(This post first appeared as Issue 2 of my EcoTexan Journey newsletter. You can subscribe to future releases here)
Welcome to Issue 2 of EcoTexan Journey, a travelog by Stephen Torrence.
It’s a rainy day here in Wales, soft showers soaking the sheep-covered hills outside my farm cottage window. As reports of the punishing Texas heat crowd my Facebook feed, I feel a bit guilty wearing my sweater and slippers. Hang in there, y’all…
Almost two months have passed since I left Austin. My beard and hair are longer than they’ve ever been. I’ve drunk enough instant coffee in the last two weeks to last me three lifetimes. And I’m finally entering that lonely leg of the traveling when memories of people and places back Home are bubbling up. Snuggling under a warm blanket, the chirping of barn swallows, or a sudden breeze rustling the oaks… bring smiles of nostalgia. Reminding me how significance, friendship, and love are ongoing endeavors, and how many of mine have gone dormant with the lapsing of attention.
Gratitude has emerged as a motif this month. Having time and space for reflection, my hindsight broadening, I’m noticing so many people to whom I’m grateful. It’s funny how beautiful just saying, “Hey, how are you?” after years apart can feel — and even funnier how often that person was secretly hoping to hear from you too. Oh, and some of y’all will laugh when I say this, but… Thank goodness for Facebook! And Skype, and e-mail, and all our other miraculous tools of [re]connection.
As I’ve further cultivated this gratitude, I’ve found it tremendously nourishing. For instance when I’m just sitting down, remembering to feel gratitude to the Earth for holding me in her gravity unconditionally. Or perhaps before a meal, remembering to thank the store clerks, truck drivers, farmers, bacteria, and fungi who helped bring the food before me. Even thanking my hiking boots and coat for serving me on endless treks through mushy bogs. Simple stuff, but there’s something to it.
“To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go:
for just letting it go is what makes it stay.”
—Excerpt from the Tao Te Ching
Translated by Ursula K. LeGuin
Speaking of gratitude, I’m deeply thankful to Gordon, Carisa, and Tamar, who wrote me from Austin in response to last month’s Issue. Your candid words of support truly brightened my day. Remember, if any of y’all would ever like to share — comments, encouragement, jokes, whatever! — just hit Reply. I’d love to hear from you.
Now without further preamble, here are some stories from July and early August in the EcoTexan Journey…
As I began reading about ecovillages, time and again I encountered the sentiment that one can grok ecovillage life only by actually living it. While Findhorn’s Experience Week and the subsequent GEN+20 Summit were unfathomably rich times for me, they weren’t particularly representative of an average week in Findhorn. Hoping to dive deeper, I put out feelers for ways to stay on after the conference, and an opportunity “manifested” almost immediately. The proprietor of Findhorn’s cafe was going on a long holiday, so he needed someone to housesit and take care of his three young rabbits. What a gift! I thus spent the next three weeks cycling daily up the coast from his flat to the ecovillage, volunteering with the gardens and community kitchen in exchange for meals, hanging out around the myriad social events, and generally tuning into the energies of the community.
There are many layers to the magic of Findhorn. As I got into the rhythms of the place, my vague initial impressions were inevitably deepened and sharpened. Washing lettuce with a 30-year resident, I heard juicy tales of the community’s cyclical power dynamics. Weeding the winding stone pathways, a former vegetarian ruminated with me on the more nuanced ethics of meat eating. Taking tea with me on in a near-empty Community Centre, a staff member shared ideas and concerns about the long-term viability of Findhorn’s workshop-based income. And in a particularly precious experience, I attended a massive convening of the broader Findhorn community on nothing less than their organizational future. As you might expect, simply invoking the potential for Change churned up an passionate hopes and contentions in abundance.
When I talk with outside folks about Findhorn, they often goad me to air the ecovillage’s dirty laundry. Surely these people are duping everyone! Behind the gilded facade of this New Age Disney World, the residents of Findhorn must be at each others’ throats. I understand my interlocutors seeking refuge in Schadenfruede. It’s a self-reinforcing cynicism I know all too well. Before I visited, I had the same thoughts. As a diploma’d practitioner in the Myth of Separation, how could I not be skeptical of Findhorn? How could a community where people thrive together in perfect ecological, social, and personal balance possibly be anything but a hippie pipe dream?
