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Monday, October 12, 2009

Jonathan Safran Foer on Vegetarianism

A guy whose seemingly awesome works I have only read excerpts of has submitted an article to NYT about vegetarianism. It's called "Against Meat," but its tone is much less strident than its title. It is nice to read and fairly compelling without being stuck-up or aggressive. I heartily recommend it.

But, in case you don't feel like reading it, let me just pull out one quotation. I've heard arguments in this vein, but never put quite so clearly:

"...taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals."

By the way, I've been eating about 95% vegan-style for the past two weeks (I had some Indian goat cheese on a pizza a while back, and there's milk in the awesome 9-cent chai tea on the street) and am not any scrawnier, weaker, or tired-er than usual. Try it one day a week! I may try to post a recipe or two, like mashed potatoes with tahini or Tzatziki with tofu or birthday treats made from bananas, dates, shaved coconut, palm sugar, cocoa powder, and spices. Not to mention pumpkin and dahl soup. It is indeed possible to be considerate and well-fed at the same time!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Sadhana Forest is like

Well, I have been here at Sadhana (stress on the Sa, schwa on the da n na) for going on two weeks now, and have yet to write a word about it. There is a reason for this.

The first is that there's a website, http://sadhanaforest.org, which has a lot of stuff about the layout and the mission and the methods.

The second is that I'm extremely skeptical of my ability to write anything useful about this place, whether that means "India" or "Tamil Nadu" (the province) or "Sadhana Forest." I have lately been reading a book called Shantaram, which is the kind of "must-read" international best seller that lets you know what it's really like to be in (insert name of exotic place here). There are several copies lying around the main hut here, and quite a few of the volunteers have read the book and told me that it's good. I find, though, that the author mostly skips all the banal junk that you have to put up with no matter what country you're in, describes things with the old philosophical-sounding-adjective-I-found-in-my-thesaurus + abstract noun combo (e.g. peripatetic comprehension, soporific slump). Also, characters speak in paragraph-long discourses filled with unnatural, impossible word play and italicized zingers. All of this is quite unfortunate, because the author has led a pretty wild life, including robbing banks with toy guns, breaking out of a maximum-security prison, and living and hiding in Bombay for 8 years, living in a slum and working for the mafia and fighting in an army and establishing a charity and lots of other amazing stuff.

The result is that I am feeling a real need for objectivity and honesty in writing and am not sure that I can deliver anything that's any less trite or self-serving or loath-inducing than Shantaram. Of course, I'm also thinking that any endeavor to cover all the banal details of just about any experience will probably be pretty terrible to read. Unless you're a fan of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Which you should be. For the record.

But, anyway, feel free to ignore all that stuff. Here are a few facts about this place.

There are two groups of people here: long-term volunteers and short-term ones. Long-term ones have signed on to stay for three years, the idea being that after that much time here they'll be able to write a manual and also start a similar community in Morocco. The short-term volunteers stay a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of as long as they want. There are 16 long-term volunteers, plus the two founders, their two daughters (ages 8 and 1.5), and one Indian couple with a 4ish year-old daughter. The number of short-term volunteers varies, but since I've been here it's been about 30, plus or minus 5.

We cook and eat vegan meals together. No meat, no eggs, no dairy, no honey. We also don't purchase any processed food. We get lots of fruits (bananas, papayas, pomegranates, mandarins, sweet lemons, pineapples, "chicos") vegetables (cukes, carrots, red onions, garlic, eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, "chow chows," squash, pumpkins, celery, cabbage, chinese cabbage), nuts, rice, dhal, soybeans, chickpeas, seeds, and various powdered grains. Most of it's local and organic, but not all of it. Now that there are some long-term staff, they're also trying to grow their own food. We're working now on bananas, pomegranates, jackfruit, papaya, mango, and various herbs, all inside the village. We compost all of the skins, shavings, and leftovers, except for the heads of pineapples, which we plant, and the husks of coconuts, which we save for some project that will later sequester lots of carbon. Or so someone has heard.

We live in huts made of biodegradable, natural materials like leaves, bamboo, and twine, which I think is made from coconut fibers. No nails. The huts don't have electricity.

We have a pooing system that seems intricate at first but in actuality is much simpler than a flush toilet. We poo into ceramic chambers which are buried into the ground. When pooing, we catch our pee in a little pail. We empty the pail into a (sealed) container, dump sawdust all over our poo, rinse our left hands and both bums, then go to a hand-washing station and wash off with all-natural soap that won't pollute our drinking water. Later, we collect the humanure, compost it, and then use it to fertilize our fruit trees and reforestation trees. The pee can also be used as fertilizer. None of it goes anywhere useless or harmful.

What electricity we do use is solar. We have 2 big panels, each the size of 2 single beds, and maybe one other, smaller one. They generate excess power from 10AM to 5PM, which is when we can charge our laptops and ipods and other stuff. We have lights in the kitchen, two of the bathroom stalls, and the main hut.

There's no running water. There's one pump, which we use to fill buckets for showers, for washing dishes, and for filling the hand-washing stations. The H-WS's consist of a big vat of water, a small pot with a hole in the bottom, a cup, and some natural liquid soap in a bottle. You pop the lid off the big vat, pour some water into the pot, let it stream out of the hole, and wash your hands in it. The runoff goes into a banana pit and feeds the trees. Same with the showers. Dishes are dunked in a bucket of water, scrubbed with loofas which grow on trees and ash collected from our kitchen fires, then dunked three in three more buckets, sprayed with vinegar, and left on racks to dry.

I suppose I'll limit this post to the immediate physical environment, and I'll try to describe the reforestation effort (which is not immediate) and the vibe (which is not physical) in later posts.

I only want to add that it feels great to know that my current lifestyle is not harming anybody in my vicinity, or anywhere else, or anytime else. I don't feel like I have to ignore the ramifications of what I do or the processes that led to making what I'm doing possible. In the First World, no matter how hard you try, you can't avoid products of unknown provenance, advertised with attractive but dubious claims, and entire systems and institutions and habits that make it impossible to live fairly and responsibly. It's not perfect here - as I mentioned, we're not self-sufficient as far as food is concerned, and we have not choice but to support some non-organic farms, and we still produce medical trash from time to time - but it's hard to imagine that it's better anywhere else.