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Jumping like frogs

preparing the birch flame tower

preparing the birch flame tower

June 19 – Gotland – Midsummer, i think, is the best time of year to be Swedish.  The air is warm, the flowers are starting to bloom, days are long, and strawberries are turning red.  To celebrate this longest day, Swedes gather together and celebrate around a midsummer pole.  A lot of time goes into hanging and decorating the pole, which is an ancient symbol of fertility and good harvests.  We set ours up near the future site of the ecovillage houses, and had about 40 people come to celebrate.  Food was abundant, and we all got plenty of chances to dance like frogs.

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Anchoring and decorating the midsummer pole

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Some of our dance party

The most traditional song to sing at midsummer is called Små Grodorna (Small Frogs), and the dance moves involve hopping and springing and bouncing around.  Very fun to see typically reserved Swedes break out and dance like little kids through a field!

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Gotland’s favorite game is an ancient one called Kubb, where two teams take turns trying to knock over each other’s tokens, and then eventually hit the king in the center of the field.

DSCF1652And to add some ambiance, our handyman Tom made two birchwood lanterns by chainsawing a cross about 1 meter down through a log.  You can then drop an ember into the middle and it will be held there and burn slowly all night (in theory). These two took quite a smokey while to get going, but they eventually lit up.

With stone-oven-baked sourdough bread, strawberries, stirfries, and herring, we celebrated in true Swedish fashion as we got ready to depart from Gotland towards our next adventure.

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July 19, 2009 at 10:07 Leave a comment

Feasting with Friends

Dissa's going-away cake

Dissa's going-away cake

June 15 – Gotland – For the dozen-odd of us living at Suderbyn during June, eating together became a favorite way of spending time.  Since we volunteers outnumbered the family members, we took turns working in pairs to prepare all the food for the day.  We got to experience firsthand what we’d heard and seen at Hurdal – one of the greatest benefits of living in community is the power and efficiency of numbers.  When each person has to look after their own needs, much energy is lost.  But when everyone takes turn looking after each other, it frees up all those creative juices.  We all learned that we much prefer to cook for 12 people once a week than to cook for one or two every day.

cooking together

cooking together

So this entry is a tribute to the fantastic food we cooked for each other, and a symbol for the lesson we learned about the power of a strong community to improve quality of life.  Heres to the bread we baked, the potatos we roasted, the sun that powered our stirfry, and the good friends that helped us to eat it all.  Bon appetit!

Chocolate Pie!

Chocolate Pie!

Wee potatos roasting, roasting

Wee potatos roasting, roasting

P.S.  Check out the recipes page for tips on how to make some of these tasty dishes!

crusty loaves

crusty loaves

Close encounters of the red hummus kind

Close encounters of the red hummus kind

Solar stirfry

Solar stirfry

Stirring the fry

Stirring the fry

My proudest moment

My proudest moment

Apple crisp with rhubarb caramel glaze - what!?

Apple crisp with rhubarb caramel glaze - what!?

Barbecue at the beach

Barbecue at the beach

Bake please

Thank you

Challah Bread

Preparing for the Midsummer feast

Preparing for the Midsummer feast

July 18, 2009 at 09:44 2 comments

Circular Logic

Pathway towards the 7 earth mounds

Pathway towards the 7 earth mounds

June 11 – Suderbyn, Gotland – Human life depends on spheres and circles of all sorts – from the sun that provides all energy and life, and our own spinning home that sustains our daily needs, to the wheels and drills that underpin our modern society.  Take a look at a typical field of vegetables or grain, or a suburban neighborhood, and you’ll find straight lines, right angles, bare earth, and little competition.  At Suderbyn, the founders believe there is another way to design one’s surroundings, and this theme of circles and spirals came up in all our work there.

The most noticeable manifestation of this (it’s impossible to miss) is the massive earthwork running diagonally across the property.  Seven connected mounds of earth, dug up on the property, run for a length of 2000 m at a height of 2 m.  These mounds resemble a series of interlocking horseshoes.  All are facing south, which will create both a shelter from the wind and a warmer microclimate inside their protective arms.

Looking south over the mounds - click for a closer look

Looking south over the mounds - click for a closer look

The excavation sites will eventually fill with water, creating four ponds on the property.  These will give habitat to a wider range of plants and animals, and will generally enhance the diversity and health of the land.

One of the four future ponds

One of the four future ponds

All of this work is founded on the tenets of permaculture, a school of thought seeking to emulate natural communities and structures in our own human settlements.  Permaculture structures, like natural ones, serve many purposes at once – not only will the ponds provide water, they will increase biodiversity and benefit the aesthetics of the community.  Likewise, the mounds are not only fertile soil for plants to grow in, they provide shelter and heat to the land inside their arms.

In the sheltered interior of the earth wall: potatos!

In the sheltered interior of the earth wall: potatos!


While One Step Beyond was staying at Suderbyn, we had the chance to help with several permaculture projects.  Inside of Horseshoe #5, we created a new farming area.  To match the surroundings, we created circular garden beds for potatos, root crops, and tomatos to grow in.  How we did it:

First we threshed the tall grass to make way for the earth.  We laid the cut grass down as a first layer of mulch, hoping it would keep the grass from growing through our barrier.  On top of that we laid a double layer of newspaper and cardboard as added weed protection.  Then came the soil, brought by the wheelbarrow load from a leftover pile excavated from the pond.  For a 12-meter diameter circle of earth, this took quite a long time.  Eventually we finished it and planted in the potatos, with a border of beans and horseradish to encourage good growth and healthy soil.

Potatos, root vegetables, and tomatos call these beds home

Potatos, root vegetables, and tomatos call these beds home

We didn’t get to finish the interior beds before we left, but they were designed as a kind of watermelon-slice-with-a-bite-taken-out-of-the-middle to match the circular lines and provide easy weeding/harvesting access on all sides.

The outer bed is complete, and the inner beds are almost finished

The outer bed is complete, and the inner beds are almost finished


The future site of the ecovillage’s houses is a beautiful rocky field today.  Plans for the village are full of curves and circles as with the rest of the land, and will build on the area’s natural beauty rather than diminishing it.  Just next to this building site is another gardens that started growing while we stayed at Suderbyn.  These beds emulate a snail shell as it grows outward, following a spiral curve around a central point.  Depending on your temperament, getting to the middle can be an act of meditation (following the wide spiral curve) or a zigzag in-and-out affair (cutting between the garden beds).  The snail has a few more rotations to go before it reaches its adult size, at which point it could produce enough food for a small community.

Snail-shell garden beds

Snail-shell garden beds


While snails are growing out at the future ecovillage site, another spiral took form outside of the old farmhouse where the community now lives.

An herb spiral provides a home for all of the culinary herbs you can grow.  It provides a wide range of climates, all within arms’ reach for harvesting.  It’s a staple of permaculture design, both for its ease of construction and the many benefits it gives.  Stones, sand, soil, and seeds are all it takes to build one.

The magic of the spiral is in its use of space.  A typical garden bed of the same length would be about 7 m long, and you would have to walk along it and bend down to the ground to harvest the herbs growing in it.  The herb spiral takes the same amount of growing space and curls it around and upwards, putting the entirety into easy reach. Beyond this, the rocks also take in the heat of the day and slowly release it in the night, keeping the soil warmer and allowing a wider range of plants to grow.   The height of the center casts a shadow over the northern part of the spiral, making this area better suited for shade-loving plants, and the crevices of the rock give plenty of habitat to creeping plants like thyme and lemon balm.  And, as if that wasn’t enough, water falling on the spiral will flow downwards and collect at the bottom, making the top quite well-drained and the bottom more marshy.  Combine all these effects and you end up with a microclimate for almost everything you could want to grow!

Growing upward

Growing upward

Tom and Jean stabilize the rock wall

Tom and Jean stabilize the rock wall

The finished product, planted with herbs

The finished product, planted with herbs

We planted our spiral with rosemary, lemon balm, yarrow, dill, chamomile, thyme, oregano, marjoram, mint, and semper vivens, with room for basil and other plants to come in later.

Asta the bulldog enjoying the work site

Asta the bulldog enjoying the work site

For a decent guide to starting your own herb spiral, look here.  Be sure to site it close to your kitchen for easy access, and so you can marvel at the power of the spiral over your breakfast.

July 10, 2009 at 10:03 Leave a comment

Meet the film crew

Adrien and Alexei on the job

Adrien and Alexei on the job

Gotland – Suderbyn ecovillage served as a gathering place for the whole group, the place where the film crew joined up for the first time.  Adrien and Alexei both come from France, from the same film school – Adrien is a graduated cameraman, while Alex is still in school for sound engineering.  During our stay at Suderbyn they shot nearly 20 hours of footage and audio, from interviews with residents and guests to artistic metaphorical shots of grass blowing gently in the wind.  We’d often find them setting up for an interview in the fields or lurking behind buildings to capture candid work footage.

Closing in

Over sand, rocks, and grass, Alex and Adrien have a difficult job keeping pace with all the work going on, while at the same time coordinating their movements with each other.  Both being talented in their fields, they make it work as they dance around each other through the fields of Suderbyn.

