For two weeks I was welcomed in Vaunumaki community in Southern Finland. This was a valuable experience to me of a young, determined initiative for communal and sustainable living. Vaunumaki is Finnish for wagon hill and it is currently a community of three families. The families knew each other for many years and had been living ecological lives together in other locations before finding the right spot for starting their own ecovillage. Living with a low ecological impact in collaboration with the local environment and living loan-free with little expenses so that they have time to spend with their children and on their own creative projects are core to their shared vision for the ecovillage. They did not want to take big loans or spend years saving money before starting to live ecologically in community. Instead, they are pushing the norms by creating their community step by step so that they can already enjoy living an affordable and low-impact lifestyle in community, now that their children are still small. Trying to pave the way to make this way of living more accesible for like-minded families. They also value the social aspects of community life and practice methods for supporting each other in personal growth.
In this blog I give an impression of their community life and the main motivations of the founding families for creating this ecovillage.
Creating a life together
The initiators had been spending quite some time looking for a suitable, affordable plot of land, located in a nice region. The land they found is close to the town Karjalohja, which houses the only Waldorf school of Finland and has made many more like-minded families move to the region. This is valuable for the initiators of Vaunumaki, as it allows them to also connect with and grow a wider community in the region for sustainable lifestyles. Before, the families had all lived in very remote areas, completely off-grid and surrounded by rough nature, but now they value to also have good connections with others in the region. In total they have around five hectares of land on which there was only an old house and sauna building when they arrived. The place had been abandoned for at least eleven year and because the house was classified as unliveable the property was affordable. When they got the plot of land they first invested effort into making the completely overgrown fields open to have space for a vegetable garden and to build houses. They also renovated the old house, to have a space to live in during the winter.
As one of the first big communal projects in the ecovillage they had a lake dug in the centre of the land where a seasonal spring was running. The lake serves as water storage and supports biodiversity on the land. They use this water for washing, cleaning dishes and watering the garden (and the lake for swimming and playing also). They get drinking water from a natural spring close by and in the future perhaps also from a well they had made on the land. For heating they have several wooden stoves. They do not have any sewage connection but have build compost toilets. Since the first spring season on the land they started a vegetable plot on which each family has their own vegetable beds where they work with ecological, permaculture methods to grow some of their own vegetables and herbs. One of the community members also grows some specific plants for natural pigments which she uses for her paintings. She also holds bees on the land, mostly for the beeswax production to use for her paints. There are also three chickens and a hen living in the community. They build a so-called chicken tractor for them, allowing one to move the chickens across the land so they can turn the soil and fertilize it a bit. During my stay we had a nice communal day on which we build a fence around the vegetable beds against deer and rabbits eating the crops.
The community members wanted to construct their own tiny houses on the land. This allows them to live in an ecological way already, without needing to get a loan or have full-time jobs to pay for having a big house build. They also believe that when you share the main facilities, each family only needs a small, private living space. On top of these motivations, they like that when building their own house they are able to put their creativity into it and gain skills in building a house.
For one of the families their moveable house is an art project. They have had the main wagon of their house already for ten years, first living in Sweden with it. During my stay in Vaunumaki the national Finnish television came by to include the art project in an architectural program. Building their own home and using home-made, ecological materials as well as reclaimed materials made it possible to have in a space that completely suits their needs and values, without having to invest much. It allows them to spend time with their children and on other creative projects instead of having to work much for paying of loans. They can also adapt the house to future needs and change or fix it themselves. The art project is also a statement against the conservative architectural discipline which has made homes standardized, unpersonal and often unhealthy and is in a way disempowering for individuals who start believing a home is not something they can provide for themselves. It breaks with the standard in showing that you can just build your own dream home and you do not need a lot of money for it.
The other family has also constructed their own tiny home. They explain to me how empowering it felt to learn how to build a house, when you have never done anything like that before. Also for them, creating a tiny house made much sense as it allows them to have a house with little investment and no unnecessary space. During my stay we are experimenting with some clay plastering in their entrance hall. Clay plastering has for me always represented an empowering way of building. We could just use the sand from their own soil and some clay from their neighbours land, the technique to mix and apply the plaster is simple and allows much creativity and experimentation. With this you can create an ecological, breathing wall finishing. Besides this, it is also simply a lot of fun to do and even children can help out!
Building outside the box
Wanting to live in tiny houses on their land appears to not fit into the standard procedures and building regulations. The community is facing some issues with their building permits and they are collaborating with the local authorities to find a way to make their experimental ways of living possible. They want to set an example that this is possible so that future communities will more easily be able to live in houses which are ecological and allow different lifestyles.
