Founder of the biodynamic herb farm Resting in the River and Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason gracefully maintains an intimate connection with the earth and an incredibly busy schedule.
Many people are fascinated by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. But for Marsha Mason, who’s seen her share of Hollywood’s charms, the natural world is a far more fascinating place on which to lavish her attentions. Not to suggest that Mason doesn’t love the craft she’s spent her life cultivating and for which she’s won two Golden Globe awards and received four Oscar nominations. Some of Mason’s most recognized performances were opposite James Caan in 1973’s Cinderella Liberty, and in the 1977 production of then-husband Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. She also made several guest appearances on television’s Frasier in the late ’90s, for which she was nominated for an Emmy. More recently, she portrayed Ouiser in the 2005 Broadway production of Steel Magnolias; she appeared in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Hecuba in the summer of 2006; and she just completed working on the Turner Network Television production of Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which will premiere in July.
Still, her successful acting career is only one part of Mason’s very full life. She says a connection to nature and an inherent belief that it is our responsibility to care for Mother Earth led her naturally into gardening and becoming a steward of the land—an interest that eventually blossomed into Resting in the River Organic Farm & Natural Products. Mason’s sustainable organic and biodynamic farm near Abiquiu, New Mexico, produces thousands of pounds of herbs each year and turns many of them into organic Wellness Sprays, salves and body products.
Mason’s farm produces thousands of pounds of herbs each year and turns many of them into organic products.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Mason says her connection with the earth and living things started at a very young age. “As a young girl, I was overly sensitive and emotional and I used to walk down the road of our house to an old cemetery at the bottom of the hill,” Mason says. “I spent a lot of time just communing with nature during times when I felt somewhat an outsider. I think I’ve always had some kind of connection to nature and seen the beauty in it.”
She was introduced to gardening and farming in the 1970s when her burgeoning acting career took her to Los Angeles. Her across-the-street neighbor and avid farmer Henry Fonda introduced Mason to the concept of organic fertilizer—in the form of chicken manure—which piqued her interest. She ended up transforming her entire back yard into a large rose garden. “I was very hooked on compost,” Mason says of her early gardening years. “There was something about making compost that really excited me.”
That interest would come back to her when Mason moved to northern New Mexico many years later and bought 250 acres of land along the banks of the Chama River, set against sculpted white cliffs and ancient cottonwood trees. “When I moved to New Mexico, I didn’t know I would become a farmer again, but I did have that connection,” Mason says. “The land I bought was just land with no organic matter—it really bothered me that there was no organic matter. That’s when I started studying and became an avid reader of [commercial-scale organic and sustainable farming magazine] Acres U.S.A. One thing led to another and before you knew it I was trying to grow chamomile and echinacea.”
But Mason’s small beds at that time were nothing compared with the large operation she manages now. While she was first planting small patches of crops here and there, she was concurrently nurturing a growing interest in alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. “I have a Chinese doctor in L.A. who has a very well-respected, stringent course in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” she says. “After a session with him, he said to me, ‘If you ever try to grow anything large-scale, you should think about medicinal herbs.’ That kind of put the seed in my head and before I knew it, that’s what I was doing.”
As Mason began to map out her plans for a large-scale, organic medicinal herb-growing operation, she became interested in the concepts behind biodynamic farming. Biodynamic agriculture was developed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924. The oldest nonchemical agriculture movement in the world, biodynamics seeks to “actively work with the health-giving forces of nature,” according to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association’s website (www.biodynamics.com). The movement is very present in European gardening, and Mason began to gain interest in the techniques and employ them on her farm. “What piqued my interest were some pictures I saw in this Acres U.S.A. newsletter. They showed some fields in Germany side-by-side. One had used biodynamic preparations and the other one didn’t, and it was so impressive,” Mason says. “Plus, I knew at least it wasn’t going to hurt anything. It’s all natural, and there are no chemicals involved. It’s just whether you want to take the time and energy to do it.”
Some of the most important aspects of biodynamic farming are “preparations” —made of plant and sometimes animal materials—that are sprayed on the field at certain times of year or for specific reasons. Mason began exploring the preparations and doing her own field research with them. “We had an area where we grew echinacea: we grew one plot with organic materials; one with the biodynamic preparations we decided were important for the health, vitality and energy of the plant; and one regular control plot,” she says. “We planted them at the same time. When we harvested them, what we noticed was that the roots were substantially larger in the biodynamic plot than in the organic, and definitely larger than in the regular control plot. So was the color and smell of the plants’ flowers and leaves, which is how you determine the efficacy of an herbal plant.”
