While it has been several months since the last Expo entry, we haven't been idle on Whirlwind.
As you can see from the photos, Whirlwind is greener than it has ever been, not merely since The Pranayama Institute purchased the property or since the 1950's when it was first converted into farmland. Considering historic rainfall levels and even the pull of the 76 Draw rivulet that once, long ago, traversed this farm, Whirlwind may be greener now than it has been in centuries.
It is expected that in our first year of seeding and irrigating grass we will see a lot of annual weeds come up. These will be mowed down to mulch the ground. But after the weeds are gone in the Fall, the perennial grass and alfalfa will carry on and crowd out future weeds. Soil conditions will improve to the point where the weeds will never come again.
Put all this together and what this means is that this is not a green that will fade when Winter comes, or ever again. This is an enduring green, a cash crop green that will provide financial stability to The Pranayama Institute. It is a green that has been five years in the making.
And now look at photos from across the street of the farm. This land has the same rain as Whirlwind, the same seed bank of annual weeds in the soil, and the same soil conditions but for one major difference. No one passed the Key Line Plow through this land. By all rights, by mid August even considering a late monsoon season, this land should have at least some greenery. And eventually it will despite the extremely dry winter and spring. But without a water harvesting plan that jumpstarts the water cycle and creates some traversable soil structure, the little rain that falls is hardly usable by the soil.
Before we came along, this neighboring land always had more life than Whirlwind. In fact, there was more growth everywhere in the valley than on Whirlwind because Whirlwind was abused farmland. Now, it is the greenest patch of earth for miles and miles.
I used to dream that I would see from Highway 11, which runs north-south between Deming and Columbus, Whirlwind Farm standing out like an emerald sea. My affirmation was "Whirlwind is green, Whirlwind is green." Today, when you drive south to Columbus and look east around mile marker 9, you absolutely can't miss the farm.
Deepwater fares well, too. The Square, as we call it, is now a perennial grass lawn; grasses are growing in the hay field; native forestry trees are getting big and strong; comfrey and alfalfa are quite happy in their patch; grove fruit and nut trees and vines are reaching their third year; and cow pea is fixing nitrogen in most of our forty five raised beds. Chickens and turkeys, cows and goats and horses, and cats and dogs are thriving on Deepwater.
Due to stable aquifer conditions, Deepwater is literally a solar array ($30,000) away from complete self-sustainability and the capacity to continually feed dozens of families and earn in ten years, once the thousands of Mesquite trees are mature, hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Already we have enough solar panels attached to our solar pump, combined with our windmill pump, to supply enough water for animals, the garden, and basic human needs. Our water tower, nearly completed, provides passive 15 psi.
On and off line, local and nonlocal, many people considered what we've done to be unlikely or impossible.
Some said it's in a valley, so you'll be flooded. One person said that we thought we bought a farm but we really bought lakefront property. We've had rains since, even flooding, but the water only improved the soil and brought back life. It would have done so a monsoon year before we arrived but the ground was too compacted. No water could infiltrate the soil. Not even a tumbleweed could germinate.
Now, when the rains wash down Whirlwind Road and threaten to flood, what concerns me is not too much water. The soil has clay and can saturate, but the grass can handle the water and its roots will now create soil structure, fix carbon, and increase our catchment. Carbon rich soil hosts life, and it is life that is needed to make use of excess water.
The only concern, if any, is whether the water flowing down into the valley might cut a channel into the field and disturb the subsurface drip system. To avoid that, we dug a trench that directs the water alongside the west fence of the farm. There we will grow trees and tall grasses to make use of the water so harvested. And so far, our trench is working perfectly.
Some said it's in a desert; that there's not enough rainfall to grow anything, and pumping water out of the ground is too cost prohibitive. It is true that the electric bill is thousands of dollars per month, at least in the hot summer months. But when the alternative is to truck in animal feed from places where the rain grows the grass, local feed is the less expensive route. Farms have been viable in the Northern Chihuahua desert for over 50 years by passing the cost of electricity onto the consumer. In fact, it is common knowledge around these parts that hay is about as expensive as the electricity to grow it.
