Sense & Sustainability

May, 2008

by Barbra Alan

Breakfast at Sadhana ForestTwo weeks living and working in Auroville taught Whitman’s students important lessons in sustainability and reducing their ecological footprint, but they came away from the experience with much more. (Read Part I of this article for more about their experience.) Throughout their stay, the students kept journals, committing their thoughts, ideas, impressions, and experiences to paper. Following are excerpts from the journals that the students have generously shared with Plymouth Magazine.

Getting there

  • jasonThe trip here was long but exciting. When we finally arrived and left the airport in a bus, it was early, just after midnight. It took us a few hours to drive to Auroville. The drive was hilarious, lots of beeping, light flashing, passing cows, bikes, and scooters … the driver did well. —Steve Jason
  • friesThe ride [to Auroville] was amazing. The city streets of Chennai were full and wild even at 2 a.m. The driving here is unreal; no lanes and no rules is [how] it appears to the outsider, but I’m sure it makes sense to the locals. When we left the city, we found quiet villages, rice paddies, and late night tea stands. Stray dogs and herds of cows [on the road] caused us to swerve, honk, and pass at what some might call inappropriate times. —Jef Fries
  • mcelaneyThe sun starts to rise as we near Pondicherry—we ride through town and take the turn to Auroville. A haze develops, giving everything a surreal, dreamlike quality. —Madeline McElaney

First impressions

  • osbornMy initial reaction to this place … was that it is a tropical paradise. The thatched roof huts and woven reed walls are incredible. The work Aviram is doing here is a breath of fresh air … Aviram’s approach to the reforestation project is quite brilliant. Instead of just planting trees, he focused on water conservation and in the course of three to four years he was able to bring the level of the water table up by about two meters.—Jamie Osborn
  • feenyAwesome. I think it’s amazing the way these people live and work together. They are totally committed to the mission of Sadhana Forest and Auroville …This place seems to be about taking responsibility for all of your actions and realizing how they affect all life. I think this is a cool mentality; the veganism, the community chores, everything is part of the mission. —Bob Feeny
  • sullivanAviram showed us to our hut, which had two floors and could house 11 people. It was extremely well constructed, all the posts and floorboards were lashed together very tightly with rope. —Derek Sullivan
  • powersAviram is a very genuine and open man. I am very grateful to have him as a host and to have the chance to be part of Sadhana Forest. … During the tour, he said something that really struck a chord with me. He said you can’t achieve [sustainability] all at once … you have to make choices and pick your battles to achieve gradual change. This means a lot to me because sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the changes I’d like to see. It’s reassuring to hear this coming from a person who has made such a difference. —Meghan Power
  • friesAlthough our time here still has only begun, there is a certain level of comfort that is starting to settle in. We have all gotten used to our bug-netted bunks and the new cuisine. There is a calmness and comfort that come from the simplicity of this place. …At some point, all humans lived in this simple way; perhaps that is why there is something that feels right about being here. —Jef Fries

The Vegan Diet

Eating locally and sustainably

  • feenyThe food here is quite bland for the most part. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I find myself really searching for the subtle flavors of each ingredient …The ragi is something I haven’t quite figured out yet. I eat it, but I’m not sure I like it. This is the case with most of the food here, whether I like it or not, I eat it and I’m thankful for it. —Bob Feeny
  • sullivanToday I helped to cook lunch, which is the biggest meal [of the day]. I started out washing the tomatoes, then spraying them with a vinegar and water mix. Since there are no chemicals used here, the vinegar helps to sanitize the food and cutting surfaces. It was fun to work in the kitchen side by side with people from around the world.—Derek Sullivan
  • osbornAt home, food is cheap and available everywhere so not much thought goes into it, which is unfortunate. Organic local farming needs to be the way of the future. Fruits and veggies lose a ton of nutrients as they sit off the vine in a refrigerator. In order to get the most from food, you need to eat it soon after it is harvested. —Jamie Osborn
  • jasonThe salads we make here aren’t like back home. So far we haven’t used lettuce, we just use a random mix of vegetables … cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, coconut, sweet lime, and oregano. In America we say, “I’m going to have a salad to be healthy,” then we load it with unhealthy things like cheese and fattening dressing … it’s interesting to see a truly healthy salad —Steve Jason


