Returning to Findhorn

The Findhorn eco-village has had to work hard to avoid becoming a 'New Age old people's home', but i

Let me introduce you to Michael. Now in his early 30s, Michael spent the first 18 years of his life here in Findhorn before heading off to the US to seek his fortune and see how the world might look when viewed through different lenses.

Barely a day passed, however, when he did not think about the community where he grew up. And, in early 2002, just in time for the Findhorn community’s 40th birthday and the launch of his mother’s book, ‘In Search of the Magic of Findhorn’, he came back – and decided to stay.

Michael’s journey runs parallel to that of a good number of his peers and now, a happy group of the generation of children he grew up with here has moved back and today plays a variety of important roles in the community.

Michael notes two significant changes in the community compared to the one he left in the mid-90s. First, as it had grown in size and complexity over the previous decade, it had become easier for young people to stay on and find a niche for themselves in the community. Several of our enterprises – notably the shop, bakery and Bakehouse restaurant – actually favour young people in their employment policy.

On the other hand, and also part of the process of enlargement and diversification, the body at the heart of the community, the Findhorn Foundation, had shrunk back to its area of core expertise, namely the provision of educational services.

In the process, many activities that the Foundation used to finance and manage had been shed, delegated or sold off into private or cooperative community enterprises. One of the activities thus shed was the funding of a coordinator for the Youth Project, the core focus for youth activities in the community and also often attracting children and young people from neighbouring communities.

As a result, on his return Michael found that young people were less consciously held by the community than previously and that intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding were on the rise. He also noted a strong demographic imbalance, with a large gap in the community’s population between the ages of around 18 and 40.

This was symptomatic of wider trends in the community as a whole. For, with the Foundation clearly defining its remit in terms of the performance its core educational business and the welfare of its hundred or so employees, it became ever clearer that we were lacking an overarching governance body for the entire community, a majority of which did not and never had worked for the Foundation.

The Youth Project was just one of a number of areas of areas of activity that were in danger of falling between the cracks. Who was responsible for recycling, for care of the elderly, for decision-making and conflict facilitation outside of the community of Foundation employees? Who, in short, was to manage the community’s welfare state?

As you would expect in this place, necessity became the occasion for a fresh bout of creativity and the New Findhorn Association was born with membership open to and encouraged for all members of the community. Michael was one of a number of young people who got involved in helping to steer the NFA in the direction of more actively holding the young people and giving them a greater voice in community affairs.

Today, the NFA funds two part-time youth positions – one a project worker, the other a youth advocate who sits on the NFA council. There is a growing range of youth-oriented cultural and educational programmes. Findhorn is one of the core nodes of NextGEN, the Youth Council of the Global Ecovillage Network. And, if we are still not demographically representative of the population as a whole, the 20 – 40 year-old age group is no longer as sadly sparse as it has been.

Work, of course, remains to be done, a key challenge being that of providing reasonably well-paid and responsible jobs for our youth. But a corner seems to have been turned. One of the community’s pioneering figures suggested years ago that a real challenge facing us was to avoid the trap of becoming a ‘New-Age old people’s home’. If we have succeeded in at least postponing that dread fate for the time being, we have much to be thankful for to Michael and the other young people who have been so active over the last five years or so.

And the latest news from Michael? Well, he has recently come back from the most recent gathering of the Young Scotland Programme, a week of debates and presentations on themes of importance to Scotland’s youth. And, on the back of a keenly and passionately argued speech on the potential for renewable energy to transform our society for the better, he has returned glorying in the title of Young Scottish Thinker of the Year.

Bravo.

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.
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.