Walking Through the MA Center: Chicago Farmlands

For the third year in a row, I attended Amma’s programs in Chicago during the last week in June. Like previous years, I spent part of my time there walking the fields. The first place I visited was the hoop house. This year they were growing tomatoes in that structure.

(Click on any of the galleries to enlarge the photos.)

Next, I headed towards the echinacea field. The MA Center volunteers had done a lot of work in that area since I was there last. The rows were neat and weeded and it was no longer mixed with other plants. When I visited the field in 2017, only three flowers had fully bloomed. This year there were many of the pinkish-purple flowers.

As I investigated the echinacea field this year, I remembered the video I had seen prior to my 2016 visit. That video had been taken much later in the summer so the field was full of flowers. I was inspired by the video and resolved to someday see it in person.

When I returned to Seattle after my 2016 visit, I planted echinacea in my own garden. At some point I want to learn how to harvest the echinacea for medicinal use. Right now, I am just enjoying seeing the flowers in their various stages of development.

As I was writing this post, I remembered the microscopic photos I’ve taken of the echinacea flowers from my garden. Seeing them again heightened my already existing fascination with the plant.

Back to my visit to Amma’s Chicago Center this year. After I left the echinacea field, I walked to the orchard.

Then I headed for the fields where vegetables are grown. I have found it interesting to see how the farmlands change from year to year.

In 2016, an alfalfa farmer rented part of the property.

MA Center: Chicago grew both vegetables and flowers in nearby fields.

The photos below show what some of the MA Center farmlands looked like in 2017:

This year, 2018, even more of the property is being farmed or being prepared for future farming. I was amazed by the size of the fields and by the changes that had been made in irrigation and mulching… or perhaps “mulching substitutes” would be a more accurate way to describe it. Maybe next year I will ask for someone to show me around the fields so I can ask questions about the changes I see. Right now, all I’m doing is guessing.

I feel so grateful to be able to witness the development of these fields. I wonder how they will change between now and the summer of 2019!

Return to Kuzhitura Farm: January 10, 2018

My friend Ramana had asked if I would take him to some of the ashram gardens when he arrived in Amritapuri. Since he didn’t come to India until the 9th and I was returning to the U.S. at 5 a.m. on the 12th, I decided it was only reasonable for me to take him to one of them. I chose Kuzhitura.

You may remember when I visited this farm on December 27, 2017, I saw some tubs that I thought might be a new way to catch water.

Later, I learned that the structures that were originally built for water catchment had become homes for turtles.  I found a picture of one of those structures that I took in January 2016. I can see why turtles would want to live there!

One of the problems with the turtles living in that “pond” is that the water dries up during the dry season. It is not a safe place for the turtles to live. The new tubs are meant to be homes for the turtles.

When I returned to Kuzhitura on January 10, I enjoyed seeing how much homier the tubs looked than when I had been there two weeks before.

Sarvaga, a friend who works in this farm, introduced Ramana and me to some of the turtles living in the current “pond.” She talks to them as she offers them treats and they come right up to her!

 

 

The staff are not going to move the turtles into their new homes. Sarvaga said they will find their own way there. I look forward to seeing where the turtles are living when I return to Amritapuri later in the year.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Visiting the Seed-Saving Farm

I talked about my challenges in finding the Seed-Saving farm in my last post and said I would tell you more about my visit there in a separate post. That time has come!

When I arrived at the farm, Lokesh, the volunteer who manages this project, told me that in Kerala they can grow four sets of crops each year. Since they had just finished harvesting the last crop and were only beginning to prepare for the next one, he was disappointed that he couldn’t show me more.

While I thought he shared an abundance of information with me, I found a delightful video on his YouTube channel that gave me a sense of what would be like to participate in this community gardening activity.

The soil on the farm, and in most, if not all, of the land in this area is very sandy and of poor quality.

