When the forest thickens and the trail thins, we have to stop the car and continue on foot. My guide accompanies me through thick clusters of trees, on dirt paths lined with bush and thorn. I miss the air-conditioning immediately and begin to regret every single thing about my outfit. These cute floral juttis are no match for the branches crackling underfoot; my stylish dhoti pants are a briar magnet. Every part of me is either frizzing or sweating. I should’ve googled how to dress for a forest.
I make it to a clearing, finally, and there’s the man we’re looking for: Johnny Allen, who’s made wiser outfit choices — a loose blue cotton shirt, a cotton lungi double-tied so it’s knee-length, and a pink cotton bandana wrapped around his forehead. It’s the uniform farmers all around India have used to survive oppressive temperatures for decades. I’ve just never before seen it on a white-haired, white-bearded white man. Johnny is barefoot and smiling, already magnificent to me.
For more on this story, watch Follow This on Netflix.
He welcomes me into Fertile, the forest he planted, the community he helms. Chickens are kicking up red earth, and a breeze is passing around news of cooking and wood fire. Fertile is a forest at the edges of Auroville, a spiritual community in southern India that I grew up a town away from. It was shrouded, then, in mysticism and green cover, and it still feels that way. A township with no real parallels anywhere else on earth, it’s self-governed, has a self-contained economy designed to resist the lures of inequality, and has been physically created — trees planted, buildings bricked — by the residents themselves. Today, Auroville is a 5,000-acre spread and a 3,000-person family.
In coming to visit Auroville, I’ve carried a post-colonial anxiety all day — bracing myself for the revelation that Aurovillians, like so many white people, might care more for chai and yoga than they do for India and Indians. And in talking to Johnny, part of what I’m trying to get a handle on is whether or not that anxiety is justified. We seat ourselves on stone benches in the clearing. And while I don’t know it yet, I’m about to hear one of my favorite stories ever: the story of Johnny Allen’s life.
The wild bit begins in the late 1960s (of course). Johnny was young, not so wild yet, and working as an architect in Sydney. He had a wife, Jan, and they had a year-old son, Jonas. Johnny was working with experimental architects, had a family he loved, and was happy. Maybe happy enough that he didn’t notice that Jan wasn’t — at all.
In central Sydney, underneath a cinema hall that played existential French films, was a library belonging to the Theosophical Society. One afternoon there, Jan found the teachings of Indian thinker Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual partner, a French woman who was referred to as “the Mother.” Their brand of spirituality emphasised finding peace through work, and the pursuit of a shared higher consciousness. Jan would write, decades later, that chancing upon those writings at that moment in her life was like being adrift and “being tossed a life buoy from an elegant ghost ship passing by.” She found that Aurobindo had died in 1950, but the Mother was alive, running an ashram for and with her followers in Pondicherry, a sea breeze–salted town in southern India.
So when life in Sydney became unbearable for Jan, she already knew where to go. She packed herself up, took Jonas in a bundle, and left. It was 1970.
Jan settled into life at the ashram, befriending others like her — young people from around the world who had found this escape from the unexamined humdrum of city living. There were so many of them that the Mother had predicted needing space for the overflow, and two years earlier she had acquired the land outside of Pondicherry that would become Auroville. It was meant to be a haven where “men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.”
In 1971, Jan left Pondicherry and moved to the edges of Auroville, to a beach called Quiet. Though not on the best terms, Johnny and Jan had stayed in touch. She had written him saying she was at a “tribal music scene,” and he decided to visit for a few weeks. When Johnny arrived, he found his wife and son among a cluster of maybe 100 young vagabonds from Australia, the United States, and Europe, living in makeshift homes, fishing for sustenance, trying to see how long they could keep this thing going. Jan eventually moved back to Australia, and Jonas did too, but Johnny stuck around in Auroville, finding meaning in growing its trees, tilling its lands, and raising its children. It was not a tribal music scene, and Johnny has stayed 50 years.
I’m here as a journalist, keeping things professional, but the question I most want to ask is: Johnny, what the fuck? I settle for some substitute ways of phrasing that, like: Are you glad you stayed?
The Mother’s original plan for Auroville, designed with the help of French architects, formed the township in concentric circles. The heart of the circle is the Matrimandir, a big golden globe with a meditation room in the middle, open to Aurovillians and visitors for cool, quiet pursuit of higher consciousness. Around it, in rings, are residential areas and other town features — an administrative center, a visitors center, markets, and eateries. Finally, the outermost circle is the Green Belt, a forest moat around the town.
Today, the blueprints have been actualized to some extent, though not near completely. But what Johnny had found, when he arrived in the early ’70s, was a community just getting started on them.
“Most of them were trying to build houses without knowing how,” he remembers. “I had the fortune to work with some very experimental architects and alternative materials in Australia, so I was immediately effective. I was immediately put to work.”
By some measures, Johnny is a bad Aurovillian. He doesn’t care about the spiritual aspects of life here, he tells me, and that’s a big omission to make in a community bound foremost by its spirituality. On the other hand, a central pillar of that spirituality is to find divinity in work, and Johnny has worked plenty.
In his life here, he has built homes for himself and others, inventing tricks of architecture to suit Aurovillian eco-consciousness. He’s taught generations of children how to do math, and how to read poems and act in plays, and how to work with wood. “I try to put intelligence into their hands, in a culture that’s battling to put intelligence in their heads,” he explains, walking me through a toolshed full of children’s leftover inventions. On Johnny’s watch, hundreds of trees have grown and been turned to firewood and furniture; peanuts have been sown and peanut butter made; mangoes have been plucked and pickled. Most significantly, a forest has sprung out of the driest earth.
When Johnny arrived in 1971, he found a terrain so barren, so scorching, that fisherwomen from the closest village had to tie plastic bags around their feet to cross the sand with their catch. Between the ocean and the next village, where they got the best price for fish, there was exactly one tree. They would pause there for shade before blistering onward.
“There was a crying need for shade,” Johnny remembers. “There was our first imperative.”
Jan, Johnny, and a handful of others formed Auroville’s first reforestation camp. They moved to a section of the Green Belt named Fertile, where we’re talking now. Today, sitting with him in this clearing that the forest seems bursting to close in on, it’s impossible to imagine this was barren only 50 years ago.
“We knew nothing of anything,” Johnny says of their decade of trial and error. “It was simply survival.” Through the ’70s, they planted any saplings they found, composted however they knew how, and watched as some trees took while others died. There was no expertise, only idealism. Mistakes were made in the planting, in the irrigating, in the upkeep, and more.
But despite those failures, the experiment was interesting enough to create a global reputation for Auroville among folks who care for trees. Over time, arborists and botanists arrived, bringing good intent and great ideas.
For instance, some experts discovered that this land hadn’t always been so barren. “We reckon that about 350 years ago, this was all originally forested,” Johnny explains. The valuable trees had been cut down by the British and the French during their occupations, and the rest may have burned away. But just 10 kilometers from Fertile, Aurovillians discovered a 50-acre spread of that surviving original forest, which became their source for saplings and seeds. The patch had survived because it surrounded a temple, and villages nearby had deemed it a sacred grove.
For more on this story, watch Follow This on Netflix.
I’m taken aback that I’d never known, passing a patch of trees so close to home, the stories it had to tell about the people who have shared this land: the greed of the colonizers, the desperation of these multi-nationed hippies looking for shade in which to build their French Mother’s ordained utopia, the day-saving piety of Indians in between.
“When I first came here, I think I probably was blatantly racist,” Johnny admits. One of the intended purposes of the Green Belt, he explains, was to act as “a cultural and atmospheric filter” between this global oasis and the India surrounding it. Disputes over land, labor, and even the ownership of fauna often meant animosity. “We had to physically fight sometimes,” Johnny says. “I had a guy cut me with a machete once.”
But if the land created hostility, the land is also what healed it. A shared need for shade, food, and firewood ultimately trumped any contest between Auroville and its neighbors. Johnny hired boys from the village to dig and plant and cut trees. Older village men guarded sections of forest against cattle and troublemakers. “All the credit to this forest really goes to these village boys that did all the work,” he says.
