An alternative way of learning

The story of life at Findhorn continues with an explanation of the community's role in educating peo

Early December marks another turning point in the year – the ending of several of our longer-term (3-month) training programmes and the departure of those who have been taking the courses – folk who have become part of our family.

One of these programmes that is especially dear to my heart is the Findhorn Community Semester (FCS) programme. This is an accredited semester for students at US universities, counting towards their degree programmes.

Findhorn is one a number of ecovillages around the world that offer such courses, under the aegis of the Living Routes programme based in Massachusetts.

At root, what I love so much about this programme is that it's more or less exactly the kind of training programme that I would have loved to have had on offer when I was a young adult. This is education that engages head, heart and hands and that fires the imagination. I teach the Applied Sustainability course, where the ecovillage infrastructure really helps make the concepts come alive.

Some vignettes from the last couple of months.

Having spent the first part of one morning discussing how the global food economy works and its various impacts – including deep cruelty to animals force-fed on hormones and other growth agents – we go up to Wester Lawrenceton Farm, that is linked into the community.

There we take a farm tour in silence, with the farmer, Nick, occasionally holding up pre-prepared text written on pieces of paper. Next to his chicken-house, with chicks scrubbing around at our feet, Nick holds up an A4 sheet: ’90 per cent of hens in the UK spend all their lives in an area no larger than this sheet of paper’. The students deeply get the message – in their guts.

We spend the first part of another session talking about water and how we could design sustainable treatment systems. Then, we walk around our own Living Machine sewage treatment plant – an indoor, biological system, where plants and the various organisms that attach to their root systems filter out toxins so that the water coming out at the end of the process meets European bathing water standards.

It is beautiful, with flower blossoms tumbling out of the processing tubs. And the sight of snails and myriad water-borne organisms working way in the process of transformation in this elegant, watery cathedral is worth more than a thousand words on the concept of waste treatment delivered in a dry and arid classroom.

Classes (or parts of classes) on ecological building techniques happen on the building site, with the self-builders explaining their designs and describing the various trade-offs they are making between up-front costs and ecological sustainability. (Often, the most eco-friendly option is the most expensive). During the economics class, we play physically with the community currency we have created here – and trace its course through the community economy.

A theoretical session on Peak Oil and how communities can respond to the coming energy famine is brought to life by a visit to our four wind turbines that make us net exporters of electricity. The bases of the turbines have been painted by community members and local school children in beautiful patterns – in the shape of footprints, describing visions of the sustainable future we are trying to fashion.

We build on a theoretical exploration of permaculture principles with the construction over the course of the semester of a sustainable garden next to the Youth Project building. The young people of the community are ‘the client’ and our FCS students work with them in preparing the designs and then doing the building – or at least starting the building. Next semester’s FCS students will complete the job and, by next spring, the area in front of the Youth building will be ablaze with colour.

This is education that works. It stimulates the mind, engages the body and allows the imagination to soar. It has been joyful to watch the 12 young people who have spent the last three months with us open so gracefully and creatively to the transformation they have seen here. And the good news is that it is never too late, after all, to have a happy childhood. For, even though my own spirit and creative imagination were all but crushed in an appalling and brutal educational system that paid respect only to the rational mind, the inner youth in me watches on and dances in celebration of the fact that education like this now exists.

Tonight, we say goodbye to our beautiful students with a sumptuous community feast. Then we breathe for a while before opening up space to receive the next intake.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.