At the seed-saving farm, volunteers are making charcoal by burning coconut husks. The charcoal is then turned to powder and added to dried cow dung and dirt. Charcoal is used because it holds in nutrients. The first video in this post had a segment where the devotees were adding the charcoal to the dung/dirt mixture.  In the video that mixture was put into pots and then seeds were planted in the pots. The mixture may also be spread on the land and covered with cut up coconut palm fronds or mixed with other kinds of mulch.

Ideally, Lokesh would like to have seven planting fields on  this 13 acre property. At this point, they are working primarily on an eggplant field. So far, the volunteers have dug 100 holes and filled them with mulch. They add more mulch and other soil enhancers, such as the charcoal mix, as the mulch breaks down. While I was at the farm, there were two women cutting up coconut fronds to add to that area.  Sticks surround each space that will eventually hold a seedling.

Another part of the farm is dedicated to producing tapioca. Tapioca is easy to grow in Kerala and it usually doesn’t need to be watered. In this farm, a plant called cirra is often grown under it. (Note: I’m not sure of the spelling of cirra.) Chaitanya told me later that cirra is one of the many forms of spinach that is grown at the ashram. There is also a red leafed plant that is being grown. In some of the other gardens, it is called red spinach and used as a vegetable. Lokesh told me it is actually a form of amaranth.

One part of the property had ridge gourds growing. I had never seen anything like them. When I read about them, I learned that they can grow up to 13 inches long. I believe the ones I saw were longer than that. I also saw remnants of pea and bean plants.

There were several nurseries at this farm. The first photo shows echinacea seedlings. I don’t remember what the other ones were.

I’m realizing that I haven’t said anything about seed-saving at the Seed-Saving farm. They are indeed saving seeds but as I understand it, part of that process is knowing how to select the right seeds and also how to grow plants that will produce healthy seeds. I know from this visit and my visit last year, that Lokesh is doing a lot of experimenting to determine how to provide the most support to the plants so that they create the best seeds possible.

On this visit, he told me that he had been given an old Kerala type pumpkin, a pumpkin that is very rare. He used four plants that were grown from that pumpkin; two of them he grew as they were and the other two he crossed with a pumpkin from the agricultural university.  The pumpkins that grew from the old Kerala pumpkin seeds looked like this:

The ones that were crossed with the university pumpkin had similarities to the old Kerala pumpkin, but also differences.

Lokesh explained that he was crossing these varieties because when a vegetable is grown without diversity it becomes very weak and will eventually “fizzle out”. By crossing them, he will be able to develop a stronger strain of pumpkin and then will eventually breed out the university strain. The new plant will produce a pumpkin that will have the characteristics of the old Kerala pumpkin that gave it its superior quality, but it will be a much stronger plant. That process is called back dropping.

This video will give you more information about this topic:

I was fascinated by two other things I saw on that day. One was a structure that provided water to a group of plants, one drip at a time. To use it, you put a bucket of water in the tub that is at the bottom of the structure. I don’t understand exactly how it works but I know that when a machine is turned on, air is pumped intermittently in a way that causes water to be pumped from that bottom tub into a container at the top of the structure. The water then drips down to the plants below it, over a week’s time.

The first photo shows the plants and glimpses of the structure I don’t know what the main plants are, but the big ones with the long leaves are tumeric plants.

There is a well located next to the plants. Water from this well is used to fill a tub at the bottom of the structure.

The next photo shows the top part of the structure. Lokesh turned the machine on when I was there. I think some water will begin to pool in the blue-gray part after it runs for a while.)

This photo shows the body and the bottom of the structure. You will notice that the tumeric plant is drooping. That plant starts to die when it is ready to be harvested. We checked in the soil around it and could feel big tumeric bulbs.

I’m going to end this post by telling you that Lokesh is creating a blacksmith shop on the property. He is inventing all sorts of things there. His most recent invention is a power hammer made from an old bicycle!

Below is a video that shows how he made the hammer. There are several other blacksmithing videos on his YouTube channel, as well as videos on many other interesting subjects.

As I imagine you can tell from my post, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at this farm and look forward to going back there the next time I am in Amritapuri.

[Note: I apologize for any mistakes I may have made in relaying the information I learned that day. These subjects are all so new to me.]

