Alan Sasha Lithman

Starting from Scratch

Recorded: June 1, 2012

How does one plant two million trees with very little resources? Alan Lithman tells a story about his journey to India, where he engaged with a group of people to create a new world community called Auroville.

Not many can claim to have planted 2 million trees, but this environmental contribution was one result of Alan Sasha Lithman’s quest for enlightenment that began in the 1960’s when he hitchhiked from London to Auroville, India. He then spent the next 21 years as a resident of Auroville where he helped to build a new global community. Disturbed that a new community would be founded on a denuded terrace, Mr. Lithman imagined the new community as being literally and figuratively green to better reflect the founders’ high hopes. Armed with only his vision and a $15,000 grant from the Whole Earth Catalog’s Point Foundation, Mr. Lithman helped to jumpstart a movement that turned an ecologically ravaged plateau into a lushly vegetated, multicultural community. Alan was instrumental for the greening and planting of more than 2 million trees in Auroville.

Alan now resides in Ashland, Oregon and is an “evolutionary activist.” His work and writings over the decades have brought him into a broad spectrum of collaborative relations including Margaret Mead, David Brower, Michael Murphy, Barbara Marx Hubbard and Matthew Fox. His book, ‘An Evolutionary Agenda for the Third Millennium,‘ was published by White Cloud Press with support from the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

Alan Lithman: The last thing I would have imagined myself doing in going to India was getting involved with a massive tree planting project because my background, I had just graduated a university in Florida. I came out of Civil Rights, activism and inner questing, dare we say it was also the era of Timothy Leary and so I had to kind of balanced track but it mostly social activism, anti-Vietnam War protesting, free speech on campus, women’s rights and a very strong attraction to making sense of it and that took the form of an inner quest. So I flew to London, hitchhiked to India with the intention of following this through.

Alan Lithman: I was talking to some American friend there that I met and I asked him if he knew about Auroville and he said “yeah, you want to see it? I’ll take you out there.” It was meant to be a laboratory where young people or any age for that matter and any culture could come onto this plot of land that hadn’t been developed, to see what it would be like to make the experiment to provide a model that could be studied for making the shift. The British had set a bad model for how one progresses by logging out you know the old growth jungle and forests to ship back to England. So it was a pretty devastated environment.

Alan Lithman: I raised my hand, I’m a writer and I wrote a kind of brochure you know of what I was experiencing and what the intention of this was as a laboratory for future humanity to make the experiments we needed to make to shift our way through the changes to come. So I’d spent about a year and a half there, got this brochure printed in the printing press in Pondicherry and came to America with the idea of finding some network of support, that’s how I met you. And you said “I understand what you’re saying, but what are you folks actually doing there? I mean what I see is a wasteland. I see a lot of models. I see no trees. How are you ever going to build a town, a collective experiment in an environment like that? If you would consider adopting a forestation program in your community, I will see if I can help you get a seed grant for that because then you can become a model for forestation in that area.” So I took a chance and I said “yes” because it was just sort of a gentleman’s agreement with you. I had no way of contacting the community and saying “hey you know what, we’re going to start planting trees.”

Alan Lithman: So I went back there and there were enough people who really got it and we conspired a project, to plant 5,000 trees to start off and 10,000 trees, but we needed first to get compost you know and we needed to dig the pits because there was nothing there. You would have planted a tree in the ground and there it would have died the next day. And there was no running water, we had no way to irrigate it so what we had to do was, I mean it was a pretty, pretty stark about as bare as you could get. If you want to talk about karma, if I was going to put it in another metaphor I would say what we were doing was repaying a debt by ripping off the earth by having to go all the way back to the roots and start from exactly what he have made of it you know by wasting it like that. So what we wound up doing was, we had some of us who were willing to dig pits and others of us were willing to get on a bullock cart, went into the village and bought up their garbage, loaded our bullock cart with compostable trash and then set up these huge piles. And they thought we were crazy, I mean if you could imagine villagers in India who are living you know 20 centuries in the past, no electricity and stuff seeing westerners coming to this total wasteland, going in to buy their garbage. But you can adjust to anything if you, if you go into it you know then everything stops being afraid, a frightening thing and you start building up your courage you know, we can do this. But we had to cut these cubic meter pits going through laterite clay so you couldn’t do the, I mean it would blunt the crowbar literally. So you had to water them overnight and of course we didn’t have water so we would have to bring in water on 50 gallon drums on a bullock cart to do all of this. You know we were not having any kind of infrastructural backup in place so everything was requiring a huge effort. So we had to bring the water in the drums to wet the ground overnight so that the next morning we could dig the pit with the crowbar. And then huge amount of every tree is taking a cubic meter. And then we had the trees that we then had gotten the compost and you know, took enough time to get the compost that we’ve come with the bullock cart, fill in these pits with compost and then plunk the trees in, water them, had other people who had made these baskets out of Casurina Pine you know, little branches of Casurina Pine to keep the cows and the goats away, otherwise this is where you know these kind of aide programs fail. You go and throw a huge amount of money at a project like this, you plant the trees and you go away and the cows and goats eat them off and it’s done, they’re dead, nothing happens. So over two decades, we planted 2 million trees like that.

Huey Johnson: Wow!

Alan Lithman: At a certain point, the soil was changing and the aquifer was being rebuilt you know because we were retaining the water on the land and we built up forests because in the tropics, what goes down real fast comes back real fast. We didn’t just do these kind of geometric plans for trees, trees, trees and rows, rows, rows. We built jungles and forests you know that were resembling what had been there before. And the result was then, not only did we kind of revive the ecosystem to its natural state, but the wildlife came back that hadn’t been there in that half century preceding. So you had all kinds of bird life, you know you could never hear the birds and then suddenly, you’re hearing all of the birds. And you had all the small creatures that would inhabit the woodlands and go back into the trees, and you had predator species. It was just an amazing story. And so that’s what happens from little seeds.

Huey Johnson: Because I remember the amount of money you were sent away with was $15,000 dollars, is that right?

Alan Lithman: Over 3 different grants. We started with 5.

Huey Johnson: You got 2 million trees out of it.

Alan Lithman: We got 2 million trees out of that. Don’t over think something because you will lead yourself into probably talking yourself out of doing what you know you need to do. These moments on earth time are so precious and we just have no time to waste you know in doing the most that we can possibly do. And doing it individually, also doing it by joining together in collectives because so many people want you know to do something but don’t quite know how and it really maximizes impact and also gives guidance to join together in groups. You know you get a sense of strategic direction, you get a theme this is what I want to do. And I’m a parent, I mean I have a lot of other reasons but I’m tremendously motivated by what my son is going to inherit, what all of our children are going to inherit and including every species you know, humans, animals, plants. What are we going to inherit with what we’re doing right now? It’s so obviously genocidal you know, suicidal.

Huey Johnson: Yeah, [unintelligible] good.

Alan Lithman: And so we just, we need to call our own bluff.