“Give as a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Monkton Wyld Court, April 2022
Marion and Catherine sit by the wood burner after a full day of work – Marion in the garden, Catherine in the kitchen. They talk about highlights from the day: the delicious vegan chocolate cake someone baked for tea break and decorated with edible flowers – primrose, borage, bright yellow brassica from the gardens, and how one of the volunteers has taken to the milking of the two Jersey cows. They hope she will be an asset in the dairy, helping with the cheese, yoghurt and butter making. Marion knits, Catherine yawns. It is supposed to be her day off tomorrow, but she worries about the guests getting fed, and if she has baked enough bread. I’II make a batch of hot cross buns on Friday, she says.
In the garden, Camilo and I transplant clumps of chives from under the bay tree to another bed so that Kevin can begin pruning the old tree. Camilo tells me that he left the small Spanish village where he grew up in search of opportunities and adventures, following the volunteer trail to Greece, where he met his partner Lina and coming here a few years ago, eventually taking on the role of head gardener. Later, Lina, an architect, came to join him, working on the development of the grade II listed community house.
We water in the chives and start shovelling compost from one area to another, collecting manure from an adjacent farm to add new layers of nourishment. The work is physically hard, but satisfying because there is discernible purpose; every task is interconnected with another. This compost is used to propagate seedlings that will become crops to feed the community and guests, who provide income to keep the charity afloat.
Jasmine collects a basket of salad leaves from the poly tunnels – so many varieties of colour, shape and size. Later, I will wash them in the kitchen, arrange them with a sprinkle of toasted seeds and a dash of garnish for the guests. Each meal is accompanied by a large bowl of salad, and each mouthful feels like an infusion of goodness.
A group of three women crouch on the earth, wresting couch grass from between the strawberries with forks and trowels. The grass roots are long, knotted into the strawberry roots. They work in silence in the warm April sun; all are lethargic after lunch and one is menstruating and could rest, but it is spring and the garden tasks, the supervision of volunteers compels her to be there. Kevin joins us, unearthing an etiolated centipede, a ‘goody,’ he says: it eats bugs that attack plants, unlike the millipedes that eat young shoots and roots.
A blackbird comes to bathe in one of the shallow trays of water on the wall. Its joy is palpable, splashing and dipping and shaking out its feathers. Later, I see a buzzard circling lazily over the wetland area where waste water from the house gets filtered. A crow attempts a half-hearted mobbing, but falls away as the buzzard rises and disappears into the blue. I return to today’s mopping and cleaning tasks. Housekeeping is one of the more intensive chores – there is so much to do between guests leaving and arriving.
Jenny, in her early thirties, currently chief housekeeper, arrived here just after lockdown, sleeping in her van to start with as there were no spare rooms or dwellings. She’d been travelling; took a job in Singapore for a while, then learnt to teach yoga in India. I tell her I wish I’d had such confidence at her age. So many of the younger people here seem so sure of themselves, so informed. Yet they are also hungry to learn from those who have paved the way, those who have knowledge of the practical skills. This kind of place attracts seekers of connection and alternatives to mainstream narratives that have proven so destructive to nature and community.
A fellow volunteer in her late twenties tells me she travelled to Borneo recently as part of her PhD thesis to study the effects of palm oil. She has been in academia non-stop since school and is taking time out, considering how she might maintain her own dairy herd. As a pre-internet forty-something, I am a late developer who has found her way here via a far more circuitous route. Yet here we both are. Working together outdoors for many hours, sharing meals and accommodation is conducive to opening up about oneself far quicker than one would in the ‘outside world’.
On my last evening, Julian and I walk across fields and through woods to the coast at Lyme Regis. On the way, we try to identify as many plants and fungi as we can. Portland Spurge, Hemlock Water Dropwort or Deadman’s Finger (one of the most poisonous plants found in Britain), Lords and Ladies, and King Alfred’s Cake are some of the wonderfully evocative names of species we encounter. Julian takes photos of the ones we don’t know to ask other community members back at the house.
When I return to the city, I know I will miss sitting by the fire in the evenings in the communal lounge after our shared meal listening to Catherine and Marion discussing the day. It’s by no means a utopia, living here – there are inevitably many disputes, some of which result in members leaving. Most people I spoke to said that they find their own ways of coping with living so closely together, and some succeed for longer than others. But it gives me hope that places like this exist as beacons of sustainable living. As indigenous people have always known, and we in the west are beginning to explore in greater numbers in this time of increasing climate crisis, it is possible for humans to live lightly on the earth.
I am attending to the crises of my time with my best self, I am of communities that are doing our collective best to honour our ancestors and all humans to come.
― Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown