Last week’s post was about a course held here at Findhorn (a training in Esalen Massage) written from my perspective as a participant. This week, I want to tell a similar story, of the unfolding of another Findhorn event, but this time from the viewpoint of a focaliser – someone who organises, holds and steers. The programme is one that we crafted especially for a visiting group. It’s specific to the needs of the group, not something we offer for general consumption in our brochure or on our website. We have always held such tailored events – there have always been single interest groups coming to us for fact-finding or inspiration-harvesting visits. But historically we handled such requests on an ad hoc basis – somehow, somebody would magically cobble together and run a programme for them. A few years ago, however, in the face of increasing numbers of such visits, we created a brand new department called Building Bridges (BB), dedicated to overseeing such programmes.

The three coworkers who staff BB are tasked with a) creating and coordinating one-off programmes for groups that invite themselves to Findhorn, and b) proposing and seeking funding for programmes designed especially for groups of people with special needs. The creation of BB has brought much greater rigour and professionalism to  the way we deal with groups who self-invite. And also, it’s delivered new kinds of programmes for people who, because of the cards that life had dealt them, wouldn’t otherwise have the resources or the opportunity to visit our community. This second type of visit is typically funded by local government as part of their social services programme. Participants might, for example, be marginalised youth of the region. Or they might be folk with learning disabilities. Building Bridges has ensured that our visitor demographic has become much more diverse in recent years. This is great in terms of developing our ‘reach’ and it also brings extra richness to our lives as the residents here. I, for one, am very grateful for their work.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from BB to join one of their team (let’s call him Edward) in focalising a programme for a Norwegian delegation coming for just four days in late October. I was told they were a group of about 20 involved in, or somehow associated with, the development of an ecovillage located in the countryside north of Oslo. The instigators of the visit, I was told, are two of the founders of the project and they’re bringing several architects, some local politicians including the mayor of their municipality and a film crew working on a four part documentary for Norwegian television called Ecovillage. The proposal sounded just like my ‘cup of tea’ I have an architectural background (as a practitioner and then an educator) so I am always keen to engage with visiting architects…to both show them what we have achieved here but also to learn about their projects and their work, particularly in the fields of sustainable and community architecture. I knew that my regular workload in the Findhorn Foundation Conference Office would be relatively light at that time so I replied to the invitation with a resounding YES!

Much of the planning for the visit had already been done by the time I came onboard, otherwise, to be honest, the programme created might have been somewhat different. The schedule I was sent seemed reasonable, however I suggested a few tweaks which were graciously implemented by the BB team. I should mention too, that much of the agenda setting had been driven by the two founders of Hurdal Ecovillage, one of whom had visited Findhorn some 30 years earlier and, as a 16 year old, had been so inspired as to have received a vision of a future, Findhorn like, Norwegian community. It took another 20 or so years for the project to crystallise, but now it’s well on its way to realisation. Currently, there are 100 people living on site and the project is on track to fulfil the founders’ vision of a full-featured ecovillage of about five hundred souls, dynamically integrated into the surrounding region.

And this is where the local politicians come in. The delegation includes three: the local mayor, his deputy and the municipality’s Head of Administration (who, in her words, is tasked with implementing the directives of the other two). The municipality of Hurdal lies in the Romerike region of Norway; its administrative centre is the small town of Hurdal, on the outskirts of which, the ecovillage of Hurdal is located. The Mayor, Runar Bålsrud, has a strong vision of his own, I learned yesterday on the first day of their visit. He is passionate about sustainable development and is striving to create the first truly ‘green’ municipality in the country. As yet, I don’t know much of the detail of Runar’s ambition. So I’ve just taken a look at the municipality’s web site (here) and even though there is no English translation, I could glean from the array of clickable icons that the vision is already on track. The very first of the pictograms is a rubbish bin, the second is a recycling truck, and the third is a greenhouse. This is exactly the kind of politician we just love to receive here at Findhorn.

It is very confirming of our ‘world work’ to be reminded that Findhorn has influence well beyond the self-referencing world of intentional communities; that we can and do inspire positive change in wider, mainstream, society. Because ultimately, of course, that is where change simply must happen. Only a tiny (but happily, not irrelevant) proportion of the world’s population will be privileged enough to live in sustainable (intentional) communities like ours. In my opinion, it is crucial that leaders and change makers make every effort to bring sustainable community to the mainstream and to the cities if there is to be any kind of agreeable future for our world. And this, of course, is the core purpose of the Building Bridges department. To this end, it is extremely gratifying to have this delegation accompanied by a film crew of the Norwegian national broadcaster (their equivalent of the BBC). The documentary they are making will spread our influence and inspiration up and down the land of Norway and perhaps beyond.

Prior to their arrival on Saturday afternoon, I was feeling apprehensive. Presenting to architects is always a little two edged for me. I know how they think, and that causes me to sometimes feel quite apologetic for the lack of architectural coherence here at Findhorn. For historical reasons, we have never had much of a master plan for the development of housing and infrastructure. We inherited a caravan park of unhealthy, unsustainable buildings. Many of them, well past their used by date, still exist. And the building programme has unfolded in a very ad hoc fashion, resulting in a mix of styles that reflect the different interests and preoccupations of the people involved at the time. Whilst the architectural informality might appeal to many visitors, I expect that most architects find our built environment lacking in coherence. (Keven McLeod once said of our settlement that it looked like it had been designed by Willy Wonka Architects.) Added to that, the presence of high level politicians in the group and the filming of the visit for television put me a little on edge.

