Silent Spaces for Sustainability: An Interview with Jamie A. Thomas

How does it feel to adapt to a much more sustainable lifestyle while living abroad? And what do you do when you come back home? Do you keep some of the habits you developed, or do you revel in the modern (but less sustainable) conveniences of home without a backward glance? These are questions that I plan to explore through interviews in this blog, and which I hope you will also write to me about, dear readers!

Today I am featuring Jamie A. Thomas, anthropologist and author of #languagestory blog. Her recent fieldwork has taken her to Micronesia, Jordan, Tanzania, and Mexico, and she is currently teaching and residing in Philadelphia, PA. We spoke over the phone about sustainable lifestyles, localities and luxuries.

Julia: So tell me about Micronesia. What did you notice about people’s lifestyle there in terms of sustainability?

Jamie: Well, I have a story about a side trip we took to a more remote island, an atoll that was two hours by motorboat from Pohnpei. The people there don’t travel much off the island. After slowly navigating the coral reef in a small power boat, and landing on their shore, we were greeted with coconut oil and flowered wreaths, and taken to their nas. We quickl learned this was the central gathering place where the community spends a large part of the day, seeking shelter from the tropical rain, under the eves of a well-built concrete meeting hall with louver windows on three sides. In these moments, they just sit in silence. Some women were cooking for everyone who was there, and they waved me over to come and eat something. I noticed the main fodder for their fire was dried coconut husks and maybe a little charcoal, and as they clMicronesia_byJamieThomaseaned food and ate, they saved little bits to throw back on the fire or for the pigs.

In the outdoor kitchen, two women were all sharing a plate of food between them with their hands. They had some rice, some breadfruit they had cooked, and some raw, descaled fish that they were dipping in lemon juice and soy sauce. And they were motioning for me to have some, and I wouldn’t have thought to really eat raw fish not wrapped in rice and seaweed, but I was thinking, “OK. I guess I am going to try this.” And finally I did and it was so delicious!

Julia: Nice! Sometimes the simplest things are so delightful when they are fresh, right?

Jamie: Right. And what struck me was that everything was made in place, by hand. There was a generator but no electricity grid, no running water, no cell phone reception. And we went to an even more remote island off of that one, which was a 10-15 minute trip by power boat, and they were debating whether we should just row there, which would have taken two hours, because gas is so expensive. It was just a single homestead on a tiny island. The residents seldom leave it – they mostly just make the trips for business and they don’t see their neighbors for days. They sleep, they eat, cultivate, they recreate simply. It’s like the opposite of what I do. I’m so involved all the time, with small talk and going places. It made us stop and enjoy the environment, and think more about our relationships with each other.

And then from there we sort of re-engaged with our familiar conveniences incrementally. First there was the contrast with the main island, where we had conveniences that we hadn’t really been aware of: an indoor bathroom with plumbing, a kitchen where we didn’t need to stoke a fire, access to powered transport, internet, cell phone signals, and electricity to charge our devices. You come back with an appreciation of what you need to be happy.

photo credit: Jamie Thomas Micronesians sit near the community nas on their island.

photo credit: Jamie Thomas Micronesians sit near the community nas on their island.

And I’m still holding onto those moments of silence. The stilling. It made me just “be” – it was a lifestyle that entailed closeness, where you rely on people to do their part and you don’t need all that small talk and actions that go nowhere.

Julia: So how did it feel to come home to the US from there?

Jamie: Well, this apartment feels so big! And I appreciate everything. Like, I go to bed and I don’t sleep on a slab of wood or concrete. I have climate control. But all these things use energy. At least I’m more aware now. And I do small things like only heat the room I’m in. I’ll heat my bedroom or bathroom and close the doors to those rooms. I still have a level of comfort that I want and enjoy, but I really think about “What do I need to have my home feel comfortable?”

And there are some things I keep doing. Like I spent months abroad washing clothes by hand, and I would collect the water I showered in to soak my clothes. And I still do that. I have a big, plastic tub that I can stand in, inside my shower, and I collect that water and use it to soak my clothes.

Julia: Thanks very much, Jamie! Your mindfulness and sustainable practices are inspiring, and I know what you mean about small-ish apartments suddenly feeling huge when you become aware of how others live. I love that question of whether all our energy-intensive lifestyle, constantly texting and running around actually makes us happier. It sounds pretty amazing to be in a place where peace and silence is the norm.

1 comment

  1. G

    Looks like a beautiful place to contemplate the world.

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