A model for sustainability makes its way from Scotland to the Berkshires
Photos by Maria Bakkalapulo and Niall Macaulay
Sustainability may be the buzzword of the decade as we struggle to balance modernity with our ability to maintain future resources. Yet 50 years ago in northeast Scotland, the Findhorn Foundation was founded on the ethos of inner spirituality and environmental care. Today, the foundation draws thousands of visitors each year, and its outreach stretches beyond country borders, across waters, even to communities right here in the Berkshires.
Home to some 400 residents, Findhorn Foundation in Moray, Scotland, began with three adults and three children. Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean arrived at Findhorn Bay on November 17, 1962, on a quest. They were practical people but also acted on guidance from spirit voices, journeying by caravan to this remote, windswept spot on the coast of Scotland. Eileen was reclusive and received the most spiritual guidance, while husband Peter, a former Royal Air Force officer, put instructions into practice. Aerial photographs of Findhorn 52 years ago show a barren strip of land, with sand, gorse, and heather, between a 2,000-year-old fishing village and a major NATO airbase. The Findhorn Foundation, both ecovillage and spiritual community, has expanded to two campuses and in 2006 became the first United Nations Training Center in northern Europe for sustainable energy. Its wide concrete main street, known affectionately as the Runway, was once the airbase’s taxiway. It has 61 ecological buildings of diverse designs and produces its own electricity with four wind turbines and solar power. Its lush vegetation and thriving wildlife surrounding beautiful homes is testimony to the success of permaculture.
What is permaculture? We find one example of it close to home in Cheshire, where 30-year-old Eric Socha, a perma-culturist and visionary, surveys his family’s plot that he now shares with his mother. His grandfather was from Ukraine, a dairy farmer who chose this piece of land in the Berkshires because it reminded him of home. From Socha’s backyard, he can see Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. “I grew up on the land. On the tractor, my grandfather held me in his arms,” Socha recounts. “Subconsciously, it seeded itself.” A beautiful landscape surrounds his greenhouse, and an old barn where his grandfather used to keep goats still stands, leaning on a weeping willow tree. “Findhorn in Scotland is the epicenter of sustainable living on a global perspective. What I am doing here is small, diversified homesteading. Creating edible landscaping—apples, some hazelnuts, blueberries, and raspberries. The concept of permaculture, once it is established, is to let nature take care of it. The human input is minimal.”
First introduced to permaculture at Sterling College, an educational institution in Vermont with an environmental focus, Socha went on to learn more at the Sirius Community in neighboring Pioneer Valley. Bruce Davidson, one of Sirius’s founders, trained at Scotland’s Findhorn community and created Sirius, in the town of Shutesbury, to disseminate the practices in the United States. The community’s goal is spiritual while teaching people ecological practices.
Walking through the grounds of Sirius, one sees the emphasis is clearly on community—gardening together, building together, or eating together. As gatherers join hands in a circle in the dining hall, Davidson offers thanks for the meal. This practice of giving thanks and crediting the work that brought produce to the table is age-old, but Davidson says that modern living has diluted it, leaving us largely disconnected from the origins of our food. He shares the same conviction of leading thinkers at Findhorn, that permaculture can help people live happier lives and reduce stress inflicted on the environment. Permaculture includes economic sustainability, too; Findhorn’s trading currency, called Eko, is similar in objective to BerkShares, where both currencies act as a resource exchange to encourage support of local businesses and commerce.
Both northeast Scotland and the Berkshires enjoy a rural lifestyle, which means reliance on a major environmental drain—cars. At Findhorn, shared electric vehicles and hybrids are scattered around the village. At Sirius, members pioneered a co-op to buy biodiesel made from renewable plant sources or cooking oil. Both initiatives are now in the mainstream, where the use of electric and hybrid vehicles is growing and all gasoline used in the U.S. has bio-fuel content.
At Findhorn, which encompasses several buildings spread over 30 acres, we meet Geoff Dalglish, part of the foundation’s Living Education Apprentice Program (LEAP). A warm, articulate South African, Dalglish is himself a testimonial to changing paths in life. He was once a self-proclaimed “petrol-head,” writing about, testing, and racing cars for a living. “I’ve had about 50 cars in my life,” he says. “I kept replacing them every year. That is the way I lived.” But he experienced a transformation. “I decided to let go of everything, my house, my cars, my books.” And he started walking—really walking. He covered 25,000 miles, equivalent to the circumference of the planet. His journey informs his book, Lost and Found.
Dalglish takes us on a tour around Findhorn, explaining objectives that have become more ambitious. The waste-management system, called the Living Machine, processes waste water in a greenhouse where microorganisms and plant life are kept in a series of tanks. The last tanks in the process contain snails and fish. The resulting water is pure enough to discharge into the sea or to be recycled.
Findhorn’s permaculture guru, Craig Gibsone, says, “We are helping nature heal.” Raised on a farm in Australia without electricity, Gibsone says working the land came naturally to him. He sweeps his arm to encompass the bucolic view. “Some people just see chaos. There’s corn, beans, pumpkins, and 20 apple trees here. Flowers bring the bees. I can eat the flowers, the petals, the chives, the apples. Practically everywhere there is something to eat, more than I could ever eat.”
From Findhorn to the Berkshires, philosophy and methods have created solid results and bring a growing population toward sustainable living. Sheffield resident Ashley Barrett studied at the Findhorn Foundation College, and while working in the gardens and dancing in the studio there, came up with a business idea that she brought back to the Berkshires. “I developed Juice n Tonic as a way to bring my knowledge of healthy living and plants to the community,” Barrett explains about her fledgeling enterprise. “They’re fresh-pressed, herbal-infused juices and tonic shots that deliver high doses of nutrients and energy.”
Barrett says that the phrase “growing people” came up often in conversation at Findhorn. “On a deeper level, feeling good and healthy means taking care of yourself, and that means caring about other things, like where your food comes from. In turn, that snowballs into an overall interest in all forms of sustainability.” n
The Sirius EcoVillage in Shutesbury offers a permaculture-design certification course over three weekends in March and April. A two-week intensive course is given in July.