Yves Zehnder tells EcoJustice Radio how he ended up off-grid, off-road and offline to live simply in a cloud forest restoration project. He co-founded Sacred Sueños in 2004, a mountain regeneration homestead, close to Vilcabamba in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador.
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Sacred Sueños Homestead: Cloud Forest Restoration Project in Ecuador
A simple life. Many of us dream of this. Especially those living separated from the natural rhythms of nature in favor of endless technological conveniences and gadgetry. We are bombarded by a daily onslaught of unnatural sights, sounds, smells, and superfluous information. The fascination with what Henry David Thoreau wrote about his living experiment in simplicity on Walden Pond continues for those perhaps disheartened by the ways of the modern world. But what does it take to actually live a simple life…as Nature?
Yves Zehnder tells how he ended up off-grid, off-road and offline in a quest to do just that: live simply — to be a conscious contributor, rather than an extractive consumer, a homesteader with a far smaller than average footprint. He co-founded Sacred Sueños in 2004, a mountain regeneration project, close to Vilcabamba in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador.
He recounts his journey to create a home defined by: regeneration, biodiversity, and an abundant, thriving ecosystem. Through permaculture, agroforestry practices, restoring soil fertility, natural building, appropriate technologies, regenerative design and agriculture systems, animal integration, agro-ecology & intentional community. Becoming one with and adapted to Nature by being as Nature, is a life-transforming journey, you just may wish to undertake yourself.
On Starting a Reforestation Project in Ecuador
Carry Kim, EcoJustice Radio: So we want to honor the Palta peoples, of the place where you are, and we honor their ancestors on the mountain. And you all have had hundreds of global visitors come to volunteer, live, work, and learn alongside you. And what have been some of your key learnings, having had so many people come through, and yourself having been there for nearly two decades, really living in a remote, off grid, off road lifestyle.
Yves Zehnder: Yeah, it’s been a difficult one. And, I’d say I went through a very hard learning curve when I first got up there. It’s really about overcoming the ideals of that kind of lifestyle. I’m going to be dancing naked in the garden with my donkey and everything is going to be just so easy and lovely and peaceful. Uh, it’s peaceful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m there and I’m still there for a reason. I do love it, but it was much more difficult. All those conveniences of modern society are now gone. Just if you forget to bring up something, it’s a two hour hike back down the mountain and a two hour hike up the mountain. You’re talking like, 2000ft going up the hill. It was difficult, and I made so many mistakes. Like I said earlier, I thought I’d known everything. I thought I was ready for it. I wasn’t. Um, and then the difficult part is actually, with all those volunteers in the beginning. They made every single mistake that I had made and learned from, they had to make over and over again. It taught me a lot of patience, but it was worth it just to see how other people adapted to that different way of living. And some couldn’t handle it and left early, but there are other people who really just rolled up their shirts and were ready to take it on. Um, and I don’t think I could have done it without volunteers, especially in the beginning. I don’t have much of a volunteer program now, but it really helped having community, having people who are in it with me, who could share the problem, share the tragedies, but also share the joy and celebrate with me.
Carry Kim: Can you speak to deep ecology? It’s often attributed to Rachel Carson, the beginnings of those words and her seminal book, Silent Spring. How is deep ecology different than ecology or anthropocene environmentalism?
Yves Zehnder: Yeah, all of the typical environmental groups. and typical ecology is always looking outwards, right? It’s always looking at the environment as something separate from us. We have to save the planet and we have to help the planet or we are destroying the planet. Whereas deep ecology embraces our relationship with the planet. The fact that we are the planet and we are an ecology, and whether we live in a city or up on the mountain, we are actually affected by our environment. And we affect our environment in the same way that a beaver affects their environment or a butterfly does. And deep ecology, by embracing that, realizes that everything we do on the planet not only affects the planet, but affects ourselves. And everything that’s done to the planet affects us. And we’re all so deeply connected.
Carry Kim: Thank you. And then from there, how would you explain agroecology? What does this mean to you?
Yves Zehnder: Yeah, that’s interesting because the Spanish use agroecology synonymous with organic agriculture, which I think is not correct at all, at least from my perspective. From my perspective, agroecology is the same kind of looking at ecology and understanding how ecosystems work and realizing that agricultural systems still have an ecological dimension. Often it’s an anti-ecological dimension. Most of, like typical or even organic agriculture is a war against nature. Whether you’re using synthetic pesticides or natural pesticides, you’re still fighting it. Whereas, agroecology is looking at typical ecological principles and then applying that to agriculture and trying to figure out how different agricultural systems could work. If there’s biodiversity and more complexity, how the soil biome reacts with it. It’s taking agriculture out of that laboratory and out of that agriculture versus environment, or agriculture versus nature, and understanding that agriculture can be part of nature. And by using natural systems and natural principles, ecological principles, you can actually increase, maybe not increase all the productivity, but do it in a way that benefits biodiversity and just natural ecology.
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Yves Zehnder is Steward of the Sacred Sueños Reserve, and Amateur of all trades at the Sierra y Cielo homestead. He follows a philosophy integrating regenerative design in all aspects of life. He loves creating edible forests and gardens, and raising animals, using ecological mimicry to increase biodiversity and productivity. He still lives on the mountain, raising a young family, and taking his first steps towards ecology inspired consulting and education.
Carry Kim, Co-Host of EcoJustice Radio. An advocate for ecosystem restoration, indigenous lifeways, and a new humanity born of connection and compassion, she is a long-time volunteer for SoCal350, member of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, and a co-founder of the Soil Sponge Collective, a grassroots community organization dedicated to big and small scale regeneration of Mother Earth.
Podcast Website: http://ecojusticeradio.org/
Podcast Blog: https://www.wilderutopia.com/category/ecojustice-radio/
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Hosted by Carry Kim
Intro By: Jessica Aldridge
Engineer and Original Music: Blake Quake Beats
Photo credit: Sacred Sueños
Originally Published 13 February 2023, Updated 19 March 2023