Grass hay is not common, so we have very little competition. A 60 pound bale of grass hay can run upwards of $15. Every ton of hay yields 30 to 35 bales. So even at $10 per bale, 3 tons of grass hay, which is ideal horse and cattle feed, sells for $1000. Once the grass and alfalfa are well established, each acre can produce well over five tons per year. Multiply that by 142 acres and there's room enough to pay the bills and earn income.
Selling grass hay, however, is not our final destination. Running cattle on the farm, which means all that plant life stays on the farm to continually enrich the soil, yields greater financial benefits, more sustainability, and healthier land. And, to my knowledge, no practice except compost tea application comes close to planned grazing for improving the water cycle. This means that the hardy perennial native desert grasses will need even less water than they otherwise would once the cows come home.
Some said the well water is brackish and can't be sustainably used for farming. The farmers before us certainly damaged the soil with flood irrigation. Soil alkalinity was high, compaction was off the charts, and organic matter was practically nonexistent. They left the farm dead and beaten for the wind to erode whatever topsoil was left. It was a junk yard, a sorry sight. It took a great deal of imagination to see this land, crying for help, as any more than it was, and few people had the imagination.
But subsurface drip systems mitigate a great deal of those issues through continually feeding the water with something that will lower the pH. Most farmers use acid, but we will be using compost tea, which naturally has a pH of 6.4. This will not merely soften the water as it passes through the system, but will add nitrogen, increase soil biology and microbial diversity, and what's best, it will dramatically improve the water cycle making the grass more water efficient. By some measurements, efficiency is increased by 70%. Even it was half or a third that much, that much less water means that much less in the electric bill. Compost tea pays for itself, and then some.
Some said the soil had no carbon and that since we're in the desert, I'd have to truck in carbon for this to work. Well, that's not going to happen! Truly, I marvel at the human brain that can consider issues like greenhouse gasses one minute and then in the next state that there's no carbon in the desert. Maybe it's due to a lack of oxygen! The air has plenty of carbon in it, even in the high desert. What a farmer needs is a technology that can get the carbon in the air into the ground.
Before you say, no technology exists that can do that, or that even if it did exist its cost would be prohibitive, or that if it did exist why don't we just turn it on and at once get rid of all of our global warming problems and enrich our soil, think back a few paragraphs. It is certainly true that any undertaking to truck in carbon mulch for 140 acres would be ludicrously expensive. And even if it were affordable, once the mulch got there, then what? Without rain we'd have no composting. Subsurface irrigation isn't enough to ensure that organic "litter" above the ground will decompose. The sun would simply bake the mulch into the atmosphere.
And it would be very expensive to add enough carbon to compost tea on a 140 acres to the point where the carbon reaches past a nanometer of soil from the drip emitters. The carbon would perhaps be enough to buffer against the mineral salts in the water, but certainly not enough for all the life we need on the farm, meaning in the ground, to make the project both viable and sustainable.
For humans to invent such a technology would probably cost enough to be well out of the budget of any dirt farmer. Fortunately, the evolution of nature has been on the job. Relatively recently (in geological time), about 65 million year ago, grass evolved. Grass, not trees, is the number one means of sequestering carbon to the soil and reversing global warming. We don't need to truck in anything because we're growing the best carbon truck on the planet, the most efficient solar collector around.
The naysayers had it wrong; but they would have been right to say the journey would be a challenge. The number of obstacles and errors on the road to this day are beyond counting. Many hurdles stood in our way. Most delayed progress, some brought progress to a halt, and some might have potentially altered the course of the project beyond recognition. Yet, I would wish the dream of self-sustainability on anyone.
It will still be nearly a year until we get our first hay cutting. Right now, on my list, I have half a year's worth of jobs on the farm, not counting the time it will take to plant another 1500 native perennial trees. So we are by no means done with the project. At the same time, most of the heavy lifting is completed and it won't be long until just the practice of farming, including maintaining the various systems, will be the only order of the day.
As for the fields and the incidental job here and there, the next step is for nothing more than the grass to grow. And thankfully, given enough sun and water, it will grow. Grass, as it is said or should be said, is very forgiving.
* * *
The last five years also saw dramatic changes to my personal life. I am not married anymore. I live in Columbus full-time. And aside from my role as a father, the farm is my occupation since dropping regular, consistent, writing.
