Super Soil: Learning from Nature to Restore the Earth

Location: Pebble Garden, Auroville, India

Check out this video about reclaiming water, nutrients and energy from “waste” that explores my encounter with a wise man in South India who opens my eyes to a new way of seeing the world.  When he looks at the natural environment he not only sees unspoken beauty, he also notices untapped potential in the form of water, nutrients and energy.

I’ve submitted the video to USF’s “Reclaim is” challenge in hopes of winning the competition and cash prize.

My friend and I are starting a bank account to save money that we will use to invest in future projects dealing with sustainable cities, urban regeneration and anything else we believe to be a worthy cause for improving the quality of life on Earth.

If you want to help click here to vote. Select video contest, then scroll down the page and VOTE for the video titled = Reclaim is: Doing More with Less by Victor Florez.

The Forested Desert: The climate and topography of this place is undoubtedly that of a desert. For 40+ years the people have been building up the soil to transform it into a forest.
                     The Forested Desert:
The climate and topography of this place is undoubtedly that of a desert. For 40+ years the people have been building up the soil to transform it into a forest.

Brief Overview

Unlike composting, this method of creating nutrient-rich topsoil does not require waiting time for you to begin planting. With the nature-inspired leaf-soil-charcoal “lasagna”, you merely toss the seeds around in order to grow trees and other wild plants. For domesticated plants, such as tomatoes, you simply add a small handful of black soil in the area you put the seed in. After a couple of months, the entire mixture is also soil-like and provides ideal conditions for fruits and vegetables to prosper.

Currently, humans disrupt the natural equilibrium of nutrients, energy and water on Earth. If our species wants to be truly sustainable – if we want to live in a way that can theoretically endure into the indefinite future – then we must use available resources in a much more responsible and wise manner. As mentioned in the video, this method of restoring the soil on earth is purely an imitation of natural processes. The objective is to leverage the wonders of nature and use resources at a slower or equal rate to its natural replenishment.

Essentially, this method creates topsoil the way that nature creates it when we do not interfere: layers of leaves, soil and other plant & animal organic material mixed together. The only difference is that we can control the concentration and location of these materials in order to create a thriving garden in a minimal amount of time. This represents core principles of permaculture, reclamation and natural living: doing more with less.

Auroville: First Impressions of a Large-Scale Intentional Community

The sky was dark but the ocean breeze brought the smell of the coming sunrise. The birds were singing, waiting in anticipation for the warmth and light of a new day. 7 hours ago I was in India and now I felt like I had transported to a 19th century French town. The surprisingly empty streets of Pondicherry gave me the feeling that I was no longer in one of the most populated countries on Earth. As the sun came out of hiding, I greeted the Bay of Bengal with a beachfront meditation then wandered through the small alleyways in search of breakfast.

The Promenade
The Promenade

I quickly discovered that all of the Hindi and Sanskrit phrases I had been learning for the past 3 weeks were useless in Tamil Nadu, the southeastern-most state of India. My preconceived notion that Hindi would be understood throughout all of India likely arose from my experience of living in China, a country in which almost everyone understands the common language despite the multifarious sub-cultures and dialects.

Hence, the futility of Hindi in this seaside town coupled with the French architecture and divergent local culture gave me the impression that I had taken an overnight bus to an entirely different country. After a hearty dosa breakfast I left Pondicherry by taxi to my potential final destination: Auroville.

I had come to India thinking I would complete my MA research project in the North, at the foothills of the Himalayas, but after encountering visa complications, my Restricted Area Permit was denied and I had to change my plans quickly if I was to have a chance at graduating and having a meaningful experience.

I had never heard of Auroville until my stay in Thailand in January but considering that it is an experimental township & aspiring sustainable community, it seemed like a promising location to conduct my research on sustainable community design.

Location of AV in India
Location of AV in India
A typical road in Auroville
A typical road in Auroville
The great majority of people get around on motorbike.
The great majority of people get around on motorbike.