Over the past half-century, Johnny has watched these villages change, as India has grown into independence and industrialization. Families that farmed for sustenance now farm to export. Mud and thatch have given way to concrete. The adolescent boys Johnny might have hired to dig compost holes 50 years ago now go to school and want to be engineers.
Now, Auroville supports the agriculture and development of 80 villages in the area, accepts their children into its schools, and employs hundreds of Tamilian adults for its day-to-day operation. Two farmers I speak to from Auroville-adjacent land tell me that Aurovillians’ understanding of agriculture has been freely shared and useful to them. One of those farmers sent his children to school in Auroville, and has photos of Aurobindo and the Mother on his mantel at home.
Johnny and other Auroville residents may have shared their discoveries in agriculture and forestry, but unlike India’s historical visitors, they didn’t try to impose their culture on India. If anything, they were eager to learn from their adopted home. Today, third-generation Aurovillian toddlers of mixed ethnicity dart barefooted up and down dirt paths playing with desi dogs, their French and English baby babble set to a Tamil lilt. On Sundays, Johnny hosts a potluck that villagers and Aurovillians are invited to. Sometimes, he cooks dosas and chutney.
I joke to Johnny that if India is still habitable 50 years from now, he’ll be one of the people to thank for it. It’s a joke, but it also isn’t. Six of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in India. Delhi, our capital, and Mumbai, where I live, are tarring children’s lungs. Forests are being cut down to clear paths for highways around the country, and very few Indians, including myself, can bring themselves to care about it in a sustained way. But while urban Indians like me run our own home into the ground, the 50% foreign community of Auroville has successfully reforested 5,000 acres of land and turned barrenness into a lush forest that acts as a massive pair of lungs for the region — so much so that the temperature within Auroville is measurably 3 degrees lower than in surrounding villages.
“We pump our water, we have a windmill and a solar pump, we grow as much as we can of our own food, we compost our own wastes, we educate our own children, we build our own houses,” Johnny says. “We take very little from India and, as much as possible, we give back.”
For its efforts, India is repaying Auroville by planning a four-lane national highway that would route straight through the community’s newly forested Green Belt, leveling trees they planted, undoing a paradise again.
At the end of our chat, Johnny takes me walking around his forest. The tick-ticking of windmills pumping water is a metronome in the air. All around us, he tells me, are Australian acacias. “A pioneering species,” he says, meaning a species foreign to a given environment, which has been planted there because of its hardiness, and whose presence promotes the growth of other trees in the area. While she was alive, the Mother named various species of fauna in Auroville after values she believed its residents must demonstrate. The Australian acacia was the Work Tree.
“It’s aptly named,” Johnny says, “because it’s turned out to create so much work for us. It’s a carpentry wood, it’s firewood. … It’s a very good resource.” The tree is all over Auroville, creating shade and work. And it’s impossible for me not to see this tree as a metaphor for Johnny himself. Transplanted, thriving, doing and creating work, healing the earth so everything can grow.
Auroville turned 50 this year, and many in the community have taken the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the experiment itself. Is this what the Mother wanted? Is this what Aurovillians want? Have these 3,000 people achieved the higher consciousness they set out to find? Without needing to dig too deep, their success is measurable in the coolness of the breeze and the flowers around us.
One failure to execute the community’s vision that’s brought up to me by nearly every Aurovillian I speak to is that the township still isn’t fully constructed as per the blueprints the Mother laid out. Not even, in fact, halfway there.
But Johnny isn’t interested in matching blueprints. “When I came here, I had absolutely no expectation to begin with, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s all fallen from the sky,” he says. “What you’re witnessing is a phenomenon with its own destiny. I just watch it grow.” ●
Rega Jha is a writer interested in the overlaps of popular culture, digital behavior, gender politics, and youth wellbeing. She studied writing at Columbia University, founded BuzzFeed in India in 2014 and served as its editor-in-chief for four years.