Working together

A key building in Findhorn needs repairing bringing about a sense of nostalgia for the early days of

It feels like old times. Gangs have been out all week, working on the roof of the Universal Hall, the splendid building at the heart of the ecovillage that plays such an important role in the cultural life of our community. After almost 30 years, it is beginning to show signs of wear and tear and the roof now has to come off to permit replacement of waterproofing membranes that keep the building dry.

The Hall figures large in the mythology surrounding the ‘heroic phase’ of Findhorn’s development. The image passed down is of great teams of volunteers out digging trenches, putting up buildings, turning fields into farms. This was the early 1970s, an era of great idealism with the model of the Israeli Kibbutz as a shining example of the power and beauty of communal solidarity.

Every so often, when we celebrate community anniversaries or the birthdays of those who were around during this period, the old photographs of the great work-gangs are wheeled out. As a more recent arrival – I have lived here for only around seven years – these photos tend to make me feel nostalgic.

And I remember back to a wonderful late summer’s day in a small intentional community I used to live in on the Dorset/Devon border, where a team of us rose before dawn and harvested an 11-acre hay field in one long day, pushing the last bale into place in the great barn in the late twilight just as the day’s first raindrops started to fall, before retreating to the local pub, to sit silent, exhausted and deeply happy with ourselves, with each other and with life.

Today, the greater individualism in society as a whole has also permeated the ecovillage movement. Most of us here have to make our own living. And while there are still some self-build projects, most houses are now built by professionals (even if often, those professionals are other community members that learned their trade on projects like the Universal Hall). The trenches for cables and pipes are now dug by paid teams wearing official hard-hats and uniforms – no apparent need for those in the heroic period, suggest the old faded photographs.

The Hall took ten years to build. A team of local skilled stonemasons was brought in to build the first wall. Then, partly due to financial considerations, partly because of the prevailing can-do spirit, they were released and community members who had worked alongside them took over. “There was generally always one person on the job who knew what he was doing”, one of the elders tells me, “but not always”. Still, go look at the walls and try to identify which is the one that was built by the professionals – I still cannot.

Work was completed on schedule in time to host the first World Wilderness Congress in 1983. Among the early speakers was Fritz Schumacher, of Small Is Beautiful fame. Now, the Hall is a venue for many important local festivals, including the Nairn Jazz Festival, the Aberdeen International Youth Dance Festival and for a host of dancers, singers and theatre troupes. It is perhaps the biggest draw that brings in people from outside the community.

So, it is fitting that it should be Hall that provides us with an opportunity to rediscover the joys of working together as volunteers in great teams. My prayer is that we re-acquire a taste for this way of working and that it gets woven back into the fabric of who we are as a community.

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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear