I’ve asked Nara to make this interview with him for the annual magazine that Global Ecovillage Network Russia used to publish. To have a more holistic view I’ve invited Tanya Gulyaeva to help me to prepare questions. For the GEN Russia Magazine 2021, she did a perfect interview series with Russian permaculture practitioners, and I thought her contribution could be also significant here. So the first part is mostly based on her photographer’s eye perspective translated into written language — questions are more about Nara’s inner experience, while mine are all about external activities.
It was before the Russian government's aggression on Ukraine. By the time we had it ready, it was clear it wouldn’t be possible to publish it in their GEN Russia magazine. So we agreed to publish it both on Nara’s blog and here on my Medium.
Nara has lived for more than a decade without shoes, a toothbrush, flushing toilets, and other “necessities” of modern life while working with high officials, presidents, CEOs, mayors, and ministers…, publishing 6 books and hundreds of articles, bringing ecovillages and permaculture closer to the mainstream society. He was the editor and co-translator of the entire Ringing Cedars of Russia series to Slovenian. Nara travels the world barefoot, speaking, teaching, and supporting environmental projects. His home base is a sustainable community project in Slovenia that he co-founded in 2013. Nara had a pivotal role in the rise of the global Let’s do it! World Cleanup movement, training teams from more than 100 countries on how to manage a huge social movement.
What is “genuine humanness” for you, in a nutshell?
Genuine humanness is biological integrity: adapting everyday habits to our basic human anatomy. But I explain it from the opposite side: how everyday habits, defined by culture, deform human anatomy. For example, chairs weaken our spine, sitting toilets weaken our peristalsis, shoes weaken our feet, etc. It’s these everyday items that distance us most inconspicuously from humanness. This is the “via negativa” approach, a recipe of what to avoid so everyone can find something to remove from their life and move a bit closer to humanness. Humanness is an ideal that’s impossible to frame universally, that’s why I take this approach.
What kind of person were you before starting your instinctive natural path? What qualities did you have and what has changed now?
My nature expressed the way it did in a particular social context. I was a polarized teenager: mostly reserved but outgoing too; then I was a fanatical Hare Krishna monk; then a fruitful translator and author; then an activist, mobilizer, and facilitator. My life’s path was a combination of luck and choices.
As a teenager, I used to be an anti-determinist — I hated the idea that my life could be decided and I had no choice! I didn’t believe in karma yet, but there were social norms in my socialist (profane) society and the only sequence that they could present to me was: school, job, family, retirement, death — I wouldn’t say I liked that, I found it extremely bleak. I went against that. To go against atheism meant going towards spirituality, or religion.
I looked for it, but for my taste, Christianity was ritualistic and fake. Looking for something different, I explored the Eastern traditions and ended up spending seven years of my life in the Hare Krishna ashram.
In the ashram, I was determined to change the world. I was attempting to do it by force. But all I got from this forcing were a few “spikes” on the “curve” that represents the flow of my life, some spikes are positive and some negative.
Before entering the so-called green/community realm I learned to rebel against the mainstream, then against the alternative, and then against the mainstream again. Now I don’t rebel anymore, I only observe stupidities on both sides and if someone is curious I share with them what I see and what better alternatives exist. Ultimately, I had to go against my destiny to fulfil it.
How did you first manage to awaken in yourself the instinct of how to live correctly, if it is “covered with a thick layer of programmed, involuntary behaviour.” How did you manage to break through this layer, what gave you strength for the first step, and what was it like?
I was lucky to have lived in the Hare Krishna community for seven years. I adopted many non-typical habits and practised them even after I left the ashram: sitting on the floor to eat, squatting on the toilet to poop, etc. Later on, freelancing for a few magazines, I looked for topics to write about. I delved into literature to find more about my “strange” habits. That’s how I discovered that many habits, which we consider intrinsic to cultured living, are essentially anti-scientific, irrational, and even harmful to our health.
Finding all this out was an interplay of coincidences and me paying attention to patterns. I ended up as my own “guinea pig” in my personal experiment with my old and new habits.
I must admit that co-translating and publishing Vladimir Megre’s books about Anastasia in Slovenian made an impact on me between 2001 and 2005 too.
I always knew that the “correct” human life can only be a compromise with mainstream society. If I want to have an impact and be taken seriously I have to stay socially relatable. My practice of humanness, even if I stretch it, can only go as far as the dominant culture allows.