My first impression of Auroville was confusion. We were driving through a labyrinth of red earth roads that traversed barren deserts and lush forests. I asked the taxi driver how near we were to Auroville and he responded “It’s all around you.” As we drove endlessly inside of Auroville I wondered how an aspiring sustainable community of this caliber should, theoretically, be a leading example in walkable design. To my disappointment, however, the roads were littered with motor vehicles and the pedestrians were few and far between.

Despite the far distances, I was lucky to have booked a hostel right next door to the Bamboo Centre, the place I planned to inquire about interning for the following two months. Arriving at the hostel, I paid the inflated taxi rate to the driver and thought about how this expensive price was probably a norm in a community that is mostly European and only 40% local people. My suspicions were confirmed when I decided to rent a bicycle for the day, which turned out to be more expensive than renting a motorcycle.

Economics aside, I was eager to start learning. I immediately visited the Bamboo Centre and by the following day, I had committed to stay for two months. My new home was a bamboo hut, which offered a convenient commute to the construction and furniture design workshop a few meters away. My new adventure seemed to be running smoothly until I was suddenly afflicted by a weeklong case of nausea and diarrhea due to a not-so-clean lukewarm curry from a nearby village.

Bamboo bed
Bamboo Bed

Note to self: if the food is not hot, do not eat it.

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Experiencing pre-diarrhea feelings at my bamboo hut

Despite the intestinal misery that ensued, I still had energy to ponder about my first impressions of this professed sustainable community.

If the state of Tamil Nadu seems like a different country, then Auroville is certainly a different planet. On top of the Tamil language, I am surrounded by the sounds of French, English, German and Italian. I am in a place where forest pizzerias are as common as samosa stands and East-West-fusion musical ensembles are everyday affairs.

“Indeed, it is a peculiar place,” I thought as I lay in my bamboo bed, clutching my organs and longing for freedom from the gut-wrenching discomfort. To combat the stomach pain, I quickly occupied my mind with the layout of Auroville that I had seen on my map.

Auroville Map
Auroville Map

Its circular boundaries span approximately 3km in diameter in the City Area and 5km in total diameter including the Green Belt. It takes 1hr 15min simply to walk from one end of the City Area to another and about 2 hours to walk the diameter of Auroville, a feat that most people would not partake in daily, especially with the scorching south-Indian sun beating down on you.

To add to the relatively long distances, the problem becomes more apparent when one observes the distorted pricing schemes of transportation modes. As mentioned before, motorbikes are relatively cheaper and much more prevalent than bicycles. Although, they are cheaper for the individual in the short-term, its affects are much more costly on a long-term scale.

“Motor vehicles’ convenience and price is excellent for my wallet’s health this month, but seriously damaging to the long-term viability and health of the people, the environment, and inevitably, the economy.”

The biggest challenge with societal problems such as this is to shift our awareness & concern from an individual/nuclear family level, to a larger sphere of influence that includes all people, places and things.

On top of pollution and fossil fuel dependence, the speed and ubiquity of motor vehicles in Auroville causes mini dust storms on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, according to a 1970s documentary, the founding fathers and architects of Auroville envisioned a place in which no one would own a personal motorized vehicle and everyone would be able to travel effortlessly using bicycles and an underground metro system. Today, the community’s transportation pattern is the antithesis of this vision.

Of course, with anything in life, there are many challenges and obstacles to overcome and Auroville is simply one of numerous communities that are striving to achieve its vision amidst incessant hardships.

One notable achievement I noticed is their remarkable reforestation effort, which began when the community was founded back in 1968. At that time, it was a desolate red desert with only one sign of life: an old banyan tree (which is now the center point of the community). Today, the area is covered in an expansive forest that is wonderfully therapeutic and serves as a safe habitat for a myriad of different plants and animals.

Rooftop sunset from central AV.
Rooftop sunset from central AV.

Besides reforestation, there are a multitude of projects dealing with permaculture, natural building, architecture, urban planning, agroforestry, community building, natural medicine, holistic health and so much more. There are many things to learn and many hidden gems to discover in this strange South-Indian intentional community.

Although during my first week I developed a rough idea of the city layout and transportation infrastructure, I have yet to explore the countless dynamics that make up an aspiring sustainable community.

