Acts of random beautification

How at Findhorn even inanimate objects are given names

We modern, rational people have proper and respectable post-Enlightenment ways of seeing the world. We know, for example, the difference between sentient beings (humans, dolphins, at a pinch midges and so on) and all the rest of the stuff that those sentient beings move through – rocks, rivers, mountains and all the rest of it.

This was not always so – and indeed, animistic shamanism is making something of a comeback in certain quarters. As a storyteller, I have always been thrilled by tales in which people shape-shift effortlessly with other animals. The ancient Irish story, for example, in which Tuan MacCarrill dies multiple deaths, being re-born in turn as a stag, a boar, an eagle and a salmon. As a salmon, he is caught in the nets of King Carrill's fisherman and eaten by the Queen who, nine months later, gives birth to him.

The new science, most notably James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, is lending some credence to the idea that conventional distinctions between the sentient and non-sentient realms may be mistaken – that everything is alive in an inter-dependent, global, self-regulating web of life.

But how many are sufficiently generous to extend their understanding of the web of life to include metal beings? Welcome to Findhorn!

Between the two main campuses of the community, a small fleet of white vans ferries guests and residents. Each has a name emblazoned proudly on its front: Sir George (named after one of early community’s supporters, Sir George Trevelyan), ROC (another early community member), Grace and Pegasus. Previous buses that have long since experienced re-incarnation sported names such as Jasmine, Woodstock (formerly a public bus that still advertised the name of its final destination – Woodstock, Oxfordshire), Brother Henry.

The washing machines glory in the names Vortex and Tornado. The dishwasher is called Big Bertha. Henry the hoover buzzes around the community centre, while people queue to fill their cups with hot water from the urns, Burt and Ernie. These urns are celebrated in verse, no less. Just above where they stand is a framed ode in their honour penned by our own bard, Margo Henderson. The first verse reads:

A bonnie blessing for our bonnie urns
(in the style of Rabbie Burns,
Like ‘Tae a Haggis’ and ‘Young Pretender)
Here’s tae Ample Ernie and Burt the Splender

Even our windmills have names. The first turbine, erected in 1989, is called Moya, a word in the Lesotho language of Southern Africa that means both spirit and wind. Now, she has been joined by three new siblings, named after the Three Graces – Joy, Charm and Beauty.

What is more, we can't just leave these new members of our metal-beings family in peace. Gangs of community members and neighbouring school children have covered the turbines in paintings. This habit of committing acts of random and senseless beautification is very much in keeping with the core ecovillage ethic. No surface is safe. Paths get transformed into mosaics, empty walls are seen as murals waiting to happen, road signs are defaced – under STOP, the word ‘Worrying’ has been engraved.

All this brings much colour and playfulness into our lives – and that is reward enough. However, at root, the impulse to give inanimate objects names also has a more serious purpose. This is to increase our awareness of the world around us, to treat everything respectfully and mindfully as manifestations of the sacred.

A washing machine?! A wind turbine?! – SACRED?!

Why not? The celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Tich Naht Hahn has written beautifully of the interdependence of all things by reference to a sheet of paper. In a piece of paper, he suggests, if we look mindfully, we can see sunshine, water, clouds, the river, heat, wheat, the logger and the logger’s mother. Without any of these things, the paper could not have been made. He concludes, ‘As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe within it.’

This is the level of consciousness we are after. Bert and Ernie might just help us get there.

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: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era