It’s 7 a.m. I’ve been at Lama for about a week. From the distance of my dreams, I hear the soft melody of bells telling me it’s time to get out of bed. I don’t want to. My sleeping bag is warm and the pile of clothes next to my head smells faintly of lavender soap. But I know I’ll be late if I don’t get up. Fine.

As soon as I unzip my tent, desert sage and earthy soil embrace my nose. I shake off the groggy remnants of sleep and slowly amble up the dirt path, forgetting about the rock that juts out of the side of the hill, and stub my toe. I fight the urge to yell something obscene, and continue towards the prayer room. It’s time to meditate.

Later in the morning, after breakfast and cleanup, everyone heads over to the Dome for our morning community meeting — Practice and Tuning. Everyone grabs a pillow and sits in a circle around the room. Once we are settled in, each person in the circle shares briefly about how they are feeling that morning — “heart tunings.”

After each person has spoken, someone rings another small bell. It’s time for “practical tunings.” We’re about to learn what chores we’re signed up for today. Megan, our chore coordinator— “seva guardian” — reads the list in her slow, relaxed voice.

“Lunch cook — Michele. Lunch clean — Bobby. Dinner cook — Jack. Dinner clean — Doug. Clean the prayer room — Mark. Clean the Dome — Emily…”

My shoulders sag as I look around the big, suddenly imposing dome. The floor begins to stretch into an endless, barren plane. So much floor to clean, to mop.

The Ivy League university that had funded my excursion to this place had taught me to look for the newest groundbreaking technology, the pre-eminent world-changing policy, or the biggest science-forward research projects. I had spent months fantasizing about the projects I would implement at Lama and the ways I would get to use what I had learned about sustainability in a real-world context. The school could not have designed a person more ready to spread the gospel of academic sustainability than me.

Instead, this: daily chores. On my second day, I was told that my primary activities for the next three months would be to clean living spaces and cook meals for guests and residents. Sweeping, chopping, scrubbing … mopping. Every day.

This is not what I had signed up for.

Megan snaps me out of my horrified daydream when she asks us to stand and grasp hands again.

“May this day be filled with joy and love as we serve our community and our planet.” She looks around the room, beaming.

Joy, love, and mopping. Yeah. Right.

The meeting disperses, and I wander slowly back towards the kitchen. I stub my toe on a rock; this time, I curse out loud. I grab a broom, mop, bucket and soap from the kitchen cabinet, and trudge back down the dirt path to the Dome.

After a half hour, the sweeping is finished. I glare at the mop and bucket.

I don’t like you, and you don’t like me. But let’s make this work.

With a sigh of resignation, I dip the raggedy mop into the lavender-scented water. At least it smells better than the outhouse I cleaned yesterday. My hunched back births a dull pain, which I try to ignore. My mind wanders to my grad-school friends who are doing exciting research in foreign countries, working for high-level government organizations, and assisting on important policy and technology projects. I sigh again, grimacing at my slow progress.

Why didn’t I get a nice job at some important government office? Why aren’t I in some exotic country doing groundbreaking research? Why am I here, doing this?

During dinner that evening, Megan touches me on the shoulder. She’s beaming again. She’s always beaming.

“Thanks so much for cleaning the dome, Emily. It looks great! It’s so wonderful to have you here helping us!”

I look at her for a moment, a look of confusion contorting my face. The sincere gratitude comes as a shock. I was only doing what I was asked to do. I smile and tell her it was no problem.

***

After a few weeks, I’ve settled fairly well into the daily schedule, and I decide to try and learn more about what makes Lama the sustainable community it claims to be. I finally ask Sebastian about the solar panels I had seen on my first night on the mountain.

“Those? They’re not hooked up to anything. Those panels were a donation, and we’re not even sure they work,” he says. “We heat our water with propane.” I’m baffled. In a place like New Mexico where the sun always shines, solar anything seems like the obvious choice. The Lama Beans would often speak about how great it would be to get rid of the propane tanks that heat the water for sinks and showers, but the time and money to make it happen always seem just out reach.

I asked another Lama Bean, Randy, about the sustainability efforts at Lama. He told me that when he first arrived at Lama, his expectations were high. “I thought more systems were in place, the ideal, perfect systems,” he tells me. “But the longer I’m here, the more I realize how haphazard a lot of those systems are.” It isn’t that these things aren’t important to the folks at Lama — they are. The electricity comes from (working) solar photovoltaic panels perched on a south-facing hill. They reduce, reuse and recycle all they can. But Randy admits that these things just aren’t at the top of the priority list. “People call the outhouse a composting toilet, but it’s just a damn hole in the ground.”