The Backbone of Sustainable Communities: A Case Study on Social Resilience

My days in Bangalore passed as if in a fairy tale. It was exactly how I had envisioned India:

I would attend the daily prayer sessions at 5:45am and bask in the powerful vibrations emitted by their chanting in unison. I followed this up with 6am meditations, after which I would walk outside to greet the rising sun with the monkeys in the trees above and the cows on the streets below. At meal times, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating with my hands while gathered around a group of knowledgeable people giving me insights into their country’s history, Sanskrit and the Vedas.

I was stunned at the wealth of knowledge that surrounded me with these newfound teachers and friends. I was equally impressed by the humble lifestyles they led, each of them owning only a few pairs of clothes and some books. What they lacked in material possessions they had a hundred-fold in mental resilience and simple cheerfulness.

I was staying in one of the rooms of this peculiar place with these peculiar people. I felt like a vagabond in a strange land but another part of me had a nostalgic feeling of home. Everything about the building was modest and discreet except for the massive oak statues of Hindu Gods that lined the corridors. For days, I was convinced that these men were examples of average Indians: generally more disciplined, knowledgeable and content than us Westerners. But then I drew my attention to the world outside of these walls and noticed many similarities with my homes back in North and South America. You can still sense the same anxiety in the people, the usual tension of the city life and the fast-paced, competitive race to some obscure destination.

Swami Vivekananda statue
Swami Vivekananda statue

So, if the urban life in this major Indian city shared similar characteristics to that in the West, why were my hosts so markedly divergent? Who are these people and where am I?

I discovered the answer to my question after 3 days, when I noticed a group of boys and men practicing Surya Namaskar and chanting Sanskrit verses in the front courtyard. I went outside and they invited me to join them in their Shaka, a daily activity done from an early age with the objective of training the individual’s physical, mental and spiritual health in an atmosphere that reinforces social unity. “Everyone starts on this playground,” a member told me.

I was in 1 of about 60,000 centers throughout India of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the largest volunteer organization in the world. These people are on the scene of a natural disaster and other calamities before anyone else – before the police, medics or firefighters. This outstanding speed is attributed to their interconnected sphere of influence in which important information is relayed to RSS volunteers almost instantaneously. It is a sort of brotherhood of men and women who are united with the common purpose of helping others through social service.

The RSS playground.  Anyone can take part in the Sun Salutation yoga sequences and games.  All RSS volunteers start here.
The RSS playground. Anyone can take part in the Sun Salutation yoga sequences and games. All RSS volunteers start here.
RSS Front door.  The Keshava Krupa center in Bangalore.
RSS Front door. The Keshava Krupa center in Bangalore.

RSS is comprised of people from all ends of the socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic spectrum and anyone interested in being of service to their community can join. These two qualities of openness and selfless service (aka Karma Yoga) are the primary reasons for RSS’s widespread community of volunteers and supporters.

The movement was originally envisioned by the influential activist and guru, Swami Vivekananda, and was materialized into RSS by Dr. Hedgewar in 1925. Their mission was to unite the decaying Hindu society that was collapsing as a result of years of British Imperial rule.

“The RSS are the Jedi Knights of India,” my fellow British-born Indian friend remarked. “The people in this room seem to be unassuming characters, but they are responsible for who becomes the Prime Minister of India, among other things. They are powerful people who wield the light side of the ‘force.’ You have no idea who you are living with.”

As bizarre as that sounds, I did, indeed, find out much later that I was in the presence of influential figures including the State Minister of Karnataka and leaders of national political parties. But despite their status’, they seemed so jolly and down-to-earth – hardly how I would picture some of the world’s most powerful political figures to be like.

Much of this has to do with the fact that the “highest-ranking” (there aren’t really ranks in this organization) RSS volunteers, Pracharaks, have actually renounced all of their physical possessions – cars, houses, a family, bank accounts, etc. They do not own a penny of economic wealth to their name and have given up the pursuit of material wealth in order to fully dedicate their lives to being of service to others.

