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My Watson year is now officially over, unbelievably enough! The Returning Fellows conference at Carleton College in Minnesota just closed this morning. It was incredible to connect with the other 39 fellows who have been pursuing the projects they were passionate about all over the world over the past year. Many fascinating people, projects, and stories, which I will cover in a future post.

For now, I wanted to share my final presentation, which was supposed to be a 10-minute summary of my experiences of the year. A 60-photo slideshow accompanied the below speech I read, which I will post once I shrink all the images to upload.

“While I was an environmental activist in college, I became convinced that the solutions to the global crises we are facing could only be achieved on a local level. In the course of my community environmental activism, I heard about the ecovillage movement that pursues this grassroots vision for sustainability.

My Watson was called “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability.” By holistic environmentalism, I mean ways of life that are ecologically, economically, socially, culturally, and spiritually/psychologically sustainable all at once. For the past year, I have been living in communities where people are trying to live lives that are more connected to themselves, each other, and nature.

I have found that no one ecovillage has successfully integrated all the aspects of holistic sustainability. However, each place has its area of specialty or “one piece of the puzzle.” When these pieces are taken together, a sense of what is necessary for combining the component parts of sustainability into a cohesive whole begins to crystallize.

Along the way, one of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned is that “sustainability” is not the best word for what the environmental movement is seeking. Once I was asked the question: “why do you want to live sustainably?” This was fairly disarming, as I had taken sustainable living to be an obvious goal given our global environmental predicaments.

Upon reflection, I came to realize that living sustainably is necessary but not sufficient as a goal for human life. If someone asked how your relationship is going, for example, you would hardly want to answer “well, it’s pretty sustainable.” Is “sustainable” life really what we are seeking? If so, what is it we are seeking to sustain – the current consumer lifestyle, just stretched over millennia? Though sustainability has become the buzzword of the environmental movement, it does not qualitatively describe the kind of life we want on this planet.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of most ecovillagers, consumerism is a state of being that does not represent the realization of human potential. Based on my experiences this year, I’ve come up with a different notion for what the sustainability movement is seeking to articulate and achieve, which I call vibrancy. I define vibrancy as living life fully amongst life lived fully, or to experience all aspects of human being in healthy social and natural environments.

Quite simply, I believe that environmentalism is, at its core, is about one thing: life. Life, in all its complexity and diversity and beauty, in all its manifestations in the plant, animal, human, and bacterial worlds. Life, the only thing that could matter to us as living organisms. The visceral, joyous lust to live and flourish among the expansive wonder of this planet we simply call Earth, the source and stage of our existence.

I believe that what the environmental movement strives for is not so much sustainability, but rather vibrancy. Humans living as if Life was the principal thing that matters in life: their own lives, the lives of other humans, the lives of organic beings generally, the vitality of the living systems that produced and continue to sustain us. To breathe in fresh air, to drink clean water, to eat delicious food from the healthy soil, to mindfully inhabit, care for, and contribute to the systems that create and sustain us, to live well together in the broader community of life. Without these things, life is meaningless.

We can seek vibrant rather than merely sustainable lives because doing so makes for a more enjoyable life for ourselves and the rest the species on this planet, right now. The achievement of indefinite inhabitation, a cleaner environment, the well-being of future generations, and so forth are results of this more satisfying way of living, rather than being the primary aim.

If activism becomes concerned with the full experience and enjoyment of life right here in the present, then activists don’t become martyrs or burn themselves out. No preaching or conversion is necessary because vibrant lifestyles are naturally more appealing and speak for themselves.

In this way, the ecovillage experiences have represented a breakthrough for my activism. E.B. White once said, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it.” This classic dichotomy collapses within the setting of these communities. People are living savory lives while effectively doing their small part to save the world. This has helped me recover from burnout and make my sustainability activism more sustainable.

My Watson has also made me think about the idea of freedom. Ostensibly, I was free this year – traveling the world pursuing my passion for sustainable living. The Watson allowed me, in its brilliant phraseology, “surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career pursuits.” This freedom from the rituals that comprise life for the overwhelming majority of humanity in industrialized nations is precisely what drew me to the fellowship initially.