What does being healthy mean to you? How do you experience health? If this sense of physical health intersects with the spiritual realm, and if so, could you mention a little bit about where they intersect and their mutual influence?
I used to be sick a lot until I was 12 or 13. Back then I did karate and read about spirituality. At some point, I started practising self-healing techniques from ninjutsu: breathing, acupressure, energetic visualizations, exposing my body to cold, fasting…
When I lay in bed with a fever, my mom would still bring me pills, but I hid them under my pillow. I healed myself with the above techniques. From that point on I used them as prevention at the very first symptom and after that, I never got ill even when flu knocked everyone down in our school or family. I never took an antibiotic ever again.
I tried to teach these techniques to others but to little avail. They are tailored to me in a combination of physical and spiritual practices. The only thing that would knock me down was stress when I simultaneously worked on multiple intense projects: World Cleanup Day, Sunny Hill community, ECOLISE, and travelled 5 to 6 months every year.
During my last ten years, I have grown away from the esoteric “spirituality” into a more zen-like sense of presence. I define spirituality as transcending self-referentiality.
You write that “common sense and rational arguments” helped you challenge social norms. Weren’t you afraid of being cast out of society, ostracized? You were most likely called a freak. What character trait helped you to carry on?
I used to dance in the street wrapped in “sheets”, with my head shaven, and chant Hare Krishna! What can be freakier than that? Whatever I do today is far less radical. I just have to remember this and I can relax in my present “freakishness”.
Over the years I learned that people actually like “freaks”, especially when they make more sense than everyone else. We like to see an individual outsmart large groups, especially self-serving institutions. It’s about the fight between uncommon-looking common sense and common-looking common nonsense.
Most of my habits are invisible. Only my barefooting really stands out. That’s what people in uniforms confront me about every now and then, but not nearly as often as one would imagine.
Was it willpower? Now some psychologists say that willpower is more about violence against one’s nature. Can willpower help you make this path to your wildness, or is it something else? Everyone who goes his own way, different from the mainstream, probably experiences loneliness at some point. Do you know this feeling?
If you’re getting raped every day and you use violence to get out of that situation, isn’t that necessary even for your self-preservation? Most of us are, of course, not physically imprisoned and raped, but the social pressure can be violent too.
Imagine you were born in a culture where it’s normal for grown-ups to have sex with children. It’s impolite for children to object to sleeping with respected guests. If that’s all you know and everyone is doing it, you’ll never doubt it.
If you think there is no culture like this, you should know about an essay, written by the ancient Roman historian Anon. In that essay, Anon gives advice on what kind of guest you should show courtesy to by offering him your son to sleep with.
You probably roll your eyes when reading this. But with self-awareness you can ask yourself: What kind of factually weird behaviours do we take for granted just because that’s what everyone is doing?”
Think about circumcision or female genital mutilation. That’s violence practised by hundreds of millions. Speaking out against it can get you in trouble, and we prefer to look away.
Or let’s come closer to home and look at types of subtle cultural “rape” happening in your own lives every day. It happens via your culture. The agents are inconspicuous: chairs, tables, shoes, clothes, toilets, toothbrushes, daily routines, norms, dishes, phrases… the list can go on and on.
You may exclaim: “Well, what does this have to do with anything?!”
That’s exactly how an ardent defender of female genital mutilation would react too!
The issue is that you’re swimming in hundreds of cultural norms that you’re unable to question, not only one. The more I realized how this affects us, the more I was compelled to change.
But self-change is easier said than done!
We are social beings and it turns out that for almost everyone the pain of partaking in shared stupidity and violence is lesser than the pain of shame and being an outcast.
I was stubborn enough to pursue a non-standard path in life and when I did, I learned there are plenty of freaks out there. They form communities of their own, they are good company and they support each other in their differences, just as common people support each other in their sameness.
On the path towards most great achievements, there is a period of aloneness. Not loneliness! Loneliness means missing the company of people while aloneness means enjoying being with yourself. Mind that you may be surrounded by people and feel lonely.
The capacity to strive alone leads to a paradox: you become attractive and people start flocking around you. The best way to get to a meaningful life and be surrounded by amazing people is by sticking to your path, especially if it’s “weird”. There’s no guarantee, but you will likely end up in great company — much better than if you play the social game exactly as you’re supposed to and trade your integrity for social acceptance — so you wouldn’t feel lonely.