This common aspiration, based on the spirit of human unity and the betterment of life, garners a powerful bond among the volunteers and society as a whole. The RSS has already expanded beyond the borders of India with the objective of uniting people and improving human health. The real success of this movement comes from the innate flexibility from which it operates: You do not need to be Hindu to support the cause, there is nothing to believe in except for community service and there is no one thing to follow except for your heart. It is simply a group of people who take action based on the needs of a particular society and culture.

Nagaraj ji, the senior most pracharak at the Bangalore RSS and a dear friend.
Nagaraj ji, the senior most pracharak at the Bangalore RSS and a dear friend.
Alongside good RSS friends
Alongside some good RSS friends

In fact, one pracharak mentioned to me that the ultimate goal is to have RSS in all countries, but all with different identities. They would have different names and different ways of connecting with the local people depending on the culture but, in essence, they would uphold the same spirit of human unity and progress that the original RSS practiced.

The RSS is an intriguing case study of community building through selfless giving and collective support. People involved in this are not motivated by attainment of money or fame but, rather, by something much more powerful: in general, individuals want to belong to a community, especially one with an honorable cause, and the RSS gives them the opportunity to find their niche and help others along the way.

Social resilience is one of the main pillars from which a sustainable human settlement arises. This social foundation, along with ecological harmony and economic relevance & flexibility, is a prerequisite for a community to endure into the indefinite future. Without these pillars of Sustainability, which are embedded in mutual trust, respect, honesty and love, it is impossible to have a sustainable society.

Self-Mastery & the Resurgence of Ancient Wisdom

“One day, I’ll travel the world.” “One day I’ll SAVE the world.”  “One day, I’ll start my own business.”  “One day I’ll quit this job I hate and actually do something I enjoy.”  “One day, one day, one day…”

I regret to inform you but if your aspirations sound like this, that “one day” will never come. This type of sentence structure subconsciously puts you into fairy-tale-mode with no real hope of actually achieving anything, only dreaming about it.

It is beautiful and necessary to dream, but if you don’t associate that dream with a measurable time frame and a plan of action, chances are, it will never happen.

This is why I have applied specific and measurable goals to my dream of building a Green City. Although these are small initial steps, these humble beginnings are necessary to create the foundation for achieving any objective. After all, you cannot go from Kindergarten to University in one year. Even if you managed to get in, you would do a very sloppy job.

For my Green City dream, I am currently expanding my frame of reference by traveling to sparsely & densely populated areas, meeting diverse people with similar interests, and working on projects dealing with Ecovillage design, natural building and urban planning – to name a few.

Upon arriving to Mysore, India in February, I contemplated how there aren’t many better ways to expand my frame of reference than by attending a conference on ancient cultures and traditions. I was going to The Gathering of Elders (sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings), which takes place every 3 years in a different location within the Indian sub-continent. This year’s central theme is: preservation of ancient wisdom amidst the increasing pressures of globalization.

Representatives from about 60 different countries, and countless other sub-cultures, convened to continue the discussion of ancient wisdom’s role in contemporary society.

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The sound of trumpets welcoming us to the conference’s inception parade.
Me, sporting a lungi (Indian man-skirt) amidst a crowd of international delegates.
Me, sporting a lungi (Indian man-skirt) amidst a crowd of international delegates.
Descendants of Indigenous North, Central & South Americans.
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Young women from a Nepali tribe.

Thanks to the chief coordinator of the event (and my advisor), Dr. Yashwant Pathak, I was able to attend and come into contact with diverse array of people. Up until this conference, it had not dawned on me the sheer diversity in human belief systems and traditions. Yet, despite this variety, I could not help but notice their underlying similarities. People from opposite sides of the globe came together to share their millennia-old ancestral wisdom, but no matter how divergent they seem, they are all essentially different paths leading to the same light.

Much of this has to do with the fact that all of the ancient lifestyles originated in human settlements – pre-civilization, i.e. before urban life. Prior to the advent of the first cities in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago, humans lived in village-sized settlements that were deeply intertwined with nature. Thus, the human ecosystem was simply a natural expression of the relationship between the people and the land. In these dwellings, humans had such a deep understanding of their dependency on the natural world for survival, that it would have been ludicrous to unsustainably exploit its resources. Hence, the founders of ancient traditions lived in small, walkable communities that were self-regulating and self-grown.