My year has been a success in that I experienced many ways of living that don’t involve just going to school or getting a job. This has been compelling and enjoyable enough that I have no plans to live a life someone else has designed for me. I am planning to continue the Watson lifestyle – which is to say a free life – for the foreseeable future.

I immersed myself in communities that themselves were trying to achieve freedom. The freedom they sought was freedom from systems with which they disagreed – social, political, economic, and industrial systems that they saw as eroding the human and natural fabric that hold the world together. The initial move away from the old systems was a saying “no,” but the establishment of an alternative is a saying “yes” and building a life they desire.

For many, this meant starting from a blank slate – a piece of land upon which a human life had to be forged. In New Zealand, the toil of communities wanting different lives was rewarded with what has been called “A Hard Won Freedom.” Essentially, this freedom means having an enjoyable, ecologically sustainable, socially rich, and economically viable life that has been created together with other people who share the same vision.

Though some people I talked to said that they were glad they went through the arduous labor to establish sustainable community, they said that given the choice, they would not do it all over again. It’s also worth noting that the freedom that they worked so hard to enjoy was enabled only by living in a well-off industrialized society with benefits like social welfare and developed infrastructure provided by the state.

One ex-communard related to me his feeling of irresponsibility at having created their “alternative” lives thanks to the benefits enabled by a tax-paying society, which he viewed himself as not contributing to by not having a proper job besides working the land, thus living an illusion. Others expressed resentment at being part of a nation living off the backs of developing countries.

Similarly, the freedom of my Watson year was enabled by the excesses of an untenable economic system as well as an industrial infrastructure that is changing the ecological conditions under which civilization and life as we know it have evolved. In this way, my happy year studying feel-good solutions of vibrant human life was only possible thanks to everything that is unraveling human and non-human life on Earth.

For these reasons, I will need to do more thinking and acting as I move forward, doing the best I can to exit deleterious systems while simultaneously building systems which are conducive to life. The questions I hold include: what is actual freedom and how can it be realized? How does it feel to be fully alive and how do I bring that celebration of life into the creation of vibrant systems?

Some people have called me brave, but being paid to live my dreams is more luck than bravery in my opinion. The true bravado will be determined by what I do next, whether I am able to stick to my high aspirations and craft this free vibrant life for myself.

The Watson has given me the courage, possibly the demand to live differently. How could I go back to a heteronomous way of life, knowing what I now know and experiencing what I have experienced? For me, the blessed surcease demands creative lifestyles moving forward.

To close, I want to share a Howard Thurman quote, who is a fellow Haverford alumnus. This quote has been relevant to me as an activist, but is also relevant to anyone thinking about what to do next: ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”

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Writing about Sadhana Forest is a bit strange, as the community I experienced for two months technically no longer exists. In this post, I begin to tell the long and complex story of my time there.

Sadhana is a community composed mainly of short-term international volunteers who are attracted for different reasons to live together in a community originally started as a reforestation project to regenerate the severely endangered Tropical Dry Evergreen forest, an indigenous forest type in southeastern India that has been reduced to less than one percent of its original range.

Sadhana Forest is off the grid: photovoltaic solar panels provide electricity, power a pump which provides water from onsite well, huts provide comfortable accommodation out of locally sourced natural materials

The minimum time commitment to stay in Sadhana is four weeks during the high season, which runs from the beginning of December through the end of March, the most climatically pleasant time to visit this tropical region of India. During this time, the community population fluctuates between 100 and 130, mostly consisting of conscious twenty-somethings seeking a different way of life, though all ages are represented and even traveling families find Sadhana to be an accommodating place to stay. As the population contracts and expands on a daily basis, life in the community is dynamic, with no two days being alike and each intensely long day holding unforeseen adventures and learning. Thus, the Sadhana that I knew and loved no longer exists, as the people and relationships that defined my time there only exist in the memory of those who shared that time together.

Sadhana Forest as it existed in early February 2011. Photo credit Hyeonjung Lee

The community, its infrastructure, and most of the long-term volunteers who comprise the core of the community through time remain, of course, along with new faces who have come from all over the world to have the Sadhana experience. Sadhana is a Hindi word meaning “spiritual path.” It is a self-contained community located within the larger ecovillage of Auroville in India, a spiritually-focused budding township of 2,200 people who are seeking to grow into “the city the world needs” by achieving human unity and higher consciousness. Auroville is a fascinating place, perhaps the first city in the world to emphasize spiritual rather than material development goals. It is altogether too large to discuss in this post, which is focused on my time in Sadhana, but I have a lot to say about Auroville in future posts.

I first heard about Sadhana over dinner with a group of friends who were attending a Permaculture Design Course in Melbourne last September. After class, some of us younger folk went out to Veggie Bar, a classy vegetarian bar and restaurant, to indulge our needs for hip and for ethical yum. My ecovillage travels came up in conversation. When I mentioned that I would be traveling to Auroville, Andrew from Sydney asked if I would be going to Sadhana Forest. I admitted that I hadn’t heard of it, which prompted him to launch into a spiel about how I had to see this place, which attracted over 100 people our age from the world over interested in living sustainably to cohabitate huts in the forest and work on its regeneration. He had lived there and also helped to launch its sister project in Haiti (where he contracted malaria and had to be flown back to Australia just a few weeks prior); Sadhana was incredibly vibrant and he insisted that I must visit.

Seeing as I had no plans for my time in Auroville and heard that the sprawling nature of the place made it difficult to craft a meaningful experience for oneself, I was easily convinced just by his description, to say nothing of his abundant enthusiasm. Andrew was a fellow 23-year old whose commitment to sustainability had taken him to far-flung parts of the world for learning and action; I was inspired at the prospect of meeting hundreds of more people like us. His recommendation was another flowing synchronicity that made planning for my travels easy. Before seeing Sadhana, however, I would first traverse four ecovillages in Europe, as there was an Ecovillage Design Course in Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland that I wanted to attend immediately after my time in Australia.

Fast-forward three months. I am on a plane from Barcelona to Doha, Qatar en route to Chennai, India. I have had transformative experiences at Findhorn, Tamera ecovillage in Portugal, Damanhur and Torri Superiore ecovillages in Italy (read about them here: Ecovillages around the World), and an abundant Spanish Christmas and New Year’s in Barcelona with a friend I had met WWOOFing in Crystal Waters. In Barcelona, I realized that the study of my travels concerns not only modern attempts at communal ecological living, but also human lifestyles through the ages and into the future – I am going to have to study a lot more history. I had an incredible series of realizations based on an experience hiking Montserrat and know that I am a writer and that I am employed only by the Earth to serve the flourishing of life (future posts). I have no idea what India will hold, having only Andrew’s general description of Sadhana in my mind. The mixture of late night attempts to creatively synthesize all that I have experienced and learned, anticipation for what will come next, sleep deprivation, and stale plane air create a hazy nexus of past-present-future as I fly over the oil fields of the Middle East.

flying over the oil fields of Qatar

Landing in Chennai, 3:30 a.m., Tuesday January 4th. Disorientation; Indians everywhere. I am one of a handful of white people. Grab my backpack from the conveyor belt, extract some rupees from the ATM, and head outside, greeted by darkness and warm thick humid air. To my relief, I find Arumugam, my taxi driver, among the crowd of drivers waiting, and walk through the traffic of the parking lot (most international flights arrive at this hour). He seems surprised at my attempts at small talk; after a few minutes the language barrier curtails our brief exchange.

