Taking good intentions one step beyond

For Micah Sewell, a 25-year-old environmental studies student-to-be, it’s the chicken factory that did it. His couchsurfing host who lived just outside of Oslo worked every day cleaning eggs chicken had “spat out” at a concrete factory her neighbor had built next door.

If I needed a wake-up call to see that I was doing the right thing by investigating ecological living, that was it,” he explained, comfortably nested on an earth-colored couch from the common room of a strawbale house of an ecovillage named Munksoegaard, located about 25 km outside of Copenhagen, in Denmark. “I don’t think anything should be raised this way,” he added, referring to the less-than-humane conditions the hundreds of chickens living in the factory had to endure. (Not to mention the mechanical tasks its workers repeated eight hours a day.)

One Step Beyond - July 2009, Munksøgård ecovillage

Clockwise from left: Ben, Micah, Radu, Adrien, Etienne, and Kinia, surrounding Jytte, our saw-playing host

Along with a team of six other people, the young American spent over two months exploring six eco-villages in Norway, Sweden and Denmark with the project One Step Beyond, whose aim is to document that living more sustainably and ecologically can be rewarding and fun.

Etienne Gernez, a 26-year-old French engineer who was inspired by another couchsurfer during the summer of 2008, conceived the project. The original idea was to cross the Atlantic with five sailing vessels and to travel across Europe for six months to visit the sustainable sites of Europe. Unfortunately, although the idea generated a lot of interest, it never took off.

But Gernez, a young man full of energy and passion, decided to realize the project on a smaller scale, in Scandinavia, by focusing on five different themes: waste, transportation, food, social life and energy. He had received an inheritance from a family friend, Brian Plummer, part of which he wanted to use for a good cause. Taken aback by the frenetic and stressful lifestyles his coworkers lead, constantly attending meetings, flying from one place to another a couple of times a month, he wanted to show that a different life, one closer and more respectful of nature, is possible.

Ecovillages, which are “human-scale, full-featured settlements, in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future,” according to sustainability thinker Robert Gilman, seemed like the perfect laboratory for exploring such lifestyles. “They are places where people have invested time and money in finding new and alternative solutions to what is offered and what people are accepting,” Gernez explained. (This is also why ecovillages are often referred to as intentional communities. “When you live [an urban life], you have to use the way energy is produced by the city, its waste management system, its transportation… you have all these services and facilities that are offered. You can just use them without any thinking about how improving them. These people in eco-villages are working on making them better.”

In practice, this involves mainly two things: shared living spaces (or in some cases, co-housing) and modes of living that are respectful of the environment, which represent the pillars of eco-villages.

29-year-old Adrien Raybaud, the team’s cameraman, was interested in the greater impact eco-villages could have on reducing humans’ influence on the environment. “You make efforts to recycle plastic, glass; you try to take public transportation. Then you take the plane and your efforts go to waste. Do you stop living trying not to ruin the planet, or try to do your best and hope the others do too?” he asked. “That’s why I participaged in the production of this movie, because by yourself, you don’t do this much. By making this movie, by diffusing information, you can have a bigger impact.”

 

Suderbyn

Suderbyn Ecovillage - our home for three weeks

The One Step Beyond team visited communities at various stages of development. Suderbyn on Gotland Island in Sweden, for example, is a start-up project developed by a family of four with the help of volunteers. Munksoegaard and Svanholm in Denmark, however, are more ancient and established communities housing over 100 inhabitants each. The amount of individual financial liberty individuals give up represent one aspect differentiating the communities visited. In Munksoegaard, each inhabitant pays a part of the common budget through house rent fixed once a year based on a common agreement. But at Svanholm, inhabitants put in common 80% of their salaries. They keep the rest as pocket money. However, in exchange, they receive housing, organic meals, a kindergarten and a part of higher education fees paid for children, access to the community’s 30 cars (an extra fee is paid for every km driven) and most importantly, a community to rely on. (For a more in-depth look at the social aspect of eco-village life, please visit the section “the social aspect of eco-village living.)


“When you live in a place like this … you are much more inclined to go to a neighbor to help you solve a problem. You can meet a lot of your needs and build relationships rather than exchange money. People share energies to solve problems. They are more rooted in a place,” Micah Sewell explained. Decisions are generally achieved on a consensus basis, which means that everyone must agree on a proposal before it can be approved. This serves to avoid the frustration and dissatisfaction the minority can feel after a majority decision. But just because someone is against a decision, it doesn’t mean it cannot be carried out. Inhabitants are invited to propose alternative ideas. Proposals sometimes have to be redrafted a few times before they are finally approved.

