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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category


Balinese Offering

As previously featured on Elephant Journal.

I had been warned that I would experience reverse culture-shock upon returning from Bali, one of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. I have a little bit of first-hand experience with this concept, having spent my junior year of college living abroad in Spain. When I returned back to the United States and then to a small, rural college town in New England, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I had gone from a diverse and international community in the midst of a pulsating urban center with a rich cultural and artistic history, to being in the middle of farmland in one of the least diverse states in the nation. So yes, I knew all about reverse culture-shock. But I was only going to Bali on a two-week yoga retreat; surely that was not enough time to experience any kind of culture shock upon my return. I was not worried.

I guess I should have heeded the warning. After the 24 or so hour journey home from Denpasar, we landed in San Francisco late on a Sunday night. My body had no idea what time it was; it didn’t know if it should eat, sleep, or go for a walk! It happened to be just before midnight on what would be the 4th of July, a surreal time to be arriving back home from my first ever trip to Asia. As we drove into the city, headed down the Octavia St. ramp and then made the turn onto Fell St., I was very aware of the fact that I was experiencing the exact same sensation I had had when I found my feet back on the rural earth of New England, all of those years prior; I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. San Francisco is a very vibrant and lively city, full of energy, and as the city was teeming with tourists for the 4th of July festivities, one would imagine it being even more so; and to the average bystander it probably felt exactly that: alive. But to me that night it felt like a dead zone. As we drove past the dark and austere buildings of brick and wood, the city seemed almost depressed to me.

Why did it all of a sudden look so different to me? Bali had provided a stark contrast. The island is famous for being a “spiritually elevated” place with some of the world’s most happy and smiling inhabitants. And that description couldn’t have proved more true. In Bali the idea of community is one of their most important themes. Within a particular village, all of the men are required to join what is called a “Banjar”, essentially the Balinese equivalent of a community organization. The Banjar meets weekly to discuss and decide on issues that impact everyone in the village; such as when to fix a road, rebuild a side-walk or whether or not to allow a bar to open. The men of the village take their Banjar responsibilities very seriously and any men that neglect their Banjar duties are fined accordingly.

In addition to the Banjar, the rest of the villagers are heavily involved in their communities as well. They all work together to organize and perform in local, traditional dance performances, which take place often on a daily basis. They help one another out in times of need. If someone’s house catches fire, you will see the entire community grabbing buckets of water and running to the scene to help. The community also comes together in times of ritual and celebration. In Balinese Hinduism, the highest honor that a person can receive is to have a cremation ceremony. When it comes time for this elaborate and beautiful ceremony, the entire community will come together to assist with the building of the cremation tower and to celebrate the life and right of passage of the deceased.

Balinese life very much takes place in the streets. You see the happy Balinese people out and about (amidst the dogs and hundreds of chickens!) walking, talking to one another, welcoming tourists. And everywhere you look you will see smiles, wider ear to ear smiles than I have ever seen. You see men and women alike bringing their sacred offerings to their Temples, multiple times a day; all to honor and appease the Deities in order to bring blessings upon their village, and the citizens within the village. Community is everything in Bali.

So imagine I come home to a society where it is rare for anybody to talk to their neighbors (unless you have a complaint!), where we spend much of our time isolated either in our homes or in our cars, or in our offices working like dogs, and where if you regularly smile at strangers who pass you on the street, you will more likely than not be taken for a crazy person! This city that had once felt so alive and energized to me, now felt very cold and harsh…and concrete.

What shocked me most of all was the number of homeless people in San Francisco. Knowing that I live in a city with one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, this should not come as a surprise to me. I see it everyday, day and night, no matter where I go. But the reason that this was suddenly so glaring to me is that in Bali I saw none. Here I was in what the US would consider a “Third Word Country” and I did not see a single person sleeping on the streets or pan-handling. How could this be? I’ve traveled to plenty of Third and even Second and First world countries and seen ample and visible homelessness. So how is it that on this island of nearly four million people, I didn’t see any? The answer is the “family compound”.

Balinese family in their family compound

Anyone who knows me personally knows that this term has a funny, personal connotation to me. You see, my dad comes from a large Italian family, and because several of the siblings built their houses on the same plot of land, side by side and back to back to one another, they have created what we in my family call the “compound”. Well, it seems that my Italian relatives may have been onto something. In Bali, everyone lives in what they call a “family compound”. The oldest brother is the head of the compound, the wives then follow their husbands to their family compounds, and then the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren all live together, all working together to support the family compound and its members. So you see, it would be really difficult to become homeless in Bali, because even if a member of the family finds themselves jobless or down and out, because they live in the family compound, they are supported by the rest of the family. Very simply put, the Balinese take care of their own.

