Roger in the O.U.R garden
Enter the Ecovillage - British Columbia, Canada
Here are some facts I picked up recently:
- In the US, food travels on average 5,000 miles from farm to fork and transporting food accounts for 15% of the country’s total energy consumption
- In the next 20 years a billion people will be without clean water and already 9,500 children die every day as a direct result of contaminated water
- 50% of the world is at risk of human-induced desertification – the process of turning fertile land into non-productive desert through the destruction of vegetation
Our way of life is dependent on energy (lots of it) and money. Every day we take for granted there’ll be electricity to power our computers and petrol to fill our cars. Supermarkets supply us with aisles of exotic food and we can buy products from all over the world at the click of a button. But do we ever stop to consider that these resources might be limited? Or the impact our consumption has on the planet? Or whether there may actually be an alternative way to live healthily, happily and in abundance?
Enter the ecovillage. There is a formal network of over 300 ecovillages around the world, seven of which are in Canada. Sustainability expert, Robert Gilman, defines an ecovillage as a “full-featured settlement 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”. I spent two weeks at O.U.R. (One United Resource) Ecovillage on beautiful Vancouver Island to learn about permaculture and experience sustainable living in action.
Permaculture is a set of ecological design principles to create self-sustaining environments that care for people, the Earth and the future. These principles are rooted in patterns found in the natural world and value diversity and the law of return; whatever we take we must give back. This is key to sustainability.
Concepts of permaculture are in fact nothing new, and our ancestors and Native peoples have been employing these techniques for many hundreds of years. It’s only now, when we’re just beginning to realise the dangerous effects of intensive farming and genetically modified crops, that we’re reverting back to traditional ways of managing the land.
O.U.R. Ecovillage in the Cowichan Valley is an enchanting 25-acre stretch of land, surrounded by mountains and forest. It’s home to 10 permanent residents, with varying numbers of volunteers and visitors living onsite at any one time. Its story is an inspiring one, and charismatic Co-Founder, Brandy Gallagher, tells of incredible coincidences and events that contributed to its creation.
O.U.R. began as the shared dream of a cooperative household in Victoria in the early 90s, who wanted to create a model demonstration village community “rooted in social, ecological and economic wellbeing”. In 1999 they purchased land from a vendor so impressed with their vision that he donated one third of the original asking price. The group’s priority was to protect and preserve and land, and develop its agricultural potential using sustainable, organic practices.
Brandy explains that living sustainably isn’t just about growing food and renewable energy but creating a strong, diverse community where everyone shares responsibility and feels valued. In 2000 they established O.U.R Community Association and agreed the ecovillage would be created by, for and through the community. They gained support from local neighbourhoods, businesses and various government organisations, and over the next 12 years many willing hands donated their time and energy to construct the village that exists today.
O.U.R. Ecovillage functions primarily as a centre for education. Courses on natural building and food production run throughout the year, and it offers a fully immersive learning environment for those studying the internationally-recognised Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Alongside students, they welcome volunteers to experience ecovillage life by working in the gardens, kitchen and on building projects. Volunteers can stay for one day up to a year, with each visit tailored to individual interests and skills. Brandy tells me this is popular with holidaymakers bored with generic “fly and flop” vacations and seeking something more fulfilling and exciting.
Naturally, meal times are an important part of the village day, fuelling hungry workers and students who convene to exchange stories and ideas. The kitchen is the heart of the site and serves up a varied menu, including delicious stews, curries, salads and crumbles. Many ingredients come straight from the garden and eventually they plan to become a “Zero Mile Eatery”.
Seasonal dishes are served buffet-style and diners feast outdoors at picnic tables. There was something very indulgent and satisfying knowing my daily dose of fresh eggs, purple potatoes and sweet plums were produced less than 50 metres from where I devoured them!
Sheep, goats, pigs and chickens are also part of the O.U.R. family and, with the exception of the pigs, roam freely around the land. Bossy the Cow is a particularly social team member and always keen to participate in group gatherings! Most mornings I was greeted by a wild turkey and her poults on my way to the bathroom, and on a couple of occasions, a curious stag. It was a privilege getting to know these animals by living within such close proximity, which brought me a new sense of understanding and respect for their boundaries.
In the hot summer months camping is the preferred option for most guests, although accommodation in the yurt, caravans or the dorm in the guesthouse is also available. A second dorm is currently under construction above a new conference and indoor dining space. As with all buildings in the village, it’s being made with natural, reclaimed and locally-sourced materials. The walls are constructed of cob (a mixture of clay, sand and straw) that will effectively store heat and regulate humidity, keeping guests cool in summer and toasty in winter.
“Capture and store energy” and “waste is a resource” are golden rules of permaculture. At O.U.R. solar panels absorb the sun’s energy throughout the day to heat water, and water from the showers and kitchen is collected and naturally filtered through a “greywater system”. This uses a combination of plant life to remove harmful bacteria, thus making it perfect for irrigation and keeping the plant beds watered.
In between eating, studying and working there is ample time for relaxation. The healing sanctuary provides a peaceful escape where local massage and acupuncture therapists offer treatments, with a labyrinth at the front for meditation and reflection. The “Chillage” is a cosy cob structure where villagers can access wifi or browse shelves of inspiring books. The newly created art studio, with views over the expansive gardens, will soon offer classes and house a gallery of local work. For me, exploring the surrounding forests and climbing Baldy Mountain for breath-taking panoramic views were unbeatable ways to unwind.
Settling into life at O.U.R was incredibly easy. Laughter and smiles made me feel instantly welcome and each new face promised another interesting conversation. Guests came from as far as Australia and Scotland to immerse themselves in this unique environment and left with an urgent excitement to beam this ancient wisdom back to their communities at home.
My time at O.U.R. Ecovillage was nothing short of life-changing. My teachers, Starhawk and Charles Williams, are among the best permaculture designers in North America and their passion and determination for creating positive change is infectious. To consider the problems our planet faces today can be overwhelming, but while we may feel helpless to make changes globally, we can make a difference to our immediate environment through our individual choices and relationships. So on that note, I’ll leave you with three more facts that I picked up recently:
- It’s possible to effectively disinfect contaminated water and make it potable simply by placing it in a clear plastic bottle and exposing it to direct sunlight for 24 hours
- Toxic heavy metals in soil, such as lead and mercury, can be inactivated and made safe by certain types of funghi, and mushrooms have even been used to clean up oil spills
- Human manure (humanure) is packed with millions of beneficial microbes making it excellent fertiliser and perfect for remediating nutrient-poor soil. Composting toilets are the way forward!
- O.U.R. Ecovillage, British Columbia, Canada ourecovillage.org
- The Permaculture Association (UK) permaculture.org.uk
- Permaculture Design Courses with Starhawk and Charles Williams earthactivisttraining.org