Yet times change. Recently, the Board of the Institute decided that within a year or two it would be time to publish another book. This one will be more strictly on pranayama, and be in Q&A format.
Since my last Expo post, which admittedly was too long ago, the human world did the impossible and became even more lunatic than it was before. No one really knows how long America can thrive, or even survive, with so much politics and intrigue occurring behind closed doors, without any public scrutiny or inquiry. All we get from the best media outlets are figments of shadows to help us realize the scope of what is kept secret and hidden, but not nearly enough to expose any of it; and certainly not enough to hold any one person or people accountable for the emerging failures of policy and procedure. And from mainstream media, we get the smokescreen, galvanizing polarization of public opinion.
But I wouldn't read me for the news, and I expect readers of this inconsistent Expo blog don't either. I suggest reading Princeton Professor Paul Krugman in the NYTimes oped pages. You can also follow his blog and Twitter. He's a Noble prizewinning economist, but if it's important, chances are he is writing on it.
Truly, I am thankful for people like Krugman, and my father Alon Ben-Meir who has been writing on Middle-East politics for 30 in an effort to foster peace, but I don't know how they do it, year after year. Some ask where they get the courage, but I've not had cowardice issues. Some ask where they get the time and patience, but aging usually provides both of these if hard knocks didn't teach you to make time and children didn't teach you patience. I myself ask where they get the hope, year after year, that writing itself makes a difference.
This is one of the issues that I personally, and the Board of the Institute, has grappled with for many years. First, I can more easily hope in world peace, and believe in the possibility, than that human beings will collectively practice pranayama and asceticism. Yogananda floated the idea in his autobiography that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that in fact world peace may not be possible without a wide dissemination of pranayama. I utterly disagree with that.
To me, asceticism is firstly more important than pranayama in establishing world peace. Asceticism on a personal and social level is important for establishing the collective practice of pranayama as well, but analyze any conflict in the world and you will find that the narrow, divisive self is the issue on all sides of the conflict, and that sacrificing for others with whom we must learn to identify is the inevitable solution or prerequisite for peace. If people collectively took the first steps of asceticism, that would be more than enough to bring about peace and the additional steps of sitting still and controlling the mind via breath regulation and concentration are not at all necessary.
And the biggest sacrifice needed is in reducing the population. This is a hard-to-swallow asceticism for most people, and certainly for most women. Having fewer children (2 or less) and having them later in life (past 25 at least) will go a long way to reducing population. This will have far more effect in terms of supporting and sustaining peace than the practice of pranayama.
Of course, when I say that I mean the failed practice of pranayama. If people could collectively practice pranayama, truly, the world would not be the way it is today, anyway. And this goes back to why I stopped writing on pranayama. I stopped because it is largely a practice not practicable by most human beings. And that is the case not because of failed genes or failed intellect or even failed capacity, but simply a failure of conditions. Repairing the state of the world through pranayama, when the state of the world itself strongly prohibits the successful practice of pranayama, is an irrational remedy. Hence the idea of Yogananda spreading pranayama to foster peace is, to put it mildly, illogical.
Rather, we should spread peace, and anti-corporate efforts, to eventually spread the practice of pranayama.
What is as irrational is to write on the subject as if, from the written word alone, one will be able to practice pranayama properly in today's world. Company and conditions are not just more important or more effective in establishing the practice, but with them the written material is superfluous and without them writings are immaterial. As a teacher, I can teach pranayama far, far better in person than generically through the written word. It can be taught by practicing it; by applying it directly to the spine of the student. What can possibly compare with that?
For practitioners, practice is impossible without asceticism and, most importantly to consider, the asceticism required to practice pranayama is far less intense than the asceticism required for world peace.
It is for this reason that, over the years, the Institute moved away from the Internet, bought land, and focused more on bringing people together. We are not done with the farm as we are waiting until the agricultural elements become routine to start building for guests and retreats (the hall is done but accommodations are lacking), but the trajectory toward direct engagement has been set because, for those who can practice pranayama, which is most of us given proper conditions, odds of success are exponentially increased with good company and sound spiritual environment.
Asceticism here is more likely, and to some degree inevitable assuming prolonged stay. Asceticism in the societies we've created is unlikely. Nearly everyone can practice in the right environment, and hardly anyone can without a supportive environment.
