- While living at a remote commune in the wilds of New Mexico, author Emily Schosid learned what real sustainability means. And it’s not at all what you’d expect. -
On the day I arrive at Lama, 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. A brown striped cat surveys the dinner from the top of the fridge.
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 marvel at what one visitor to Lama later called their “expert greeting powers.” 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. As I drove up the winding road to this idealized place, I’d imagined the solar panels, composting toilets, and rainwater collection systems that I had heard were the community’s—nay, the world’s—salvation. But hugging saints and dinner blessings?
When I go to bed that first night, I’m sure I’ve made some kind of terrible mistake.
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!”
As with the rest of Lama, the image I had formed of Lucas before my arrival is far from the image that stands before me. His blond hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. He’s got an eyebrow ring and the piercings in his ears hold inch-wide wooden plugs. He radiates the vibes of the rock musician he was before coming to Lama. He tells me he’s been at Lama for three years, and I can tell he’s been working at this spirituality thing in earnest for a long time.
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 Grand 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 where we will come for such things as “Practice and Tuning.” I nod again. I 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 hand-made 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. We start down a long dirt path toward what looks like an empty campground. We walk in single file, and Lucas continues to tell me about the Lama rules.
“One thing you should know is that Lama is drug- and alcohol-free. We will share a cup of wine for religious purposes, but that’s it.”
The comment takes me by surprise.
No drugs at a commune in the desert?
“We have a rare and precious opportunity on this mountain to remove ourselves from the distractions in our lives.” He tells me about how the founders of Lama decided to eliminate drugs from day one, which made it stand out from similar communes in the 60s. When the founders made their decision to be drug-free, the 200 people who had initially said they would come to Lama dropped to just three. “But a lot of folks say this policy is one of the big reasons Lama is still around today.”
We turn a corner and I gasp. Just ahead of us sits the burned ruins of what looks to have once been a huge, white stucco building. Broken bricks and twisted rebar litter the ground. I ask what happened here.
“The fire,” Lucas says somberly.
During my time on the mountain, I learned that Lama had gone through several periods of disagreement and strife. None was so drastic, however, as the 1996 Hondo Fire, which swept through 8000 acres of Carson National Forest and destroyed nearly everything at the Lama Foundation. Only two buildings—the Dome one of them—and two cats were left when the evacuated residents returned to the mountain.
“It would have been so easy for people to give up and walk away from all of this,” one Lama Bean said about the aftermath of the fire. But the residents were determined to rebuild. “There are a lot of people who love this place very much and worked very hard to make it come back to life,” another long-time friend of Lama told me. One friend of Lama planted oak trees to help the forest regrow. When asked how many trees he thinks he planted he always says, “I stopped counting at ten thousand.”
I can’t stop staring at the burned ruins. Lucas points out that the sun is descending quickly behind the mountains and that I should set up my tent before it’s too dark. He leads me back down the path to the little patch of dirt and straw that will be my home for the next three months. On the way, he warns me about a rock that juts out of the side of the hill, but I stub my toe on it anyway.
It’s 7AM. 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 Prayer room. It’s time to meditate.
People shuffle over from every direction. Some clutch cups of coffee or jars of tea. Others hug brightly patterned blankets. No one speaks. The community practices silence until breakfast. I approach the tiny, circular hobbit hole of a door. A hand painted sign hangs on the handle: Come with Peace. Mimicking the people who entered before me, I bow, touch my forehead to the cool floor, and enter the red adobe room. I grab a pillow and sit. A tiny, high-pitched bell rings to start the meditation. The sound hangs in the air for a minute before finally fading into the walls, and all goes silent, except for the sounds of breathing. A half hour slips quietly by, and the tiny bell rings again.
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 mop.
The Ivy League university that had funded my excursion to this place had taught me to look for the newest groundbreaking technology, the preeminent 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. 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. I start to work my way around the circular room with the push broom. The dust flies into the air, tickles my sinuses, and lands softly on the ground, slightly closer to the center than when I started. 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. The delicate flowery smell tingles my nose and I start to feel a little less apprehensive. 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 were 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?
I start to hum, softly at first. The sound bounces off the walls and echoes for a few seconds before fading into the sky-blue star above me. I realize it’s a song we sang at our Shabbat service yesterday. I think about Dome full of people singing and dancing around a circle. We had shared a cup of wine and a loaf of bread together, bringing in a new week. As I replay the night in my mind, I notice the mop running over floors that are already wet. I’m finished. That wasn’t so bad.
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. And then I add that I’m glad to be there helping out, too. At least, I’m glad to be appreciated for something I thought was just part of the day-to day routine.
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 seems 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 and more disappointed. What gave 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?