The art of ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ at Open Field Farm.

When I visit Open Field Farm, which isn’t that often but which always takes my breath away, I’m reminded of the best-selling book, Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Kabat-Zinn took his title from the movie Zorba the Greek in which Zorba explains that he has a wife, children, a house. “The full catastrophe,” he says in a way that expresses a feeling that Greeks have always had about surviving adversity with dignity and without recourse to austerity.

As Kabat-Zinn explains it, “‘Catastrophe’ does not mean disaster but rather the poignant enormity of our life experience.”  

Not long ago, Seth and Sarah James signed up for the enormity of life itself when they settled on an old family dairy and began to turn it into Open Field, an organic Biodynamic farm. For three years, they’ve been on a steep learning curve, one that’s allowed me to slowly appreciate their handiwork. I love their bacon, sausages, and eggs. Indeed, I love the whole 560-acre spread that unfolds in meadows, pastures, and carefully delineated gardens with vegetables, grains, flowers, and herbs.

The name Open Field suggests not just the size and the enormous feel of the farm but also the eagerness of Seth and Sarah to embrace an unknown, unmapped future. Located on Spring Hill Road, 15 minutes from the heart of Petaluma, the farm itself feels like it might be in the American West, not just West County, and the sky is big both day and night.

“We fell in love with this landscape,” Sarah tells me on an afternoon near the end of summer when the harvest is happening and catastrophe feels like it might lurk almost everywhere on the farm. She adds that the land itself holds them in and teaches them that they need boundaries as well as open spaces. Seth explains that, unlike people who might have inherited land, the risky 2012 purchase they made means that they don’t take theirs for granted. Moreover, they’re still trying to figure out their responsibilities to the community that they nourish and that also nourishes them.

We fell in love with this landscape. Sarah James

Sarah and Seth, both in their 30s, have three children—Margrethe (9), Oliver (6), and Teddy (2)—along with a cozy home, plus barns and ship-shape sheds, a 22-acre pond, and the cattle, chickens, turkeys, and pigs that they raise, slaughter, and sell to hungry carnivores. Then there’s the work crew and the community.

Perhaps the best way to get to know Open Field is to show up on a Friday afternoon when CSA members arrive to happily fill boxes with fruits and vegetables. Members take what they need, give what they can, and put the money in a cash box that sits on a table unattended. It’s the honor system. CSA members also cut herbs and flowers to make bouquets and potpourris. Throughout the year, moms and dads come for feasts, fiestas, and conversations; their children play with the kids in the James family.

It took Sarah and Seth years to get ready for Open Field. Seth attended Sterling College in Vermont, worked on farms back east, and learned about microbes and pay dirt from his father, a soil chemist. Sarah attended UC Berkeley and did an internship at Chez Panisse where she shucked oysters, prepared aioli, and cleaned mushrooms. She fell in love with both agriculture and Seth on a farm in upstate New York.

As part of the third wave in the contemporary back-to-the-land movement, they’ve benefitted from the wisdom of pioneering souls who’ve preceded them, including Paul Wirtz at Paul’s Produce and Jesse Pizzitola at First Light Farm. Both Paul and Jesse told them it would be very hard.

“Indeed, it’s ridiculously hard,” Seth says and shrugs his shoulders.

Still, while Open Field offers acres of bodywork for the couple, it strikes me that it also provides a kind of meditation practice that keeps them both mindful and in touch with the present moment. 

“Why do I do this?” Sarah says, repeating my question. “Because it satisfies completely. I get to work with nature and grow food for people. Farming at Open Field stimulates the brain and heightens the senses. There’s constant problem-solving and it’s never boring.”

If Jon Kabat-Zinn were to sign up for the CSA, he’d probably say that the Jameses illustrate what he means when he talks about the art of full catastrophe living. Zorba himself would reach for a handful of ripe strawberries, pop them in his mouth, clap his hands for the bouzouki music to begin, and dance until he could dance no more.

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Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California.


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