No rest for the weary when you slumber near temples

  • friesSleeping took a bit to get used to for me. The bed is comfortable and the added security of the bug net is nice, but my body was not ready for nighttime the first night and I was awake for most of it. But last night I was on track and slept great. The temple and its propensity for music at 3:39 a.m. is questionable and if they wanted to stop I wouldn’t mind.—Jef Fries
  • powersI can hear two or three songs playing at once. The music is saying wake up! Time to go to the temple for prayer! It’s louder and more frequent this time of year because the Tamils are gearing up for Pongal, a holiday that I have heard compared to Thanksgiving. Ironically, instead of being thankful for all of their stuff, they actually use this time to get rid of and burn (unnecessary) possessions. —Madeline McElaney

A Sense of Community

Working together, sharing resources, and celebrating differences

  • sullivanThe sense of community in Sadhana Forest is amazing. We were here for only two short weeks but I felt so comfortable with everyone and everything that was going on. At first I was slow to open up to people here but once I saw that everyone was so friendly, it was amazing. People actually care about one another, and make attempts to learn your name and something about you as soon as they meet you. —Derek Sullivan
  • powersThis past week … I’ve met Israelis, Germans, Indians, Canadians, Britons, and others, and despite the geographic and cultural differences we all came together and accepted each other, helped restore the earth together, cooked and shared meals together, and learned from each other. … What if we looked at each other not as strangers, but as fellow human beings? If we could set our differences aside, what could we achieve then? —Meghan Power
  • nagleToday was the first day of Pongal, an Indian holiday in which the people decorate the cows (at least on the first day) and feed them sweet rice. Every door front is decorated with colorful kolams [decorative designs created with rice powder that are thought to bring prosperity to homes]; the people dress in their finest, adorned with gold jewelry. The children ride on a wagon pulled by a tractor through the village. I had the privilege of joining them, yelling, “Pongal! Pongal! Pongal!” —Teresa Nagle

Green living

Building as if the future depended on it

  • osbornThe huts are all constructed of … log beams, granite pillars, rope, bamboo, and leaves or grass for the roof. All the materials are from local sources and all of them were gathered in environmentally-friendly ways. On top of that, the materials are all natural so when they have passed their useful lives … they can be returned to the ground as compost … to fertilize the next generation of building materials. —Jamie Osborn
  • powersDriving through Pondicherry, I was really surprised by all the abandoned buildings. They’re huge concrete structures that are left dirty and unused. They exemplify the importance of green building and planning for the future. The huts we’re staying in at Sadhana Forest were built with the knowledge that they won’t last forever because we don’t need them to last forever. —Meghan Power
  • mcelaneyAll of Sadhana Forest is off the grid and uses solar panels as a source of electricity. There are 24 panels here, each producing 75 watts of electricity … these panels are on a pivot so they can be turned three times a day to maximize their solar gain. They are connected to a charge controller that prevents the battery from over or under charging … if the battery runs low, residents of Sadhana have the opportunity to charge it with bicycle power. Aviram had a choice to spend 400 rupees to connect Sadhana to the grid or 200,000 for solar and another 34,000 rupees for the bike system. “It was, for me, very important not to connect to the grid. The grid corrupts,” he said. —Madeline McElaney
  • jasonA good point I keep hearing is how easy it is to criticize and point a finger at somebody for being unsustainable, but what matters is if you are doing something, trying in some way. I’m going to remember that and not let myself be overwhelmed. —Steve Jason