Ancient Settlement
Conceptual traditional settlement sketch. – Photo courtesy of Mustard Seed Associates.

I became more cognizant of the invaluable role that ancient wisdom plays in the formation of sustainable eco-communities that have the ability to endure into the indefinite future. Attending this conference and doing some additional research has caused me to see the infrastructure and layout of the Green City in a new light.

It made me realize that every one of us is standing on the shoulders of giants, but most of us are oblivious of our advantageous position.

Not only must we safeguard what our ancestors have been preserving for millennia, we must also actively create our own culture. Culture is not something passive that we simply inherit from our forefathers. It is a dynamic, proactive exercise that we create on a daily basis through our thoughts, actions and interactions.

It is our responsibility to craft our own cultures and lifestyles for, if not, some far-away monoculture machine will surely take up the task. This machine is a product of its system and, by the way – its mission is not to nurture the sustainable well being of life – it is to generate profit.

So if we don’t take charge of the situation, then we basically throw ourselves into the mouth of the beast that will devour all social, ecological and cultural resources in the name of exponential growth (not to be confused with development).

Monoculture Corn
The monoculture machine not only affects agriculture but CULTURE as a whole

Does this sound familiar to you?

When you spend 2 hours a day sitting in a car, zooming by strip malls and large square grids of tasteless suburban homes, doesn’t it seem strange that it’s the pedestrians on the sidewalk that look out-of-place, and not the rest of us – in our air-conditioned boxes on wheels?

This urban sprawl is merely one example of the negative side-effects of competitive globalization that the conference elders were concerned about. The key, however, is to leverage globalization’s positive attributes such as modern science, technology & communication systems in order to achieve sustainable development that is not only progressing, but also retaining the organic structure inherent to the fabric of life.

You don't have to see faces in mountains to know that humans come from Earth.  But it's a good visual reminder!
You don’t have to see faces in mountains to know that humans come from Earth. But it’s a nice reminder! -Photo courtesy of Trek Earth

Some people think globalization is bad. Some people think globalization is good. The truth is, most things in life are not inherently good or bad but rather, dependent on your perspective.

Elders of ancient traditions can try to evade globalization by retreating into remote corners of the world until their numbers dwindle down to zero, or they can adapt and become revitalized by a revolutionized communication system.

I can view globalization as a severe impediment to my Green City Dream, or I can view it as the catalyst that will propel us into the new Era of Sustainability.

You can view your current life situation as a tedious series of hardships, or you can view your obstacles as invaluable stepping-stones to realizing your full potential.

Ultimately:

 Your attitude + your focus of energy + your decisions = Your Reality

Life is not something that happens to you, life is an ongoing process of creative self-expression. Do not practice self-pity because you “find” yourself in a particular situation. You have not just “found” yourself in this situation – you have arrived here because of all of your past thoughts and actions, and nothing is going to change if you do not alter these two things.

The most magnanimous accounts of human history were not created by people who shed responsibility and blamed others, but by those who took charge of their personal situation and worked for the common good.

This is as true for the guardians of ancient knowledge as it is for you. So happily depart “victim zone” and trade in your regret for acceptance. Accept that you are 100% responsible for everything in your life up to the present moment. And now = do something about it. It is the first day of the rest of your life and you are free to do with it what you please. Get started immediately – because no one else is going to start for you.

Thailand Natural Building & the Push for Global Change

“It’s amazing how one person’s heaven can be another person’s hell.”

With this single sentence, my aunt summed up her opinion of my life in Thailand. Over the course of 2 weeks, I had not only grown accustomed to the lifestyle, I yearned for it. It brought me immense satisfaction to take cold showers out in the forest, harvest bamboo in the blistering sun and jump in the mud to make adobe bricks.

