The beautiful island of Gotland houses a lively community where endless enthusiasm and strong ideals of the inhabitants and volunteers are driving the development of their ecovillage. With a name (meaning southern village) referring to the sunny and mild climate on Gotland compared to the rest of Sweden, Suderbyn offers a fertile ground for experiments of living sustainably and self-sufficient. More prominent than the drive for closing all resource loops within the village, is the dedication to creating a lively community feeling of sharing, acceptance and connection. Whilst working with a packed schedule for the development of their ecovillage using permaculture principles and testing of innovative technologies for self-sufficiency, they spend time to really connect with one another on a deeper level. Believing this contributes to good collaboration as well as to self-development of individuals. What helps in creating the community vibe is that all facilities are shared in the communal farmhouse, where throughout the day people are cooking, relaxing and working in the cosy kitchen and living spaces. I stay over three weeks in Suderbyn an this blog is just a brief overview to give a glimpse of the daily live, community vibe and future dreams of the ecovillage. In other blogs I hope to go more in depth about the different social and ecological aspects.
Building towards a small footprint community
Suderbyn counts a little over ten permanent inhabitants at this moment and houses at any time 10-20 volunteers, with a duration ranging from two weeks to one year. Some inhabitants live in the original farmhouse and others live in little off-grid cabins spread throughout the communal land. The community was started around ten years ago when Robert and Ingrid bought a farmhouse with several sheds and five ha of land, starting a collective together with their three children. They had travelled along many other communities and ecovillages and wanted to start something for themselves. They envisioned a place where they could live communally, with a very low ecological footprint, based on permaculture principles and with that offer space for experimenting with sustainable lifestyles and technologies. Fast forward ten years later, a lively community with small ecological footprint in the old farmhouse has been established, many experiments and research project are running and there are big plans for the future.
Communal life is the heart of Suderbyn. When arriving it can be a bit overwhelming to see over 20 people sharing the cosy kitchen and living spaces in the farm house, dancing around each other to do their dishes, cook their meals, work at the table or take a shower. However, within no time you realize that everyone has an honest heart, practices open and transparent communication and there are no obligations. It really feels like a family, where everyone can be themselves and is loved. This makes me feel welcome and able to connect with the different inhabitants quickly as well as participate in all activities. What helps create the high level of community feeling is partially the small living spaces and completely shared facilities (1 kitchen, toilet and shower for everyone), meaning you naturally talk and cooperate with people. On top of this all food is communal: grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts and whatever else needed is bought in stock to ensure good supply. Every morning on weekdays there is collective morning porridge and one person is assigned for making a warm lunch. For diner, people spontaneously cook together an experiment with different types of vegan cookies and cakes. Everyday there is also a person assigned to making oatmilk and fresh bread using their own sourgdough culture.
Daily life in the workweek is very structured at Suderbyn, but it is exactly because of this structure that community members find the freedom to contribute in the way they want and can to the collective work while also having time for personal projects. Every morning starts with a community meeting over breakfast. After a check-in how everyone is doing and daily announcements we go over the tasks from the day before and celebrate what has been accomplished. Then we move on to the tasks planned for today, going over things needed to be done that day in the different fields of activity in the ecovillage. Activities are split into building projects, the gardening, project management and outreach, administration and social activities. A round is made in which everyone tells what they will work on that day and the meeting is finished with happy applause. During the day it is really a blessing that breakfast and lunch are prepared collectively and there is unlimited food for snacks, this means that when it is not your turn to cook you can spend all time focussing on the tasks you are doing.
To deepen the community life and interpersonal connection and to assure the values and vision of the members are still on one line there are many different social gatherings organized on a weekly basis. Not the least of which are spontaneous dance and jam sessions and movie nights in the tiny living room. On a biweekly basis they have a so-called SOUL meeting in which they talk about different topics concerning the community which they do come to in regular, decision-making meetings. I attended one meeting with the topic of the possibility to disagree with one another, without it having a negative impact on the community vibe. At a SOUL meeting a structured, facilitated discussion is held in which each member gets a chance to reflect on this topic and how they deal with it or feel it should be dealt with. Next to this, they also have a bi-weekly sharing circle on Sunday evenings in which they can share their more personal self-development processes or situations with each other and help one another. Then there are tons of spontaneously organized meetings on different social topics or skill sharing talks. Aware that some communities are seen as spiritual centres when attention is given to personal development, one member nicely framed the community as not being spiritual in any way, but being mindful. Everyone is invited to go into an inner process of self-development, which allows more honest communication, good cooperation and connection. There is however not one-way of doing this and there are no obligations whatsoever. We reflect together that it is through knowing one another’s more personal processes of development, and by having fun social activities, that a community like Suderbyn allows people to feel they can be themselves and speak their own opinions, knowing they will be accepted and loved no matter what. This allows positive conflict resolution, productive collaboration, as well as deep and meaningful connections between people.
