Essay Unlearning

The Joy of Living and Learning Interconnectedly

As I sit in my new bedroom, an open-air bamboo structure in the rainforest of Costa Rica, I am surrounded by a world of interconnections: a Critalia vine storing nitrogen in its leaves through a relationship with fungi in its roots, a Poro plant providing structure for a vanilla orchid to spiral to the sun, a Peach Palm shading a young Cinnamon to help it survive the dry season. Scientific research is making it increasingly clear that forests operate almost like a single organism: cycling resources, encouraging diversity, and forming symbiotic relationships. As we look for new models by which to live, educate, and learn in community, we can turn to our elder ecological relatives for inspiration.

I was raised not in a true forest, but in a monoculture of identical, straight-trunked trees bred for production. Prior to the transformative immersion experiences of the past two years, my educational career preached the myth of individual achievement. Year after year, I was encouraged to take high level classes, run organizations, and compete with classmates to get into a “good college” and eventually get a “good job”. I presumed that making it to the “top” of this system meant happiness and fulfillment, but by senior year of college, I felt deeply anxious, lonely and uncertain for the future.

Serendipitously, one visionary professor brought my class to the nearby Eco-Institute in Chapel Hill, NC for a potluck dinner. We sang a gratitude song before the meal, thanking the Earth and each of the meal’s contributors for their acts of generosity. It felt like a homecoming. I started attending bi-weekly community garden volunteer days, buoyed by the joy that comes from the simplest of cooperative tasks: spreading mulch, pulling out tomato vines, or laughing while struggling to build a greenhouse. I showed up to the story nights, fire circles, and subsequent potlucks, reveling in this way of being together, this fascinatingly functional social ecosystem, which was so dramatically different and infinitely more fulfilling from what I had previously known.

As graduation loomed on the horizon, I felt increasingly torn between the distinct ecosystems of self-promoting, individual achievement, and collaborative, place-based, and Earth-honoring community. Luckily, I received an email from the Eco-Institute at the perfect moment describing The Rising Earth Immersion, a 10-week holistic permaculture intensive and carefully designed immersive semester in community living. A few months before, I never would have considered this alternative to a job offer in New York that aligned with my parents’ and friends’ expectations. But after countless phone conversations, filled with hesitation and uncertainty, I finally made the commitment that felt right in my heart. I packed a backpack with gardening gloves and a few changes of clothes and moved into a yurt.

On the first day, 11 other young adults aged 18-30 and I nervously unpacked our bags and got to know one another over a Cob-oven pizza party. Though we came from across the country and extremely different backgrounds, it seemed we all had something in common: a yearning for the PURPOSE of living in deep connection to the Earth, together in community with a shared dedication to social, cultural, and ecological healing. 

Over the ten weeks, we found ourselves enjoying the dances of cooking, feeding the chickens, tending the garden, and getting kicked by the equally quarrelsome and cute goats we attempted to milk each morning. We were guided by brilliant instructors on topics such as nonviolent communication, spiritual ecology, permaculture, embodied movement and somatic awareness. We held women’s circles, attended protests, taught community skill-shares, and built relationships with the flora and fauna living around us. We dove deeply into what it means to be a “community”, meeting with our elder mentors (a group of people ages 60+) from the local area, holding weekly community potluck meals and practicing truly showing up for one another when anyone in our cohort experienced injury, sickness or loss. We grew into the niches that fed our souls, honoring our unique gifts and diverse skills.

Of course, community is not without its many challenges. I learned the overwhelm of learning to cook for a group of 20 and the frustration of collective decision making. Due to a life of conditioning on the importance of individualism, deeper social connection felt agitating at first. But with time I saw myself change. My way of being shifted into one that balanced my own grounded wellbeing with an acute awareness of the wellbeing of my community members. I was adapting to our life together, as if I was a honeybee in a hive.

Over the past few years of living and apprenticing at three permaculture education centers: The Eco-Institute in North Carolina, the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in California, and now Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica, I have felt the transformative effect of being raised within true community. Much like the interconnected symphonies of trees, fungi, plants, animals, fauna, bacteria, and insects in a forest, immersive, Earth-based educational experiences support collective learning and personal growth within a radically different system from the dominant Western culture of industrial education. By transforming the current educational and social culture of domination, segregation, and isolation into one of interconnection, we have the potential to become a generative Keystone species. We can re-weave ourselves, as Thomas Berry writes, in “mutually enhancing relationship with the rest of the Earth Community of Life”. 

If possible for yourself or a young person in your life, investigate alternative education opportunities such as The Rising Earth Immersion at the Eco Institute and other similarly-minded organizations. We must make opportunities to live and learn in Earth-honoring ways available once again to all-people, not just the privileged and wealthy few. We must learn from native ways of being, integrate our elders, defend the marginalized, and cycle abundance. We must give more than we take, offer our unique gifts, and value our brilliant diversity.

We must live like the forest, seeing ourselves as an interconnected whole with collective awareness of our shared values and goals, while valuing our individual skills and passions. Our collective survival, and joy, depend on it.

About Abbey Joy Cmiel

Abbey is an apprentice at Rancho Mastatal, a permaculture, natural building, and agroforestry education center in Costa Rica. She graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a degree in Global Studies with a focus on Latin American social and political systems. She hopes to use her Earth-skills and passion for social and environmental justice to help re-weave humans into community with one another and the natural world.

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