Constructing a New Reality: A Story from the Cal-Earth Institute

article image
Photo by Brett K. Snow

Wending along a deserted dirt road through the Mojave Desert, I arrive at the Cal-Earth Institute and immediately feel a special, almost surreal, quality about the space. The landscape is dotted with ceramic Rumi domes and earth bag homes, some completed, others works-in-progress. I make my way over to a group of students working peacefully on Earth One. During my stay I’ll learn about each student: Sara, an illustrator, just bought a piece of land on which to build an earth bag community; Brad wants to build a summer camp; and Joshua plans to provide shelter to those in need. I’ll learn to build, submerging my hands in earth (I make the mistake of calling it dirt only once) to help students with their domes. What I don’t expect to learn about, however, is myself.

When I first meet Nader Khalili, who founded this place, I am frankly in awe of his warmth. Before I arrived, I was a bit unnerved at the prospect of meeting the man with the impeccable resume whom I had spoken with only briefly on the phone. A consultant to NASA and the United Nations, Nader is world-renowned for his earth bag technology and a very hot commodity in the area of sustainable architecture. But his hospitality overwhelms me; not only does he take me under his wing to show me the nuts and bolts of earth bag construction, he shares a part of himself, too.

As the sun begins to set behind myriad Joshua trees, Nader sips a glass of red wine on the roof of one of his structures. “Tell me about you,” he says. I keep my story short. After realizing three years too late that I did not want to practice law, I left everyone I had ever known and moved to Boulder, Colorado, from the East Coast for no other reason than I simply wanted to live there.

Nader smiles at me and, from his perched position, looks around at his part of the world. “You and I are very similar,” he says. “We are both pursuing our dreams by doing what makes us happy.” Nader left his family, too, when he moved to the United States from Iran to continue his research with earth homes. He believes in earth bag homes for their practicality and minimal environmental impact, and he’s convinced that this type of sustainable building can have a deep impact on society. He talks about how so many people today must work fifty- and sixty-hour-weeks to afford the mortgage payment. If they could build earth bag homes, he believes, people would have ample time to pursue what they love, what they’re passionate about. There’s a therapeutic benefit, too, that comes from building your home with your own hands. “As we build these structures, these structures actually build us,” whispers Nader.

Throughout my stay, Nader shares his favorite Rumi translations with me, confirming the belief that finding true happiness within yourself is really what’s most important. One of his favorite lines reads, First plant your seed, then rely on the Almighty. “Get up and do something,” he explains, “then rely on God. That’s what you did by moving to Colorado.”

Before I leave, Nader conveys a story that’s more than 1,000 years old. “A student runs to his master and says, ‘I just saw a man walk on water.’ ‘Big deal’ the master responds, ‘Frogs can walk on water.’ A few weeks go by, and the student returns. ‘Master,’ he says, ‘I just saw a person fly.’ ‘Big deal,’ repeats the master, ‘A bird can fly.’ The dejected student asks, ‘Well then, what is significant?’ The master pauses, then responds, ‘I’m glad you asked. You get married. You have children, and you raise them. You go and make a living in the marketplace. And you hold on to your faith and your dreams. Now that’s significant.'”

Yes, that is significant.