The most fascinating communities are often formed by lonely progressives who are so attractive exactly because they embraced aloneness.
You’ve contributed a lot to making Slovenia a “waste-free” country, how do you consider the situation with it nowadays?
Waste-free countries don’t exist! Waste is unavoidable and to end waste we’d have to begin with extraction and production. When your bathtub overflows, you first close the tap, then you mop the floor.
The results are visible, but the inertia of the consumer system is massive and policy influencing has to go hand in hand with changes in industry and us, citizens, changing our habits. It’s a long-distance race and on the way there we celebrate each new Zero Waste municipality, business, school…
I notice, that in compact countries (Slovenia is about 2 million inhabitants with a density of 103 people per km2) those who do impact ecology are acting simultaneously in many eco-dimensions — e.g. both in cities and villages, universities (as researchers and professors) and forests (as nature guides), etc. How true is it for Slovenia?
Given the forces in the world today it’s unavoidable that we end up being members of a number of “memetic tribes” — in compact countries that are probably stronger than elsewhere. Besides this, Slovenia is culturally and geographically very diverse, exposed to Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic influences, therefore we might be forced out of our bubbles more than in vast countries like Russia where cultural diversity is a lot more spread out and memetic boundaries broader.
In our small Slovenia, the “umbrella” of ecology is small too. Once you’re under it, you’re squeezed closely with others and it’s unavoidable that you keep connecting ecology to many other areas and bumping into the same people again and again. This is a double-edged sword as being too close may destroy respect, raise suspicion, and lead to gossip and personal attacks for small mistakes. All in all, I like the positive side of it!
Surely you know about the ‘Deep adaptation’ article. What is your opinion on that paper and the community it gathers? And how do you see how people in eco-communities and initiatives in Slovenia face it? We are asking, because in Russia, even in ecovillages and kin domain settlements, the practical awareness about the ecological crisis is far from even discussions, not just actions.
I was drawn to the article as soon as I first saw it. I even attended Jem Bendell’s (the author’s) talk at Findhorn in 2019. I wrote about it here.
I appreciate the science and the activism on deep adaptation, but this comes with some issues too. I mentioned “memetic tribes” before and I recommend you learn more about them to understand how our society today is fragmenting and how no amount of science can keep our sense of shared reality together.
I would say the success of the Deep Adaptation paper is the result of its powerful language that connected some strong memetic tribes around an axis they can recognize themselves in. However, it pushed some other memetic tribes apart and caused division. That’s a common trend today.
Look around and you’ll notice it’s really difficult to get groups that have a lot in common, to come together under one shared “flag”. They’re acting as memetic tribes where everything is relative. You may share 90% of values with another group, but instead of building bridges, you will build walls due to the 10% that divides you.
I have the experience of how exhausting it is to come together around ideas and how many culture wars are on the way just now, so I’m glad some people ignore all this and focus on their land, their family, and their community. In the long run, we’ll need basic survival skills for deep adaptation and such people are the guardians of these skills.
Do you have a kind of vision on how you see Sunny Hills in the next, well… e.g. 10 years?
I first came to Sunny Hill in 2012 when there were just ruins and bushes. A lot has changed in 10 years: houses and land serve the people, and the people serve the land. I see more of that happening in the next 10 years.
When I travel and “battle with the windmills” in the intellectual and political domains of our society, coming back to the land is essential to stay sane. Sunny Hill is and should remain a bridge and a healing place where the metropolitan activists and the land-based settlers can meet. I hope we can see more of that in the future.
Tell us a bit about ECOLISE and your work/role there?
ECOLISE is a network organization formed in 2014 to unite the voice of ecological community movements, strengthen their policy impact, mobilize EU funding for the causes they work for, etc. The strongest initiative came from Transition, permaculture, and ecovillage movements with a few other networks coming on board a bit later.
I was a member of the council from 2015 to 2020 and Research Officer in 2020 and 2021. I’m in transition out of the organization now but I remain involved in a more relaxed role.
Your partner Cynthia is from the US, and one of her projects is ‘Foundation for Intentional communities‘. How do you cope with travel, does lockdown affect your family life and that two-homes lifestyle?
Oh, it’s not easy! A long-distance relationship during the time of COVID is no fun. I was smart enough to find holes in the system and manage to travel to the US three times during the pandemic despite the ban. It’s a hassle, yes, but it’s less than people from many countries in Africa and the Middle East have to deal with on their every journey. I’m still grateful for all my privileges and cope well with the difficulties.