So to come home to San Francisco, where on any given day I can see 10-20 people, without homes, without any way to wash themselves, pushing around all of their Wordly possessions in their grocery carts, wondering where they will find their next meal; was a sobering experience to say the least. I found myself wondering how this can be in the richest country in the world when a “Third World” island like Bali has no such problem.

Another element of Balinese society that stood out to me is the way they care for their elderly. They remain in the family compound, as the family elders to impart their wisdom on the grandchildren, and they are very much involved with the day to day functions of the family unit: cooking meals, making offerings, contributing to any family artisanship (ex. mask-making, puppet-making, etc). I came back to America thinking about the fact that we so often put our elderly in nursing homes, that we essentially pawn them off on someone else to take care of them. Now I recognize that this has just become somewhat of a norm in our society and that many people do it out of necessity, and certainly not out of any lack of love. I know it is a horrible decision for many people to have to make. But when I saw this very distinct society that has found a much more humane way to take care of their elders, through the family compound, it simply seemed barbaric to me that our society has developed in the way that it has.

The last aspect of Balinese society that really struck me as beautiful and contrasting to our own was their devotion; their devotion to Earth and Spirit equally. When Hinduism came to Indonesia from India, as early as the first Century, it mixed with the animist religions that already existed on the Indonesian archipelago, forming a unique brand of Hinduism, which today remains only on the island of Bali.  Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds, and that spirits exist not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants and all other parts of nature.  The Balinese people very much live off of the land, and because of this belief that we, the Earth and everything on it, are all part of Spirit, they have a deep respect and reverence for all parts of nature. Being an agrarian society, with rice being the most important crop, the Balinese take special care to nurture their fields. They understand that if they disrespect the land, that it will cause everything and everyone to be out of balance. For that reason they spend pain-staking amounts of time and energy to honor their Deities, the Gods of the sky, the Gods of the rice, etc, by making beautiful little baskets of offerings. To walk about Bali is to see hundreds of offerings, everywhere. You will see them on cars, in front of storefronts, in restaurants, at Temple gates, and on sidewalks. As a tourist you really have to watch your step to not step on them as you go. Multiple times a day you see men and women alike coming out in their lovely sarongs and Temple scarves, to leave a beautiful offering at a Temple.

Balinese woman leaving daily offerings at temple gate

When is the last time any of us went outside and thanked the land for providing us with our food and water? What does our society do to stay in balance with Earth and Spirit? I’ll let you answer that for yourselves. I have my own thoughts on the matter.  But I do know that many of our own Native American tribes do this. The society that I have described above is very similar to Shamanic societies all around the world. I have studied much on this favorite topic of mine, as it is something from which I believe we can learn great lessons. I am intrigued by how native societies all over the world, thousands of miles apart, have developed very similar rituals and ways of living that honor the Spirits around them, the Spirits of Earth and Sky. If I can apply a pop-culture reference, if any of you have seen “Avatar”, then perhaps you know what I’m talking about. That film was poignantly timed and did a powerful job of illustrating the beauty and wisdom of a Shamanic society, of the importance of respecting, honoring and integrating with the land around us. Picture the scenes in “Avatar” and you can pretty much picture Bali.

So what is my point? Am I saying that Bali is a better place to live than America? Bali is a beautiful, magical, spiritually “elevated” place, that is absolutely true. And would I accept an invitation to live there, even if only for a while? You better believe it! But I am not saying that any one place is better to live than the other, and I have to state that because I know that there will be people who read this and make that mistake. I definitely recognize the wonderful things about the United States (as I did after my adjustment home from Spain as well), but the beautiful thing about travel is that it gives you perspective, perspective to see what is good about one’s society and what we have to be thankful for; but it also provides us with the perspective to see what is not so good about our own societies, what can be improved upon and where we have room to grow as a people.

I believe the true definition of a Patriot is someone who is not so arrogant to believe that they are better than everyone else, but rather is humble enough to know that he can learn from other people, other cultures. And while a country that still performs animal sacrifice, a country that does not use toilet paper and a country where offerings are made to appease the Gods, would most often be considered “primitive” by the Western world, instead I would argue that it has a lot to teach us. The real question is, are we humble enough to learn?

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Volunteers at Capay Organic Farm (Photo by Tara Luz Stevens, http://www.tlsimages.com/)

I am a city girl at heart. So what on earth was I doing walking around in the mud at an organic farm in the boondocks? Good question! A friend of mine had discovered an opportunity to volunteer at an area farm, to be able to see first hand the true source of our food. Though I had grown up in a semi-rural suburb, and we did have a chicken coop in our backyard, that was the closest I had ever come to living a farm experience.  I immediately recognized this as a fantastic opportunity to step outside of myself, out of my comfort zone, out of my daily life and habits.