They are running into similar issues of not fitting into current institutional boxes with their structure for owning the land. Currently they own the land privately as shared owners and they are exploring options of having it owned by a corporation or foundation. This will allow them to make clear guidelines for the use of the land and the division of the money and investments. It will also have to make it more easy for new members to join the community in the future. They want to have some kind of communal ownership over the land in which everyone has an equal say about how things are being run and which also secures the land and their investments in it for the future.
The vision they shared for creating this ecovillage included some social aspects, most prominently that community can be used for supporting each other in processes of personal growth. For this they use a method which was new to me, it is called co-counselling. Co-counselling is a technique and movement started already in the 50s. It is an open source method which allows people to support each other in discharging emotions and processing past trauma’s. The method is based on the believe that every person is born good, intelligent, creative and flexible, but unexpressed emotions and unprocessed trauma’s from childhood can block your access to these qualities. With the simple technique of sitting together and taking turns expressing suppressed emotions while the other person is just there, looks you in the eye and holds your hands, your unconsciousness can be reassured that it is ok to have these emotions, they can be there and you can process them. The method invites physical expressions of emotions or energies stuck in your body from past experiences, for example trembling, pushing, yawning, laughing and sweating are welcomed as ways for your body to let go of suppressed emotions. Creating a setting which invites expressing rather than suppressing emotions is seen as the way to gaining access again to your original open, creative, intelligent, flexible and good nature.
In the community they host regular co-counselling sessions with each other and with people outside the community. They also have a bi-weekly men’s and women’s circle. During my stay I took part in one session of co-counselling with another community member. For me it was incredibly valuable to release emotions in a physical way rather than just talking about it. Having somebody sit opposite me, hold my hands and looking in the eye while I went through some suppressed emotions which I have difficulty allowing myself to feel in daily life is incredibly reassuring and comforting and helped me in processing my emotions and feeling accepted despite of them. I also observed in the community that because all adults practice co-counselling and value the expression of emotions, the children were very mature and healthy in expressing all of their emotions. Anger, sadness and disappointment of the children were not regarded as bad emotions by the parents or pushed aside, they were welcomed, embraced in the moment and supported. Talking about co-counselling and experiencing the method opened my eyes to how much expression of emotions is sometimes oppressed in western culture. Unconciously we might often feel that some emotions are bad or there is not a good place or setting to express them, which can create some trauma’s. This method is completely open source and simple, so it can be a good step towards empowering people to socially support each other in these times of increasing mental health problems.
Other than this, their vision for the ecovillage included to have horizontal, inclusive decision-making. They apply consensus and use the circle way. They organise meetings when there is a need for them, allowing the organisation and progress of the community to go organically. On a daily basis they do not have any structured shared meals but often spontaneously join their meals together. They all wanted to have their own spaces to live in, to have some level of privacy compared to really sharing everything, which is why each family builds their own living space, but there will be some shared facilities.
It was inspiring for me to see how this community is taking the first steps of building a self-sufficient, free life on a plot of land and to discuss with them plans they have for evolving in the future. Some concrete plans are the construction of a sauna building, which will also have a small living space for the third family. And there are dreams for the construction of a community building which will house shared facilities like a gathering hall, production kitchen, washing space, etc. Then on the longer term they hope to grow with more families joining and living in tiny houses on the land. If the facilities are shared in the main building, the private houses can be quite simple.
The community is already very active in the region as well. They have just started a cooperative with some neighbours to make food baskets with ecological vegetables from local farmers. For over a year they also organize every other Monday a transition session in the local town, in reference to the transition towns movement. In these sessions they discuss and inspire each other about how sustainability can be stimulated in their region. One of the members of Vaunumaki is also currently the president of the Finnish ecovillage network, called Skey. Two other members are working part-time in an agroforestry mushroom farm close-by, where they are front running in experimenting with outdoor growth of mushrooms (both edible and medicinal) to counter forest cuttings in Finland and restoring forest soils by re-introducing mushrooms.
Pushing the norms
Staying in Vaunumaki was very inspiring to me for all the facets on which the inhabitants are front-running sustainable lifestyles. They are not just pushing the norms and institutions around building: paving the way for future communities where people want to build small, self-sufficient, ecological houses themselves. They are also pushing social norms by practicing empowering personal growth practices and taking their whole region along with their sustainability vision. It might be difficult at times, with countless meetings about building permits and trying to figure out how to fit into institutional boxes and also how to sustain their basic needs for water, shelter and food in creative ways rather than taking big loans. Yet the inhabitants are determined and have a strong vision for living in harmony with their environment, each other and themselves. And most of all, they are determined to create a nice place and time for their children right now, rather than waiting for the whole world to change around them first!