It’s 7 a.m. I’ve been at Lama for two months. The wake-up bells are ringing. I’ve finally gotten used to waking up early. My feet carry me quickly up the path, navigating around the protruding rocks with ease. The routine has become automatic: Bells. Meditate. Bells. Breakfast. Bells. Practice and Tuning. Tiny bell. Heart tunings.

The more I have gotten to know each of the people in the room, the more I’ve become excited to hear the daily updates for each of their lives. After everyone has spoken, another bell rings, the mood shifts, and we know it’s time to hear the chores for the day. Megan flashes her smile around the room. She consults her list:

“Thanks to everyone who helped with breakfast this morning. Jack, you’ll be making lunch. Cleo — dinner cook. Emily — clean the dome …”

Megan finishes her list and asks everyone to stand up and hold hands.

“Today, may we set the intention to work from our hearts, to serve with compassion, and to cultivate joy with everything we do.”

Mopping this room with joy? I’ll try my best, Megan. But no promises.

I dip the mop in the lavender water, and begin the slow dance around the room, repeating my mantra with each push of the mop. As I make my way around the room, the words in my head fade away, and I become absorbed in the silence pressing into my ears. My breathing slows to match the rhythm of my movements. And the mop glides leisurely across the wood floor.

I pause to brush the hair out of my face. Sunlight from above make the freshly mopped floors sparkle like dew on grass early in the morning. And I think to myself,

They’re not so different, morning dew and these damp floors.

What was I doing here? Cleaning a floor? Maybe. Refreshing a space? That was more like it. I ran through memory after memory of the many people who walked across these floors. And here I was, not cleaning up after them, but renewing the space for the next set of memories to be made. In the light of a new dawn, the dew shines and reminds us that the day is fresh and ready to be filled with life. Or something like that.

I shake my head out of my musings, dip the mop, and finish the last patch of floor.

I suddenly notice I’ve been standing in the middle of the room smiling like an idiot for several minutes now. And I’m feeling excited. Not because I had finished my task, but because I had gotten to enliven a space.

At lunchtime, I pack up my cleaning supplies and head back to the kitchen, where I run into Megan. She touches me on the shoulder and tells me how great it is for me to be there. Then she thanks me for cleaning up the Dome. I smile back. “It was my pleasure.”

As Megan walks away, I can’t help but dwell on how this chore I’ve hated all my life could have made me so happy this morning. It isn’t like I’ve suddenly started to love mopping; I haven’t. It shouldn’t be such a big deal, but for some reason, it feels like one.

Even just the small gesture of thanking each other makes the chores at Lama seem better. But it goes deeper than that. Lama isn’t just a place where people are more polite. It’s a place where a mundane chore like mopping is given value. In mopping a floor, I’m not just the person making the floor clean. I am giving something tangible back to the community of which I am part.

But how does society make mopping more than just cleaning a floor?

***

At Lama, part of the answer seems to come from the fact that my coworkers are more than just my neighbors. The Lama Beans have become people that I genuinely love, so appreciating them for what they contribute to our lives together comes easily. But it’s even more than just simple appreciation. Through genuine care for one another and for the land, the Lama Beans are creating a community from the inside out. Life at Lama led to fulfilling relationships with other people, with the land, and for some, with the divine.

In academia, my classmates and I are trained to create sustainable communities from the outside. We conduct research, create management plans, and implement the technologies and policies necessary to carry out those management plans. We try to figure out what the major barriers to implementation will be and then work to remove those barriers. In short, the work is about how best to make the technology work, rather than how best to make our communities work.

Lama sustains despite the fact that its people have not pursued the newest and most revolutionary technologies, nor have they done extensive research. But they have created a place where it seems like the greatest possible tragedy would be the end of that place. And because of that, the Lama Beans are willing to do what it takes to keep Lama going — not asking for more water, as I learned at the water ceremony, and really, not asking for very much of anything.

But even when I was convinced Lama’s nonacademic approach to sustainability was an effective one, I was left with the question: What happens when not asking for much becomes the problem itself? What if the water from the spring stops being enough? Can this community really continue using propane to heat its water during the long, hot New Mexico summers? While academia certainly has something to learn from the Lama Bean approach to sustainability, perhaps the Lama Beans have something to learn from academia, too. Rainwater catchment systems, solar heating that works, real composting toilets: All of these are technologies that my academic peers can — and do — help people adopt in communities around the world.

Trying to force such technologies on a community that may not want them might never work. And the determination of a place like Lama to focus on relationships rather than technology might prevent its people from arriving at solutions like those on their own. But academic technical knowhow paired with Lama’s willpower to sustain might make for the perfect combination.

Emily Schosid is a second year student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She hails from the sunny Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, and loves to spend time outside hiking, biking, reading and writing poetry.

A longer version of this essay is available at Sage Magazine, a publication run by students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.