EcoVillager: A land 'built on stories'

An open fire crackles brightly in the middle of the round room, sending curls of smoke drifting up through the thatch, and lighting the ring of expectant faces. Eric Maddern, the storyteller, leans forward. "Not far from here, up among the mountain peaks, is a place called Dinas Emrys. Now long ago, there came a king to this place "¦"

I am in Wales, a small country just to the west of England. Although it was conquered by the English 700 years ago, Wales retains a strong, independent culture and its ancient Celtic language. We sit in a replica of an ancient Celtic roundhouse, the kind whose ruins dot the surrounding hills. As the night wears on, other people will contribute stories, songs, poems. It feels ancient, and yet what we are doing has a profound relevance to the modern world. We are creating a culture of connection.

The place is called Cae Mabon, one of the many sites in Europe and around the world where people are working for a sustainable future. It was founded in 1989 by Eric Maddern, and today he calls it an eco-retreat center.

Maddern has recently returned from a storytelling tour of Wales he made entirely by bicycle, foot and horseback. He picked me up from the train station in a beat-up Land Rover, combining the trip with grocery shopping. As we jostled down the dirt road, we seemed to enter a world of magic. Over our heads, oak, ash, birch, and rowan joined to form a green canopy, lichens and ivy hanging from the branches. Moss coated the forest floor, with occasional carpets of tiny bluebells almost glittering among the trees.

We parked the car and entered the property through a wooden archway beautifully carved with the face of the Green Man, an ancient British nature symbol. Cae Mabon slopes down the hill from this point, bordered by Afon Fachwen, a white leaping stream that cascades through a series of pools and waterfalls to join wide, glistening lake Paddarn. On the other side of the stream, the forest stretches on into Paddarn Park. Towering above all are the ragged peaks of the sacred mountain Snowdon and its sisters.

Cae Mabon strives to build a more sustainable world by reconnecting people with nature and with themselves, by demonstrating natural building methods and by hosting youth camps and other events. Over the years many people have brought their creativity to the place, and it has become a model of green building techniques.

"It's been important for me to create works of beauty, not the ostentatious beauty of the wealthy but the humble beauty of the simple and natural," Maddern said. "The structures are what's known these days as 'low-impact.'"

Cae Mabon was recently named the No. 1 Natural Building Project in the United Kingdom by Sustain Magazine.

There are nine buildings in all, most clustered near the roundhouse. They include a barn for workshops and communal meals, and a cottage built out of wood posts and cob, a mixture of clay, sand, and straw that allows for a beautiful curved structure. Another of my favorites is an octagonal hobbit house complete with a round door. Many of the buildings have turf roofs on which flowers are in bloom. Visitors to the eco-retreat stay in these accommodations, making use of composting toilets, a shower using heated stream water and a wood-fired hot tub. Electricity comes from solar panels mounted on one of the roofs.

The only permanent residents here are Maddern, Keith, a "green" wood-worker, and Keith's son, Tom. So it is not a community like the other places I have visited, but a community of people revolve around it.

I am here for the annual two-week Working Party, when those who love this place come together to do maintenance, begin new projects and enjoy the beauty of the woods, the stream and the buildings. Nearly every night we gather in the roundhouse to tell stories and sing songs. It is one of the most fulfilling experiences I've ever had.

Today most of us in the Western world observe our culture as spectators, taking it in through television, radio and recorded music. When we sit around the fire at Cae Mabon, we are once again participants, and we are creating a culture of connection and sustainability.

Members of both Native American and Celtic indigenous traditions view stories as the threads that connect their peoples to the land, a bond I see as fundamental to a sustainable world. From a young age, people in these cultures hear tales about the mountains, rocks and rivers around them. As they pass by these places everyday, they are reminded of the lessons the stories contain about who they are, and how they should live. In this way, they gain a sense of self and identity as well as a powerful environmental ethic. As Maddern says, "Cae Mabon is built on stories."

Maddern sees Cae Mabon as a place where people are "dreaming the future" — one that is connected and fulfilling, as well as sustainable.

"I was talking to an engineer friend of mine recently," Maddern said. "He said that, based on the scientific evidence, he believes humanity is on its way out, along with much of the planet — unless we have a miracle. At first I thought, 'Well that's not very likely then.' Then I remembered that James Lovelock (co-originator of the Gaia hypothesis) had stated that the chances of life arising on Earth were equal to the chances of winning the lottery every day for a year. In other words, nigh on impossible. So, it must have been a miracle. Then I thought, if it took a miracle to spark off life, maybe there could be a miracle now to help us through these impossibly challenging times. Only thing is, now we have to be the miracle ourselves."

Elias Alexander is an Ashland resident studying in dozens of intentional communities dedicated to sustainable living that dot the European map. After undergoing a month-long intensive Ecovillage training course, he will spend the next three months visiting some of those communities. He intends to find out what they are doing to be sustainable, how they are doing it and what aspects can be expanded to a larger segment of the population. In articles here, you can join him on this journey.

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