Bounty in balance

At the Himalayan Institute in the Poconos, organic gardens as well as spiritual education celebrate "the art of joyful living."

Posted: July 13, 2007

Thirty years ago, when the Himalayan Institute moved into an abandoned seminary in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania, Marge Watkins says, "yoga was still considered weird."

Even stranger to the uninitiated was the talk about "the art of joyful living," which the institute promotes by "building bridges" between ancient wisdom and modern technology, science and spirituality.

"Today, these ideas are much more mainstream," Watkins says. She lives and works at the institute, which offers instruction in yoga, meditation, spirituality and holistic health on 400 wooded acres in the Poconos in Honesdale, Wayne County.

Founded by Swami Rama in 1971, the nonprofit institute grows its own food the same way - by combining natural methods used for thousands of years and current knowledge of the food web, which simply means the interdependency of all forms of life.

"We can realize this bridge between ancient and modern in a tangible way in our garden," says Roger Hill, 52, director of the institute's organic gardens.

Birds, bees, bugs, seekers of truth and all else are here, living off the horticultural harmony of two acres of vegetables, two acres of apple trees, and a single acre of herbs.

On a recent visit, we found Hill walking the rows of Swiss chard and beets, his face reddened by the sun and creased by the rigors of his daily regimen.

He's got a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a concentration in painting, from Miami University of Ohio, his home state. Lest you think his parents threw money down a tuition hole, know that Hill is still painting contemporary landscapes and watercolors.

And his artistic eye enriches his worldview.

Where we see rows of squash and kale, Hill sees a living sculpture - curly, green and geometric. Where we recoil at the sound of hairy vetch, Hill cherishes a cover crop that restores nutrients to the soil and attracts bees and good insects.

"It's a thing of beauty, actually," he says, cupping the vetch's delicate violet flowers.

And so it is that you begin to see these gardens as Hill does, alive and miraculous.

His scuffed workboots make a crackling sound as we walk the dry grass. He didn't dress up for our visit. Didn't brush his hair. Doesn't bother with small talk. This place is made for big talk.

A million birds, at least, are chattering from tree to tree out here in the wide, full fields. Institute volunteers in sun-safe hats are weeding and watering and smiling as we pass.

Is it in the water?

Hill may be drawn to art, but he's always been interested in good food, too. "A lot of times, the only way to get it is to grow it yourself," he says.

He apprenticed with a biodynamic farmer in college, learning the organic-farming tenets of Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, outlined his credo of "spiritual science" in a series of lectures to farmers in eastern Germany in 1924. He cited biological and spiritual reasons for his belief that artificial fertilizers and pesticides had degraded the soil and damaged crops and livestock.

Farms should be thought of as self-contained entities, he said, with each element of the ecosystem in balance.

Steiner's "biodynamic" concept includes traditional organic-farming tools such as composting and cover crops. He added special compost and soil preparations made from mineral, plant or animal-manure extracts, and a planting and harvesting schedule that follows the phases of the moon.

These practices, Steiner said, enhance the farm's "vital life force" and natural rhythms.

That stops a lot of folks right there. But the bottom line is easy to understand: The institute's kitchen staff works closely with Hill to provide fresh produce for meals that nourish body and soul.

And what taste! Very nice.

Lunch during our visit was vegetarian and communal, shared by guests who sign on for a few days or a year or more of instruction. It consisted of basmati and brown rice, chana dal (made from beans that look like yellow peas), azuki (red) beans, homemade bread and yogurt, and broccoli, collards and salad from the garden. (The radishes in the salad required two hands to eat.)

Eating well is an important part of tending to the needs of body, mind and soul at the institute, where people come to clear their minds or to study, prepare for a simpler life or a different career, change a habit, or recover from illness or trauma.

Regina DeBadts, 38, of St. Thomas, came for the self-transformation program - to let go of anger - and to become certified as a yoga instructor. Along the way, she has learned that what she eats contributes to how she feels and acts.

Originally from Texas, where eating meat is a test of citizenship, DeBadts says she became a vegetarian with surprising ease.

"I thought I'd be eating salads and potatoes all day, but the food is so fresh, it's amazing," she says.

Leyla Castro, 30 and Chilean by birth, came to the institute in March from Austin, Texas. She'll stay two years to study yoga and philosophy, while working with Hill in the garden six days a week.

"It helps me build a stronger connection with nature, not just trees and green stuff, but my own nature, as well," Castro says. "There is immense healing power in the garden."


Listen to a conversation about biodynamic gardening at

biodynamic.


Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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