Could doing chores save the world?
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.
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.
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.