Some very interesting things are happening with regard to sustainability down in Fairfield, Iowa, as members of my Intentional Communities class and I discovered during a visit there in late April. Fairfield has 9,500 inhabitants – just about the size of Grinnell –and is the county seat of Jefferson County. The imposing 1891 stone and brick county courthouse, with an outsized bell tower, is situated in a picturesque town square and conveys the impression of quintessential small town Iowa. However, a drive around the community quickly dispels that notion, since Fairfield is also home to Maharishi University of Management, Abundance Ecovillage, some enormous greenhouses (one of which covers two acres), and the “suburb” of Vedic City, the newest town in Iowa, where all buildings are constructed according to the principles of sthapatya veda, an ancient Indian system of design and construction based on natural law. All these not-typical-Iowa features of Fairfield are connected in one way or another with the arrival beginning in the 1970s of a sizeable number of followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), a guru and the developer of transcendental meditation.
We were fortunate to have as our guide for the day Lonnie Gamble, a professor at the university, director of its Sustainable Living Program, and one of the founders of Abundance Ecovillage. Seen through his eyes, Fairfield appears to be at the forefront of sustainability efforts in Iowa. The new Sustainable Living Center at MUM, for example, is constructed of compacted earthen blocks made of dirt from the nearby parking lot; tree trunks (from local trees) that provide the building’s structural support; and special thermal windows. The building incorporates thick walls, passive solar design, and a surrounding sleeve of insulation. Photovoltaic cells and wind turbines generate the building’s electricity. Due to the high insulation factor used in the building’s construction and daylighting in every room, some of it through skylights, the SLC actually produces more energy than it uses; the surplus is routed to other buildings on campus. The SLC is surrounded by “edible landscaping.” All the landscaping on campus is created using organic methods, and all of the food served in MUM’s dining hall is organic – and vegetarian, and much of it local from gardens and those large greenhouses. Abundance Ecovillage and Vedic City are as remarkable as MUM’s campus in terms of sustainability. For more about them, visit Fairfield’s website.
All this is relevant to Prairie Studies not only because Jefferson County, like most of Iowa, was originally prairie, but because one of the main goals of these efforts in Fairfield resonates with an important theme of the Center: learning to live sustainably in place, which means using renewable, local resources as much as possible, getting off the grid as much as possible, and avoiding potentially harmful synthetic chemicals and expensive, unsustainable technology as much as possible. A strikingly impressive, potentially transformative experiment is underway in Fairfield, and we should be paying attention.