Everything in the community is collectively owned and they intend to keep it this way in Suderbyn. In the past, the cooperative was the owner of the farm buildings and the 5 ha of land, but currently they are in the process of transferring this to a foundation. Community members intentionally want to keep everything in communal ownership to keep the sense of community high and to be accessible to people of all different financial capacities. The past years there was a heavy rotation of volunteers which was very helpful, but also led to some projects in the community being taken on and then stopped again when volunteers left. The constant flow of volunteers brings a valuable source of diverse knowledge and expertise and people with fresh energy to put into the community work all year around, however, for long-term project planning it can be a bit disadvantageous. Several long-term volunteers have howver even ended up staying here and became permanent members! I speak with a community member who reflects that now, since the last three years, they have a larger and more stable base of permanent residents which has allowed them to plan and work effectively on long-term projects.
The plans for the future include the construction of several off-grid cabins and a new communal building including showers and a sauna. All of these will remain in communal ownership with members paying monthly fees. The way of financing the investments is still under discussion, but several sources of communal income have been thought of. They have plans to transform the old barns into a hive of conference spaces, an organic restaurant or production kitchen, a youth hostel and several other functions. This way they will be able to host different types of activities as well as school programs, on top of being able to sell their home-grown, organic vegetables. It can provide a more stable income for the foundation owning everything in the community.
A lot of attention and experimentation at Suderbyn is given to closing resource loops. The toilets for example are seen as a rich resource. In the compost toilets the pee and poo are separated, the poo is composted for over a year to be used on the vegetable beds later. The pee is stored and used in a diluted form to fertilize the vegetable beds during the growing season. They are also studying other applications of mainly the pee, since this is a resource they have plentiful. All the waste water from the shower, laundry machine and kitchen is treated on site with a sand/gravel filter. The drinking water is harvested on site from the groundwater, making the community completely self-sufficient in drinking water.
The entire 5 ha are managed using permaculture principles. Already many years ago seven horse-shoe hills were made on the land to create small microclimates. The hills trap the sunlight while blocking the wind, this allows for a longer out-door growing season of annual crops in vegetable beds inside the horseshoe. On the hills of the horseshoes perineal plants and trees are planted that need less maintenance and help create the micro-climate. The design of the vegetable beds has evolved over time, first they were laid out following the curve of the horseshoe. However, part of permaculture principles is that the garden design follows nature’s principles, including those of humans one member explains to me. In this case, it is much more practical to have straight vegetable beds that are not too wide. This allows easy maintenance of the beds and enables better calculations and preparation for the growing season. During my stay we are preparing the beds by in some cases taking away the mulch (mixture of straw and leaves) which has kept them warm during winter time and by lifting the soil slightly with a broad fork. They do not practice tillage as this disturbs the soil life too much: a lively soil with many micro-organisms, worms and organic material is desired.
Almost ten years ago the NGO RElearn was founded at Suderbyn, an organization under which they run several research project with national and european funding. Read all about the many projects here: http://www.suderbyn.se/relearns-projects.html. The project most visible on the land is called Closed Loop Baltic, a project under which they are experimenting with a dome structure that can be self-sufficient in closing loops. The dome consists of a biogas digester which produces biogas from compost, the biogas is used to heat the dome in which vegetables are being grown using a technique called aeroponics (growing plants with no soil). The vegetables are sprayed with a mix of water and fertilizer which is made from the residue in the biogas digester. A home-made Piggott wind turbine provides the electricity needed for the pump and some other small applications in the dome. The biogas digester is kept at a stable temperature using a jean-pain compost pile made of wood-chips. They hope to have some leftover biogas to also be able to heat some of the cabins with bedrooms spread throughout the land.
Unfortunately in the storm last winter the cover of the dome was destroyed as was their home made Piggott wind turbine and the biogas digestor is currently not functioning. Hard work is being done to restore everything.
For transportation around the island Suderbyn has a very nice bike shed with plenty of bikes for volunteers and visitors. They also have a carpool of three biogas cars. A fuel which can easily be bought on the island and is at least cleaner than driving a diesel car.
Skill sharing is a central concept at Suderbyn, this might be a result of the heavy rotation in volunteers, but it is also a value actively lived after. Teaching each other what you know and being open to learning new things is the attitude. I am amazed by the honest patience of every single community member in constantly explaining what they are doing, why they are doing it a certain way and inviting me to try out the techniques. In my first weeks I already learned a lot about fixing the home-made wind turbine, learned how to make my own oat milk and got a lot of hands-on experience and knowledge on the permaculture vegetable gardens.
Realizing a vision through community, step by step
A few days into my stay I cannot do anything else but love and appreciate this high level of community life and sharing. It means that everyone has grown to know one another closely, people support each other, spontaneous activities are constantly organized and many in-depth conversations can be had at any time a day. I see Suderbyn as an inspiring place for inner growth as well as a rich source for knowledge, experience and skill development. Being in such an accepting, loving and safe space of people feels like home and feels like family. It is a place of respect, honest communication, the willingness to overcome conflicts and the possibility of deep connection. Being the complex, fascinating and inspiring place that it is, I can write for a long time about all the different elements that make Suderbyn. But for now, the smell of delicious, vegan food from the kitchen, the voices of loving people chatting in the living room and the beautiful nature on the sunny island of Gotland are calling me away!
Read more about Suderbyn here: http://www.suderbyn.se