This year kicked off with four weeks spent volunteering at Sadhana Forest India – a sustainable living and reforestation project. It’s nearly the end of another year and I find myself reminiscing.
It was December 2013 in London, grey and cold. After a bout of uninspiring circumstances on the job and relationship front I decided to leave London and spend some time with Mother Nature. I wanted to get back to my roots. I needed to plant some trees. After some online research I decided to volunteer at Sadhana Forest, a project set-up in 2003 by Aviram Rozin on the outskirts of Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Sadhana Forest India has three main aims: the reforestation of 70 acres of severely degraded land with the indigenous TDEF (Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest); practicing water conservation techniques and providing environmental education to all.
A day in the life
‘We all live in a yellow submarine….a yellow submarine…a yellow submarine!’
It is 5.45 am and today’s wake-up call team have chosen to delight us with a bespoke rendition of this Beetles classic, complete with tambourine smashing, out of key guitar strumming and hysterical laughter. I have already been awake for a couple of hours thanks to the offensive noise blasting out from the two nearby temples in aid of the Hindu festival Pongal. Somewhat panicked and jittery, I begin to try to feel out my fresh underwear stash in the pitch black darkness (there is no electricity in the sleeping hut and I have lost my torch).
‘Morning circle…! Right now!’
(Cue howling dogs)
Morning circle is obligatory for all volunteers and is where the different jobs for first seva will be dished out, that and a succession of group stretches and morning hugs. For those not in the know, seva is the Sanskrit word for selfless service. A standard day at Sadhana Forest consists of morning circle then first seva followed by breakfast. Second seva takes place after breakfast and finishes just before lunch. After lunch volunteers are free to enjoy the rest of the day, give or take two extra weekly community shifts such as cooking weekend breakfast or cleaning up after dinner.
Mindful energy and water conservation
Sadhana Forest does not use electricity; the campus is reliant on solar energy and manpower. The on-site solar power system is connected to ten batteries; on cloudy days if the solar energy needs to be supplemented there are four energy generating exercise bicycles waiting to be pedaled. A submersible solar pump is used to fill the water tower, from which water is then gravity fed throughout the community.
Rocket stoves – Meals are cooked using rocket stoves which use 60-80% less fuel than traditional stoves, saving many trees.
Dry composting toilets – Dry composting toilets do not need to be flushed and therefore use very little water and no power, significantly reducing community water use. Volunteers manually empty the toilets as a seva (selfless service).Because the system is self-contained, no energy is expended for waste transportation and disposal.
Hand washing stations – Essentially these are made up of suspended metal cups, plastic bottles or coconut shells that have been pierced with a little hole. When you need to wash your hands you pour in the appropriate amount of water which then percolates through, effectively rinsing and substantially reducing the amount of water used.
Zero waste zone – Sadhana Forest is committed to conscious consumption and claiming responsibility for the waste that is generated in the community. Any items not repurposed on-site will be sorted in the recycling hut. The dry compost toilets ensure that human waste is not overlooked, with fertilizer for the trees being made directly from waste collected in the compost toilets. Ammonia is made from the urine collected which serves as a powerful natural cleaning agent for the toilets.
Settling in: dry-composting toilets, bucket showers and no caffeine
The first two weeks were somewhat tricky to say the least. Squatting above a glorified hole in the ground took a bit of getting used to but that had been expected and was the least of my woes. Struggling half a mile across site with an unnecessarily heavy metal bucket of water in order to take a ‘shower’ was also a bit of a palaver, but I was able to appreciate the water-saving genius of it. For shower number one I had pumped the whole bucket full of water. By shower number four I had decided to skip washing my hair altogether and conceded that about six pumps of water in total would suffice.
In order to promote sustainable and harmonious living the founders of Sadhana have introduced a number of volunteer guidelines. Alcohol, drugs (including caffeine and nicotine) and processed non vegan foods are strictly forbidden on-site. Alcohol and drugs are also not allowed to be consumed off-site. A vegan lifestyle reflects the Sadhana ideals of peace and nonviolence to all living creatures and living in harmony with the environment. Eating vegan non-processed food creates the least environmental impact and not only because animals are not being killed. A vegan diet uses five times less land to produce food than an omnivore diet and 2.5 times less land than a vegetarian diet. Other no-no’s for volunteers include non-biodegradable toiletries, cleaning chemicals and competitive games.
By day three I was experiencing headaches and a woozy, disorientated feeling before midday that I could only pin down to the absence of morning coffee. Withdrawal was not the only thing agitating me. At Sadhana I was part of a family, a very very big family. In high season there can be anything around 200 volunteers, all sharing the same communal spaces to eat and sleep in. Personal space and ‘alone time’ were no longer in the equation and having initially envisaged just the trees and I, this all came as quite a shock.
The night of the bad salad
Meals are served by the volunteers to the volunteers in the main hut. This is no buffet-style operation. Each volunteer must sit and wait for a plate of food to be given to them by one of the volunteers who has offered to be a ‘runner’ for that particular meal. After each person has a plate, community announcements are given and then a moment of silence is observed. Only after this moment of silence can volunteers begin to eat. I am not going to sugar-coat it, most of the ‘hot’ food I ate during my time at Sadhana Forest was warm-ish at best.
At some point during the beginning of my stay I encountered what I now refer to as ‘the night of the bad salad’, during which the majority of the night was spent being violently sick. It may have been the salad (it definitely was), it may have been a bug, or it could (as I was repeatedly reassured) just have been my body adjusting to changes. All I know is from that point onwards I found myself squirming at the sight of communal food prep without plastic gloves and lying awake at night obsessively fantasizing about disinfecting the kitchen with Dettol. As someone who takes pleasure in the use of cleaning products the au-naturel approach of using vinegar as an antibacterial agent and ash to clean plates, just wasn’t cutting it.
‘May there be many more forests to grow people’
With all its frustrations and emotions, my time at Sadhana Forest turned out to be one of the most enriching and life-affirming experiences of my life to date. I learnt how to plant trees, how to make tree-food using leaves and a bicycle blender and how to dig a ditch to turn food waste into compost. But not only that; I also learnt two of the most valuable lessons a human being can learn – patience and tolerance.
In a world where instant gratification is the norm sometimes it becomes too easy to take things for granted. Microwaves, 24 hour local supermarkets, oyster cards and WhatsApp – everything is immediate and we get used to having exactly what we want when we want. Cooking from scratch and being made to wait for set community mealtimes puts things into perspective.
Being born and bred in North London my experience of ‘community’ has been limited. I have rarely known my neighbors in the various rental properties I have frequented and the prospect of knocking on a door to burrow some sugar is not only alien but also somewhat terrifying. At Sadhana Forest I experienced what community really means and feels like. And it is no bed of roses! Yes, there was co-operation and companionship but there were also differences in opinions, clashing personalities and mornings where you really do not feel like getting out of bed to make breakfast for two hundred people. But you do.
There is something very special about knowing that you are part of something bigger than just your own little life. And in knowing that even though it is not yet perfect, you are all trying. Trying to create a new, better way of living in which both people and nature are valued. To date, over 27,000 trees have been planted at Sadhana Forest India and over 11,000 volunteers have learnt the true value of water as a precious resource. Now that is something to blog about.