Convinced, Mason adheres to many of the methods the biodynamic theory suggests, including planting in accordance with the lunar calendar and treating plants and soil with biodynamic preparations, as well as other sustainable and organic growing methods, such as beneficial insects, crop rotation and manual harvesting. “There’s an energy field in everything that’s living and it’s that field that biodynamics started to deal with. The bottom line is that biodynamics addresses the vitality and energy of the plant,” Mason says.
In addition to Mason’s inherent belief that the universe is all connected, other experiences and people in her life made the principles behind biodynamics really make sense to her. One of the farm’s first growers was Peruvian and had learned many similar traditional planting techniques from his grandfather—techniques that considered the placement of the planets in relation to planting and harvesting. She says the techniques also make sense in the context of her Southwest location because American Indians followed the same sort of belief system. Also, Mason spent some time at an ashram in India in the ’70s that predisposed her thinking toward this plant energy idea. “The ashram was so amazing to me because these incredibly huge papayas and healthy, vibrant plants were all over the place and it was in an area that wasn’t necessarily that fertile. What I really began to understand was how the whole vibrational energy of the ashram was also what was helping the plants grow.”
And the theory that plants’ energy reacts to the energy around them has been confirmed on her farm, Mason says. As time went on, she began to notice changes in the plants and the farm in relation to the dynamics of human situations. “I began to see honest-to-God shifts in the fecundity of the farm when everything was moving smoothly versus when we had disruptive situations with the workers or managers. We began to notice that the farm really reflected it. That encouraged me to make sure I was finding the right people to do the right jobs,” she says. And despite the fact that some of the tenets of biodynamics can border on the strange, Mason says, hey, it works! “You get what you put in. I won’t let anyone go into the field angry. I won’t let others treat each other badly. A lot of what was considered ‘woo-woo’ 20 years ago is now accepted scientifically. I’ve even tried to pipe music out onto the fields,” she says.
Mason’s focus on creating a team that works synergistically on the farm does more than just encourage healthy plants. It also is one of the main reasons she is able to manage so much in so little time. Along with her rigorous acting schedule and managing the farm, Mason also wrote an autobiography in 2000 and is the current chairperson of the New Mexico Organic Com-modity Commission.
“I found wonderful people to run the farm,” she says. “There’s an interconnectedness among all the workers. You become part of the same family. I’d go to London to do a play but I could still do this. It’s sort of like directing—there’s a lot of preproduction that goes into a project. A lot of energy is put into the planting and preparation, like the energy that goes into rehearsing a play. Sometimes you have to put things on the back burner, but then you also have to have people there who can help you.”
Mason says she’s motivated to try new things just to gain the experience of having done them. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I raced cars for seven years. I thought ‘Well, I’ll try it out and if they tell me they want me to get off the track, I’ll stop.’ And I thought I’d try the farm and see if I got any resistance, but I never did—from the farm to the products and where that all took me,” she says.
Despite the fact that the farm is a ton of work, it gives back more than it takes, Mason says. “It’s a constant sweatshop. It really is. It’s hard and it does wear on you,” she says. “You have to learn how much energy you have and re-evaluate every year and see what you can do and where you’re really headed. You want to do everything well, but it’s not easy,” she says. “It’s taught me humility. But I’ve also gotten a lot of happiness and contentment out of it. And it’s very creative to me, having those fields of yellow and purple and looking out at them when the sun is slanted in a certain way, or when you’re walking through a field of calendula and your boots and jeans release the scent—it’s just extraordinary.
“It’s really satisfying to know that you’re giving back to the earth and the community. Someone stopped in the shop to tell me that they take a special route to work every day so they can see these fields. It reminds people that this little part of the world is a pretty spectacular place, which can be hard in a poor, rural area. … If I’d stayed in L.A., I would have ended up in a gated community. Being in an exotic place such as Abiquiu, you really do have a bigger sense of what’s going on in the world. You see the poverty, you see the real aspects of the world. It gives you a much broader and more compassionate point of view.” •
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health and sister publications The Herb Companion and Natural Home.
To learn more about Resting in the River, or to order products, visit www.RestingInTheRiver.com or call (888) 456-0563.