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Visiting Amma’s Vrindavan Field

On December 29, Gopika and I visited Vrindavan Field. This garden was started many years ago. At that time it was a tulasi garden. Over time, the devotees added many other kinds of plants. Several years ago, they discovered that some of the trees on the site were rudraksha trees. The seed that is inside of the rudraksha fruit is sacred. Since then, gardens all over the ashram have been raising rudraksha tree seedlings. The photo above shows an area that contains a combination of coconut palm trees and rudraksha trees. The tree in the foreground on the left is a rudraksha tree.

One of the first plants I was drawn to on this visit was a banana palm sprout that was growing out of a nearly dead banana palm stalk that was lying on the ground. You can see a tiny bit of the sprout on the left side of the first photo below; most of the photo is of the stalk. The second photo shows the full sprout. Banana palms only give fruit once; then they die and new sprouts take their place.

(Click on any of the galleries to enlarge the photos.)

The gardens and farms in this field have had to deal with so many problems over the years. For example: lack of water, flooding, disease, and poor soil.  The staff have experimented with so many processes to enrich the soil and to retain water. Their effort has definitely paid off, but challenges still come and go.

This year a lot of the tulasi plants died and the garden doesn’t seem as lush as it did last year. But there is still plenty of beauty and the site is producing a considerable amount of food. I saw bananas, coconuts, tapioca, many kinds of spinach, beans, eggplant, okra, basil and moringa growing. There were plants that I didn’t recognize and I suspect many of them are edible.

I didn’t see as many flowers as in the past, but there were some…

… and there were plenty of interesting plants.

As we were leaving, one of the staff offered to take us to see the rudraksha trees on the School of Ayurveda grounds. She said those trees were much smaller than the ones in Vrindavan Field. We  gladly took her up on her offer and it was well worth it; the trees were beautiful.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

I Was Wrong!

Three days ago, I wrote a post about my visit to Kuzhitura Farm. In it, I showed some tubs that were buried in the ground. I said they were being used to collect water. A friend of mine from Seattle asked me to give her more information about the new water catchment method. When I thought about it some more, I realized I had made an assumption that was probably wrong; while the tubs could hold rain-water, they weren’t big enough to provide much of a water source for a farm that size.

Yesterday, I had a chance to talk to an Amritapuri friend who works at that farm. She told me that the water catching system they have used for the last few years didn’t work well. The old system looked like this:

While the plastic did catch some water, it turned into a pond for turtles instead of a way to store water. The devotees who take care of this farm often found turtle eggs in it.

It was not a suitable  home for the turtles or their eggs, however. It is hot here and many months there is little to no rain. During those times, the pond dries up. The staff decided to build homes for the turtles that would be more sustainable. Soon they will live in the tubs!

With Amma in Chicago

Last year was the first time I attended Amma’s Chicago area programs. I had heard about the Center there for years and was excited to see it for myself. The site had once been a Seventh Day Adventist college. When I drove onto the property, I found myself on a tree-lined street of homes, homes that had once been faculty housing. I burst into tears. I have been to many of Amma’s ashrams and centers but this felt like being in a town, a town dedicated to Amma’s ideals of compassion and service.

Many of the original buildings had been remodeled and a new program hall had been built. The property was very large and a good deal of it was farm land. There was a large echinacea field as well as fields devoted to growing herbs and vegetables. I had such a good experience that year. Attending the Chicago programs is now a top priority for me.

This year, I arrived at MA Center-Chicago on June 20. I knew I was close when, in the distance, I saw the big blue water tower emblazoned with Amma’s logo. When I turned into the property and drove past those first houses, I felt as if I had come home.

Amma wouldn’t arrive at the program for another hour, so after saying hi to my son and daughter, Sreejit and Chaitanya, I headed to the fields. One of the first things I saw was a butterfly. That greeting became even more significant to me when it turned out to be the only butterfly I saw that day.

Prior to going to Chicago last year, I had seen a short aerial video of the Center’s echinacea field.

Seeing that field in person was a major goal for last year’s visit and I was eager to see it again this year. I walked and walked but couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt confused. It had been such a large field; they couldn’t have transplanted it, could they?