Although the lifestyle we led helped conserve a lot of energy and water, this should not be mistaken as being the only route towards leading a sustainable life. I understand that most people would not want to live this way. In fact, I, myself, would probably not want to poo in a bucket for the rest of my life (dry compost toilets), and the beauty is – we don’t have to. Sustainability is not about reverting to a primitive lifestyle and discarding modern day comforts. Instead, sustainability is about synthesizing both:

The ancient ways of living in harmony with people and nature

AND

The modern benefits of technological advancement and knowledge sharing

Some critics may think that the above proposition is too idealistic to be feasible but I argue that, as creatures of habit, we are accustomed to our unsustainable ways. Breaking this ugly habit requires a lot of collaborative, innovative work and time – and it is these 2 components that will determine the transition to a sustainable world. Such profound change on a societal level does not happen overnight but there are many pioneers already leading the way. The Global Ecovillage Network and the Transition Town Movement are just 2 examples that come to mind (Please tell us about similar organizations/communities by leaving a comment below!).

After 15 days at the Gaia Ashram, I had spent time with some of these sustainability pioneers, all from different backgrounds and with different foci. As I helped a friend finish building a bamboo raft, I said my final farewells to the people and the land that had been my home.

Preparing for Geoffrey's Bamboo Raft trip.
Preparing for Geoffrey’s Bamboo Raft trip.

I took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, making my way from Northeast to Northwest Thailand. From Chiang Mai, I rode motorbike north into the mountains, winding through small roads and discovering remote villages and hamlets along the way.

Zooming through the mountains of NW Thailand.
Zooming through the mountains of NW Thailand.

My destination was the Panya Project, the veteran of natural building and permaculture design from which my mentors at Gaia Ashram had come from. It was a pleasant experience getting lost in the little villages en route to the secluded hamlet that was home to the Panya Project. The locals were very friendly and eager to help me find my way despite the massive language barrier between us.

Parked at the Panya Project.

I eventually turned down a discreet dirt road that winded along the base of a mountain, with an impressive view of the expansive valley below. This small trail led me to a group of shirt-less Westerners that were building with cob under the morning sun. As soon as I saw them, I was certain I had arrived at the Panya Project.

The people were very welcoming and within only 10 minutes, I was helping apply plaster to their outdoor toilet structure. I was happy to be building again and, coincidentally, I started exactly where I had left off at Gaia Ashram. I had already built an adobe wall and a wattle & cob wall and now I was applying plaster to the surface of a different structure.

I stayed at Panya for a few days, refining the walls and helping with aesthetic landscaping for an incoming Permaculture Design Course group. As my time in Thailand was nearing its end, I had time to reflect on my experiences over the past month.

My humble sleeping quarters at Panya.
My humble sleeping quarters at Panya.
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Shirt-less Westerners applying plaster!

More so than the hands-on experience I gained at Gaia Ashram and Panya Project, I learned a great deal from the people who live in these intentional communities. They are comprised of individuals who dedicate themselves to leading sustainable lives and empowering others to do the same. In the academic and professional world, it is easy to get bogged down by all the details and suffer from information overload. Sometimes, you have to just stop reading and get up and build something. Turn that theory into practice. Granted, a theoretical foundation is necessary for many tasks but when it is combined with practical application, the learner is not only more competent, but also much more inspired.

Practical knowledge, skills and application are desperately needed in our present-day formal education. The longer we postpone the inclusion of these things, the more obsolete the centralized education system becomes. People are not being adequately prepared for life after school, be it in the city or in rural communities. This is no time to squander our resources on unnecessary activities whilst a global economic, social and ecological collapse is constantly looming on the horizon.

Change is vital = it is the nature of life, and the present is always the time to transition society to a more sustainable lifestyle – one person at a time.

The sad truth is: there is no city on Earth that is actually sustainable. There is no city on Earth (as far as I’m aware of) that would be able to continue into the indefinite future, given their status quo. Regardless, this reality should not discourage you. Remember: this is a transition – a process that we are learning from and from which we are gradually becoming better humans. There is no need to fast-forward the process, but there is a dire need to pay attention to it.

Groups like Gaia Ashram and Panya Project embrace this process and are examples of the resurgence of ancient, sustainable lifestyles that are trying to be integrated into modern society amidst the pressures of globalization and unchecked urban sprawl.

