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7 January 2008

What was the first ecovillage?

Pondering the beginnings of communitarian living

By Jonathan Dawson

The whole holiday period seems, on reflection, to glow in the illumination of candle-light. This far north, the nights are long and dark and a deeply intimate energy settles over the community during the solstice period – all lit with the magical light of bonfires and candles.

On the solstice itself, each of us walked a spiral, candle in hand, walking our way out of the old year into the new and drawing an angel card for the year. The angel drawn for the community as a whole was Awakening.

A highly creative group of people here on a programme over the New Year wove us into a theatre piece they had created tracing the turning seasons of the year, performed in magnificent costumes up in the woodland and illuminated with great home-made lanterns.

Occasional forays up into the mountains cut short by the dying of the light not long after lunchtime. Great bonfires beating back the evening’s biting cold. And everywhere, singing, games and conversation in the intimate glow of candle-light.

This is a fitting image for the ecovillage ethic, which has always been about the lighting of candles as an alternative to cursing the darkness. Moving beyond the politics of protest to model a positive vision of the ideal society.

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Not long ago, I was asked at a public meeting “Which was the first ecovillage?” My initial impulse was to name Sólheimar, the celebrated Icelandic community created in 1931. However, I allowed my mind to soften, to release the specificity of the modern connotations associated with the word ecovillage and to look for something older. What was the first community, I asked myself, which would have called itself an ecovillage had the term then existed?

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Eventually, after reflecting on various communitarian initiatives at different moments in history, I plumped for the Celtic Christian monasteries of the sixth and seventh centuries off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland. Iona, Skellig Michael and the like. These were small, decentralised, generally mixed-gender communities, only occasionally celibate, and dedicated to loving the land, celebrating the sacred and keeping alive the candle of love and learning in a time of profound darkness across Europe.

(I have since learned from reading the intentional communities scholar, Bill Metcalf, that the lineage goes back much further, until at least Pythagoras’s community in Crotone in the fifth century BC.)

This image of keeping alive the candle of love and learning in a period of gathering darkness does not feel to me too fanciful.

Beyond all such reflections, this is the season – with daylight hours shrunk and the mercury tumbling – that tests the resolve of the would-be marathon runner. Yesterday evening, I ran through the gathering twilight, throwing up a slushy spray as I went. So far, so good. I find my appetite undimmed.