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29 November 2007

Marathon man

Jonathan relishes a life away from the fast lane - well until he runs the London Marathon

By Jonathan Dawson

It was with a happy thud that a package landed on my doormat this week providing me with the news that my application to run the London marathon next spring has been successful. (Applications outnumber places available so heavily that it is possible to wait for years to get the thumbs us. This is just my second year in the queue and I am well chuffed.)

So, I am set for a winter of pounding out the miles. Oh, but what a training ground I have in the six miles of sandy beach arching round to Burghead at the opposite end of the bay. With the snow-covered peaks of the Highlands to the north glistening in the clear winter sunlight, this feels more like play than work.

One of the attractions of ecovillage living, in theory at least, is that it provides an opportunity for downshifting, living more simply, working less and leaving more time for the pleasures of life. The theory is great – and that, I guess, is the way it works out for some folk here.

Personally, I have never worked harder or put in more hours in my life than over the last four or five years. Yet, only rarely do I feel anything that could remotely be described as stress or burn out. I do sometimes wonder how both these observations could be true – but true they both do seem to be.

Several factors appear to be at work. First is the sheer diversity of work that I, in common with most people here, are engaged in. You know the dreaded dinner-party question – ‘What do you do?’. A strong sub-text to this question is ‘one-word answers only are accepted. Doctor, nurse, teacher, plumber … that’s the kind of answer we’re looking for.’

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This is symptomatic of the professional monoculture imposed by our current profit-oriented economy. Each of us has a multitude of gifts that would enrich our communities – being funny, a good listener, a great reader of stories, having the gift of music, playing with kids, a wonderful cook, having great hands for shoulder massage, green fingers … the list of our talents for generating real wealth is almost endless. But rarely, in the modern world, is there space and time for such an economy of reciprocity to flourish.

Here, this is a garden that we seek to nurture. People generally define themselves more widely than in main street and derive income from a range of different activities. Moreover, volunteering is rampant. An important step in the process of becoming a long-term member of the community is ‘learning to say no’. Such is the pleasure taken in simply serving and being recognised as a willing and valuable member of the community, that the habit can become addictive, irrespective of the lack of financial reward.

A second factor is that most people here have to greater or lesser extents found a way of aligning their values and their lifestyle. Ethical dilemmas, of course, continue to abound as for everyone else in our society. In a world where ethically-sourced products that deplete neither natural nor social capital are consistently more expensive than those that do, this is bound to be so – especially when earnings are so low for most in our community.

Nonetheless, there is relatively high job satisfaction as most find their work to be meaningful and of value. As a result, the lines between work and play get blurred and it becomes ever more difficult to classify one’s activities as one or the other. Is spending time with my students out of class, some of it spent discussing their research projects, work?

What about giving a talk on ecovillages to a group of visiting dignitaries, or taking a turn leading one of the Sunday afternoon tours of visitors who just want to find out what we are about? What about helping to move rocks from the roof of the Universal Hall so that maintenance work can be undertaken? Truly, if this kind of activity really constitutes work, bring more of it on, that’s what I say!

One final and very practical factor that explains why we can comfortably fit so much into our days is the lack of commuting. With most able to move between home and work on foot or by cycle, great swathes of time that many others spend in traffic jams become liberated for meditation, singing, networking, gardening, designing and organising conferences, cutting logs, running on the beach – whatever is one’s work/play of choice.

Indeed, ‘traffic jam’ time is my own preferred moment for running on the beach. When the tide is low in the early morning, and the beach is empty save for the occasional seal or dolphin or the odd flock of sea-wading birds, work feels like an alien concept.

By the way, I will be running to raise funds for the Global Ecovillage Network that does splendid work in bringing the ecovillage experience to a wider public audience on an entirely voluntary basis. If you would like to sponsor me, do please get in touch: by email