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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Anxiety is not cool, funny or fashionable

A charitable initative to encourage sufferers to knit a Christmas jumper signalling their condition is well-intentioned but way off the mark.

The other night, I had one of those teeth-falling-out dreams. I dreamt I was on a bus, and every time it stopped one of my teeth plunked effortlessly out of my skull. “Shit,” I said to myself, in the dream, “this is like one of those teeth-falling out dreams”. Because – without getting too Inception – even in its midst, I realised this style of anxiety dream is a huge cliché.

Were my subconscious a little more creative, maybe it would’ve concocted a situation where I was on a bus (sure, bus, why not?), feeling anxious (because I nearly always feel anxious) and I’m wearing a jumper with the word “ANXIOUS” scrawled across my tits, so I can no longer hyperventilate – in private — about having made a bad impression with the woman who just served me in Tesco. What if, in this jumper, those same men who tell women to “smile, love” start telling me to relax. What if I have to start explaining panic attacks, mid-panic attack? Thanks to mental health charity Anxiety UK, this more original take on the classic teeth-falling-out dream could become a reality. Last week, they introduced an awareness-raising Christmas “anxiety” jumper.

It’s difficult to slate anyone for doing something as objectively important as tackling the stigma around mental health problems. Then again, right now, I’m struggling to think of anything more anxiety-inducing than wearing any item of clothing that advertises my anxiety. Although I’m fully prepared to accept that I’m just not badass enough to wear such a thing. As someone whose personal style is “background lesbian”, the only words I want anywhere near my chest are “north” and “face”.  

It should probably be acknowledged that the anxiety jumper isn’t actually being sold ready to wear, but as a knitting pattern. The idea being that you make your own anxiety jumper, in whichever colours you find least/most stressful. I’m not going to go on about feeling “excluded” – as a non-knitter – from this campaign. At the same time, the “anxiety jumper” demographic is almost definitely twee middle class millennials who can/will knit.

Photo: Anxiety UK

Unintentionally, I’m sure, a jumper embellished with the word “anxious” touts an utterly debilitating condition as a trend. Much like, actually, the “anxiety club” jumper that was unanimously deemed awful earlier this year. Granted, the original anxiety jumper — we now live in a world with at least two anxiety jumpers — wasn’t charitable or ostensibly well intentioned. It had a rainbow on it. Which was either an astute, ironic comment on how un-rainbow-like  anxiety is or, more likely, a poorly judged non sequitur farted into existence by a bored designer. Maybe the same one who thought up the Urban Outfitters “depression” t-shirt of 2014.

From Zayn Malik to Oprah Winfrey, a growing number of celebrities are opening up about what may seem, to someone who has never struggled with anxiety, like the trendiest disorder of the decade. Anxiety, of course, isn’t trendy; it’s just incredibly common. As someone constantly reassured by the fact that, yes, millions of other people have (real life) panic meltdowns on public transport, I could hardly argue that we shouldn’t be discussing our personal experiences of anxiety. But you have to ask whether anyone would be comfortable wearing a jumper that said “schizophrenic” or “bulimic”. Anxiety, it has to be said, has a tendency – as one of the more “socially acceptable” mental illnesses — to steal the limelight.

But I hope we carry on talking anxiety. I’m not sure Movember actually gets us talking about prostates, but it puts them out there at least. If Christmas jumpers can do the same for the range of mental health issues under the “anxiety” umbrella, then move over, Rudolph.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.