lot in the future, especially as we find out what happens!
Meanwhile back at the farm….
Things change fast around here in September. The sun moves toward the equinox, the nights lengthen, the weather cools, the robins flock together in migratory bands, we hustle to get in the wood and the harvest. This month it seems — because I’ve been gone so much — that things are changing even faster than usual. And the farm family has been going through rites of passage, most but not all of them pleasant.
Heather has turned THREE! I was in Hungary and missed her party, but she told me all about it in breathless detail. She’ll tell you too, if you ask. She is turning into a wildly verbal kid, even when she’s all alone. She rides her trike around the back porch saying nursery rhymes to herself at top speed (hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle) and singing songs (the Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord) and talking to her imaginary friends Chuckie (who is female) and Jake (who is male). I’m a little bit biased, but I think she gets more adorable by the minute.
Karel has become ENGAGED! and his intended, Stephanie, will become a full-time member of the Foundation Farm family starting next month (she’s been a part-time member for some time). Stephanie is a pediatric nurse at Mary Hitchcock — she works in the intensive care nursery with the preemies and other babies at risk. She fits in great with the household, helpful at many things, one of the main ones being playing with Heather. The wedding is scheduled for next summer.
Sylvia, very sadly, has lost her beautiful horse Maudie, who suddenly got colic and some sort of internal rupture and had to be put down. She lost her other horse, Matilda, the same way a few months ago. This pattern got me worried about our pasture and the quality of our hay, but both Sylvia and the vet think that both horses finally succumbed to the extremely bad treatment they received before Sylvia got them. They were terribly run down, and Sylvia over the past two years got them in tiptop shape — in fact she and Maudie won first place in a trail-ride competition just a few weeks ago. Sylvia and Maudie went out on early morning rides all over Plainfield all summer long — one of the prettiest sights in town, I thought.
So there are no horses in Ruth’s barn any more, and Sylvia, who has an almost mystical rapport with horses, must feel very empty. I’m hoping she can acquire a colt and bring it up right and have a long relationship with it, instead of having to fix up other peoples’ mistakes again.
I was thinking, as Sylvia and I were watching Maudie’s last breaths, with tears streaming down our faces, that there has been entirely too much illness and death on Foundation Farm this year. But then there has been a lot of birth and healing too. I guess it’s all a function of having so much LIFE around here. I guess it’s all OK — just the way the universe works.
Be sure to watch Race to Save the Planet, coming on your PBS station starting the first week of October (for those of you who live in the States). You’ll see a part — but only a part — of what I have been preoccupied with for the last two years. The accompanying book, alas, I am still preoccupied with.