Sky surveillance

When he's not working, Alexei likes to relax with a bit of light grass clipping.

When he's not working, Alexei likes to relax with a bit of light grass clipping.

All smiles

July 9, 2009 at 09:06 Leave a comment

An island in the sea

Suderbyn Ecovillage - our home for three weeks

Suderbyn Ecovillage - our home for three weeks

Writer’s note:  we’re getting backlogged in our journal entries here, sorry to keep you waiting!  We’re currently outside of Malmo and should have time to bring the blog up to date with reality. Until then, a sneak peek at our three weeks on Gotland, off the east coast of Sweden.

Monday, June 1 – After three days’ visit in Stockholm, in which the One Step Beyond team grew from 3 to 6 (our filmmaker, sound engineer, and nomadic man of the forest arrived), it came time to head off on our first extended stop of the trip.  We’d arranged to stay for three weeks on Gotland, a very large island off the east coast of Sweden, almost as close to Latvia as it is to Sweden.  Visby, the main city, has been at times a trading center, Viking stronghold, and pirates’ nest.  These days it’s more of a nest for tourists, but beautiful nonetheless.

Suderbyn ecovillage is the first place of its kind on Gotland.  Started just a year ago, Suderbyn is run at the moment by Robert and Ingrid, our generous hosts.

The most noticeable aspects of Suderbyn’s acreage are the seven horseshoe-shaped berms of earth covering 640 meters (200o feet) (see the design here). At 2 meters high, they dominate the horizon.  They’ve been planted with trees and shrubs that will eventually grow up and cover the slopes, but for now they are mostly bare earth.  Each horseshoe faces south and houses a protected area within its arms.  Sheltered from the wind and insulated by the earth, these spaces will function like natural greenhouses, keeping in the heat and allowing plants to grow deeper into the cold season.

Tending the solar cooker - this thing could melt your face off

Tending the solar cooker - this thing could melt your face off

One of Robert and Ingrid’s main goals is to show that sustainable living can be fun and enjoyable.  They’ve built many whimsical structures on the property, including a rocketship for housing the compost from the outhouse,  and have plans for many more.

They also have two solar cookers, great for harnessing the power of the long sunny days of summer.  The parabolic cooker above is specially designed to focus the light of the sun onto a specific point.  On a sunny day, it gets hot enough to make a stirfry (or to burn through the support post, which we almost did!).

The more traditional solar oven - less capable of melting your face off, better at making tasty slow-cooked food

The more traditional solar oven - less capable of melting your face off, better at making tasty slow-cooked food

Suderbyn also has a type of solar oven that more people have seen.  It’s essentially an enclosed box surrounded by reflective panels.  With a dark pot inside, the cooking temperature can easily reach boiling, hot enough to cook anything.  We cooked rice and beans during our stay, but it’s possible to work with much more in a solar oven – some friends of mine have even used theirs for canning fruits and jams.

June 25, 2009 at 09:10 1 comment

Karlstad adventures – urban oases

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Monday, May 25 – Before heading east towards Stockholm, we followed a tip from Gunnar, Mjolnatorpet’s resident architect.  He told us about a project he worked on in downtown Karlstad, designing a superinsulated apartment building in the Orrholmen neighborhood (more photos and text here, in Swedish).  We took the bus to the neighborhood parking garage  (not your average lot) and headed out to see what we could see.  The contrast i found there to an American neighborhood in a similar location was striking.

Downtown Karlstad - population 80,000

Downtown Karlstad - population 80,000

Orrholmen is located just south of the main downtown area of Karlstad.  It’s a peninsula jutting out into Lake Vanern, Sweden’s largest.  Home to several thousand people in a variety of different apartment buildings, it was immediately clear that Orrholmen was designed with much foresight for the needs of its residents.  The entire three-sided waterfront is a vast, beautiful park, free of houses and surprisingly natural for an urban setting.  All the buildings occupy the central part of the peninsula and are served by an undergrounf parking garage running most of the length of the peninsula.

Downtown Karlstad, looking the other way

Orrholmen, looking the other way

We weren’t able to tour the particular building Gunnar mentioned to us, but the layout of the entire community turned out to be much more interesting.

Bicycle Garage

Bicycle Garage

The garage features a huge amount of space reserved for bicycles, from safe rooms to parking spaces.  All this underground parking allows the entire peninsula to be carfree – the road effectively ends at the northern edge.  The difference this one change made in the character of the neighborhood was staggering – no need for wide roads, a sense of calm throughout, and kids running and playing without fear for their safety.

Topside of the garage, with air vent hidden in the background

Topside of the garage, with air vent hidden in the background

The picture above shows one of the air vents for the garage – they’re hidden very well by the greenery that surrounds them.

Add environmentally friendly building techniques to this attention to land use and you end up with an urban neighborhood sustaining a very high quality of life.

June 25, 2009 at 08:33 Leave a comment

Less chewing, more greenhouses at Tuggelite

Saturday, May 23rd – Our host Jonas at Mjölnatorpet filled us in on another ecovillage just down the road, on the same bus line.  Since it’s the oldest ecovillage in the country (as old as me, founded in 1984), we decided we had to check it out.  Albert was kind enough to show us around the community and his house, where he’s lived since the village’s founding.

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One of the housing blocks in Tuggelite

As the first ecovilage in Sweden, Tuggelite attracted much attention at its founding 25 years ago.  Local governments from all over Sweden came to study the village and its organization.  We quickly noticed a major difference between Tuggelite’s layout and that of Mjölnatorpet (TOO-gah-LEE-tay and MYOL-na-tor-pet for the Swedishly challenged).  Tuggelite’s 5 housing buildings all face south, and each family’s house has its own greenhouse attached on the south side.  The interior walls of the greenhouse are made with a thick layer of concrete, used as a “thermal mass” – the heat of the sun becomes stored in the warm concrete, which cools more slowly than the air – the wall releases that heat into the night, reducing the need for heating at night.

Tuggelite's layout

Tuggelite's layout

Albert, our tour guide, was one of the driving forces behind the village’s founding.  In 1984, they were at the cutting edge of sustainability in Sweden – all the houses are equipped with triple-glazed windows, a technique that is now the standard in Sweden (we’re still working on getting double-glazed windows into old houses in America).  Many more of Tuggelite’s ideas have been taken up into the mainstream of Swedish policy.  They were the first place in the country to use wood pellets for heating – a  waste product of logging, the pellets are a highly efficient source of energy.  The entire village is hooked into a district heating system controlled from the common house.  The pellets are stored in a type of silo and their flow into the heater is regulated by computer.  Today this setup is found throughout Sweden, including at Mjölnatorpet.

Touring with Albert

Touring with Albert

Near the common house, we also found the garbage.  Tuggelite’s residents sort their garbage and recycling; the garbage goes to the municipal bio-gasifier, where the gas released from its decomposition is captured and used to run Karlstad’s bus fleet.  This was another innovation that Albert and the other founders worked to develop.

Common house with greenhouse

Common house with greenhouse and original 1984 solar panels

Wood Pellet Storage

Wood Pellet Storage

Inside the heating room

Inside the heating room

Tuggelite means something like “chew less” in Swedish.  The story goes that long ago, the adjacent land was owned by a wealthy, titled family, while the area around Tuggelite was left for the peasants.  The rich folk had ample food to sustain themselves and always had something to chew, while those at Tuggelite had less to chew.

Exercise on the lawn

Exercise on the lawn

Today, the name has taken on new meaning.  Residents at Tuggelite ecovillage are generally well-off, well-educated people that have a degree of freedom in where they choose to live.  For many, the choice to move in to Tuggelite was a conscious choice to chew up less of the Earth’s resources – rather than being a negative thing, chewing less can now bring its own rewards.  A strong sense of community, lower energy bills, living in a well-designed, efficient house are all commonly cited benefits of living here.

Each family has its own compost bin

Each family has its own compost bin

Grapes growing in Albert's greenhouse

Grapes growing in Albert's greenhouse

Tuggelite was our first glimpse at a fully established ecovillage.  While Hurdal is abuzz with new energy and countless projects, and Mjölnatorpet is settling down into its adolescence, Tuggelite’s fruit trees are grounded in 25 years’ worth of soil.  The average age of the residents is somewhere over 50 – the same phenomenon of extremely low turnover is occuring here – only 2 or 3 of the units have come up for sale in the past few years.  The energy of the place is very welcoming, and also subdued.  It’s immediately obvious that the residents have achieved what they wanted to and are enjoying the rewards of the place they’ve built together.

Rhubarb for our pie!

Rhubarb for our pie!

Before we ended our visit, we had to sample the local specialty crop.  Rhubarb plants the size of small trees covered the lawns, and Albert’s wife Margretha was kind enough to let us take some to make that pie you read about last time.

Radu's first rhubarb

Radu's first rhubarb

Hammock in the greenhouse - perfect after a long day of interviews

Hammock in the greenhouse - perfect after a long day of interviews

June 7, 2009 at 13:56 Leave a comment

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