Pungent exhaust and dust fill my lungs: I’m not in Europe any more. Hop in the tiny cab and roll the windows down: air conditioning is a luxury we do not have. Unaware of the malaria risk of the region but keenly aware of my lack of anti-malarials, I decide to keep my long-sleeve shirt on upon seeing mosquitoes flying around in our car. After watching some of the unremarkable Chennai roll by, Arumugam suggests I try to get some sleep for the 2.5 hour ride. It’s dark and there isn’t much to see, so I take his advice and begin to fade in and out of consciousness.

6:00 a.m. the sky has begun to lighten as we turn off the highway onto a dirt road. More trees start to appear as we wind along the path that I imagine will bring us to our final destination. Eventually we roll to a stop in a roundabout and Arumugam gets out, beckoning for me to do the same. I am fuzzy, jet-lagged, and sleep-deprived, but mechanically hoist my baggage and follow him through the gate. I see the multilingual welcome sign and know that I am in the right place.

all are welcome, in many languages

We walk on a winding path through some vegetation, passing a few people he seems to know and greets. Moments later, we emerge in a clearing where there is a large group of shoeless hippy-looking young people who are all standing in a circle and begin hugging each other. The scene shocks my tired consciousness and I feel completely out of place in long clothes, hiking boots, and with my entire luggage in tow. I am a total outsider and this is obvious in every way; I try to disappear into the background. The feeling arises that I am nowhere near hippy enough to be here.

mysterious path I groggily walked down; where had I landed?

no, I didn't take this photo on arrival, but this captures the essence of the daily morning circles, where everyone wakes each other up through song or yoga then gives each other hugs to start the day off right. Photo credit Hyeonjung Lee

Nonetheless, I follow Arumugam, my sole link into the community, who instructs me to lay my luggage down in the foyer of a large jungle hut while he begins to look for a character called Jamey. A few moments later, a short guy with thick-framed glasses, long sleeve button-up pink shirt, and white pants appears. He looks vaguely like he’s from the vegan anarchist punk scene in Philadelphia and seems out of place in this environmental and cultural context; however, he is clearly in charge, has people who love him, and seems like a loving caring guy with his gentle yet assertive demeanor. I suspend my disbelief as he takes me on a tour.

Jamey

I find out he is indeed from the Philadelphia/New Jersey region of the United States and is vegan, which creates a connection between us because I went to school outside of Philadelphia and am also vegan. This flash of a comfortable feeling subsides, however, as he shows me the toilet, which is a hole in the ground over which I am supposed to squat, and the washbasin, over which I am supposed to wash my bum with water instead of using toilet paper. I consider myself to be a pretty open guy, but the combination of unfamiliar environment, people, and disorientation from travel make this a bit much to digest. Despite my uncomfortable feeling in the face of all this new information, I follow him to see the showers, which consist of a bucket for fetching your water from the pump and a cup for pouring it over you. This radical simplicity presents itself to me as a challenge that I am curious to face: am I really as dedicated simple living and sustainability as I profess?

the stark new material reality for my bowel movements confronts me

yes, this is the shower. Usually the water from the well isn't freezing, at least!

After the tour, Jamey tells me I can chill out in the main hut until breakfast is served in two hours and leaves me on my own. I find some pillows in the corner and rest, trying to adapt to the newness and foreignness of my surroundings through relaxation. Eventually, I begin to decompress despite some vexation from mosquitoes. After I feel as rested as possible considering the circumstances, I get up and decide to face the challenge of my first shower to rid myself of plane grunge. I felt proud to pump and carry the ¾ full bucket of water that ended up being sufficient for my entire shower; pouring the water my head with the cup was like my baptismal initiation into this radically simple new lifestyle. I emerged feeling refreshed and newly confident about my ability to live in this place, which is so completely different than the Western amenities and pampered European-American lifestyle in which I had been ensconced before.

After the shower, I felt much more comfortable being in the place and began to talk to some interesting people; with this, the place opened up to me. Thus began my Sadhana experience.

To be continued…

Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" pretty well encapsulates my feeling upon winning the Watson Fellowship

On Friday, March 12, 2010 at approximately 1:50 p.m., the course of my life dramatically changed for the better. I found out that I won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year!