Panya Project Garden
Panya Project Garden

After nearly 4 weeks in Thailand, I was content with the knowledge and skills gained and with the people I had met. I had connected to a community of people with similar goals, yet distinct ways of attaining them. I was introduced to a group of individuals that, although were convened for a short time, are joined together by a common vision.

A very tired me, embarking on the return motorbike trip
A very tired me, embarking on the return motorbike trip

This well-intentioned vision supersedes the tallest mountains, the vastest oceans and the densest jungles and connects each person no matter where in the world they may be. The common purpose is the well-being of life on this planet so, naturally, Earth is on our side – we just need to be patient and persistent.

Even if I never see these people face-to-face again – their existence, their intentions and their spirit of communal living and renewal of life is more than enough to keep me striving to achieve my vision. Together, we can put the human back into human settlements.

Laying the 1st Bricks: Natural Building in Thailand

My research project on Sustainable Community Design & Natural Building consists of 2 phases. The 1st phase of my internship focuses primarily on the natural building aspect while the 2nd phase is geared more towards eco-village design and sustainable land development and management.

In January 2015 I was in Thailand interning at a natural building and organic farming site called Gaia Ashram. I also visited a few intentional communities advocating permaculture principles and alternative sustainable lifestyles. My focus on buildings for sustainable community design is twofold:

(1) In the US, buildings account for 72% of the nation’s energy consumption, 38% of CO2 emissions, and 40% of raw materials use and

(2) I love designing things

The need for further development of natural building techniques and human-nature integration is crucial if we are to ever even dream about living sustainably.

For more than 2 weeks I was in Nong Khai, situated in Northeastern Thailand, close to the border of Laos. I worked at the Gaia Ashram, a start-up sustainable community with long-term goals of being an international education center for natural building and permaculture, as well as a holistic school for the local children. Me and 13 other interns were trained on theoretical knowledge of natural building and we also gained practical building skills by helping construct walls for their main sala and outdoor toilet structure.

We learned to make and build with adobe bricks, bamboo and cob.

For the adobe mud bricks, we dug up the earth from the bottom of a dried up pond (January is dry season in Thailand). What we dug up is anaerobic clay with a very sticky consistency – the perfect ingredient for the “glue” of our adobe recipe.

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Next, we dug a hole on-site, from which we extracted silt and sand. These 3 different types of earth – clay, silt and sand – are necessary for making adobe bricks because of the difference in their sizes. The size comparison is as follows:

  • Clay = penny
  • Silt = Frisbee
  • Sand = basketball

We mixed the three types of earth in our brand new “mud pit” along with readily available natural fiber: rice husks and chopped straw. Although the ratio of ingredients does not require extremely precise measurements, the mixture should contain approximately 30% clay. With experience, one can naturally feel the consistency of the mixture to verify if it is suitable for making adobe bricks. The reason for this particular mixture can be summed up with an analogy of the human body: the clay is the muscle tissue, the sand is the ligament/tendon and the fiber is the skeleton that provides structure and keeps things together.

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We used this mixture to shape our bricks and then left them outside to sun dry.

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After the bricks dried we used the same wet mixture as the mortar to connect the bricks together.

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The carpentry team made a frame out of bamboo that supported the bricks in places as the mortar dried.  We chose quite a challenging design for the construction of our first wall but the outcome was well worth it.  Future interns will apply the plaster to the wall and make the finishing touches.

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The next building technique we used was wattle and cob. The wattle refers to the frame of the wall, which can be of any sturdy material suitable for a frame. In this case, we used split bamboo and interweaved it in order to hold it together.

The cob is mostly straw that has been soaked in the adobe mixture. It is tied around the bamboo frame and left to harden. This technique is much quicker and easier than adobe bricks, however may not provide sufficient thermal mass or insulation for areas with extreme variations in temperature.

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Besides physical building, we participated in many group-building activities, which really put the “community” into sustainable community. We gathered around a circle for most of the activities and shared our thoughts, emotions, concerns or simply played games geared towards building trust and a more relaxed environment. I was surprised how the simplicity of such activities had created such a deep impact on me and by the end of 2 weeks we had all created a strong bond between each other. I was sad to leave them but was thankful for having experienced such a beautiful social cohesion that is important for a healthy life and indispensable for a sustainable community.

