‘Growing people’ in an ecovillage

Ecovillages can offer their community, their land and their practices to create meaningful experiences for individuals from around the world. A beautiful example of this was the volunteer program hosted last May by Small Footprint ecovillage in Estonia. Funded by the European Solidarity Corps, twelve international youths came to live and participate in the ecovillage for one month. This turned out to be not just an experience for gaining practical skills and know-how of a sustainable lifestyle. By staying in the beautiful, nature-rich surroundings and connecting to each other deeply, the participants experienced personal growth, deep connection to each other and gained empowerment to start living their lives along values that really matter to them. Facilitated by some simple ecovillage practices, they had experienced a way of collaborating, working and living together during this one month program which they found inclusive, accepting and enhancing empathy towards themselves and others.
Through a lucky coincidence I got to witness the second half of this volunteer program and in this blog I describe my experiences.

Taking a step back
Moisamaa is a tiny town in the countryside of Estonia, most of the town actually consist of the manor land on which Vaike Jalajalg (Small Footprint ecovillage) is housed. It feels like an island away from society. The pace of life here is slow, the connection with nature is strong. Walking around you can smell all the different flowers blossoming, you can feel the grass between your toes and your eyes are entertained by thousands of little songbirds, butterflies, shining beetles and big storks flying over. Working on the land your ears are filled with the buzzing sounds of bees and the rustle of leaves from the tall trees around you. The place emanates a calmness and peacefulness. Taking a break on the terrace of the old manor house overlooking the gardens, you can breathe deeply and let go. Being in the ecovillage allows you to take a step back and appreciate the simplicity and wonder of nature and spending time together. Watching the long, golden sunsets over the rye fields arm in arm with new friends makes one feel at home. Not just in the ecovillage, but at home with nature and at home with yourself.

The Moisamaa manor, the land which now houses Small Footprint ecovillage. On quiet afternoons, sitting on the terrace overlooking the tall trees and hearing the birds sing, this place feels liks a safe haven away from busy life in the city. Picture credit: community member Paavo.

Small Footprint ecovillage is a place full of potential, where the possibilities for creating a utopic community are calling on your creativity and make your fingers itch to work. The inhabitants are creating a community for living in harmony with nature and having a low-impact lifestyle. They are doing so step-by-step, through trial and error, and mostly by trusting each other and on the beauty that can rise from collaboration of dedicated individuals. Wanting to offer their little island of mindful living to others and inspire them with their values and experiences, they invited twelve international youths for a volunteer experience. Funded by the European Solidarity Corps, twelve youths who all shared an interest in sustainable living were chosen to live and participate in their ecovillage life for one full month. What the volunteers expected to be mostly an experience in practical skills for sustainable technologies, turned out to become an impactful experience of deep connection, belonging and personal growth.

The volunteers reflected how this period of breaking away from their regular life, working with their hands and being in nature and community allowed them to just be themselves and to realize what is important to them. They experienced the month away as a good chance to have this perspective of taking a few steps back, slowing down and look at their life to see what they value and how they can strive towards that in their daily lives.

A bonfire on the first evening. The volunteers might have arrived with the expectation of gaining practical knowledge and experience of technologies for sustainable lifestyles like permaculture gardening, construction with reclaimed materials and living as a community. At the end, they all left feeling most grateful for the sense of belonging and connection they had experienced. (Picture credit: Paavo).

Experiencing ecovillage life through hands, brain and heart
Initiator of the program and community member Liina explains that through living in the ecovillage and the program they had prepared, the idea was to inspire the volunteers in three ways. The youths would gain practical experience with their hands to grow confidence for practically doing things. They would gain intellectual knowledge about the ecovillage practices through some information sessions offered by different community members. And they would experience communal life, deep connection and feelings of belonging with their heart.

During the four week stay at the ecovillage we collectively build a new veranda to the main house of the ecovillage. This project gave not just practical skills in carpeting and upcycling windows, it gave the experience of collaborating on a project and building something with your own hands. The community leader for this project, Kalev, was loved by all volunteers for his patient way of teaching and helping out. Rather than getting impatient or taking things over, he let everyone try things they had never done before and watched as we were making mistakes to only after a while help us reflect on what we were doing. This way we could learn from our mistakes, rather than be frustrated by failing. Allowing everyone to do things they had not done before and sharing skills, made everyone’s confidence grow that they can actually do and learn things! It did not really matter what exactly we were building, this experience builds confidence to pick up practical projects.

In the gardens, the volunteers helped out community member Merili with preparing vegetable beds, planting, weeding and moving the big greenhouse. During the work, they gained some knowledge of the permaculture practices applied in the ecological gardens of Small Footprint ecovillage. Instead of chemical products so common in agriculture nowadays, Merili uses natural and local products like composted horse manure from a near-by stable, charcoal from their wood burned mass ovens, nettle brews, urine from the compost toilets and mulch from their own straw and leaves as fertilizer and anti-weed practices.