The idea of a future book on pranayama, at least to me, is merely to attract more people to Whirlwind, hoping that, here and there, we find people interested in long-term stay and training, and perhaps a few investing in some land and living here permanently.
I know how hard it is to even consider such a thing in today's world. Calling it hard is certainly an understatement. Where insanity has literally positioned itself in the halls of Congress, who can expect that the society we are daily creating will foster spiritual aspirations and nourish spiritual practices? How much less, then, practices that are not designed for feel-good moments or casual inspiration, but rather techniques that call for the kind of discipline seen only generations ago in the one in millions ascetic mystic? If pranayama were the only way to bring peace, then endless war is our fate.
Some yogis in the past went for quantity while others went for quality; at least, that is what we've been popularly taught. Today, we have gurus that surely have a quantity of followers, but there is zero quality that I can tell in these movements. They are cultic in nature; we are constantly witnessing the formation of extremist organizations, fundamentalist groups, and radical politics the likes of which are rather popularly seen just prior to the demise of civilizations. In neither quantity or quality are they exemplars of helpful or instructive movements of thought. What are we to make of this state of affairs?
The organization from where I learned pranayama reached me because it was designed to reach quantity. I don't say the method it taught and teaches is without quality, but when it comes to quality the matter is not a question of technique but of preparation, or asceticism, which again comes from the right environment and the right company. I became a monk of that organization, and yet I would never state that the environment the monastery provided was a strictly yogic one. Organizations like that one provide, at best, a lukewarm company when it comes to asceticism.
For a year or two in the past five years, I almost forgot that Whirlwind's original purpose was to serve those that might wish to foster that larger self in the right company. We've always had a steady stream of visitors and volunteers, so I can't say I wasn't reminded of the purpose. But I was also reminded by the visitors more of how challenging it is to practice pranayama and take that practice back to their lives away from the farm. My suggestion to most guests was to visit often -- often enough for the regimen to become established. To many I suggested not to bother. Lesser practices were advised. To the few that came for extended durations, I was encouraging. So far, none have remained past a few months. None have tested their resolve.
And yet several parcels have been sold nearby Deepwater. Some buyers aspire to be serious practitioners one day. Some see calamity on the way and find the idea of self-sustainability in the desert to be very appealing. Some enjoy the company here enough to want to visit often, and want a place to stay when they do. With or without pranayama, peace here is no great feat. With or without pranayama, people will grow and life will be sustained, and we will have peace. With or without pranayama, there will be music, laughter, and learning. It doesn't take Ghandis for a handful of neighbors, living sustainably in the desert, to be at peace amongst themselves. In this environment, we may have the luxury to aim for something far greater.
Pranayama is not for world peace or self-sustainability. Rather, it is the internal reflection of these two. A nonfinite inner peace and inner self-reliance come from pranayama; and they would certainly reflect outward once realized, but attempting to achieve world peace through the collective practice of pranayama is like spending the real value of the planet for a modest 1 bedroom apartment in Queens. As hard as it is to achieve peace in the world, it is made astronomically harder to accomplish this if the means it to get everyone to practice pranayama.
The appropriate ways to change the world are far more worldly. Writing is worldly. And the appropriate ways to change oneself are spiritual. Right company, silence, and developing magnetism have spiritual values.
So when it comes to teaching and rightly practicing pranayama, I am with next to no hope that writing accomplishes anything. When it comes to the problems facing the human world, I have more hope in the power of the written world, but no longer enough to actually exercise it myself, especially since there are people far better at it than me.
My hope is that people may be inspired by what they read to physically come together and start changing things. Whether we read spiritual material or the news, we eventually have to come together, physically in the same vicinity, to unite and create a magnetism greater than the sum of its parts. Whether that magnetism is directed inward toward stillness or outward toward peace-engendering activities, I know of no other force in nature capable of accomplishing anything in this world.
Here's to gathering. Here's to finding strengths we never knew we had until enough people joined with us to awaken it. Here's to realizations that are effortless with the right company and endless drudgery without it.
The final ingredient for Whirlwind to be truly self-reliant and self-sustainable is that it is a place where sincere people gathered. And to those asking, I suggest to all to find such places, find such people, and make it happen.