A version of this essay originally ran in Sage Magazine, a publication run by students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

On the day I arrive at Lama, N.M., it takes me a few minutes to find the people. When I find them, they are all holding hands around a large octagonal table, centered in the huge octagonal kitchen. They’re singing a song to bless the dinner they are about to eat. A large photo of Amma, the Hugging Saint, watches from the window, her round face and wrinkled eyes smiling. The shelves around the kitchen are cluttered with idols, stones, feathers and bowls, and dried plants hang on the walls.

Before any words can escape my mouth, I’m bear-hugged by a tall man with a wild mane of red hair. He introduces himself as Sebastian and is soon showing me where I can find a bowl, introducing me to the group. He laughs and tells me that they typically refer to themselves as “Lama Beans.” As I fill a bowl with food, people hug me and say hello.

“Sit down and eat! You’ve had a long journey!”

“Welcome to our home! We’ve been excited for your arrival!”

As I sit quietly and sip my vegetable stew, I look around suspiciously. People sprinkle things like “Braggs liquid aminos” and “za’atar” onto their soup. One woman recalls a conversation she recently had with the raspberry bush outside.

This has to be some kind of cult.

The Lama Foundation is a self-proclaimed “sustainable, spiritual community” nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. I came here to find out how a sustainable community actually worked. Realist and alarmist environmentalists alike have been telling us for decades that we are going to need a new way of living if we don’t want to run out of clean water, clean air or safe food. I thought Lama might have some of the answers to what that different way of living could look like.

***

I wake up eager to find out how I will get to participate in this new community. Sebastian introduces me to Lucas, the summer intern coordinator — or as they call him, the “steward guardian” — who offers to take me on a short tour of the grounds. Lucas shakes my hand and then pulls me into a hug. “It’s so good to finally meet you after all those emails!”

We walk out the back doors of the kitchen, and Lucas tells me that he’ll start off by taking me to the Dome, the central meeting space for the community. On our way, I spot four solar hot-water panels glistening in the late-day sun — just the stuff I was hoping to see here. I make a mental note to ask about them later. When we get to the doors of the Dome, Lucas tells me to kick off my shoes, since it is considered a “sacred space.” I nod as I struggle to balance on one leg and pull my shoes off.

When we walk in the squeaky front doors, my jaw drops. I’ve never seen a room like this. In front of me is an enormous octagonal window. The blazing orange and pink sunset streams in, leaving the mountains in the west in stark, black silhouette. Just before the mountains, the winding Rio Grande is highlighted in yellow and brown shadows, and the falling sun has turned the clouds into swirling red ribbons across the sky.

The room is round, and the roof, as the name of the building implies, is stretched into a towering domed shape. A large purple banner with the word “Remember” painted across it hangs over the door. Directly above the middle of the room is a skylight in the shape of an eight-pointed star.

Lucas explains that this is the place we will come for such things as “Practice and Tuning.” I nod again, but have absolutely no idea what “Practice and Tuning” could be.

He leads me back outside and up some crudely cut stone steps, pointing out the washhouse, the greenhouses, and the rows of newly planted vegetables. Tattered and sun-faded prayer flags flap from the handmade fences that line the gardens. Lucas points out the path to the outhouse, and I make another mental note to ask about that later, too.