From Africa to Appalachia

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From Africa to Appalachia

A couple’s reflection on living and growing on two Master Units

By Daniel & Latasha Isner

On a windy day under a scorching sun, some two dozen villagers gathered around a large pointed, thatched cone on the ground. Then in unison, we hoisted it into the air and walked it over to a round-walled mud hut and set the roof firmly in place. After years of living, working and visiting some very remote areas in West Africa, we finally had a rural home of our own. No longer were we merely visitors – we were community members. More importantly, our home was part of the Ananda Viirata Master Unit in Bissiri Village, central Burkina Faso.

Issue42_Page_14_Image_1It was there that we worked alongside caretaker Rasmani, Dada Padmeshananda and countless others to establish the master unit’s (MU) agro processing facility, expand the model educational and market farm, improve the level of care offered at the primary health clinic, and build the area’s first secondary school. It was a true community effort where, despite numerous setbacks (from a depressed local economy and severe weather, to the death of a beloved wife and mother of seven children) we were able to achieve what would have been impossible working alone.

Issue42_Page_14_Image_2Even in this nascent phase, the Ananda Viirata MU proved to be a living example of what can happen when a community confronts its obstacles and harnesses the grace, inspiration, and energy necessary to move forward in a progressive direction. Earlier this year, Ananda Viirata was awarded the overall first prize at the regional agriculture fair and exhibition for the farm’s delicious tangelos, vegetables and moringa project products. It was the first time in fifteen years that the MU and caretaker Rasmani had been given any sort of recognition from the local government. It was incredibly encouraging for everyone.

A Return to the West

Contrary to common belief, Burkina Faso offered good food, clean water, fresh air and a solid, supportive community, though years of vigorous work and travel through West Africa had taken their toll. Several bouts with malaria and other maladies compelled us to return to the US for a much-needed period of restoration and preparation for the next leg of the journey.

Arriving in Nashville, TN, we were surrounded by our wonderful family and dear friends at the “Good Food for Good People” agricultural community. Soon we learned that our first child was on the way which prompted us to begin envisioning what kind of environment we wanted our daughter to grow up in. Time and time again, our answers pointed to a simple desire for an environment rich in nourishing food, pure water, clean air and a loving community. It’s discouraging, at times, to see that those very fundamental elements are not at all guaranteed to the vast majority of our global population. In fact, situations of food insecurity, polluted water and a lack of proper housing are commonplace, even in communities throughout the West. At the time, we were living in downtown Nashville near a noisy interstate, both working hectic full time jobs and longing again for the life we lived in West Africa, rich with its sublime landscapes, large families, and clear purpose.

An Appalachian Oasis

Then we learned that just four hours east of Nashville, nestled and well preserved in the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Tennessee, was the Ananda Arpana Master Unit. Like so many MUs around the globe, Ananda Arpana needed desperately to attract interest, people and investment. While Nashville was welcoming more than 4000 new residents a year to its vibrant music scene, economic boom and southern hospitality, our hearts were seeking a simpler way of life with our hands in the soil.

It was a delight to meet Ananda Arpana’s founder and perennial caretaker, Laksman. As we walked the 71 acres of rolling hills, we were inspired by both the farm’s beauty and vision for its future. When Laksman invited us to assume responsibilities in developing the MU, we quickly accepted. With gratitude, we moved to Ananda Arpana shortly after our daughter, Kaevalya was born. That’s where we are today, and once again, we feel at home as part of a master unit rich with possibilities. For us, moving here was not only a way out, but a solid step towards a more ideal way of life. There is something special about this place – a palpable, spiritual vibration that runs deep into the heart of this rural sanctuary. Our wish is to extend its welcome to all people and wildlife, offering a unique experience to all who visit.

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More than A Place

At their core, master units are rural service and development centers where all aspects of life can be nourished and harmonized. Unexpressed, they may appear to be merely a plot of earth, lacking funds, housing, and resources for life. Fully expressed, however, they represent a most ideal place to raise children, grow food, nourish minds through intentional community engagement, and to grow old and wise in the shade of their beauty and serenity. Whether under a scorching West African sun or in the shadow of verdant Appalachian hills, master units offer respite and hope to a sometimes chaotic, oftentimes brutal world.

For us, Ananda Arpana is an ideal environment for our daughter to spend her early years. Its clean air, rich soil, and crystal spring providing all the property’s water needs, along with a small but committed community of like-minded people, have inspired us to establish roots. These roots will join ones we have already established abroad in connecting our respective master units in ways that remain to be seen. We believe very much in the mutual cooperation between master units globally.

This winter has given us the chance to reconnect as a family and strategically plan an ideal future for both our family and the society we seek to serve. We’ve spent much time sitting, studying, stretching and smiling with our newborn near the warmth of a wood stove which has proven to be a very healing time for us physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We spend time sharing stories and reliving memories from our time in Burkina Faso and elsewhere, while dreaming about what practical cooperation between global master units could look like in the future. We see that rural society, in particular, is becoming more fragmented and increasingly unstable. Yet, there exists a fertile opportunity to envision and continue building a better world. It is interesting that fertility and vulnerability often occupy the same space. As we have learned in both Burkina Faso and in Tennessee, there is much physical and metaphorical fallow ground waiting to be engaged and utilized.

This year we have agreed to shift from viewing our ideals as a future goal and begin our present journey towards self realization and an ever increasing service to humanity. We firmly believe in the potential that master units hold to broaden the scope of all fields of study and practice, restore socio-economic balance and eventually create a human society we can be proud to leave our children.

A Blissful Beginning

Today, we are focusing on growing Kaevalya’s first solid foods in the greenhouse and fields at Blissful Spring Farm. This was the name we have chosen for the farm at Ananda Arpana MU. It simultaneously reflects the abundant freshwater spring on the property and the season of coming alive! A name is something to live up to and we feel Blissful Spring Farm is well on its way.

In the days leading up to the Spring Equinox, we welcomed a handful of friends who worked tirelessly and joyfully to mark contours, plow swales and plant some 1200 trees. Red mulberries, persimmons, apples, pears, chestnuts, hazelnuts and locusts now accent the steep lower pastures of the farm. For our friend James Steen, conceptualizing the system and planting the trees was not unlike an artist who imagines a scene and then paints it onto a canvas. This silvo-pastoral system was created to serve all by providing food and nourishment to humans and animals while encouraging maximum biodiversity. Drawing on a wellspring of spiritual inspiration, we are moving forward into 2016 with an ever increasing sense of purpose and zeal.

Our wish is that more and more people around the globe will recognize the great potential of master units and this relatively stable, auspicious moment we have to make our vision for a global network of MUs manifest. Whether an agro-ecologist, yoga instructor, farmer, educator, retiree, businessman or baby, everyone has something meaningful to contribute to make our collective offering a blissful one.

“Sá vidyá yá vimuktaye - Education is that which liberates”