How does it work in practice? “You won’t believe it,” explained 64-year-old Tom Michaelsen, a Svanholm inhabitant. “The hardest case we’ve had was about the bike shed. You can never agree on small things. It took 15 years for us to agree on this bike shelter!” However, when it came to the central heating system, which involved a cost of about six million kroners (close to 1 million euros), the decisions were made rather quickly. “Nobody knew anything about it. People thought, ‘it sounds ok’, we must have it. And the new cow stable cost about 6 million kroners: there was some discussion about it, but not that much,” Michaelsen added.

Lars Levin Jensen, one of the founding members of Munksoegaard, explained that “basically, we do the things that people want to do. If a lot of people are interested in building a playground, then a lot of money flows there. And that has worked.”

The One Step Beyond team is currently busy editing a one and a half hour documentary showing how inhabitants of eco-villages are attempting to “close the loop” through the use of rainwater for laundry washing, clean energy such as solar panels and windmills, buildings that once destroyed, can be turned into soil (for example, strawbale and cob houses), composting toilets, car-sharing, co-housing, common kitchens, local food production and bulk purchases, amongst others. With news of the consequences of the financial crisis still making headlines, the documentation work could inspire people to explore new living patterns and find information about existing solutions they can use right now.


According to Robert Hall, the founder of the start-up ecovillage Suderbyn in Sweden, “the financial crisis is not a bad thing ecologically. It might be an opportunity where more sustainable investments can be made because it’s a cooling off period. Governments have to stimulate the economy. I think people may see inherent dangers in the unstable financial system…. We’ve had people interested in living like this because they want a secure future. And [I believe] this is a secure future, a good wholesome way of living.”

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November 7, 2009 at 18:54 Leave a comment

It’s not just about organic food and recycling…

dur - le mondeÉtienne and I (read Kinia, the team’s July 6 newcomer) fell upon a summer edition of Le Monde 2 magazine. (No, it’s not the half-naked man that attracted us to the cover!) It’s the title: “Dur d’être écolo!” i.e., it’s not easy to live green. Quite a timely coincidence…

We both read the article, and were at first mildly entertained. The author explored ecological living with a touch of humor, but overall, he made the concept seem like a costly burden and a sacrifice. He started off by calculating his ecological footprint (“terrible”). He then poked fun at eating seasonal vegetables, before comparing the prices of ecological nose tissue brands and organic vs. non-organic foods. Enter some musing about recycling, shower lengths, dandelions and cherries… nothing too inspiring, in the end. It made sustainable living seem like something that was only a trend to be adopted at one’s convenience and whims, or something to be left “to the hippies”.

The article adopted a very fragmented approach to ecology and sustainability, which contrasted with the holistic approaches we’ve discovered over the last few weeks. Visiting eco-villages and intentional communities made the team realize how sustainability is really an investment and a question of “closing the loop”. It’s about reminding ourselves how human beings are part of nature and how what comes into us and leaves our bodies goes back into the food chain.

It’s not just a question of the prices of organic foods or of recycling. Actually, one of the most shocking discoveries I made during the excursion was that the waste from water toilets represents 90% of the individual household’s environmental pollution! We literally defecate and urine into our drinking water. There’s a very simple solution to that: separating both substances at the source.

“The biggest problem is that we try to lead urine and feces out through pipes and into the waterways, and to me this is a catastrophe,” said Flemming Abrahamsen in an interview with Hildur Jackon, author of  Ecovillage Living, Restoring the Earth and her People.

“In the meantime, we’ve been brought up to think that the water closet is the most modern and hygienic solution: correct, until the waste comes out of the house, after which we consider that the rest of it is not our problem. Only it is our problem. We think we are so smart, but I’d say the level of intelligence has gone down a lot since the time when people knew about nutritional balances in nature; the times when people knew about the use of feces and urine in nature,” Abrahamsen, who is one of the pioneers of ecological building in the North, added. The architect also introduced modern composting toilets in Denmark.

What was even more shocking in Le Monde‘s article was the four “indispensables” (must-have) eco-friendly objects it promoted. It didn’t bother me just because sustainability is also related to lowering your level of consumption. (Even though buying more gadgets seems like a contradiction when you are trying to be more eco-friendly.) It’s that fundamentally, the article did not focus on the benefits of living more in harmony with nature. If you eat natural foods, take care of your water and exercise, you are investing in your own health and by extension, into the health of the eco-system you are part of. That’s the biggest reward, and probably the most responsible attitude to adopt when thinking about environmentally-friendly living. This logic of “closing the loop” can be easily extended to house construction as well (but that’s something you’ll discover in other articles…)

In sum, it seems we really do get the wrong idea about “going green” when we narrow it down to a question of organic food prices and pesticides. It’s not so hard to live more ecologically if you also see it in terms of investing into a lifetime of health, pleasure and reward.

July 27, 2009 at 22:34 1 comment

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.

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

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