Bioneers on the Road By Kenny Ausubel on Aug 27, 2009 Permalink Kenny Ausubel reports from his recent visit to Findhorn, Scotland's groundbreaking ecovillage. Dateline BioneersThe Green Heart of Findhorn, ScotlandRoad trip with Kenny Ausubel
This is the first of several dispatches from the road with Kenny.
After a blissful and virtually unprecedented five months of hardly leaving home, I hit the road in late May for Alaska (with Nina), Chicago for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge award conferring ceremony for Dreaming New Mexico, and then for Findhorn in Scotland and the Tallberg Forum in northern Sweden. Findhorn will be hosting our first Beaming Bioneers Europe in 2010.
Findhorn emerged as an icon soon after its inception in 1962 when Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean parked their “caravan” at the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park near the traditional northeastern Scottish village of Findhorn by the Moray Firth and North Sea. A caravan park is an RV park, and the tiny original trailer in which the trio arrived looks as if it has elegantly grown into the landscape, seeding the heart of what became the famed Findhorn ecovillage.
Paul Hawken’s first book, “The Magic of Findhorn,” (1975), chronicled how the founders coaxed “cabbages to grow out of the sand, where vegetables have never grown.” Forty-pound cabbages. The enchanted gardens and inspired inhabitants became world-renowned as a spiritual community founded in what Findhorn continues to call “a partnership with nature.” It’s paradoxically sited adjacent to a British Royal Air Force Base, which previously chose the spot for its anomalous clearer weather and relative warmth at a time when Britain expected a possible German invasion there (it never materialized).
As Findhorn remembers its genesis, “The garden attracted many people to come and visit, and then to live and work with them, and a community was born based on spiritual principles that were put into practical application. Over the past 45 years, people who are committed to creating a positive model of cooperative and spiritual living have come to live together in an adventure of consciousness that is the Findhorn Foundation and Community.”
Findhorn College’s Academic Director (among several hats) Daniel Wahl attended the 2008 Bioneers conference, and we explored a possible Beaming Bioneers event. Daniel is a highly accomplished ecological designer whose 900-page PhD dissertation is a masterpiece of synthesis of the history and future of eco-design (David Orr was among his academic readers and John Todd his second supervisor together with Seaton Baxter from the Centre for the Study of Natural Design).
When I was subsequently invited to Sweden’s Tallberg Forum, I contacted Daniel to see if I might stop by.
Following a grueling 31-hour trip resulting from missed connections, I crawled under the covers at Findhorn past midnight at the beautiful solar home of long-time resident John Willoner, who graciously offered me his place during my five-day stay.
“Past midnight” meant it was finally dark. On the heels of being in Alaska where it was dark from only about midnight to 3:30am, there was even less darkness in northern Scotland at summer solstice. (A week later in Sweden it never got dark – just a slo-mo twilight fade from sunset to sunrise. More or less flip that ratio in deep winter.
I awoke in an enchanted landscape, a palpable energy field of shared reverence for nature as the ground for community. About 250 people live in the ecovillage in 80 homes, and other folks live off site in the nearby town of Findhorn. Artful gardens, ubiquitous sprays of flowers, solar homes with greenhouses including one boasting a banana tree. Many homes and community buildings have living roofs emerald with grasses and palettes of flowers that change with the seasons. Kids playing, bikes everywhere, neighbors chatting, neatly stacked firewood. Each home is uniquely styled, flagrantly modest by U.S. standards. Definitely not your average gated community monoculture excess. My favorite structures were fashioned from giant old oak whiskey vats.
The region is home to the “Whiskey Trail,” about 40 distilleries that are a popular tourist attraction like Napa’s wine country. You can understand why whiskey has a deep history in such a cold, dark, wet clime. Hence all the songs about fields of barley. I brought home for Nina a bottle of the first and only organic Scotch from the region.
The traditional architecture of the Scottish villages, long narrow homes with green slate roofs and whitewashed exteriors, embodies beautiful aesthetic traditions. Yet the structures were not built to hold heat. Retrofits are costly and difficult. Tradition versus sustainability is a perennial tension of the post-modern age, eh?
My suitcase bulging with rain and cold-weather gear was useless. I landed in a veritable heat wave, well into the 80s. I thought I was back in New Mexico. (Global warming, anyone?) Normally locals consider themselves lucky to get three sunny, hot days a season, so all happy two-leggeds were outside magnetizing every ray of sunlight or heading for the unspoiled seven-mile shoreline for a North Sea dunk in the frigid waters (mostly the men, the old in-and-out).
On the horizon toward the Firth (bay), four mid-sized windmills provide all of the community’s electricity. About a third of the generated capacity is exported to the national grid (Alas not at the favorable rates such renewable electricity would get with Germany’s progressive feed-in tariffs). A community CSA called EarthShare supplies the community with year-round fresh food. In the summer it provides all the organically grown produce, but in the winter the community still has to import veggies due to the short growing season.
In fact, according to a 2006 study by the Stockholm Environment Institute the Findhorn ecovillage has the lowest ecological footprint of any institution or community measured in the industrialized world. The community achieves a footprint of about half the UK’s average (and almost a quarter of the USA), despite its unusually high rates of individual air-travel caused by the “love-miles” of people from 32 nationalities and five continents who live at Findhorn and pay visits to their families.
On my first morning, I hooked up with Daniel again and with Mari Hollander, who has lived and worked at Findhorn for about 30 years and is on the core team. They gave me a tour of the village, then hosted me in meetings over the coming days, during which I gave talks to the ecovillage and the larger community.
Findhorn is a collection of enterprises including the Foundation and College, which offer year-round residential courses and trainings. Our overlapping networks share many familiar names, including John Todd, one of whose living machines processes the sewage for the community in an elegant greenhouse, which was like being in the tropics.
As Daniel describes Findhorn’s overall educational programs:
“At Findhorn sustainability is communicated on many different levels and in diverse ways. In response to the realization that you have to talk to people where they are at, not where you want them to be, the different organizations within the wider Findhorn family are doing just that.
“The Findhorn Foundation, along with its courses on personal development and socially and ecologically engaged spirituality, is offering programs like the 'Eco-Experience Week,' a general introduction to Findhorn's way life with an added focus on the sustainability projects of the community, or the Ecovillage Training, a four-week introduction to permaculture design within the context of the ecovillage, aimed at grass-roots activists and aspiring change makers.
“In collaboration with Gaia Education, the foundation also runs the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course, a month-long introduction to the design of sustainable communities based on four dimensions: ecological design, social design, economic design and worldview. This program is aimed at educators, community organizers, architects, planners, and people ready to broaden and deepen their perspective of the complex puzzle of sustainability. While still introductory and very participatory, this course goes deeper into content than the ecovillage training.
“The Findhorn College provides mainly accredited courses, either as 'continued professional development' (CPD) or with academic credits through the collaboration with various universities. The Findhorn Community Semester program has been running for nine years and offers U.S. students the opportunity to gain credits while studying the human dimension of sustainability in a community context. A range of new masters-level modules are beginning to be offered in collaboration with Scottish universities. To name one, the MSc in Sustainable Community Design at the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, contains two core-modules in ecovillage practice and community design practice that will be taught during a three-week residential intensive at the ecovillage.In addition, a new partnership with the California Institute of Integral Studies will see a cohort from their Transformative Studies PhD program visit Findhorn for a two-week intensive, and have Findhorn College staff deliver an on-line module in Sustainability Leadership to CIIS students. The college also offers a range of short courses and day-events for people in their region.”
Another of Daniel’s multiple hats is to freelance for the United Nations Institute of Training and Research-affiliated training center (UNITAR), called “CIFAL Findhorn”. Over the last two years he has helped conceive of, program and facilitate a wide range of sustainability training events for local authorities. The fact that UNITAR agreed to establish one of these centers at the Findhorn ecovillage (2006), and that Findhorn has a permanent representation at the United Nations in New York, illustrates how far the community has come from growing 40-pound cabbages.
CIFAL Findhorn offers workshops on specific aspects of sustainability to people in local government, NGOs and businesses around Scotland. Some of the recent workshops and conferences include: The Renewable Energy Revolution, Sustainable Biofuels, Industrial Symbiosis and Eco-Parks, Low and Zero Carbon Housing, Urban Planning and Regeneration, and Eco-retrofitting Your Home. Two upcoming conferences will focus on Scotland's Hydrogen Economy and Sustainable Island Communities. These workshops speak to a very different audience and use different language and methodologies.
Daniel hosted a meeting with May East, the dynamic Brazilian CIFAL-Findhorn director and a long-time participant in many UN programs. May also works closely with the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education. A primary emphasis of the program is to network the ten such cities around the world to share training, research, best practices and learning. I shared with her our Dreaming New Mexico project, which she suggested could be especially valuable if adapted for developing countries. She astutely observed that often “best practices” are actually “best processes.” Along with capacity-building work, CIFAL is now very focused on green-jobs creation, and also works with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Findhorn is also part of the Global Ecovillage Network. Composed of 14,000 affiliates, GEN is a “global confederation of people and communities that meet and share their ideas, exchange technologies, develop cultural and educational exchanges, directories and newsletters, and are dedicated to restoring the land and living ‘sustainable-plus’ lives by putting more back into the environment than we take out. Network members include large networks like Sarvodaya (11,000 sustainable villages in Sri Lanka); EcoYoff and Colufifa (350 villages in Senegal); the Ladakh project on the Tibetan plateau; ecotowns like Auroville in South India; the Federation of Damanhur in Italy and Nimbin in Australia; small rural ecovillages like Gaia Asociación in Argentina and Huehuecoyotl, Mexico; urban rejuvenation projects like Los Angeles EcoVillage and Christiania in Copenhagen; permaculture design sites such as Crystal Waters, Australia, Cochabamba, Bolivia and Barus, Brazil; and educational centers such as Findhorn in Scotland, Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, Earthlands in Massachusetts, and many more.”
Jonathan Dawson, Executive Secretary of GEN and a longtime Findhorn associate, took me to dinner at the town pub overlooking the harbor and firth. The salmon and herring are long gone and with them the former fishing economy. The village is mostly a popular seaside resort now. Jonathan, a sustainability educator based at Findhorn Ecovillage whose background includes sustainable economic development in Africa, wrote the excellent monograph “Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability,” a definitive survey of the ecovillage movement (distributed in the U.S. by our friends at Chelsea Green). At a time when green design is entering the mainstream, the ecovillage movement has amassed a substantial body of knowledge whose value is now being recognized and tapped.
Jonathan’s currently helping organize the Positive Energy Conference: Building Bioregional Resilience at Findhorn in October .
As Findhorn finds increasing interest about green practices from the larger society, including the adjacent RAF base, the community is struggling with how to interact externally while preserving the integrity of its internal focus on community, values and spirituality. Another big challenge and opportunity is how to adapt ecovillage best practices for urban environments that don’t otherwise lend themselves to a village model.
A parallel phenomenon in the U.K. is the Transition Network movement, and I met several of its impressive leaders at my community talk about Dreaming New Mexico. We’ll be featuring Transition Towns U.S. representative Jennifer Gray at Bioneers this year, who works closely with founder Rob Hopkins in bringing it to the U.S. The spontaneous arising of local and bioregional initiatives is gaining momentum worldwide, and Dreaming New Mexico was very well received.
I had the opportunity to meet with several other wonderful people. Alan Watson Featherstone founded Trees For Life to restore Scotland’s Caledonian forest. Scotland’s northern forests were leveled over a thousand years ago, with just 1 percent of the original forests hanging on. In a country with five million people and six million sheep, Alan calls what remains is a “geriatric forest.” Because of the abundantly wet climate and absence of trees (except in parts of the northern Highlands), the soil becomes saturated like a sponge and can’t regenerate the web of life.
Excessive deer populations overrun the land, stifling the re-growth of plants and trees. The animals are only 2/3 of normal size because of inadequate food supply. The Enclosure movement in the 1700s drove peasants off the common lands as large estates got larger. Today globalization compounds the legacy, with huge swaths of land in private, usually foreign hands as hunting preserves or hideaways.
Scotland has generally suffered under corporate economic globalization. As part of the United Kingdom today, its long history of conflict and oppression with England includes long-term exploitation and impoverishment. Scotland got its own parliament only about a decade ago, and its powers are still limited by the laws of the U.K. The beat goes on.
Most of the wild animals became extinct long ago including bears, lynx and beavers. The last wolf was sighted over 250 years ago. The absence of higher predators has the predictable cascading effects of ongoing ecological devolution.
Through Trees For Life, Alan has been working to restore the Caledonian forest by restoring the fundamental ecological relationships. He started on the land of private landowners, and recently the charity was able to purchase its own 10,000-acre estate to continue its Earth restoration work. Run largely on volunteer energy, the group is saving and re-planting seeds of native plants and trees, installing fences to keep deer out, and educating people.
Alan, who radiates the sylvan grace of a forest creature, told me with deep emotion that Scotland just re-introduced its first beavers, an ecological and spiritual homecoming. He and others are now working on reintroducing the lynx.
I had made a comment about a friend with a green thumb. Alan looked me deep in the eye. What was really at play was a green heart, he said. If ever there were a place with a green heart, it’s Findhorn.
I deeply thank our friends at Findhorn for their generosity in hosting me. We’re honored and delighted that Findhorn will host a Beaming Bioneers conference in 2010 about two weeks after our San Rafael conference. Nina and I hope to go, and we invite you to join us.
When I got home, jet-lagged with my aura somewhere over Kansas, Nina and I raised a glass of organic Scotch and toasted Findhorn. A different kind of global warming…
About Findhorn Foundation, in its own words:Our origin is the small community established in 1962 by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean at the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park, a mile from the village of Findhorn. They did not intend to start a community, but were brought together through their individual commitments to follow a spiritual path. The garden they planted to supplement their diet flourished with spectacular results, due to Peter’s intuition and determined efforts, Dorothy’s ability to communicate with the intelligence of nature, and Eileen’s inner guidance. The garden attracted many people to come and visit, and then to live and work with them, and a community was born based on spiritual principles that were put into practical application. Over the past 45 years, people who are committed to creating a positive model of cooperative and spiritual living have come to live together in an adventure of consciousness that is the Findhorn Foundation and Community.In 1970 a young American named David Spangler arrived in the community and realising that an ‘education of consciousness’ was taking place here, helped to formally establish a curriculum using the environment and activities already in place. From then on our educational activities have grown to be a major area of work. Life in the community itself is the school, and work, daily practice, relationships and situations are the teachers.From the 1980s onwards, a practical result of the Foundation and community’s values has been the development of the Ecovillage Project at Findhorn, an experiment to combine everything learned so far about the interconnectedness of life and cooperation with nature. The Ecovillage makes use of the best of current thinking and ecological technologies to support our aim to create a sustainable culture and environment.