Cynthia is the communication coordinator in FIC, she is building a house in Headwaters community in Vermont (and I help when I am there), we like gardening, and doing sports — so we have a lot in common and that makes our relationship very fulfilling.
Have you ever been to Russia? Were there any guests or volunteers in Sunny Hills from Russia and other post-soviet countries?
Oh, I have so many friends and colleagues from Russia and other post-soviet countries! But I’ve never been to Russia myself — unfortunately. (Transit via Moscow airport doesn’t count, of course.) I hope I get an opportunity to visit sometime (soon)!
I read Russian fluently and I enjoy exchanging small talk with Russian speakers (my grammar and spoken vocabulary are terrible, though).
When Maksym Zalevskyi from Ukraine invited me to Kyiv for their ecovillage/permaculture event in February 2020, I was really happy to go. I’ve been to Baltic countries, and also to Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova… ok, that’s not ex-USSR, but they were members of the former Warsaw pact, and often my broken Russian was my only means of communication.
What’s your opinion on Vladimir Megre’s books, have you read all of them? We know that outside Russia people comprehend these books differently because it’s something that comes from another culture, from Siberia, etc.
In the year 2000, an older man approached me and gave me prints of his translation of Anastasia. He was looking for a publisher. The translation was terrible but there was something truly enchanting about the story. I convinced my friend to publish the book. I corrected the translation, did the editing and the layout and we published the first two books in 2001.
I kept learning Russian to be able to help my friend translate the books. In five years we caught up with Megre and had the translations of all his books published.
In those years I attended three events with Megre, two of which went on for a few days. We had plans for an international Kin’s Domains Association. I still have the documents on my computer.
Sadly, as Megre’s book translation business was growing, I witnessed the emergence of some murky, square bureaucrats who spoke English with a tough Russian accent. Book contracts became bizarrely complex and the trust flew out the window.
I learned my lesson that good stories don’t always come to life by the authors who are living examples of what they write about. I respect Megre immensely for his courage and vision and the way he brought to life such a vibrant movement. It is a young and powerful memetic tribe. Like a teenager needs to grow up and move away from her parents, the “Anastasia tribe” will have to outgrow Megre to mature.
- I have quite the same-long experience (about 7 years) in ecovillages living/research and working as a university relations coordinator (between academia and IT industries) and this ‘stereo’ makes me think that deep interconnection between ecovillages and universities could create a great impact. You know, Daniel Greenberg did such experiments. Is there any potential for that in Slovenia or already existing cases? Actually, I see even much more potential in a triple helix where the third component is nature parks. Could such a three-party joint network be started in Slovenia and neighbouring countries and be a vital social ecosystem acting as a regenerative entity for the neighbouring bioregions?
In the last two years, working as Research Officer in ECOLISE, I managed a library of 1700 research papers, books, theses, etc., and this wiki library.
Check it out and you’ll see how many of all kinds of such collaborations are already taking place across Europe and also globally.
Slovenia sits at a crossroads and could serve as a central hub for the bioregion, yes, but the times are not very favourable for that right now.
If you had real (without any magic), but unlimited resources (e.g. budgets), what would you do now and on a horizon of 20–30 years?
I would get in touch with specialists, and with their help I’d dig out the secrets of the largest businesses and apply some of their models in a Robin-Hood-style, combining this with modern organizational models, such as those described by Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations.
I would prioritize 1. economy, 2. popular culture, 3. education, 4. information technology.
Over the first few years (if I wouldn’t get assassinated by then 😉 ), I would assess progress carefully and follow the direction that people figure out is the best direction to go.
As Gandhi said (probably borrowing the words from Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin): “There go my people. I must follow them for I am their leader.”
Since power breeds contempt (and enemies!) I imagine it would be a tough job. I’d want to ensure that power and responsibility are both personal and spread out. There are full books about it and I could never give you a full answer in three paragraphs. I am not sure I am built for that level of responsibility, but who knows, maybe I would manage.
That is the first interview in my ‘back to the landers’ research. Let me know if you are interested in more materials like that, with deep insights on personal experience. My other texts based on life in the countryside:
- Eco-villages, Kin’s Domains and New Farmers: 25 Years of the Modern ‘Back to the Land’ Movement in Russia/CIS
- Ecology-focused Practitioners in Serbia
- Sunnemo Ecovillage. Sweden
- Other reports (in Russian)