In the evenings we held activities which were educational or created a deeper sense of connection to each other and one self. The group of volunteers was introduced to practices like ecstatic dance, nourishing touch (lovingly touching each other without sexual intentions) and practices in listening to each other from compassion. We were also introduced to non-violent communication. A practice of communicating which stimulates empathy and understanding, often used in ecovillages. On a different night two community members held a lecture about sociocracy: an organisation and decision-making method based on inclusion and transperency which they practice at Small Footprint. I was also asked to organize one evening activity, I chose to host a sharing circle on a very personal topic to make use of the feelings of connection and trust and relate to each other even more. I wrote a seperate blog on my website about this sharing circle.

A circle is a practice often used in ecovillages where seated in a circle, every person simply gets to speak one a time and express their feelings. All the others listen. This technique allows people to learn to express their feelings and to feel understood, heard and accepted for what is going on in their minds. It allows the people listening to empathise and grow personally from the reflections they have in themselves when they hear another speaking of their personal experiences and feelings. (Picture credit: Paavo)

In between the program offered by the ecovillage, we had a lot of fun together and shared meaningful moments. We hiked to the nearby river to swim in the ice-cold water, could cycle to the local shop and we shared inspirational documentaries, music and books with each other. The initiative arose to start a book club with those participants interested in reading a book together (choosing Francis Wellers’ ‘The wild edge of sorrow’, a real tip!). Others joined for morning and evening yoga together, or spend time relaxing in the beautiful gardens of the ecovillage. During the weekends we could make day trips to nearby cities and explore the Estonian culture. We also visited Lilleoru ecovillage to participate in the national Estonian volunteer day there. And most importantly, we baked a lot of delicious cakes together and talked with each other about our lives, experiences and dreams. Relating with each other and growing close to each other.

Enjoying the delicious organic and vegan meal! We shared all meals together with the community and took turns preparing them. For some this was a valuable experience of learning to cook vegan dishes with fresh wild plants taken from the gardens and to feel confident preparing meals for big groups.

Experiencing community
On the final day of the volunteer program a reflection circle was organized. Everyone was asked to reflect on what they had experienced during the one-month program. The volunteers were by now practiced in sharing emotions and felt safe to show their thoughts, feelings and reflections. Every single participant had most to say about how they had personally grown from experiencing community.

Things the volunteers reflected included experiences like: feeling connected to the people and nature around them, feeling free to be themselves, feeling love, learning to have more awareness about their own emotions and learning to share them freely, learning to listen to each other, sharing moments, experiencing nourishing touch detached from sexual intentions, feeling social support, learning to feel and express empathy towards others and experiencing how a space of loving kindness from everyone enables processing difficult emotions from the past. They also spoke of learning to appreciate simple joys, to be present in the moment and feeling fulfilled and happy with what there is. And they spoke of learning to let themselves be how they want to be rather than how they think you should be, guided by fear of judgement, shame or exclusion. They spoke of learning to be more conscious and trust on their intuition. Feeling self empathy and self acceptance were very often mentioned as was being more in tune with their own heart. All experiences were beautifully summarized by one volunteer as ‘getting to be more yourself’.

One volunteer remarked that when she went for a walk to the river on her own one afternoon, she noticed herself singing. Making up her own song while enjoying the nature around her. She said she had not felt like this since her childhood and it made her thrilled to be back in touch with this creativity and simple joy.

Experiencing first hand how kind people can actually be and how much feeling of connection can be created, gave the participants hope. Several spoke of the wish to introduce some of the simple practices like listening, sharing and nourishing touch to their friends and family to also reach a deeper level of connection and relatedness with them. They spoke of the wish to be more mindful in life, more aware and take more time for themselves. They now also experienced that they can feel confident and self-loving enough to actually take this time for themselves and live their lives how they truly want to.

A week after the volunteer program one volunteer remarked to me how being back at home, “everything familiar felt unfamiliar!” Now that she had seen an alternative and felt related with like-minded people who actually live out the values that really matter to them, she felt empowered to make changes in her everyday life.

Growing people
The volunteer program was a first for the ecovillage as well, and it was a co-creation between the community members and the participants. We tried many different practices and learned together what worked and what did not during the period of living in the ecovillage. The setting of honest communication and inclusive organization was helpful to grow together. Experiencing this ecovillage life, in which people collaborate rather than compete, connect rather than judge, and work with their hands and feet in the soil, empowered the participants that alternative ways of living are possible.

Hearing all their reflections I realized how impactful this time in an ecovillage had been for the volunteers on a profoundly personal level and I was once again amazed by the many potentials ecovillages have to make a contribution to the global sustainability transition: This program really managed to create a setting for people to grow. Liina remarked that this is exactly what they hope to do with their ecovillage: offer programs that not just inspire people for sustainble living, but create profound personal growth which allows them to live along values like collaboration, connection, compassion and gratitude. Healing the world one heart at a time.

Far more impactful than just spreading know-how and experience of sustainable techniques, the ecovillage volunteer program equipped these youths with tools for personal empowerment to constructively face any type of challenge in their future and live their lives along values that really matter to them.
(Picture credit Paavo)

Want to see more beautifull pictures of the volunteer program taken by Paavo? Follow this link: https://www.flickr.com/gp/paavo_eensalu/801ik2

Want to know more about Vaike Jalajalg ecovillage, check out their website and facebook page. https://vaikejalajalg.ee/en/ https://m.facebook.com/vaikejalajalg/

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