In praise of wildness

Jonathan uses Findhorn's quiet time for reflection and tells us about a community resident who lives

This is a quiet time of the year for us. The bulk of the 3,000 or so training course participants that we receive every year come between mid-February and late November. This leaves us with an interlude for reflection and the drawing of breath before the next intake. Soon, the next group of young American undergraduates will be with us for a three-month semester, the month-long ecovillage training programme will be in full swing and visitor numbers for our habitual, week-long courses will start to rise.

For the moment, however, the community centre is pretty much ours alone and efforts are focused on preparing for the season of courses to come. Over in one corner of the community, however, the sound of hammer on nail and of spade in soil never quite stops.

Craig Gibsone has lived here for almost 40 years, the last twenty of which he has lived in one of the celebrated ‘whisky-barrel houses’. These are homes made out of discarded vats used in one of the early stages in the distillation process. We are situated next to the Spey Valley, with its myriad of small distilleries that turn out single malt whisky of the highest quality.

When, some years ago, one of these was de-commissioning its vats, they got in touch to ask if we had any use for them. Now, we have a ‘whisky-barrel cluster’ of fine, elegant, compact houses made almost entirely from local, low-impact building materials. Spirit containers, we call them!

Craig has now almost completed an extension to his barrel – this has been a slow organic process lasting several years and costing in the region of £25,000 – the original official estimate was £80,000. Craig reckons around 80 per cent of the materials he has used are recycled and scavenged – he has a gift for spotting building materials where the untrained eye sees only open landscape or debris. And yet, the overwhelming impression one has while sitting in the extension is of beauty and a pleasing lack of uniformity.

The feelings of well-being in the house are enhanced by the fact that Craig has designed it to merge seamlessly into his wonderful tangle of a permaculture garden. This is ‘edible landscaping’ at its best – a largely self-managing, abundant micro-ecosystem that requires minimal maintenance. Much of the five or so hours per week that Craig spends in his garden at the peak of the growing season is devoted to harvesting. And what a harvest! The third of an acre plot keeps Craig and his two daughters in fruit and vegetables for the entire year.

This is a glorious corner of wildness in what can feel a overly manicured campus. Lawns abound and we have a team of workers out pruning and sweeping and mowing. This little corner feels to me akin to the community’s sub-conscious – wild, untamed, hugely fertile and filled with creative surprises. Very much in character with the genial anarchist who has shaped it.

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.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.