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After having been in a classroom for a year and a half, it was refreshing and rewarding to live what I have been learning. In the literature, the statistics are available and it’s obvious that the inclusion of natural buildings is crucial for sustainable community development. However, going beyond the theoretical and experiencing being in an aspiring sustainable community was empowering and inspirational. The quest for building the Green City continues…

Sustainability Prelude: Why I’m doing what I’m doing

Ambivalence and uncertainty seems to be a recurring theme in my life.  For many people, these emotions may cause anxiety. I am no exception to this feeling, but I try converting it into a sense of excitement and wonder.  To gain clarity about my next step, I took out a sheet of paper and wrote down 20 things I must do before dying.  As if this wasn’t a difficult enough task, I chose only 1 out of the 20 that would have the greatest impact on my life if I started doing it immediately.

I did this exercise in late 2012, as I was nearing my graduation from with a BA in International Relations and Chinese. I had received a great formal education and lived in China for 2 years, polishing my language skills and working for the Chinese Travel Channel.  I had the opportunity to go back to China and pursue a career in the entertainment industry and although it seemed like a dazzling path, I felt like something was missing.

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I love to entertain but I also want to do something that is personally meaningful, I want to help bring about a better world for people on Earth and I didn’t feel like the entertainment sector would be the arena to embark on this journey. Hence, out of the 20 life goals I wrote down that day, I chose: the creation of a Green City and, eventually, a Green World in which the human ecosystem is intimately integrated into the larger ecosystem of our planet – a sort of human-nature integration. I aspire to help transition human society to a way of living that regenerates the ever-decaying ecological health and human physical, mental and spiritual health.

My motivation comes from observation of the obvious: a continual decline of the state of the natural world and a continual decline of quality of life – people spend less time with each other and are more disconnected from the world around them. Despite all of our modern technological advancements, life is losing its meaning for many people. It’s a perpetual cycle of repetitive work in the name of economic growth that is devoid of creative self-expression and other meaningful ways of living in the name of truth, love, justice, peace, and fun.

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Who said that advancement in modern technology can’t be fun? Who said that working can’t be fun? Who said that school can’t be fun? Not only are these things fun, they are fascinating. And when approached with a genuine sense of love and discipline they can be extremely beneficial to life on Earth. But, unfortunately, most people are not having fun in life and they dread waking up every morning to live another day dedicated solely to meeting their survival needs. It’s good to remind ourselves that there is a difference between surviving and living, and most of us, quite frankly, are not living.

Today, most people do not go to work simply because they adore what they do and they want to make a meaningful contribution to the planet. Would you be at your current job if you were not getting paid any money? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? Some people really do love their job and for them, that is wonderful! But there are many people for which this is not the case.

On that day in late 2012, I thought to myself: How would I be spending my days if all of my basic survival needs were taken care of? Sure, some people would be unproductive and choose to be lazy all day. But I predict that doing this everyday would get very old, very fast. So, what would I do on a daily basis? Why am I here right now? What do I want to achieve? What am I doing with this opportunity to live as a human on planet Earth?

As these thoughts ran through my head, I jotted down some attributes to live by: happiness, daily healthy eating, sincerity, no verbal complaining, etc. Although I continue to cultivate these objectives on a regular basis, I chose to create a timeline and dedicate much of my energy towards creating a Green City – even though I had no idea where to start.

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One day, I was sitting in my office at the USF Confucius Institute and told my boss about my Green City ideas. Astonishingly, the next step in my journey was literally only a few steps away. I had never even heard of the Patel College of Global Sustainability until that day and it was across the hall, on the same floor of the building I worked at!

I began the Master’s program in Global Sustainability the following fall and after a year and a half of coursework on sustainability principles, architecture, economics and engineering I had set the foundation and the connections from which to start building a sustainable city. Now, in my final semester of the MA program, I am in Asia once again, but this time, instead of acting on TV, I’m working towards building the Green City.