Living at Findhorn, I discovered a deeper Truth than any skeptical speculation could manufacture. No, Findhorn isn’t perfect. But unlike the other communities I’ve lived in, Findhorn embraces that quintessentially human imperfection as an essential aspect of growth, and integrates it holistically on an embodied level. For instance, despite the emotionally charged exchanges in the aforementioned meeting, folks came together afterward in lingering hugs and impromptu dance circles. They recognized that only upon airing and owning their collective Shit could the real work begin. Over the following weeks they would gather in meditation circles, systemic constellations, and myriad other facilitated contexts. Rather than muttering in isolation, they were forging the Way Forward together, molding their passion, holding and supporting each other in that precious, nebulous space of Becoming. They know how to do this skillfully, because they’ve been doing it for five decades.
If there’s anything I took away from my embodied experiences at Findhorn, it’s that cultivating skillful practices of embracing, reconciling, and harnessing human diversity is at the core of ecovillage life, and thus at the core of Living the New Story. Communities, like all relationships, are a perennial process. As Karen Litfin keenly noted in her own travels, ecovillagers consistently report that the most simultaneously challenging and rewarding aspect of ecovillage life is “the people.” It doesn’t matter how many wind turbines or solar panels you put up — if you haven’t got the human glue, you’re living in an eco-fantasy. When you get that right, it actually feels magical.
Findhorn has crafted a mighty fine glue. I won’t pretend to have anything resembling a complete understanding of how that glue works, but I’m profoundly grateful that they let me share in it for a bit, and I look forward to seeing them flourish into the future.
I’m tremendously grateful to have met Leticia Rigatti and Ryan Lackey of the Común Tierra Project during my time at Findhorn. Five years ago the couple noticed how Latin America was experiencing a vibrant ecological renaissance, but that good educational information about the region’s sustainable projects was hard to find online. So they embarked southward with little more than a dream and a video camera on an open-ended eco-nomadic journey.
To date they’ve visited over 100 communities and produced over 60 videos documenting ecovillages, permaculture projects, cultural diversity, and much more. Simultaneously they are demonstrating ecological living, exchanging seeds and skills, and sharing art and music everywhere they go. They’ve even retrofit their motorhome “Minhoca” with a bicycle-powered blender, solar oven, mini-garden, solar panels, dry toilet, and psychedelic paint job.
Ryan and Leticia are truly walking their talk, living the New Story. They brought boundless energy and inspiration to the GEN+20 Conference, even receiving a Gaia Excellence Award for their outstanding work with Común Tierra and as active participants in the GEN and CASA ecovillage networks. And their journey is still going! After GEN+20, the dynamic duo presented to a packed room (including myself) at nearby Newbold House, passionately sharing their story and raising funds, before flying to Brazil to get right back on the road.
Trees for Life
During my Findhorn Experience Week, a soft-spoken talk on the significance of trees by Alan Watson Featherstone inspired in me a deep love for Scotland’s Trees For Life project. This non-profit has committed to nothing less than restoring the Caledonian Forest over the next 250 years. They’ve planted over a million trees to date, and are just beginning. Reforestation is arguably the most effective human response to climate change — forests heal local habitats, sequester carbon, build soil, reverse desertification, and so much more.
I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to have volunteered with Trees for Life on a day trip to Dundreggen, their 10,000-acre nursery estate in the hills near Loch Ness. We our helped transplant baby Birch and Aspen sprouts, weeded among young Willow, and sheltered rows of adolescent Rowan to protect them from wind and birds. Upon further maturity, the trees we nurtured will be planted in the dozens of restoration areas in the region. Please support these folks if you’ve got a few quid to spare, and plant a tree where you live if you get the chance. It feels wonderful and makes a huge difference for the world.
Next Stop: London
Here in late August, I’m wrapping up my stay at Blaennant Farm. The sheep seem to have finally accepted me. Sunlight is tentatively breaking through the rain clouds. My time here has gone pleasantly askew of expectations, which I’ll perhaps share more about next Issue.
In September, my Journey continues in London, where I’ll be exploring the city for my first time and attending the International Permaculture Convergence. After that, I catch a plane to northern España, bound for the up-and-coming ecovillage of Arterra.
Peace and Long Life until next time, y’all