I did find the hoop house. There were so many more plants in it than last year.

I eventually gave up trying to find the echinacea field and returned to the program hall. When I asked someone about it later, I discovered the field was further away than I had thought. After attending Amma’s meditation, I headed outside again. Before long, I was able to find it. Last year I had been fascinated seeing the many stages of growth, from buds to full flower. The programs were held earlier in June this year and I only saw three open flowers in the whole field.  A lot of nettles and milkweed grew along with the echinacea. Those plants draw bees, butterflies and other insects to the field.

These beautiful flowers also were growing in the echinacea field. If you know what they are, please tell me!

From there, I strolled to a field of herbs.

And then walked to the vegetable field. I really liked the signs they had created to show what was growing in the row.

This fall, MA Center- Chicago is opening a GreenFriends Montessori School. It will focus on nature-based learning and peace education. As I gazed at this field I imagined the children helping to plant and care for the vegetables.

Beyond the vegetable field, there was an orchard. This photo shows only half of it. The trees had grown a lot since I had seen them last.

After visiting the fields, I began to walk back to the program hall. On my way, I saw a bird trying to pull a worm from the ground. (Or at least I think that was what it was doing!) Then another bird flew over my head a few times. I felt like it was “dive bombing” me. Moments later, I saw a bird house that was similar to the ones I have at home. It was only four or five feet off the ground. As I walked by it, a baby bird was looking out of the opening. I think there was another baby behind it. It must have been the mother or father bird that had been flying at me, concerned I was going to hurt the babies.

*****

As I sat in the program hall that day, ideas for designing a cluster of trees, shrubs and ground covers for our Greenbelt Restoration site in Seattle started coming into my mind. I thought about it throughout the day. My dreams during the night were incessant, and were all about the Greenbelt. The next morning, I located the children’s program room and drew my ideas on paper. I looked forward to returning to Seattle and doing the research necessary to determine whether or not my plan was viable.

*****

As I am writing this post, I am struck by how little time I spent near Amma in Chicago. I met Amma in summer of 1989. In the early years, I spent hour after hour sitting close, mesmerized. At some point, I started doing seva (volunteer work) throughout the year, and during the programs. That era lasted more than 20 years. Now I find that I still want to be with Amma, but I want it to be in a way that I can be immersed in nature at the same time. I’m reminded of the Bible verse that says  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” I am allowing my life to unfold. I feel close to Amma whether I am sitting next to her, being held in her arms, or walking in the fields taking in the glory of nature.

*****

Some of my favorite experiences in this year’s Chicago program occurred because Eknath was there. I don’t remember when I first saw Eknath at Amma’s programs but it must have been 10-15 years ago. I still think of him as a boy but he is probably his 30’s by now. Eknath is autistic. I was once told that when he first met Amma he couldn’t talk. That changed long ago. He often blurts out statements that make everyone, including Amma, laugh. One time he told Amma she should have a boyfriend. Another time, he went to her during darshan (darshan is the time she blesses people by giving hugs) and told her he wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Amma called someone from the Western Cafe and told them to make him a sandwich and bring it back to her.

Another memory I have of him occurred in the Amritapuri (India) auditorium. One day as I was walking to the auditorium, I heard a gut wrenching wail. Some instinctual part of me knew that it was Eknath and that someone had told him he had to leave India and return to the U.S. He cried with a profound level of despair that couldn’t help but affect those around him.

He is probably best known for going up to people and pulling up both sides of his mouth with his index fingers and telling them to smile. He emanates joy. He usually has earphones on, listening to Amma bhajans. Sometimes he sings along. When Amma and the swamis are singing, he gets so excited that he starts jumping and jumping and jumping. Occasionally, the swamis keep their songs going much longer than they would normally. His joy is infectious.

Eknath was doing all of those things during the second or third evening program in Chicago. Someone handed him a microphone and asked him to sing. He sang “What a Wonderful World.” (Lyrics) I doubt I was the only one in the room that was crying.