It was a drowsy day for me, having stayed up past 3 a.m. the night before, not being able to sleep for anxiousness over the weighty, life-altering decision that would announce itself to me the next day at an unknown time. Sitting at my computer node in the Washington, D.C. offices of The Wilderness Society, I held my breath while booting up my computer, loading Firefox, and entering my Gmail credentials in anticipation of a 9 a.m. inbox check for the email that would change my life. Gmail’s screen was blank, save for the blue indicator bar that told me “Loading ‘thequestionofwhy@gmail.com…'” Out of the white void, my inbox appeared. Nothing was there, at least nothing that my future was looking for.

I went on to wearily execute my tasks for the day, checking my email at fifteen-minute intervals (or, perhaps, a lot more frequently). Noon rolled around, I refreshed my inbox once more, and: nothing. Not being able to keep my eyes open, brain crumpling from exhaustion, I announced to my intern colleagues David and Jyhjong that I would be heading home for lunch to my apartment, conveniently located two blocks away. Lunch turns into an hour-long nap, which I half-heartedly cursed upon waking. I ate a hurried lunch and headed back to my office sometime after 1:30.

Enter communal cubicle. David and Jo-Jo (the rendition of her name used so as to be pronounceable to American tongues) greet me. I sit down in front of my screen, refresh my Gmail inbox, and see “Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Announcement” sitting at the top of my inbox. “It’s here!” I exclaim. They swivel in their chairs to watch as I execute the mouse click of fate.

Message loads. First word seen: Congratulations! “I got it!” I yelled, instantly swiveling up and out of my chair, turning to David behind me and giving him a huge hug. Jo-Jo is also out of her chair, cheering and hugging me from behind in what becomes a Tim sandwich. Short, swift breaths escape my lungs in rapid fire to decompress the anticipation. I settle back into my chair to read the rest of the email along with the attached documents that outline the new direction my life will be taking.

I have been awarded a Watson Fellowship to travel through seven countries on five continents over the course of a year, independently carrying out my self-designed project “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability,” which can be summarized as follows:

Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability
Argentina, Australia, India, New Zealand, Nicaragua, United Kingdom, Thailand

“Permaculture communities, ecovillages, and Transition Towns are three types of communities that have emerged as international movements in order to attempt ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually sustainable lifeways. I will travel to five continents living in these three types of communities in order to study the theory and practice of sustainability in intentional and conventional communities across cultures. I intend to explore the ways in which human life can become more holistically sustainable with respect to environment, economy, society, and self.”

In layman’s terms, I am going to live in communities that are trying to lead environmentally-adapted lifestyles to see how and how well their visions of sustainability translate into reality. Click here for a more detailed project description, here for the personal narrative I wrote explaining the development of my project, and here to see all the other awesome projects that were accepted.

This all started last year, when I received an email from my Dean on April 14, 2009: “$25,000 to Go Anywhere in the World–Interested? See Below!” Hell yeah, I was interested. I read about this thing called the Watson Fellowship that allows graduating Seniors to explore a long-standing, deep-seated passion of theirs in the form of a self-designed project involving travel to any countries outside of the U.S. where one has not previously visited.

The email contained an attached “Watson Description Memo,” which read: “The mission of the Fellowship Program is to offer college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel outside of the United States in order to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.” I was completely intrigued and thoroughly appreciative of their mission.

I continued reading: “The Program provides Fellows an opportunity for a focused and disciplined year of their own devising—a period in which they can have some surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns in order to explore with thoroughness a particular interest. During their year abroad, Fellows have an unusual, sustained, and demanding opportunity to take stock of themselves, to test their aspirations and abilities, to view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and, concomitantly, to develop a more informed sense of international concern.”

Surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns? The phrase struck me and firmly resonated. It was as if someone had designed this Fellowship precisely for me. This was obviously the opportunity I had been waiting for to test my ideas about how life might be. What other chance would I get to break away from the set path and really try out my own ideas about how life and the world might be? Who would pay me to explore my path of inquiry in the world? Who would pay me to live my dreams?