Working the land

Digging in the dirt proves to be an enriching experience

  • rodierThe cool breeze lifted my hair and spirits as I caressed my hands in the topsoil. I didn’t consider it work because it was so enjoyable to be out in the forest collecting leaves and soil. It made me feel good to contribute to the process of nature and help regrow a lush evergreen forest. —Meghan Rodier
  • mcelaneyIn the forest, digging for topsoil to put in the garden … we picked up handfuls of topsoil that we found in hollows next to trees. We crushed it with our hands to speed up decomposition. We felt the soil, smelled the soil, we wished it well as it carries out its work nourishing the garden and preventing erosion. —Madeline McElaney
  • nagleToday, we worked in the “soon-to-be” gardens. In order to create a vegetable garden, we needed to cut the tops of trees off. Then some of us broke down the branches and leaves to be used as mulch for other trees. Mud-ash was then applied to the cut part to prevent upward growth. The trees still grow, just outwards to create biomass. —Teresa Nagle
  • jasonIt was an awesome experience to get a tour of the organic farms (around Auroville) … organic farming contributes in every way to all species, as well as the Earth and future generations. Use of chemicals and non-organic farming has the exact opposite results and is negative in every sense … I’m excited to experiment with my parents’ garden and teach them … as time goes on, maybe our yard will be all gardens and no grass. That would be awesome and hopefully inspiring to others. —Steve Jason

Why did you come here?

Students respond to a provocative question

  • osbornI love experiential education. For me, there is no better way to learn about a topic than to be thrown into a situation where I am living it. Learning to live sustainably from a book makes no sense. —Jamie Osborn
  • powersIt wasn’t a choice that I made…as soon as I heard about the trip, I knew I had to go. … I believe strongly in caring for the earth and striving toward living a sustainable lifestyle. —Meghan Power
  • rodierI always figured there must be more to life and there must be a better way of living … where people aren’t just ignoring their effect on the … environment. I’m in search of the best way to live sustainably, happily, and healthy. —Meghan Rodier

Change is Good

Lessons learned and putting them into action at home

  • rodierThe first step I will take when I get home is to evaluate each aspect of my life and think about where I can make changes and what those changes should be. I plan to get in the habit of buying food at a local health food store and start buying biodegradable toiletries. Perhaps I’ll continue to wash with just a bucket of water and cup to save water. —Meghan Rodier
  • feenySadhana has taught me the meaning of radical simplicity. Every morning, we got up and met needs. We need spirituality, so we chanted. We need food, so we ate. It was that simple. If there was work to be done, we did it together. There were so many things I did without: meat, dairy, eggs, television, refrigerators, fast food. If I survived without all of these things, then I do not need them. —Bob Feeny
  • sullivanThe trip was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Aviram and Yorit are amazing people and meeting them is really inspiring [me] to make the needed changes in my life. Someday I will return to Sadhana Forest to visit and see the progress that they are making … Thank you, Steve, for taking our class on this trip. It was a great success and good luck on future field study courses. —Derek Sullivan
sustainability6Whitman and his students joined local villagers in celebrating Pongal, a mid-January harvest festival in which animals and farm equipment are decorated to celebrate and welcome the coming growing season.
sustainability7From top, Derek Sullivan, Meghan Power, Steve Jason, and Teresa Nagle enjoy some down time in their hut.
sustainability10Toward the end of the trip, the Rozins presented Whitman and his students with shawls as a symbol of friendship and gratitude for their work in the forest. Bottom row, from left: Steve Whitman, Osher Rozin, Meghan Power, Teresa Nagle, Madeline McElancey. Top row, from left: Jef Fries, Bob Feeny, Aviram Rozin, Yorit Rozin, Meghan Rodier, Jamie Osborn, Steve Jason, Derek Sullivan.

Editor’s note: Steve Whitman is already planning his next sustainability field study course for May and June of 2009 at Crystal Waters Ecovillage in Australia. The three-week course will focus on permaculture planning as an approach to sustainability.

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