Here is a video of Louis Armstrong singing that song.

Eknath was then asked to sing another song. This time he chose “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” but he changed it to “Amma Claus is Coming to Town.” (Lyrics) Needless to say, hearing those lyrics applied to Amma was hilarious.

I am thankful that Eknath is in this world

*****

Every day with Amma is packed with experiences. In addition, this year I’ve had the chance to be with my son and daughter during the programs. That normally happens only when I’m in India. Life is good.

Amma’s Vrindavan Tulasi Field… tulasi and so much more

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On January 8th, I visited one of the oldest gardens in Amritapuri. While it is known as Amma’s Vrindavan Tulasi Field, it has become so much more.

In the early years, growing tulasi was the main focus. Then, the volunteers who worked at the farm discovered that Rudraksha trees were scattered around the property. Rudraksha seeds are considered sacred in India so they started harvesting the seeds and planting more of the trees. They also began growing vegetables and other plants.

Farming on that property has been such a struggle over the years. Among the problems they faced were lack of water, poor soil, and bugs. When I visited the farm last year, what I saw took my breath away. It had turned into paradise. (To see photos of last year’s visit, click here.)

When I went there this year, I was amazed by all the new projects that were underway. The first thing I noticed was an irrigation system that was under construction. I thought about all the years they have watered using small hoses. What a difference the irrigation system will make.

Then I noticed all of the raised beds. I was told that when there are heavy rains, the farm floods. With raised beds, the plants will be higher than the water. Several swales have been constructed to drain off the flood waters, but the photos I took of those ended up looking like flat ground, so I didn’t use them.

There is a big pond on the property. The plants that are growing in the pond are used for mulching. I saw, and talked to, volunteers who were constructing stairs that will go into the pond to make harvesting those plants easier.

There are rudraksha trees on several parts of the property. They are easy to spot because their trunks have all been painted white. Next year I will ask why they do that!

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The numerous tulasi fields are thriving.

Many fruits and vegetables grow on the property.

I was surprised by the many varieties of eggplant. Later, I saw a bright yellow eggplant at Saraswati Garden but it was on the phone I lost on my last day at the ashram so you will have to use your imagination to see that one. I was particularly fascinated by the eggplant that looked like an egg!

The plant below is called Lakshmi Taru, The Paradise Tree, The Tree of Heaven, Simarouba or Simaroubaceae. It is a medicinal tree that has been used to treat dysentery, malaria, cardiac palpitations, asthma and epilepsy. It may have a role in cancer treatment.

I was intrigued by this flower.

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Later, I learned it is a Sita Ashoka flower. Ashoka means “without sorrow”. Hindus believe that Sita, wife of Lord Rama, sat in a grove of Ashoka trees after she was abducted by the evil Ravana. Buddhists believe that Lord Buddha was born under an Ashoka tree.

I found this photo of an Ashoka tree on Wikimedia.

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I will leave you with some final images of Amma’s wonderful Vrindavan Tulasi Field.

 

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: January 9, 2017

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Monday, January 9 was another full and rewarding day. My main goal was to visit Vrindavan Farm, which is located in a part of Vallikavu that is south of the Amrita Ayurvedic College. I wasn’t sure how to get there so I decided to go by rickshaw and then walk back to the ashram when I was finished.

I will be writing a whole post about that farm later, but will share some photos, including the one above, with you now so that you can get a sense of what it was like.

A sevite (volunteer worker) offered to take photos of me. Normally I would say no, but I decided to let her do it. I enjoyed seeing the shots she took. I had no idea how much my hat protected me from the hot sun!

While I was at the farm, I talked with one of the other sevites. I discovered that he works at the Amrita Serve Garden in addition to Vrindavan Farm. I have been trying to find out the location of that garden so was excited that I had met someone who knew the answer to that question. He was willing to take me there later in the week, but our schedules didn’t line up very well. I asked him for directions so I could go on my own.

He said it might be hard for me to find it, since I had to locate a particular foot path. I decided to try. If nothing else, my Fitbit would record a lot of extra steps!

