Living on an island of sustainability

The tractor rattles and jolts down the rocky hill, dragging the small rusty trailer where I bounce and bump, desperately trying to hang on to my backpack and my dignity. Seven of us, along with our bags, crowd together, wind-whipped hair and raincoats framing our scrunched-up faces.

As we jostle onward, some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen opens up before us. We squint our eyes against the biting wind to look out across white sand beaches, turquoise oceans and the dark, dramatic outlines of hundreds of small islands and rocks: the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.

And there, not too far off now, our destination — a single row of low, grey houses huddled under the hunch-backed hill of the tiny island of Erraid. At low tide, the sea roles back, revealing the sand spit that connects Erraid to the much larger island of Mull, and it is possible to cross by tractor. Almost any other day our transportation to the island would be a small boat, powered by outboard motor.

Connected to the Findhorn Community, Erraid is home to a brave few who choose to live a mostly self-sufficient lifestyle on this three-mile-long island. I am here to find out what living sustainably means in a rural context.

As I hop out of the trailer bed, hauling my backpack down, it feels like stepping back in time. Stone walls divide the garden plots and lead up to "the street," the row of gray granite and slate houses where everyone on Erraid lives. The cottages were built about 150 years ago, out of granite from a quarry not 200 yards away, for the families of men who built a chain of lighthouses along the Scottish coast.

I push open the original 2-inch thick wooden door of the house I will stay in. I can feel its age, and a solidness that offers perfect stillness against the bluster of the island wind. Inside a woodstove heats the sitting room, books lining the shelves, while in the bedrooms cozy quilts offer warmth against the chill.

We are given a lively welcome by the members of the small community, who host a group of visitors almost every week. As the sun sets brilliantly outside, coloring the hills in vivid orange and pink, they feed us a deliciously warming home-cooked soup, with bread baked right here in the kitchen.

In many ways the residents of Erraid live similarly to the way people have lived in the Hebrides for thousands of years. They source most of the food they eat right from the island. Long garden plots run down the slope in front of the houses, where potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, and other vegetables are grown, side by side with a range of herbs. Each year, in preparation for planting, residents and visitors gather seaweed to spread on the beds. This nourishes the soil as it decomposes, combining with manure and kitchen compost to provide important nutrients for the plants.

Five cows offer fresh milk for the island. Rotated in and out of milk production to allow a few to raise calves, the cows are milked by hand each morning. From the pail, the frothy milk is poured into a refrigerated jug, which members of the community freely dip into to replenish their own supplies. The milk is never pasteurized, and I can tell you it is one of the best things I have ever tasted. Residents use it to make yogurt and custard, and they also make jams and put up berry preserves.

One thing that all traditional societies have in common is that everything moves in cycles, meaning that the waste from one activity becomes the building material for another. For instance, each morning when the byre is cleaned, the manure is piled up next to it, where mixed with straw, it is left to decompose. A veritable herd of chickens pick through this mix, finding worms and grubs that form an important part of their diet. Later the manure is spread on the garden. Thus the waste generated by the cattle nourishes both the chickens and the garden. The chickens in turn produce eggs far tastier than those from purely grain-fed chickens.

Since the garden and animals can't completely provide for all their needs, the residents of Erraid earn some income by running a hand-made candle business. In a small workshop behind the street, wax is heated, poured into molds, and dyed by hand to create brilliant rainbow patterns. These are sold at Findhorn to the many guests who pass through, as well as in a few other locations around Scotland.

While it may appear to be a reflection of the past, in many ways life on Erriad may be a window into the future. Experts estimate that oil production has either peaked already or will do so in the next 10 or 20 years. As production begins to decline, prices will steadily rise, making it more and more expensive to ship goods, including food, long distances. This means that more food will have to be grown locally, something well-recognized by the sustainability movement in Ashland. In living mostly within the resources that are readily and locally available, Erraid is a model for how we can learn to live within our means.

Think about the cycles that move through your life. Where does your waste go? Can it be used for anything? As the local growing season begins in the Rogue Valley, remember to support the local farms that are living in harmony with the cycle.

And remember — we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Elias Alexander is an Ashland resident studying in Findhorn, Scotland, one of dozens of intentional communities dedicated to sustainable living that dot the European map. After undergoing a month-long intensive Ecovillage training course there, 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 weekly articles here, you can join him on this journey.

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