Things are beginning to wind down here after four intense and intensely sweaty weeks, and our group is taking the time now to slow down, reflect on what we’ve learned and enjoy our last few days in a place that has strangely and slowly become a home.
I know I never said anything about my work at Solitude, an organic farm here in Auroville, so I thought I’d include a few selections from the reflective writing I wrote about that experience earlier this spring:
When I arrived at Solitude each morning, I never knew what type of work would be required, but over time I became familiar with a range of activities. We devoted several days to harvesting duties like cutting rosella buds off of their branches and cutting down rice, but most of our work concerned planting and caring for new crops. We spent almost a week in the nursery caring for seedlings, and before planting these salads, capsicum and brinjal, we prepared beds for the new crops. Over the course of two weeks, we readied a field that had been ravaged by the cyclone this fall. After clearing out dead papaya trees, we tilled the soil by hand, pulling out roots and weeds and eventually mixing large quantities of compost into the dirt. When it came time to plant we did so with carefully-determined distances between different plants according to the sizes of their roots. Days later, we weeded all of the beds by hand. Some time after that, we began mulching the beds by returning some kind of organic matter—usually dried straw from a rice harvest—to the surface to provide shade and support.
I also spent a considerable amount of my time at Solitude preparing lunch. My tasks often included washing and cutting vegetables, and on most days several volunteers prepared the salad. This job allowed some room for creativity, but always began with a trip to the field to gather lettuce (often from beds that I had mulched myself), tomatoes and guavas. After washing and picking through the leaves, we prepared a salad dressing using whatever was available in the kitchen. We were also often charged with the responsibility of plating food for restaurant guests (at times as many as 50 people on a given day) and for the volunteers on the farm.
What became most evident and interesting from my experience in the field was my gradual yet overwhelming recognition that everyone there seemed to feel a personal connection to the land and to the work. Participating in and looking at the practical, quotidian activities at Solitude led me to see that the essence of the farm exists beneath and within the realm of the material and the day-to-day. The tangible evidence of our work is simply the top-layer of a much deeper picture, and through my participation in the farm’s process I slowly came to see the story beneath the soil.
When we first visited Solitude as a group, Krishna (who runs the farm) welcomed all of us to work there provided we brought with us a passion for the job. When asked about his philosophy and the beliefs underlying Solitude, Krishna explained that he hesitates to talk too much about his viewpoint and values, returning simply to the idea that working the land is the best way to connect with his personal values and with the Earth.
This sense of oneness with nature and the corresponding desire for an unmediated exchange with the Earth and with the process of farming shapes the methods employed on the farm on a number of levels. In addition to not using pesticides, complicated machinery and other additives and techniques employed today in agribusiness, the farm runs in an almost entirely hand-to-earth way; we used tools like scythes, buckets, pipes and occasionally a wheelbarrow, but for the most part every task put our bodies directly in contact with the Earth. Many jobs might have been more quickly (and in some cases more effectively) performed with the help of tools, but I found that there was something freeing and empowering about weeding an entire bed using just my two hands.
More broadly, the overarching methods in place at Solitude and the ideologies that ground them create a more unified and simplified relationship between humans and the Earth than most mainstream, commercial farming operations today do. Krishna’s practices are largely influenced by the Fukuoka method of do-nothing farming. This approach requires no machines, chemicals or prepared compost, relies on limited weeding and does not involve plowing the soil, all of which serves the goal of working with nature rather than trying to master it. Krishna recognizes the limitations of the Fukuoka approach (such as climate specificity, needs for crop diversity and the necessity of making some income), and some of the practices at Solitude like weeding and composting depart from Fukuoka’s strict mandates. These minor deviations, though, are overshadowed by the main aim of nurturing the soil, returning biomass to the land and leaving the beds alone. The methods in place at Solitude and the beliefs that shape them are therefore most essentially in line with the goal of implementing a practice of farming that celebrates nature more so than it aims to control and modify it, and this sentiment, I believe, is what inspires the volunteers and fuels the farm.