As the Watson Fellowship press release said, “FORTY COLLEGE SENIORS ARE AWARDED WATSON ‘DREAM’ GRANTS.” Nothing could be more accurate. That is how the Watson Foundation should market their Fellowship: the Watson Dream Grant. It is this exactly.

As cliché as it sounds, I’ve always been a dreamer. I try to systemically analyze the problems and then craft creative, intelligent, holistic, systems-thinking solutions. As an environmental activist and as a philosopher, there is nothing more pleasurable to me than making an idea become a reality. I love it when my ideas or words on a page become manifest in the real world. So far, this project has proved to be my best and most valuable idea: 6 pages turned into $25,000; many years thinking turned into a year of traveling. I will milk it for all it is worth and begin spinning the web of a life’s work out of all that arises from my inquiry and activity along the way.

I sometimes wonder whether the achievement of an idea or an ideal would spoil its intrigue and motivating power. I’ll soon find out, I suppose. Do the thoughts in my head and the letters on my pages translate into lived experience in the world? Is the actuality of traveling the world exploring your passion really as dreamy as it seems when it is in your mind? Are the utopian-esque attempts to live ecologically harmonious lives really amounting to anything in their physical manifestations?

Environmentalism seeks to deliver the fullest, healthiest expression of human existence in the context of a robust, thriving non-human community that includes a variety of organisms, soil, water, and air (collectively: what we call the “environment”). Up until this point, (the most dominant strain of) humans have lived in ignorance of or at least in opposition to their broader environmental context. They sought to tame nature and appropriate all things non-human solely for human use. That which was useful became commodified, and that which had no place in our collective affairs and pursuits (collectively: the “economy”) were discarded or overrun by the human community. The environmental movement simply seeks to establish (or re-establish) a provident human place in nature that is healthy for humans and non-humans alike. We cannot harm the environment without harming ourselves. We cannot help the environment without helping ourselves. We are an integral part of nature and have always had an appropriate place in ecosystems; it is only recently within the last 10,000 years that we have overstepped our capacity or “overreached,” as Aristotle would say.

It’s easy to forget why exactly we engage in the struggle for creating a sustainable society amidst the doom-and-gloom, often negatively reactive work that can characterize environmentalism. Quite simply, it is about one thing: life. Life, individually and collectively, existentially and biologically, in all its complexity and diversity and beauty, in all the different species manifestations in the plant, animal, and bacterial worlds. Life, the only thing that could matter to us as living organisms. And yet, so much seems to impede this visceral, joyous imperative to live and flourish among the expansive wonder of this planet we simply call Earth, the source and stage of our existence. To live life fully amongst life lived fully: this is the ultimate spirit of environmentalism. To breathe in the fresh air, to drink clean water, to eat delicious food from the healthy soil, to mindfully inhabit, care for, and contribute to the systems that create and sustain us. Without these things, life is meaningless. Ecovillages, permacultures communities, and Transition Towns are three small attempts at living environmental lives.

But let me not get ahead of myself. There will be plenty of time to wax philosophical, and there’s certainly no way to figure it all out (tonight in this blog post, this year, or even in a lifetime). If you’re interested in reading more about my thoughts on sustainability and the environmental movement, check out this abridged version of my Haverford Senior thesis in environmental philosophy entitled “Beyond Environmental Morality: Towards a Viable Environmental Ethic(s).”

I’ll undertake this journey for those who don’t have the privilege to, for those who might already be locked into the career lifestyle or path-to-career training that we call education. Everyone should be able to have a Watson year or more. Perhaps a Watson lifetime would be ideal: to constantly pursue your interests and grow and develop and travel and explore and learn and think and write and experience and live. I will do so for the next year and more, sharing what evolves here.

I’ll leave you with the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day“:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Cheers,

Tim

p.s. if you have ideas on how to best capitalize on this unprecedented windfall opportunity that is the Watson Dream Fellowship, do share them with me by email: thequestionofwhy (at) gmail.com.