Protected by Angels

4th July 2008 at 01:00
The Findhorn Foundation near Forres is a spiritual community, eco- village and international centre for holistic education. It is known around the globe for its sustainable living and its legendary vegetable gardens. Jean McLeish reports

The Findhorn Foundation near Forres is a spiritual community, eco- village and international centre for holistic education. It is known around the globe for its sustainable living and its legendary vegetable gardens. Jean McLeish reports

It was the legendary 40-pound cabbages that first brought the spiritual community at Findhorn to the world's attention in the late 1960s. They were said to be grown with the help of angels.

There are no monster vegetables in evidence, but the angelic influence is still apparent. On the windows of wooden offices in the grounds there are warning stickers decorated with wings, which caution gently: "Protected by Angels".

What is now The Findhorn Foundation and Community began in 1962, when co- founders Eileen and Peter Caddy and their friend Dorothy Maclean set up home at Findhorn Bay Caravan Park, a mile outside the village on the north-east coast of Scotland. The three hadn't planned on setting up a community, but they shared an interest in spiritual life and their skills as gardeners attracted international visitors. Some liked it so much they decided to move in.

Today, the founders' original caravan is still here - but the community has grown to more than 400 people who live in and around this pioneering ecovillage, sharing a commitment to spiritual values and sustainable living. Ten thousand visitors come to "The Park" yearly and 4,000 people take part in a range of holistic educational courses.

The foundation is a charitable trust earning income from activities as an education and conference centre, focusing on spiritual self-discovery, teaching how to live sustainably and a range of courses on the arts and healing.

A few miles away in Forres, The Findhorn Foundation College was established in 2001. It develops accredited courses in further and higher education and is a registered provider of continuing professional development for Scottish teachers.

Next May at Findhorn, the latest in a series of Northern Lights education conferences for teachers focuses on Inspiration, exploring new avenues opened up by the Curriculum for Excellence.

The ecovillage, where community members experiment with new techniques for environmentally friendly living, won Best Practice designation from the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements in 1998. For more than 10 years, the foundation has engaged with the work of the UN as a non- government organisation, offering programmes in line with the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-14.

A range of businesses and organisations come under the umbrella of the New Findhorn Community Association - such as Trees for Life, which works to restore the Caledonian Forest, and the shop, Phoenix Community Stores, which sells wholefoods, books and crafts. Findhorn even has its own currency - the Eko which is worth a pound;1.

Jonathan Dawson is president of the Global Ecovillage Network, which supports the development of communities dedicated to sustainable living around the world. He is a self-employed member of this community, who teaches undergraduate programmes on human ecology and sustainability studies in the United States and UK.

He's co-author of the sustainability curriculum for Ecovillage Design Education, endorsed by Unesco and Unitar (United Nations Institute for Training and Research), which draws on good practice from ecovillages around the world and he mucks in with chores like the rest of those who make their home here.

Dawson is also a writer and his entertaining blog for The New Statesman chronicles Life at Findhorn - from the sex lives of the community (much less racy than you would imagine) to their traditional New Year's morning dip in the North Sea, The Polar Bear Run. This morning he's sitting at his laptop in one of the community's cafes.

This community recorded the lowest eco-footprint in the industrialised world last year and is attracting the interest of politicians and others who would have given the place a wide berth until comparatively recently, according to Dawson. When he came here a decade ago, he felt it would have been political suicide for a local figure of substance to have been too closely identified with Findhorn as it was still considered a bit "away with the fairies". But he believes as the sustainability agenda has moved centre-stage, the way of life here doesn't seem quite so whacky to outsiders.

"Things that we have been experimenting with for decades now, everything from biological sewage treatment systems to renewable energy generation, to organic foods to complementary therapies to meditation, the hardware and software both have gone mainstream in all sectors of life," he says.

A study of the community's eco-footprint by independent experts used new methodology to get an exact measurement, rather than drawing on national averages. Now when primary pupils visit, they can see the energy-efficient homes and the wind turbines and understand the difference that using renewable energy really makes.

In every category, the Findhorn footprint was significantly lower than the national average, with one exception. "The one category we were significantly above - 250 per cent above - was international travel," says Dawson, who's conscious of his own air mileage travelling to teach overseas. This is a community of internationals and travelling home to see friends and family boosts the footprint. "George Monbiot (British eco- activist) writes about this and calls this love miles, so we are spending too many love miles," he says.

The remaining results show the rest of Scotland has much to learn from Findhorn: "The food footprint is 34 per cent of the national average, as it's predominantly local, seasonal, organic and vegetarian.

"The energy footprint is 21 per cent of the national average - the biggest reason is because we are net exporters of electricity - we produce about 40 per cent more than we use," he says.

Newcomers can take part in Experience Week, which introduces them to the community's spiritual principles - attunement to the sacred, inner listening, respect for the interconnection of all life, service to the planet and personal sharing. This also means a chance to find out how you feel about working in the kitchens or gardens and whether you can practise "work as love in action", a lynchpin of life here.

For Dawson the spiritual element is key: "I've spent weeks in silent meditation in Buddhist monasteries in India and I am deeply interested in the spiritual side as well. So I participate regularly in meditations and I'm not sure I would be here if it wasn't for the spiritual side. If it was just the technological side I'd be less interested."

A short walk away through a mist of fine rain to the dining room and vegetarian lunch is laid out - meat is only served here at Christmas and at Burns Supper. During lunch members talk about their work here - Daniel Wahl works in academic outreach and programme development at Findhorn College and is originally from Bavaria.

He noticed the academic programme, run at the college for the past eight years, catered mainly for US students and felt it could appeal to a wider audience. It has operated through a partnership between Findhorn College and Living Roots, an organisation which specialises in offering overseas semesters at international ecovillages.

Now he is trying to get UK universities on board the college's academic programme and is in talks with several Scottish universities about creating new Masters programmes related to sustainable development. "Every university I talked to was very keen to collaborate with us. There is huge demand for the courses," Dr Wahl explains.

"There's nothing better than learning by example. We are already getting third-year sustainable development students from the University of St Andrews coming for a three-day taster here every autumn. The feedback sheets we get from them are fantastic; they're really encouraging. They say things like they finally got why they study what they studied."

He also hopes the Findhorn eco-footprint will be a springboard for learning opportunities in Scottish schools: "We can use this place as a teaching facility for teachers to learn how the ecological footprint study is done and how they can use innovative methods to teach their students about it.

We're joined by Australian-born Craig Gibsone, who runs the eco-village training courses for adults and young people and has been part of this community for 40 years. "They get a chance to work in parts of the community throughout the week, to see what it's like to maybe grow organic food or cook organic food or how to maintain buildings."

The community is keen to extend ecovillage training to schools: "We have something to offer because we are not just talking about it, we are doing it."

Outside, we do a quick tour of the Field of Dreams - a wonderful mix of brightly coloured homes built by the community - experimenting with a range of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building techniques. In the distance there's one of the wind turbines which helps to keep these eco-evangelists tiptoeing across the planet.

Do they shop each other for not having energy-saving lights? My Australian guide Carin Bolles laughs, although when she left the dining room she did politely ask the remaining person if it would be OK to switch off the light.

Over-eagerly, TESS asks if one is allowed an alcoholic beverage here, having noticed one of the very lovely houses on the Field of Dreams is for sale and pondering the pros and cons. Yes, one is permitted a refreshment. There would be no bank charges with all these Ekos; less cleaning with everyone mucking in; no huge oil bills for central heating; weight loss with all those veggies and working in the gardens, and if the end of the world is really nigh, maybe better in Findhorn under the protection of angels.

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