People in glass houses don't discuss sex: They had parties, TV and toilets, but no way out. Sally Silverstone tells Phil Reeves about her two years in a giant greenhouse

Most employers would put Sally Silverstone's curriculum vitae in the 'oddball' file. It begins in a fairly orthodox fashion: school in London; university at Sheffield; voluntary work overseas. But then you read that she has spent two years living in a gigantic greenhouse in the desert, isolated from the outside world.

In person, Ms Silverstone does not seem strange. When she talks about her stint in the Biosphere 2, a giant steel and glass structure in Arizona in which scientists are trying to create a closed ecological system, she does so with all the breathlessness of a Girl Guide showing off her first badge.

Ms Silverstone, 38, from Ilford in Essex, is one of two Britons in a group of eight researchers who in September clambered out through an airlock and returned to the outside world.

Their return, accompanied by a media fanfare orchestrated by the company running the dollars 150m ( pounds 100m) project, provoked some criticism. Several times oxygen had to be pumped in because levels fell too low; there were allegations that the structure leaked; there were rumblings that the enterprise, which attracts hordes of tourists, had more to do with flogging T-shirts and health food than science. But, as Ms Silverstone takes you through her daily routine, her flat Essex vowels intact despite more than eight years in the United States, you realise than none of this has dented her excitement about the cause.

'You can imagine what it was like to have walked past that door for two years, only ever peering out through the glass,' she says. 'But coming out was stunning. We just stepped out into Arizona and suddenly it was all over. There was this incredible rush of energy. The light looked totally different. The colours were very bright and the atmosphere smelt wonderful, although it was thinner. It was very different from the tropical air inside the Biosphere.'

With her denim shirt and jeans, tousled short hair and sensible sandals, Ms Silverstone resembles an unpretentious, maddeningly practical, field worker. Her manner is open, friendly, humorous. You can imagine her living in a mud hut, although this is far from the reality: the biospherians had smart, if small, two-storey apartments, complete with computers, televisions, flushing lavatories and showers, which used recycled water. They were in constant contact with the outside world, mostly by telephone. While the rest of the crew spent evenings reading, Jane Poynter, the other British biospherian, would have music jamming sessions with outsiders via a video link-up.

'I am an early riser,' Ms Silverstone says. 'So I would get up just before dawn, and spend a while thinking about what had to be done during the day. Then I would go off to milk the goats, and after that I would pick the day's fresh fruit and vegetables to take to the kitchen.

'I used to take the stuff fresh out of the garden. There would be squash, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, papayas and bananas. I would take them to the cook. At 8am we had a meeting where we would go over what we were doing for the day. Often we were scattered around the Biosphere all day, so the meeting was important.

'We had a very small amount of animal produce. Meat was a big treat. We might have a small piece of meat once a week, but not for breakfast. That would be porridge (made from grain and sweetened with bananas) and usually potatoes and beans. We also had all these different herb teas. We used to make tea from mint and lemon grass and orange leaf.

'Then we would go off to do our chores. Everyone would work for a couple of hours on the agriculture; after that people would go off and see to their own areas. It was a very physical lifestyle, very physical.

'One of our most amazing crops was the bananas. I was worried about them because of our low light levels, but they did extremely well. So did sweet potatoes. Our rice varied depending on whether it was summer or winter, but it wasn't bad. It was all very experimental; we didn't know what would work.'

'For instance, we had terrible trouble with white potato. Everyone loves them, but we had a rampant species of mite which destroyed them. We could not use pesticide because we will not use any chemicals in the Biosphere except ones we know are non-damaging to the system, such as soap or small amounts of sulphur powder.'

At dinner the diet of vegetables was supplemented by a dessert of fruit or goat's milk. Fine for shedding a few pounds, but after two years it must have been the culinary equivalent of watching paint dry. The biospherians sometimes felt the same way. 'We used to have food fantasy sessions,' Ms Silverstone recalls. 'We would sit around after a meal and imagine what we would really have liked to have eaten for dessert.'

They did try to develop interesting recipes. For dollars 15.95 ( pounds 10), visitors to the Biosphere's tourist shops can buy a collection of Ms Silverstone's recipes, including one for biospherian doughnuts (potato, milk, bananas, yeast, wheat flour), which the crew ate without sugar or jam.

The biospherians' calorie intake became a critical issue. 'When we went in, we had no idea what our working levels would be like and how many calories we would need to support it,' says Ms Silverstone, the food systems manager. 'We took a well-educated guess.'

As members of the 'crew' (the biospherians and the project managers love Nasa-speak) began losing weight, it became clear that her estimate of 1,800 calories a day each was not enough. The team decided to increase their calorie intake to 2,200, although this meant supplementing their diet with supplies bought before their incarceration began.

There were, however, feasts to look forward to. These were elaborate affairs with which the crew celebrated the cycle of the seasons, birthdays or public holidays by quaffing mildly alcoholic home-made banana wine, and guzzling as much food as they could spare - including the kids born to their goats, and their two pigs, which the crew was forced to slaughter after realising that they ate too much.

So did four fit, healthy, single men and four fit, healthy, single women really sit in their home-made paradise, quaffing banana wine, without acting on that most natural of instincts? Did they cohabit for two years without - at least some - passionate relationships developing?

Ms Silverstone's features cloud over a little at this. The biospherians have been offered considerable sums of money by tabloid newspapers in the US to confess to steamy frolickings in the giant greenhouse. 'We always, always, always get asked that,' she sighs. 'We learnt to deal with it very early on. We just told people where to get off. That kind of publicity is of no interest to the public whatsoever.'

But shortly before the crew came out of the Biosphere, one of them, 46-year-old Mark Nelson, did drop a hint. 'People are people,' he said. 'Everything you might expect to happen with people has happened in here.'

Including, it seems, blistering rows. Ms Silverstone insists that the group got along well: 'We knew how not to push each other's buttons. If our time and energy was going to be taken up in endless petty squabbling, it would have been really hard to keep the project going.

'But there were lots of fights. They were usually about how to operate the place, and about what to do next. There wasn't real violence behind them, but there was a certain passion.'

Ms Silverstone's route to her life under glass was circuitous, and took her round the world. The daughter of a chartered surveyor, she left school in east London with three A-levels and went to Kenya to work as a volunteer in a children's home. She came back and took a degree in applied social science at Sheffield University, where she lived with friends in a farmhouse, rearing chickens and growing their own food.

After a stint at an institute for the mentally handicapped in Calcutta, she joined a voluntary organisation which dispatched her to a remote Indian village to help improve crop production.

There followed a move to Puerto Rico, to work on a project developing farming techniques in the rainforests without cutting down trees. By the time she heard of the Biosphere project, she was well versed in the business of producing food in rural communities. 'It was a 100 per cent tie-in with everything I had been interested in up until that point,' she says.

She has no immediate plans to re-enter the Biosphere, but is currently training the next crew - the project is scheduled to last 100 years. After two years trying to perfect self-sufficiency, after yards of column inches questioning the integrity of the project, Sally Silverstone barely pauses when you ask if she plans to continue her unorthodox life in the Arizona desert. 'Absolutely,' she says, grinning happily.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine