The LA Ecovillage

Jonathan Dawson blogs about an alternative Findhorn, in downtown Los Angeles...

I want to devote my blog this week to an extraordinary development unfolding in a poor, multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhood some 6,000 miles from here – in inner-city Los Angeles.

Why on Earth would I do that is a column called Life At Findhorn?! Well, first because we are part of a much larger global family, one of whose members, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, is engaged in quite wonderfully distinctive and inspiring work. Second, because I have just returned after spending ten days there, participating in the annual board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network.

In terms of the general flavour of LAEV, in retrospect the die can be seen to have been cast right at its inception. It was the early 1980s and the original idea of the founder, Lois Arkin, had been to create a new-build intentional community outside town.

Then the Watts riots happened and LA burned in the heat of racial conflict. Lois decided that the priority was to work within rather than without. So, she located herself in the small corner of Koreatown – today very multi-ethnic but with a strong Latino flavour – where she finds herself to this day. The intentional community of around 30 of which she is a member sees its mission in terms of helping bring back to life the entire neighbourhood in which they live.

The two large, Mediterranean-style houses in which most intentional community members live feel like nothing more than great beehives, with a continual traffic of people in and out. On my first morning in the community, a group of kids from a local community centre working on a video project were filming within the courtyard, asking us about GEN and its relevance to neighbourhoods like this.

Later, great boxes of locally-grown, organic vegetables were delivered and community members set to work dividing them into boxes to be collected by members of the food cooperative. More people coming in and out, most stopping to exchange news and chat.

Several of the evenings I was there, there were also public speakers in the community’s main lounge, with the events open to the general public.

Then, there is the traffic out. One community member is working installing PV solar panels on properties throughout the city. Another goes out regularly to man the phones for a fund-raising drive by the local, independent radio station.

Others are off to work at the Bicycle Kitchen (an initiative born in LAEV but that has now moved out into the neighbourhood due to a lack of space), a workshop in which young local people are taught how to repair bicycles.

Community members have been involved in creating mosaics that now decorate the street, planting trees, sculpting a playful and beautiful cob bench (in the shape of a dragon), installing permeable pavements that allow rain-water to run down to the water-table below, helping design a small local park along permaculture lines and, most spectacular, working with local children to create a colourful mandala in the middle of the street.

Community members seem to spend a lot of time in this mandala – community meals, meetings, workshops, discussions – while the traffic slows and gently wends its way around them. This is part of a conscious effort to ‘re-educate the traffic’, as Lois puts it. One poster within the community shows a road filled with cyclists on one of the periodic Reclaim The Streets days. The poster declares: ‘We are not blocking the traffic – We are the traffic’.

It is great, if all too rare, to see an ecovillage get stuck in in an urban context, really working in cooperation with their neighbours and helping transform and humanise an entire neighbourhood.

Now, however, the initiative is under threat – and this is where you, dear reader, may just be able to help. The LA school department is planning to locate yet another school in the neighbourhood – there are several there already. This would entail demolishing 35 affordable housing units (all to rare in the city) and even more bussing in of kids from other parts of town.

The ecovillagers are fighting it tooth and nail and have set up an online petition asking the authorities to find another site. If you feel inspired, visit http://www.laecovillage.org/ and sign up.

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