Each conversation leaves me more disappointed. What gives this place the right to call itself sustainable? In academia, the key to “greening” almost anything is almost always some kind of technology. Install this or that scrubber or panel, create a machine that takes a different kind of fuel, create a different kind of fuel. That was not what Lama was doing. So what were they doing?

***

Another cool, sage-scented morning. The sky is washed gray with smoke from a nearby forest fire and with storm clouds that refuse to drop rain onto the dusty ground. There hasn’t been rain — or any kind of precipitation — up here in months. And you can tell: The flowers that line the walking paths droop with a kind of dry sadness; I can almost hear the creaking aspen trees beg for a drink as I walk by.

I’m on my way to the Spring House for a “water ceremony.” Lama gets all of its water from a natural spring that bubbles up to the surface from ground- and melt-water from the mountains. The water gets redirected to a huge cistern, which then pipes it to the showers and sinks on the land. To protect their one source of water from animals or other kinds of contamination, some of the first Lama residents built a small stone house over the spring. A dwarf-sized wooden door opens to the water so people can check the water levels from time to time. Usually, there is more than enough water, and it spills out over its rocky enclosure, creating a small stream that runs down to the rest of Lama. But these days, the streambed is dry and cracked; the water is two feet below its normal level.

After our daily reminder to limit ourselves to two five-minute showers per week at Practice and Tuning, we were told that Seth, the farm guru at Lama, would be leading the “water ceremony” later this morning. I was curious to see what that could possibly mean, so I make the trek up to the Spring House.

When I arrive, Seth is crouching in front of the tiny wooden door, head bowed in what looks like prayer.

Is this going to be some kind of rain dance?

Seth stretches his arm into the spring to fill a cup with water. He stares into the cup for a moment, takes a sip, and smiles. “None of us would be here without this spring. It’s provided so much for us for so long. I just want to invite you all to appreciate the water however you would like — touch it, sip it, look at it. You can say something out loud if you would like.”

As the cup gets passed, most people stare into the cup, touch the water, and then take a sip. A couple of people say a couple of words, but mostly the circle is quiet. When the cup comes to me, I mimic those before me. The water reflects the gray sky and green aspen leaves. When I touch it, I’m shocked by how cold it feels. I take a sip. It tastes a little bit sweet. I’ve never had water that hasn’t passed through some kind of filtration system, and I’m surprised it doesn’t taste more like mud or algae. Without thinking, I utter a “thank you” into the cup. Even this early in the morning, the dry air has made my mouth and throat feel sandy, and just a small sip of the cool spring water is refreshing.

When the water gets back to Seth, he starts to sing what I later learned is a Native American chant about the way water can flow both gently and violently, how it can do as much harm as good. He repeats the song, over and over again, and soon everyone else is singing, too. I close my eyes and let the sound wash over me like the rain we need here so badly. I find that I am singing along too, thinking about how this mountain is so fortunate to have any water at all in the middle of such a dry climate.

And then it hits me: No one is asking for more water here.

Everyone is simply thanking the spring, the mountain, the earth, for what water we do have. We aren’t doing some kind of weird rain dance hoping the unrelenting gray clouds will finally drop some moisture. We aren’t coaxing the gods to give us something. We are just saying thank you, and I wonder why I had never said thank you for water before. It seemed so simple, so straightforward. I mean, I did owe my life to the stuff.

Thinking back on the water ceremony, I often wonder what my friends back in academia would have done about a mountain community’s water shortage. I imagine a team of scientists would come to test water quality, map the watershed, and monitor flow rates to and from the Spring House. A team of anthropologists would interview the Lama Beans about their feelings about the water shortage, collect an oral history of water usage in the area, and write paper after paper about the meaning of water in various traditions and cultures from this and other communities. Someone would probably organize some kind of conference, where everyone would present their research on this water shortage, discuss possible solutions to the water shortage, and then go home, excited that they had gotten to present all of this research.

The work my academic peers would do is not worthless. Indeed, if ever there were a severe problem with the water (or any other part of the landscape), they would be the ones who could find a solution. The Lama Beans, however, do whatever they can to prevent such a shortage. They make sure every drop is appreciated so that it doesn’t go to waste. Even in the driest years, they are able to get by.