In many ways, the very fact that Solitude is a small organic farm makes it more sustainable than many agricultural enterprises in place today. In addition to farming without pesticides, using no fossil fuels and disrupting the land as little as possible, Solitude employs a range of small and large sustainable practices: it feeds its cow waste from meals and uses the droppings for compost; it draws water from the ground using a solar panel pump set; it uses leftover components of harvested crops to mulch and line beds; and all of its cooking is performed without the use of electricity. The produce that the farm sells is all purchased locally and delivered by motorcycle, a pattern of consumption with a much lower carbon footprint than those of many larger conventional and organic operations. The whole idea of working with rather than against nature also offers a model that effectively overcomes many of the setbacks that define larger organic operations today. So much of the organic farming industry has departed from the movement’s original ideals in efforts to appeal to consumers and carve out a market share, and working at the farm has helped me to rethink the story behind the perfectly round, bright red organic tomatoes available at Whole Foods; from this end, an oddly-shaped and many-colored heirloom tomato seems much more real.
Solitude’s low-impact, minimalist farming techniques, its inclusion of community and its offering of a local diet all make the farm a model of a range of sustainable practices. There are limits, however, to the applicability of such an approach in other places and contexts. The topic that stands out to me most is embodied by the Tamil workers who play a vital role at Solitude and who are there, presumably, for very different reasons than the volunteers. These paid workers often do the more tedious, essential and skill-based jobs like preparing meals, breaking down bricks and weeding through plants, all of which at times lack the appeal of direct work in the field but remain absolutely necessary for the farm to function.
I never learned the ‘story’ behind these workers and I do not aim to make any assumptions about how they understand their work; my only point in mentioning them is to acknowledge that the farm is not run solely by Krishna and the volunteers, and that the personal passion I perceived is probably not the only force behind the place. It seems certain that the experience of someone coming from a Western, modern and urban culture to work on an organic farm in India is bound to diverge from that of a local villager spending his or her lifetime working for wages on the same farm. So much of what makes Solitude meaningful for volunteers, it seems to me, is contained in the many ways it serves as an alternative to modern life and an attempt to retreat from current wrongdoings by looking backwards at a simpler model, and I do not know how valuable or appealing this model would be for people who have never experienced that against which we seem to be reacting. One of the limits to Solitude’s applicability to other contexts, then, certainly lies in its foundation upon a mindset and a commitment that many people in the world, for practical and ideological reasons, do not share.
The relative rareness of this view, however, does not lessen the effectiveness of Solitude’s approach. The farm certainly faces its own challenges and often struggles to raise enough money for new projects and infrastructure, but on the whole Solitude seems to be effective and effectively sustainable as a business, a community and a lifestyle. Moreover, the farm offers a valuable model for channeling personal views and passions into a sustainable practice. The lesson and the challenge, then, seem to lie in the project of cultivating the internal foundation for these external practices and productions.
If you’re still with me, I also want to mention my time at Evergreen Forest. Evergreen is a small community in Auroville that is guided by two main projects. In addition to their reforestation work, they offer a series of experiential environmental programs on topics like deep ecology, systems thinking and holistic food systems. In the two weeks that my peers and I spent there, we participated in two deep ecology seminars, the first of which prepared us to participate in a ‘march of all beings’ on Earth Day. This march, I think, was one of the moments when I experienced Auroville at its best; children and adults arrived at a meeting point dressed as a ‘being’ with which they identified—notable beings included a porcupine, lots of trees an blue-green algae—and then we all marched together in celebration of our interconnectedness. I was completely skeptical about the whole event at first, but it was incredibly uplifting to see all these people, especially the children, identifying so readily with other natural forms and generally appreciating the earth in a way that we often forget to….
I’m writing this on my last afternoon here, and it occurs to me that ending with the previous paragraph might make you think I’m returning home a tree-hugging, dirty, Hindu/Buddhist hippie. Fear not; if anything, I think I’m just a little more relaxed and ‘at one’ with everything. I’ve heard it said that the idea of Oneness is one of India’s most important contributions to civilization and the world, and hopefully it’s something I’ll bring home from this adventure...