They arrived at about 2pm by coach from Aberdeen airport. We met and welcomed them on the ‘runway’ – that remnant 20 meter wide strip of concrete and tarmac that has, by default, become our main car park. It’s called that because during the Second World War it was built to enable fighter planes to be taxied around and dispersed in the landscape to prevent them being easily destroyed by enemy bombers. This is another aspect of our ‘planning’ that irks me and for which I feel apologetic. The first impression gained by most visitors to our community is their arrival into a bloody great carpark – not a good look for any self-respecting ecovillage, I would have thought. We provided a light lunch in the Community Centre, registered them all (but for two who had been delayed in coming and would arrive late) and showed them to their accommodation. They dropped their bags and we escorted them to our meeting room for the duration of the visit, the Park Lecture Room. The PLR is one of my favourite venues; it features wonderful picture windows looking out into the woods. I have done a lot of teaching in the space and feel very much at home there.

We began with an attunement led by Edward. This is always a bit of an edge with groups as mainstream as this one. Sitting in a circle around a candle with eyes closed whilst someone invokes the presence of angelic beings is a new and sometimes challenging experience for many people. And we had gained an impression from Kristin that she’d prefer us to downplay the more spiritual aspects of our culture, I assumed because of the presence of the politicians and camera crew. But the group seemed to take it in their stride. We followed up with a round of introductions. Everyone in turn stated their name and reason for being on the trip, whether it be as ecovillage residents, architects, builders or regional politician. The group appeared to be comprised of genuine, engaged and open individuals. I began to relax. I took an immediate shine to the Mayor of Hurdal; he seemed modest and unassuming for a politician. For the next hour I presented a slide show and talk about our community in all its various facets. Time didn’t allow for much dialogue; I would have preferred a more discursive exchange, yet the presentation was well received. We set out on a brief tour of the community, elaborating on aspects of our history and culture in such historically significant places as the Original Garden, Universal Hall and Nature Sanctuary. Following dinner, the day ended with a talk and discussion led by Alex Walker, a long-standing member of the community who has been centrally involved in much of its physical and economic development. Alex generated an animated discussion and fielded many questions. I felt satisfied by the end of the day that, one way or another, the group had received a thorough introduction to our community.

Day two comprised a series of presentations and discussions with key members of the community. The instigators of the visit had made it clear at the outset that they were most interested in how our community integrated with the surrounding region and related with various levels of government. So we organised four speakers: Kosha Joubert, President of the Global Ecovillage Network; May East, CEO of CIFAL Scotland and Findhorn’s delegate to the UN; Carin Schwartz, founder of Transition Town Forres, and; Camilla Bredal-Pedersen, Chair of Management of the Findhorn Foundation. That the speakers were all female did not escape attention. It’s clear that a disproportionate number of the most influential members of our community are women. These four passionate and committed women filled our guests with so much information and inspiration that they were left reeling by the end of the day. In addition to the talks, we fitted in a tour to Transition Town Forres and  to Cluny Hill, our campus in Forres. It was a full and fruitful day. The evening was free but by coincidence, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, a band playing traditional Scandanavian music, were appearing in the Hall. I think most of the group went and I heard that a good time was had by all.

Today was the final full day of the visit. We began with a tour of our sustainable housing, including visits inside of four very different buildings: my ecomobile; Edward’s house (9/10 Bagend) shared by 8 coworkers; Auriel’s barrel house; and Michael and Gail’s splendid new home in Soillse. The group were engaged and curious. The diversity of our housing is in distinct contrast to theirs. Their houses are all built to the same design, albeit with variations of size. Through standardisation they have guaranteed efficiency of production, relative affordability, reduced stress for the home buyers and architectural cohesion for the project.

Following the tour we had the opportunity to hear from them about their project in Hurdal. Simen, the founder, gave a comprehensive presentation that was followed by a short presentation by Runar, the Mayor, about his government’s ambition to effect carbon neutrality in their municipality by 2025. This afternoon, the group enjoyed something different – the chance to get their hands dirty in Cullerne Gardens, weeding and preparing a field for planting a new winter crop. These kinds of ‘group projects’ offer guests the opportunity to experience the life and culture of a work department and apply our principle ethos, ‘work is love in action’.

This evening, we held a ‘completion’ sharing in the Earth Lodge, which is a kiva of sorts – a circular 6m wide space, half buried in the ground with a central fire pit and hole in the roof for the smoke to escape. It was intended as a chance to express some final appreciations and enjoy some singing and music making. The sharing was very deep…profound in some cases. A strong camaraderie was felt and expressed by many – a linking of minds and hearts across the North Sea. Craig Gibsone, community elder, permaculturist and didge player led some chanting. Kristin sang a beautiful traditional Norwegian song. We were all moved, some of us to tears. It was a beautiful, soulful way to complete.

All in all, it’s been a short, packed and intense programme that certainly satisfied our ‘clients’ and helped forge new links of friendship and support between ecovillages. I very much enjoyed the gig; working with Edward was a delight. So I hope it’s not the last time I’m recruited at short notice by Building Bridges.

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