On the way, I walked by a building that I have thought was a new supermarket. I had seen the supermarket sign, but the store it was on looked so small, I didn’t bother to check it out. When I walked by the sign this time, I noticed it was just an advertisement. The supermarket itself was located off the road behind the small store. I was astounded. I’d guess it is nearly ten times the size of the other “super” market in town. There is no other shop in Vallikavu that is anywhere near that size.

I continued walking, passing by the supermarket and a new temple that was under construction. I saw two foot paths. I started down one path, but in a short time decided it was the wrong one, so I turned around and came back to the main road and took the other path. On that path I saw these:

After some time on the new path, I reached a paved road. I was clearly on the wrong path so I again walked back to where I had started and re-took the original path. After some time, I saw the garden I had been looking for.

No one was present to show me around, so I just wandered. Before I leave Amritapuri, I’m going to meet up with the man that gave me directions so I can learn more about that garden. I will pass on the information he gives me when I write the main post about the Amrita Serve garden. For now, here is a glimpse of some of the plants. [Update: I met with the sevite on 1/12. When he looked at the photos he told me that wasn’t the Amrita Serve garden. I apparently was on a private farm that grows tapioca, coconuts and bananas! There aren’t signs on either property and there are private houses on both so I had never considered that option. I had been told that it was after a purple house. There was a purple house just before this one too. I’m going to see the Amrita Serve garden this morning, 1/13.]

When it was time for me to walk back to the ashram, I decided to take the canoe rather than walk over the bridge. It the first time I had done that since the bridge was built, eight years ago.

I felt so peaceful floating on the water, and the ride to the peninsula only cost 10 rupees (about 15 cents). I may never walk over the bridge again.

In addition to having a wonderful morning exploring the gardens, I had walked more than 13,000 steps!

 

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

My Dream is Realized- Part 2

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MA Center Chicago is located outside of the city on 145 acres of land. On my second day there I walked to some of the places that had been pointed out on a tour of the property I took the first day. (Click here to read Part 1 of this post.)

I headed first towards a gigantic greenhouse. Between the greenhouse and me was an area that a local farmer uses to grow alfalfa. Part of the alfalfa had already been rolled into cylindrical bales.

(Click on any gallery to see the photos as a slide show.)

As I walked, I spotted a bird’s house and two bee hives.

I finally made it to the big greenhouse.  I believe it is a special kind of greenhouse, it may even have a different name. Maybe some of you will recognize what kind of farming this is… and tell me!

When I left that area, I saw all of the big fields.  They were filled with so many different plants. I remembered that we had been told that 34 different medicinal herbs were being grown on the property. There were many other types of plants as well.

I was most eager to see the Echinacea field.  Previously, I had seen a video of the fields when they were in full bloom last year. At this time of year, I could see Echinacea flowers at all stages of their growth cycle.

Milkweed, nettles and other beneficial plants are allowed to grow throughout the Echinacea field. Br. Shantamrita had told us whenever they see milkweed on the property they mow around it.

Here is the video of the Echinacea field when it was in full bloom last year.

After leaving the Echinacea field, I discovered there were more fields; many more.

 

I even saw the new orchard

I didn’t visit all of the fields, but I believe I will have more opportunities to do that in the future. As I walked back to the program hall, tired but happy, these were some of the views I saw.

I was so happy to be at MA Center Chicago that numerous people asked if I was planning to move there. While I don’t know what my future holds, I do not expect that I would do that. I can’t imagine living through the Chicago winters and besides, I love the Pacific Northwest. If and when I decide to leave my house, I would be more likely to move to the Amritapuri ashram in India where my adult children live or to the Center we will soon have in the Seattle area.

I know that part of my excitement is because of my interest in nature and in gardening but I believe it is also because I marvel that a community like this one in Chicago exists.  I have been a devotee of Amma’s since 1989. I visited her ashram in India soon after she started her first humanitarian project. Since then, the number and scope of her Embracing the World projects has grown at a phenomenal and mind-boggling rate. This center is one small part of that network. I feel very blessed to be a part of Amma’s world.