Returning home to Western Massachusetts after five weeks of tropics, trash piles, thick days and thin nights has softened my heart and sharpened my skills. As the 2014 David Bird Fellow, I was sent on a mission to Auroville, an ecovillage in Tamil Nadu, India, to help support efforts of food security under the guise of an “Edible Pathways” project. The community within which I was living, studying, working, eating, playing, sleeping, and teaching is Sadhana Forest, an off-the grid volunteer-run community focused on re-forestation and water conservation efforts.

Sadhana’s current 100+ volunteers hail from all over the globe, and during their stay, they agree to maintain a vegan diet, refrain from drinking and smoking, participate in a gift economy, and practice seva (selfless service). Mornings begin at 5:45am where volunteers choose their sevas for the day, such as preparing meals on rocket stoves, turning the solar panels, hauling excrement from the compost toilets, working in the forest or repairing the physical infrastructure. Evenings are programmed with group events like sharing circles and the famous ‘un-talent’ show. Fridays are ritualized by the showing of an “eco-film” on a large screen preceded by tours of the forest open to the public.

For this reason—the 1,000+ visitors a year who tour the grounds—Sadhana Forest sought an ecological designer who could create an “Edible Pathway” design to demonstrate appropriate strategies for growing food in marginal spaces amidst a degraded, arid landscape. And so, with promise and adaptability, I embarked to India to respond to this call.

I spent time bicycling to various farms and permaculture sites that were producing polycultures of rice,

Abrah wets acacia leaves in preparation for lasagna layering, a soil-building technique

Abrah wets acacia leaves in preparation for lasagna layering, a soil-building technique

mangoes, papayas, cowpea and more, on what was severely damaged soil—a result of the massive deforestation that went hand in hand with the British and French colonization of Southeast India over the last 200+ years.

I gathered both knowledge and friends as I traversed through the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest, speaking with sustainability experts and old-timers. The beginning of week three brought the arrival of ten American college students to Sadhana who were taking a course in Low-Carbon Living. The class culminated with two capstone projects: Sadhana Zero Waste and Edible Pathways.

Working with a team of four passionate yet “green” students, we gathered information about residents’ goals and priorities, the challenges of a transient volunteer community, the previous pitfalls of permaculture-related projects at Sadhana, and the existing conditions of the landscape.

The final design demonstrated diverse soil building and irrigation techniques, including the use of composted food scraps, humanure, mulch, wick irrigation with plastic water bottles, and a “sponge” technique—using woody biomass to soak up grey water for slow, passive irrigation in a basin ringed by banana trees, taro, and lemongrass.

The last week of the fellowship was crowned by a community installation day where the pathways behind the kitchen and surrounding the Morning Circle area were cleared of overgrown vegetation and given a new blanket of mulch, seeds, transplants, banana circles, and infrastructure for growing food and recreating. Not only was the landscape transformed that day, but many reported that the community was, as well.

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Abrah Dresdale graduated from Conway in 2010 and is the 2013-2014 recipient of the David Bird International Service Fellowship. She now works as the Coordinator of the Farm and Food Systems Program at Greenfield Community College and teaches permaculture design courses at several colleges in New England.

Learn more about the David Bird International Service Fellowship, available to all graduates of the Conway School, here.