We set out on the 2+ hour drive up to Capay, CA. As we drove further and further away from the urban life that I know and love so well, the landscape became more and more rural and remote, with nothing but farms and the occasional dusty gas station. Convinced by the beautiful rolling hills all around us that I could be in Tuscany, we pulled into the dirt road that was the entrance to Capay Organic Farm. I chuckled at the directions we were given: “turn left up the dirt road, go past the grapes and turn right at the old tractor.” I was immediately reminded of an area of Vermont where my mom used to live, where I was often told to turn left at the manure pile! What ever did the UPS man do before GPS? A far cry from the urban jungle I call home.

When we arrived on the farm, we were told that they were currently working to address an aphid infestation, and that since it is an organic farm (meaning no pesticides!) we would be releasing 250,000 live lady bugs: nature’s perfectly designed solution for an aphid problem. Remembering that years prior my brother had tried this experiment on his tiny yard in the city, I had a general idea of what we would be doing, though this was on a scale thousands of times greater than my brother’s cute little garden. I was excited to experience something completely new and unique.

As we walked down to the particular field of crops that we would be treating, I admired the stunning rose garden to the left, and then smiled as I saw the chicken coop to the right, reminded of a more innocent time gone by, when the highlight of my day was fetching fresh, warm eggs out from under a hen in our backyard chicken coop. I laughed to myself at the memory of our sweet dog Freckles chasing an escaped chicken around the yard.

We continued down the dusty path, sizzling in the hot afternoon sun, until we came upon the main fields of crops. As we walked by each row, our host told us about the different crops: strawberries, cilantro, lettuce, bok choy, asparagus, beets, etc. I reminisced about my jovial grandfather, who in life had been an avid gardener and was always teaching us about the different vegetables in his little garden. I was once again reminded of a simpler time, of a generation that had more conscious awareness of and respect for the land, of a generation who tilled their own land and cooked from their own garden. I thought about how far removed most of us are from our food source, especially those of us living the urban city life, and I contemplated our society’s lack of connection to the land. I yearned for the return of such a grounded and connected way of life.

As I surveyed the scene I was in awe of the pure bounty of nature, of how perfectly each crop sprouted from the earth, of how each fruit and vegetable had such a unique and specific color and design, that allowed it to grow precisely in its own way, whether underground, above ground on a stalk, or hanging from a tree; all so different in their forms, but yet so similar in their perfection and their source. All had sprung from the same beautiful and bountiful Mother Earth. I was immediately moved and humbled by the pure wonder of it all.

I began to feel the sun scorching my shoulders. Coming out of the often foggy city of San Francisco, it had been a while since I’d been in such intense sun and heat. My thoughts turned immediately to the farm workers, to the incredibly hard-working, tough, and resilient men and women who spend 10 hours a day in this blistering sun, doing the back-breaking work of picking each crop by hand. Had I ever had the opportunity to thank a single one of them for the fresh fruits and vegetables that I buy at my cute little neighborhood farmers’ market? Had any of us?

Gavin Taylor, Farm Fresh to You & Capay Organic (Photo by Tara Luz Stevens, http://www.tlsimages.com/)

We arrived at the crops with the aphid infestation. First we would work on the beets, then the spinach. We opened up the first bag of stirring lady bugs, eager to escape from their trap. Our host reached his arm in and took a handful of the beautiful little creatures; they quickly covered his forearms. He began to walk the fields releasing lady bugs as he went. I hesitated. Though I’ve always loved nature, was I brave enough to take a handful of live bugs? Well, thankfully these were a less scary variety of bugs. I mean, who doesn’t love a ladybug?! I squinched my face as I reached my hand into the pulsating pile of lady bugs. I pulled my hand out and stared at the mound of life in my hands. I marveled at the hundreds of vulnerable and delicate little creatures that walked all over each other and up my arm, tickling me as they went. “What an incredible Earth we live on, what an amazing web of life, ” I thought to myself.

A few hours later, as we embarked on the long drive back to the city, I was deep in thought. I stared into the darkness that enveloped us, gazed up at the night sky full of bold, bright stars, and admired the tiny sliver of the moon. I reflected upon the totally unique and awesome experience that we had just had. What had started out as a 2-hour volunteer stint in the hot sun would turn out to teach me some beautiful lessons: I had a new-found appreciation for a simpler time and way of life and wondered if and when we might return to that, I had a renewed and profound recognition of the intricate design of nature and the pulsation of life all around us, and lastly… I knew I would never again go to the farmers’ market without saying a sincere “thank you.”

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About Farm Fresh to You & Capay Organic:

Growing organic produce since 1976, Farm Fresh to You harvests over 100 types of fruits and vegetables on their Capay Organic Farm and offers over 14 different types of produce boxes for delivery to homes and offices in California.  To learn more, please click here.

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