The Unseen. Felt.

After four days of suffering in hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, a bitter Long Islander said, “I am screaming mad because this is an inhumane way to live in the highest property-taxed area of the state.”

Some years ago I’d have agreed with him, but now I don’t. Money can, no doubt, reconnect power lines and repair damaged homes, but it won’t solve the problem underlying the cause of this inhumane living. The destructive winds and rains of hurricane Sandy, widely seen as a result of global warming, are byproducts of our modern lifestyle. Lower impact living, not higher tax dollars and levies, is the answer.

Lower impact living means being satisfied with less. But how is that possible in a culture that continuously beacons us to buy? It’s not possible—until we realize the deep flaw in our modus operandi: rampant consumerism not only creates ecological disasters, it doesn’t even deliver its promised satisfaction. Our possessions don’t bring lasting happiness, and the cumulative effect of consumption creates the havoc of a Sandy. The intelligence we used to create the global warming disaster can also be used to make the life changes necessary to counteract it: By reassessing and simplifying our wants we can become responsible consumers.

At Saranagati Village, B.C., the community where my family and I and about twenty-five other families live, our electricity is homemade (from solar panels), our water gravity-fed from mountain streams, and our heat from wood. If you ask any one of us, we’d tell you our happiness level hasn’t declined from this simple lifestyle. On the contrary, we’ve become more appreciative of life’s beauty, of its bounty, and of each other.

Most people won’t choose to live so naturally, but everyone can do something to help reduce humankind’s negative impact on this planet. The alternative, as the bitter Long Islander has discovered, is bleak.

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Settling

After months of traveling, with its constant stream of new people and places, I’ve reunited with one small tract of unhurried land and watched my seedlings grow into Swiss chard, red leaf, romaine, and butternut lettuces, basil, oregano, and parsley. Here my good-hearted neighbors, the pulse of country life, evenings filled with the cows’ bellows and the bluebirds chanting their final chorus, all give me a sense of rightness, of connectedness. Life’s frailty and temporariness, as well as my body’s inescapable, gradual demise, somehow become vivid during the quiet, closing moments of a country day. I won’t be getting out of this world alive.

In my simple, off-the-grid life, I don’t want to settle into complacency but into soul qualities: faith, gratitude, happiness, and the sense of abundance. Why splendid and tragic things happen in this world is beyond me, but I know it’s not happenstance. The hand behind all happenings may appear tender or iron-fisted, but the heart behind that hand is always a loving one. We miss that point when we think the sliver of life we’re experiencing now is all there is. Actually, this one lifetime is like one drop is to the Pacific.

Last Saturday was Sharangati’s annual farm festival, complete with a parade, singing, dancing, an epic play by the students, games, a bonfire, and feasting. My husband and I got more than a few compliments on the bean salad we spent two hours making. Plus there was rice, vegetables, fresh salad, cauliflower pakoras with chutney, sweet potato fries with ketchup, cake, and a refreshing lemon drink. Please join us next year!

water dunk game by Lake Sharanagati

Sedona, Arizona

I arrived early in rainy Sedona to find the place where I was supposed to stay locked and empty. It was too wet to walk any distance, so I passed time at the Sedona Public Library next door. Moseying down aisle after aisle, shelf after shelf, countless books drifted before me, books that delved into innumerable endeavors, emotions, and fancies. The library’s solemn patrons, its silenced ambiance, and the expanse and diversity of the literature it held expanded my appreciation for the human attempt to discover, create, and record, well, everything.

During a few fleeting hours in a library, what extravagant respite can be found in the human mind’s magnitude, preserved in written words that mystically carry a willing reader to undreamed depths.

So many books surrounded me that I wondered what is left to write about. And with all that’s here to read, who will read what comes after? Yet I couldn’t think of not writing. A couple have their own child even though they know billions of people already populate the earth, and a writer writes even knowing that billions of words have already been written. The writer’s contribution may be miniscule, but she wants to write clearly, with impact and freshness, so that readers will feel their time was well spent – maybe even that they benefited a little.

A Buddhist shrine and prayer flag beneath red rocks.

California! Arizona.

While visiting friends in northern California, somehow or other I parked for a week with the camper level from front to back but tilted five degrees from left to right. Living in it was like being in a boat that’s stuck on the side of a frozen wave, and I often lost my balance—it was a strange type of seasickness. Farther south, in Ojai, I parked level all around in a land where oranges burden trees that grow next to cacti and the streets are lined with valued herbs and flowers—rosemary and lavender, gardenias and birds of paradise. Spared of concrete and given a little water, the earth here erupts with bounty and offers it with grace.

