Could Doing Chores Save the World?

Another cool, sage-scented morning. The sky is washed grey 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 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 made 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 grey 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. I briefly consider taking another gulp before handing the cup to the next person.

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, grey 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. Indeed, my friends in academia would know almost everything there is to know about the water that wasn’t there as well as the chemical and physical properties of the water that was. The water, I would bet, would be at the center of a problem, rather than a cause for celebration.

But during the water ceremony, the feeling is jovial. 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.

The singing slows and quiets, and I open my eyes to look around. The faces around me are smiling serenely, the way I imagine orange-robed monks might. One by one, people hug Seth, thanking him for a beautiful ceremony. He smiles his boyish smile and bows in gratitude.

“I’m happy you made it up here for this,” he says as I thank him. I nod and return his smile. I tell him I’m glad I was there also, and begin to walk back down towards the kitchen. As I walk I smile to myself: once again, I wasn’t just being polite. The gratitude I feel is totally genuine this morning.


It’s 7AM. 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.

I smile as I listen to what each person has to say. 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 begin to repeat a sort of mantra as I walk up the dirt path to the kitchen, grab the mop, bucket, and broom, and retrace my steps back to the Dome: It’s not so bad. It’s not so bad. It’s not so bad. When I re-enter the Dome, yellow sunlight is pouring through the star-shaped skylight. It’s not so bad.

I set down the mop bucket. It’s time.

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 last patch of floor.

As the mop runs over the wood, I am struck by how clear the contrast within the wood grains becomes. These aren’t just worn-out, dried-out pieces of wood are they? I’m not even just refreshing the space. With each effort of my arms and back, with each slow, rhythmic breath I take, I am giving life back to this space. I imagine the towering trees this floor used to be, and think about the way of honoring the lives of those trees with the efforts I am putting into maintaining them. When people come into this Dome tomorrow morning, they won’t just have a clean floor. The space will be renewed, revitalized, and ready to hold the community again.

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.

I hear the bells signaling that lunch is ready. 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.


Back at school, I have a simple student job that makes me responsible for making sure our communal kitchen stays clean and functional. When people catch me doing a pile of dishes, they often ask why I’m doing it; most times it almost sounds accusatory—as though they are really asking why I would waste my time with such a menial task. I tell these people that it’s my job. They’ll shrug and walk away, apparently satisfied with that answer. They almost never say thank you. A lot of days I dread to see what kind of mess my classmates have left for me to clean up.

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. And maybe this is what Megan means when she tells us to “serve with love” every morning. Maybe what she means is to serve and be served with love. To know that what others do to make the community run smoothly requires each of our actions to have some value beyond their utility.

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. With every heart tuning, with every hug, 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. These relationships drive the desire for a continued existence there.

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.

The technology I had once equated with sustainability is of secondary concern to the Lama Beans. Efforts to do things like replace propane water heaters with solar are sporadic efforts—“when we have time,” “when we have money.” But efforts to build relationships with one another and with the land are the base of everything they do there.

Lama sustains despite the fact that they 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 non-academic 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. Rain-water catchment systems, solar heating that works, real composting toilets: all of these are technologies that my academic peers can—and do—help people to 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 them from arriving at solutions like those on their own. But academic technical know-how paired with Lama’s willpower to sustain might make for the perfect combination.


It’s my last day at Lama. Tears stream down my face as I prepare to drive down the winding road back to academia. As I shoulder my heavy, orange backpack, I feel the weight of the lessons I want to bring back to my life in the Ivory Tower.
As soon as I get back to Yale, I dive into the research, papers, and discussions that had been so conspicuously missing from my summer on the mountain. I also dive back into my kitchen-cleaning job, excited to feel the same things cleaning my school kitchen as I did while cleaning spaces at Lama.

Most days, I arrive at school and find the kitchen counter piled high with coffee mugs, dirty plates, leftover food, and rotting compost. The refrigerator is a graveyard for forgotten Tupperware containers long-expired lunches.

Before Lama, I always considered the messy kitchen just a sign of busy graduate students, nothing to really be concerned with. But after Lama, a gross kitchen signals much more than students who are busy. It signals an irony that we are all trying to find “the next big thing to save the world,” but cannot manage to even take care of the tiny kitchen in our building. It makes me wonder how we can help other communities thrive if we ignore our own.

The work that my peers and I do while in this institution is sometimes completely unbelievable. It seems impossible to come to a school devoted to sustainability and not think that the work we do will make a huge difference in the world. And I’m totally convinced that it will. But even in a place completely devoted to learning about and helping the environment, the more humble, mundane components of sustainability—creating communities based on strong personal connections and great appreciation for the people and resources we are lucky enough to have access to—are often times overlooked.

Sure, my school has been around for 110 years at a university that has been here for over 300. It’s not on the brink of survival, hoping to keep going the way a small, off-the-grid mountain community in Northern New Mexico might be. But if my classmates and I are supposed to go out in the world to tell others how to make their communities sustain, we will need to rethink our own communities. Sustainability isn’t necessarily going to come from grand, sweeping innovations in policy or technology, and changing the world won’t necessarily require the expert opinion of leading scientists of politicians.

Or maybe sustainability will come from those things, but only if they are built on a base as solid as the wooden floors of the enduring Dome.

Emily Schosid

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.

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  1. Marcus Webster says:

    Thanks for a very nice article, a beautiful essay. The “sustainability program” at my college will benefit from a collective reading of your work.

  2. Gabriel M says:

    Dear Emily,

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to share your experience. You are an inspiration for me.

  3. I’ve been involved with Lama since 1995. No, it is not perfect. Sustainable? Not entirely, but it has been mostly functional as an off-the-grid community since 1968. How many other institutions have you seen, Emily, that can say the same? I suggest you keep searching around and compare. A cult? Cults are defined as having one charismatic leader and individuals are not allowed to leave. Did you see that when you were there? I never have (I left several times of my own volition and always returned, welcomed). Nice article, though.

  4. Mark W. Dixon says:

    I visited Lama for the first time in 1983 and have returned dozens of times, sometimes for organized retreats and sometimes for solitary visits to one of the Hermitages. I have come to love Lama as a person, one who gives and loves unconditionally, just asking that if and when I am ready, to open my heart and listen to what I hear.
    It was easy to relate to many of the things Emily observed in her endearingly patronizing way early during her visit. And I’m glad that she saw something of the Lama that has welcomed and bear-hugged me in various ways for 30 years. Her vision of what more Lama could be and provide our society with a balance of science and compassion was intriguing.
    It has been some time since her article, and I am wondering what she’s up to since it was published.
    Have a Namaste!

  5. geez talk about a dark cloud over such a beautiful place.

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