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.