By M. Grace McWilliams
This Fall, through a series of synchronous events, I was made aware of Ampersand, a Sustainable Living Learning Center in Cerrillos, New Mexico run by Amanda and Andy Bramble. Through responding to a Craigslist ad for free lathe material, I met a woman who was studying permaculture and after telling her about my interest in living off the grid, she suggested I make Ampersand my first stop. I’m a Yoga Teacher by trade and at that time, I was following my doctor’s orders to heal my system from mold toxicity by living in a tent in the Santa Fe Forest. The night temperatures were dropping to 40 degrees and I knew that I would soon have to head to a warmer location, but I decided to reach out to Amanda before heading South.
After a brief conversation, I applied for a residential work-trade position at Ampersand where I would be learning new skills and assisting in an earthen building project. My application was accepted and within two weeks, I packed up my tent and took my healing journey to Cerrillos. When I arrived at Ampersand, I was immediately calmed. The slight nerves that had been daring to rise up dissipated as I absorbed the Campus. Golden hills, incredibly clear blue skies, dry bed arroyos filled with gorgeous rocks, a teepee, a yurt, a fully functioning outdoor kitchen, a straw bale home, were all unimposing upon the beautiful natural space surrounding them. After living in the forest for two and a half months, the earthen walled and rounded corner straw bale cottage that would be my new home was soothing to my nervous system. Many times in my tent I would think of having to live in a white walled, right angle, power outlet filled, linoleum floored apartment and I couldn’t see myself living that way again. It seemed confined and inauthentic. My tent experience had taught me that we had separated ourselves from Nature and Source with our clutter of comfort and convenience. I knew that if I wanted to be an effective yoga teacher, I would have to learn how to further align my lifestyle with Nature. It was my Ampersand experience that assisted me in achieving that alignment.
It is worth mentioning that prior to going to Ampersand, I had never used a single power tool, I had no awareness of gray water systems, no idea people were making solar ovens and utilizing the sun to cook, no clue that every time we flush the toilet we are wasting between 1.7 -7 gallons of water per flush depending on the age of the toilet and I had no idea composting toilets existed. It was at Ampersand where I learned that even in New Mexico, with as little as 10” of rain per year, one can set up a water catchment system that, with responsible water and gray usage, one can supply all of one’s water needs for the year, including watering for home grown organic food. These are things that Ampersand brought into my field of vision and it was humbling.
Learning self sufficiency was my main motivation for contacting Amanda. Though I had never lived off the grid, I believed that I would learn two key things that would assist me in the future; that learning to use power tools properly and effectively would be personally empowering as a female who had always gender assigned such tasks to my male counterparts and that learning to live with nature rather than overpowering nature would further align me with the Collective Good.
Staying healthy in this environment requires that one stay Mindful due to the physicality and reliance on nature in the off-grid lifestyle. Being present in each moment reduced the risk of injury, insured that meals were prepared in a timely fashion, and that there would be enough water for the chores at hand.
Being that all of our cooking was done utilizing parabolic mirror cookers, which acts as a stovetop, and home-made solar ovens, awareness of weather and the moving Sun is essential. When solar cooking one is reliant upon the moving Sun and timely rotation of the solar cookers is critical to ensuring that meals are finished on time. The composting toilets we used required awareness of the sawdust and the waste bucket levels. Multi-tasking, though never advisable, truly is not helpful living off the grid and this reality was very supportive of my mindfulness practice. I found that when washing my clothes and soaking them in the wash basin or stomping them clean with a plunger, I allowed myself to stay engaged in the process and therefore present in the Moment. It wasn’t long before I realized that living this way is an Act in Meditation and Universal Respect.
When reflecting upon my life prior to forest living and my arrival at this wonderful learning center, I realized that even though I had a consistent sitting and meditation practice, a strong home yoga practice and was teaching 8 classes a week, I was not embracing Ahimsa (non-violence) in its totality. While living in my apartment I was careless with my water usage. The hygiene products I used were full of paraben and high in salt, which I learned at Ampersand, is damaging to local soil. Though I recycled, I was not aware of how many products with excessive packaging I was purchasing, in short, I was unaware that I was still disrespecting our home, Planet Earth.
One of the things that I found truly amazing is the amount of salvaged materials used to build on the Ampersand Campus. I have always been very involved in resource allocation, so learning how to source free resources for home construction was inviting.
I received many gifts during my stay at Ampersand but perhaps the biggest for me was learning solar cooking. In 2000 I had a kitchen fire that destroyed my apartment. Due to my fear of fire, I had become reliant upon microwaves and pre-packaged food, never wanting to use the stove. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could cook and the worse thing that could happen is the food be bad for there was no threat of fire. That realization and this new cooking opportunity blasted the door wide open for me and healthier eating. I enjoyed solar cooking so much that I did my utmost to initiate the meal planning, preparation and cooking during my stay. I found I truly enjoyed making healthy, delicious foods for others and the day I watched Amanda lick the plate that I served her my homemade lasagna on, I knew I had found a new way to share love, through healthy meals.
In summary, what I learned at Ampersand is that peace, alignment, and self-sufficiency starts at home and must be supported by one’s lifestyle in order to minimize our carbon footprint and have a positive effect on the planet and that doing so is not as difficult as I had first thought. Living in this manner one is working with nature, weather, and Source. As I write this, it has come to me that greed really is our societal issue, always wanting more of the best while it overflows our homes and into a storage unit. We over-complicated our existence while separating ourselves from Nature and Source.
When the water one uses to cook, bathe, and wash in is collected on-site from the falling rain above, rain takes on a new and sacred meaning. And it’s just that simple.