When they started college years ago, the 11 students in a summer class taught by religious studies professor Todd LeVasseur ‘97 probably didn’t imagine that one day they’d be camping in North Carolina for course credit.
But that’s exactly where they found themselves as part of Nature Spirituality, Ecotopia and Applied Ecovillage Living, a course that spanned religious studies, environmental studies and urban planning disciplines.
Before LeVasseur and his students rented a van and drove to Earthhaven, an ecovillage in Black Mountain, N.C., they prepared through classroom meetings beginning a week before their June 2015 departure for the mountains.
“I had the students do readings, which we talked about in class,” LeVasseur said. “We talked about what they could expect from the experience.”
Among the first topics they discussed was how exactly to define an ecovillage. While they come in many forms with different values emphasized at each, ecovillages are generally defined as small human settlements focused on economy, ecology, community and consciousness, as well as on social, environmental and economic sustainability.
The hundreds of ecovillages around the world are largely concentrated in North and Central America, Western Africa and Western Europe. Founded in 1995, Earthaven is one of the older settlements in the U.S. It relies on nearly 60 residents to contribute to organic farming, alternative building construction, alternative energy cultivation and more.
For LeVasseur, who spent a few weeks living in an ecovillage in Scotland following his graduation from the College, ecovillage living was nothing new. But for the students, time at Earthaven involved a host of new experiences including small outhouse huts featuring composting toilets, tent living, insects, poison ivy and even chicken mobiles. (A chicken mobile is “a movable chicken coop that allows chickens to ‘free-range,’ in a protected area,” LeVasseur explained. “Free-roaming chickens also help farmers because they eat weeds and insects and provide nitrogen fertilizer.”)
Seeing Earthaven’s sustainable techniques and technologies in action made quite an impression on the students. “Staying at the Eco-Village was like stepping into another world,” senior urban studies major Connelly Rhodin said.
Between observing and actively participating in ecovillage life, the students met with NikiAnne Feinberg, a neighbor and one-time resident of Earthaven and instructor in the School of Integrated Living, to discuss how the ecovillage works as a whole and how students could bring some of its principles back to Charleston with them.
Junior religious studies major Julie Lane, for one, hopes to “spark projects such as city-wide composting, inform engineers of passive solar design, and practice permaculture on lands that will allow it.” She came back from her week at Earthaven excited to implement more sustainable practices in Charleston, adding, “so much can be learned simply by paying attention to the Earth.”
Other students, too, were energized and eager to apply what they’d learned in the class. “I think the students were really inspired by seeing the sustainable technologies in use at Earthaven,” LeVasseur said. “I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do to make campus more sustainable. Hopefully a lot!”