Now in Arizona, I start driving well before dawn and watch the sky slowly lighten. Moment by moment the Rorschach-shaped titanic rocks that jut out of the desert to the right and left of the freeway become visible. During dawn and dusk the earth’s rotation through the firmament is more noticeable, a light-induced reminder that every moment makes a difference and can be used wisely—or not. As Phoenix looms in front of me, it’s rush hour and the freeway predictably fills with cars that can’t stand to be behind one another. In this city too, I’ll surely hear stories of suffering from financial lose, soured relationships, illicit acts, unmet expectations, physical woes.

I did hear all that, as well as a Nepalese immigrant’s story. Janardana lives in Phoenix now, but as a boy he herded his family’s five cows in a forest near his village. The milk from these cows, he said, was “nectar,” and just a small amount of it was fully nourishing and satisfying. Processed milk from commercial dairies doesn’t compare, he said, and he’s sure that economic and ecological pressures would oblige us “modern” people to return to a more simple, land-based, God-centered life, which would actually be progress. Such a life is less stressful, more fulfilling, and healthier than our current lives. At least according to Janardana, who has practical experience of both types of living.

BC Hydro Invent the Future winning essay (ages 16-19)

This essay was written by five of the students in Sharanagati Village: Rasa and Kava Moore, Kalindi and Gopal Fournier, and Priya Griesser:

One School Saved – Many More to Go

Nestled deep in the isolated mountains of wild British Columbia, Venables Valley School was a rural school using over $23,000 a year in non-renewable resources, with an enrollment of 12 students. This consuming school continued until the amount of students could no longer keep up with the money required to run the school’s generators, air conditioning and electric heating during the long, cold winters. After 15 years of supporting the small school, the Board of Directors came to the conclusion that they could no longer afford to maintain the facility. In the summer of 2009, Venables Valley School was closed. We were left with an empty building, a disheartened community, and most of all an uncertain future for us – the students. But from the ashes of Venables Valley School, Govardhana Academy was born.

A young couple from Florida came here willing to help and with them came the future of Govardhana Academy. Over the summer, every individual from ages four to seventy-two gave whatever skills they could offer, and as a team created what would become the most energy-saving centre for hundreds of kilometers around.

To replace the gas-guzzling generators, we installed solar panels and instead of paying $10,000 a year for propane heating, we bought and installed wood stoves that the community cuts dead pine trees for. Then came the issue of being able to use minimal energy so the solar panels could power our whole school. To solve this problem, we switched from the energy-consuming computers, to laptops for online schooling, and re-constructed all the lights with energy-saving light bulbs. Everything was coming along beyond anyone’s expectations, but we were far from finished. We developed a worm factory to recycle all of our used paper and compost, and the amazing soil created by the worms we used for our Community Garden. Using this Community Garden, all the parents of the children attending the school take turns cooking lunch for all the students.

We went from using $23,000 to $800 a year. At first, the transition seemed impossible, but with every effort, starting with installing solar panels, the task became a fun-filled, empowering and rewarding mission.

Some might think that it is impractical for everyone to follow along the same path as we did, but it’s not. You too can change your light bulbs, turn off the lights when you leave the room, use laptops or notebooks instead of desktops, wash your laundry in cold water, and turn off the taps when brushing your teeth. It is so easy anyone can do it! Each and every person can contribute in such a positive way. We have all heard that by saving energy you can help “save the world,” but perhaps you didn’t realize how it can actually save your community, your school, well, your world!. Remember, it is never too late to stop wasting energy and misusing what we have been given…but soon it just might be.

spring murmurs

Aspens by a creek, Cascade foothills behind, the afternoon spring sunshine lighting it all.

For those of us who survived Sharanagati’s drawn-out winter, the varied greens that emerge from the moist and long-dormant soil especially gladden the heart. Somehow, whatever natural and man-made disasters plague our fragile planet, the earth is still robust and the sun still shines brilliantly.

In May I turned 61 (feels ancient!), and perhaps that’s why these days on my Sharanagati walks I often see decay and death juxtaposed with new life. Gradually, I’m getting it: these extremes are actually part of a continuum. “The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is sure to die,” the Bhagavad-gita tells us, “and after death one is sure to take birth again.”

Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada comments, “The soul is so small that it is smaller than an atom. That small particle is within you, within me, within the elephant, within the gigantic animals, in all people, in the ant, in the tree, everywhere. However, scientific knowledge cannot estimate the dimensions of the soul, nor can a doctor locate the soul within the body. Consequently, material scientists conclude that there is no soul, but that is not a fact. There is a soul. The presence of the soul makes a difference between the living body and a dead body. As soon as the soul departs from the body, the body dies.”

Kinnikinik and grassesAt dusk in spring, British Columbia reveals its unique beauty.

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