A Working Retreat at Ecodharma

G threw the land-rover up the mountain, pointing out the sights to me… “This is the start of the land we have been using.” I am immediately struck by his choice of language, careful not to claim ownership of the land. He may have paid money for it, but how can land be owned? It’s indicative of the mixture of radical politics, ecology and Buddhist ideas that brought me to this place.

Guyhyapati, (or ‘G’), has been here eight years. He saw the south-facing slope of the valley from afar while out climbing and knew it was the place. He found the man who owned it in the village, persuaded him to sell it, raised the money and now here he is: recounting the story to us eight years later. G flicks his long grey hair to the other side of his head, exposing the shaved part underneath. He speaks gently, confidently. We sit around the kitchen in that house that G first bought. The ‘land we are using’ has now extended to cover a much larger area, including six houses, though most are little more than ancient dry-stone-wall structures with rotting tree-trunk beams attached. This kitchen is currently the only part of this house that has been done up, although there is another beautifully renovated house some friends are staying in further down the track. G mostly lives in the yurt just behind the kitchen. It seems obvious that although eight years have passed, this is a community in its infancy. G wants it to grow slowly and sustainably.

A typical day at Ecodharma:

My alarm goes off at 5:30am. Groggy and cold I pull myself from my sleeping-bag and grab a pile of jumpers. We meditate at 6am in the small dome just down-slope of the yurt I am sharing with Lucy, a girl from Manchester I became friends with instantly. I do the first forty-five minutes of meditation and then return to the yurt to practice yoga looking out over the mountains as the sun rises. On a warm day I can remove a couple of jumpers at this point.

I make my way up to the kitchen and am greeted by warm smiles and nods from those already pottering around the small kitchen making breakfast. I have become quite fond of porridge mixed with crunchy cereal and runny mulberry jam. There is always a kettle boiling or pot of tea stewing. Olive oil sits in a little metal oiling can – for lubriacating the pan-fried toast along with the homemade jams. There is fruit too. Apart from the clinks and clatters there is silence until all are present and have eaten. I watch the army of cute but wild kittens playing with whatever bit of food they have managed to snatch from still sleepy humans. G rings a bell to signal the end of silence. We take it in turns to speak whatever is on our minds, how we are.

After check-in we work out jobs for the day. The people who arrived before me had already levelled off some new terraces and begun making a fence to keep any wild pigs off whatever veggies might get planted there. I learn how to use a pickaxe, a backhoe and some other tool with a funny name. I learn a bit of plumbing stuff too and install a new shower (tap resting on wall in private area). All water comes from the spring that runs through the valley, other than the foul, stinking washing-up water which comes from the roof – rainwater mixed with rotting fruit.

After a few days G realises heavy work is not my strong point and I am moved onto painting and kitting out the beautiful new Mongolian yurt for a woman who will soon be beginning a six month solitary retreat. I learn that sanding before painting is a good idea, what a ‘key’ is and how to wire up a solar panel.

We finish work at 2pm, although two finish early to cook lunch. We have a rota for cooking and cleaning and I sign up for a mixture. We take turns to cobble together experimental feasts for the others. The food here is a locavore heaven, all fruit and vegetables are grown locally and even the bread comes from a squatted social centre 17km away who grow their own organic wheat. Peaches come from a workers co-op nearby. The valley itself produces a huge array of herbs as well as plums, mulberries, blackberries, apples, figs, mushrooms, rosehips, various nuts, honey and more.

There is free time until 5:30pm. I alternate sleeping and reading with the odd walk or chat.

In the evening we have study – more like a fervent debate. What is Ecodharma? What are the five precepts? How do radical ecology and Buddhist ideas fit together?
Sometimes we sit in the meditation dome, sometimes the kitchen, often G’s yurt. I suspect I’m not the only one who likes that option best – sitting around in the warm, teapot in centre, grandma cat on somebody’s lap.

We eat supper around 7:30pm. Usually soup, sometimes toast. If we’re lucky, G will make his special chocolatey-almond dessert. After supper there is often a puja or meditation period before bedtime.

I read by candlelight every night before sleeping, listening to the sounds of the crickets, birds and other inhabitants of the valley. There is a small candelabra hanging from the ceiling of the yurt. If I get back after Lucy I can see the yurt lit up like a beacon to help guide me home.

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