How do you end up at Findhorn?

Jonathan tells us the story of how he came to live in the world's most famous ecovillage Findhorn

So, how do people wind up at a place like this? Lots of reasons, really, generally embracing the political, the personal and the spiritual in ways that defy easy classification. As good a place to start as any is to describe my own journey here.

I spent the 15 years or so before arriving at Findhorn working as a development professional, living in Africa for most of the 1980s and then based in the UK, making regular visits as a consultant on community economic development. By the mid-1990s, I was beginning to get disillusioned and to feel lonely. Life lived out of suitcase, with precious little time between recovering from the last trip and preparing for the next one, was not fulfilling my need to belong within a supportive and caring community.

In parallel, the impact of economic globalisation made it progressively more difficult to truly believe in the effectiveness of the work I was engaged in. While the system was severing limbs, it seemed to me, we were dishing out Elastoplast.

I have had the privilege of working with numerous noble international and indigenous NGOs. Yet, rather than system change in favour of the poor, the marginalised and planet, it felt to me that we were increasingly being left to clean up the mess created by the distorted and destructive global economy.

Having reached the conclusion that the root of the global malaise lay in the North rather than in the South – in affluence rather than poverty – I started looking for ways of getting involved back here in Europe.

My first break with the conventional career I had followed up to then was to go and live with my girlfriend in a small community on the Dorset/Devon border called Monkton Wyld. I had a great year, learning how to milk cows, grow vegetables, keep bees and relearning the art of serious playfulness.

By the end of a year, however, while my soul and body were nourished, my brain was in meltdown. I left my relationship and the community, in the belief that intentional communities were cool and fun places that were keeping alive many of the labour-intensive skills we will need as we head into energy descent, but unable to provide the stimulation required by the intellectually curious and the politically engaged.

I remember arriving back in Oxford, moving back into a terraced house, feeling the sadness and isolation of everyone having their own little patch of lawn, their own little television set, their own ludicrously small pots and pans and stoves – these felt like they belonged in a doll’s house compared to the great hobs and pots we used to cook for 60 or more at Monkton. This felt like poverty of imagination on a grand scale after the communality I had experienced both in Dorset and in Africa.

Several years later, I found myself doing a course at Findhorn – how often has this story been told, of going for a week-end and ending up spending a lifetime?! A critical moment for me came when one of the residents started telling us about the work of Findhorn at the United Nations and in hosting Ecovillage Training Programmes that were bringing together activists from the global North and South. Another was when I attended one of the legendary Findhorn conferences not long after – Spirit in Education, it was called. It was unlike any other conference I had been to. Not only was the intellect respected and stimulated, but this was woven into a great festival of song, dance, meditation and beauty that truly nourished head, heart and hands. Wow, I thought – I want more of this!

So, now here I am, organising inspiring Findhorn conferences of my own – next up is Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change in Easter 2008 that I have put together.

I do occasional shifts in the kitchen where we cook for up to 200, work in the gardens when I can get away from my desk, perform stories in our theatre or open mikes, teach on programmes and act as coordinator for the Global Ecovillage Network of Europe.

This is at the heart of what keeps and sustains me here. We are all multi-tasking, escaping the tyranny of one single profession. And while many of the residents here are apolitical, I have never lived with such a strong and dense cluster of world-workers and change-agents – working in the arts, politics, ecological restoration, peace and justice activism. It is a rich and vibrant mix.

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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage