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.
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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories