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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit