Fire in the heart

Fire in the heart

I learned that the annual gathering of the Newtork of Iberian Ecovillages (Red Ibérica de Ecoaldeas REI) was to be hosted in Los Portales, Spain from 28th June -1st July 2018. My first experience of Los Portales in May 2017: a month spent as a WWOOF’er (Willing Worker On Organic Farms) in their garden, was filled with great memories, and I wanted to go back. [You can read about my first experience here: Recitos de oro] So, after some discussion with the community it was agreed that I would return as a ‘friend of the community’ (a volunteer) for three months working on anything that needed to be constructed for the gathering. 

In early May 2018 I found myself once again on the streets of Seville.. for Feria! Almost a year to the day since I had first arrived! 

My bags didn’t arrive with me, so I had a chance to spend two days in Seville, sightseeing, catching up with a lovely friend from Ängsbacka and trying to stay warm! I was delighted to be in Spain again.. but I was freezing: the weather was unseasonably cold and I was dressed for sunshine! My bags finally caught up with me and I could make my way north to Los Portales. I was met again by Jaime and the kids in Castilleblanco de Arroyos, this time with a greater ability to engage in the language. It was a delight to be speaking Spanish again and to return to see the land, to be met with smiles and warm hugs.

I settled in and felt at home again quickly. I am used to unpacking my bag exploring a new place and just getting to work, so it was lovely to have familiar faces, know my way around and to lean into a familiar routine. Breakfast at 7:30am working 8am-1:30pm with a break at 10:30am for 3o mins. Lunch at 1:30pm, siesta until 3pm, an afternoon break at 5pm, frequently workshops offered between 5-8pm and dinner at 8:30pm. We worked Monday-Friday and a few hours on a Sunday and with various rotating cleaning and washing up duties. 

The EVS’ers were a big part of the community for the summer. EVS (European Volunteer Services) is a part of Erasmus+, a European Commission funded programme It is a chance for young people to work on various projects for set periods of time (they vary from a month up to one year) with a small stipend to cover expenses. Many ecovillages in Europe are a part of the scheme so there are lots of opportunities to volunteer and learn about ecovillage living in this way.

There were three EVS’ers in Los Portales when I arrived and ten more arrived a few weeks later. I have to admit that I was kind of dreading it, that sounds bad, but it is that feeling of having your home invaded. I recognise in many communities that there this challenge: between the desire to be open and inclusive, and how to maintain a sense of ‘home’. I have learned that these transitions; these changes of group constellation generally just take a little time and can’t be rushed.. everyone needs just a little time and space to find their way. The EVS’ers arrived, and we watched them meet and bond and within a week their shiny smiles and warm open hearts had won over everyone in the community – they were a very easy group of young people to love, and lots of fun to work with.

I was very happy to be back on the land again, back swimming in the lake – even though the old raft was gone (it had finally disintegrated!). It was wonderful to go back to the waterfalls and to discover other walks and view points around the land over my few months there. I loved more than anything seeing the land full of flowers when I arrived and seeing it transform very slowly from spring colours into the summer golden warmth.

I working with friends Gaudi, Marie-Laure and Fran on the construction of any thing that needed assembling for the gathering in June. We worked on the construction of a series of very beautiful shelters that would locate the various workshops to be held during the 4-day event. Being a part of the preparation team was intense and a lot of fun. It was wonderful to get out and work with my hands every day – there is a joy in the making that is deeply satisfying for my mind and my creativity.

And we got to work on all sorts of different jobs: one more intense than others: one was due to the summer heat and dryness: Just before the RIE one evening, before dinner Jessica drove in and skidded to a halt in a car just at the entrance and proceeded to run inside calling people to come with her immediately. She was highly distressed and was screaming out her words. We quickly got together: volunteers, community members into cars and jeeps and headed up across the land. A fire had been started by someone cutting wire with an angle grinder (a ridiculously thing to be doing out on the land) the sparks caught the grass and a fire took of, fed by the wind. When we arrived the fire was in two fields and already people were there, beating back flames with shovels, spades and fire beaters. We ran to work.

Getting in any way close to the flames was impossible – the heat was intense and the wind was picking up, driving the fire down through the fields faster that we could keep up. We did what we could to save trees, to direct the flames away from stands of olives and oak but the flames were beyond us. It was exhausting work: some people stopped and cried, other sat in disbelief and others just kept beating and beating at the flames. It was a surreal situation.

For me it was my most powerful meeting with fire in my life. At one stage I stood in a small field – the fire had just run through the fence and was heading towards us.. flames just two metres tall.. a wall of fire. I knew I could escape by running up the hill behind us if needed; we were not in any immediate danger.  I stood there and looked at her. To me it was feminine; a wild beautiful act of nature.. the ferocity of it stunned me.. the sheer beauty and unpredictability ..I stood there and found myself feeling calm and grounded and in AWE! The fire and wind together were dancing through the fields devouring the tall dry grass. There are few demonstrations of power that genuinely impress me, often the expressions we see are those of ego and bravado – but this was sheer beautiful elemental power! I remember exclaiming to the fire how beautiful she was, how much we respected her and how much we valued her.. and I asked would she please spare our land and our trees. She had taken a lot and I asked if she could leave the rest. There was a new sound: a helicopter; the fire department with a water carrier! They flew to the large dam at the bottom of the valley and hauled huge buckets of water one after and other… and finally maybe an hour later we stood in silence… watching the singed earth and the smoke rise from smouldering grass, shrubs, trees and animal manure. The landscape including the newly arrived flock of 20 sheep were changed to a smokey black colour during the fire … it was a strange charred holocaustal landscape.

‘LP Sacred Rock’

36cm x 28cm on 300gsm Watercolour paper

‘LP Sacred-Fire-2018’

36cm x 28cm on 300gsm Watercolour paper 

‘LP Sacred fire Evolution’

36cm x 28cm on 300gsm Watercolour paper 

So, over my months in Los Portales, between my time in nature and my encounter with the fire I painted a little during my free time. Also, as the crowd funding had stopped for the project I was low on funds so I decided to create a set of postcards from some of my paintings. I picked out and prepared various art works and found a wonderful company to produce my first set of eco-postcards. [I have since sold out of the first batch and have sets of 20 for sale on my website: Eco-postcards]

Eco-postcards

During the summer I was teaching weekly Movement Medicine classes in the community. Before every class I am still so nervous, but always am left afterwards with so much humility and compassion for what it is to be human; to show up in our vulnerability and move into connection with on another. A highlight from the summer was during the RIE:  teaching a Movement Medicine workshop on the Saturday afternoon. I could not fully prepare for this class as I didn’t know who would be there or what the mood would be – a few people were there in the Dojo at the start and slowly it filled to capacity with moving adults, young people, children and even babies.  Dance is how I found my way into community – learning how to connect and trust. My memory of this workshop is watching this room full of people people sculpting shapes and forms together: community in motion. 

Another highlight from the summer was DJing on Saturday nights, especially when we set up an outdoor tea/bar area by the lake with lots of lovely lounge furniture. Sabado noche is a very much a Los Portales tradition. Each week brought a different mix to the community and I loved finding the vibe of the group and seeing them make connections and dance together. 

 Ladies ready for sabado noche

As the RIE gathering got closer more volunteers and community members arrived to pitch in. We all worked hard to prepare and were expecting there to be 500 people. Along with the shelters and structures that we were working on, outside toilets and showers were built, a retractable cover for the patio area, food was prepared, dining areas prepared, camping ground signage, all the details you can imagine, and more. It was a huge amount of work – but it all seemed to run very smoothly and with good humour and fun. 

Finally the RIE arrived and so did groups from all around Portugal and Spain. Team Los Portales was ready and we all were divided into various working teams to keep the event rolling smoothly. I continued on maintenance and anything that needed fixing and also had the joy to be part of a lovely breakfast preparation team. We would meet early before the crowds were up and as we prepared fruit, bread , yogurt, teas and coffees the patio dining area would slowly receive the hum of chatting eco-villagers. 

Teteria/Cafe during the RIE

As part of the RIE there was bio-construction course to convert one of the outhouses into accommodation for members and EVS volunteers. This was a packed workshop and a very successful event. After the RIE there was still a lot of work to be done so a group of us continued the construction;  working with mud and straw to insulate the ceiling and walls. Since then Los Portales have been running a bio-construction course teaching the different techniques of working with this very simple materials to create beautiful structures. 

 

Bio-construction

During my months in Los Portales I managed to explore the area outside of the community a little more, venturing into Castilleblanco de Arroyo and Seville a few times. During the summer I began to have some health issues: with pain and a lot of tiredness, so I got to engage in the Spanish health system in both the nearby town and in Seville as I underwent checkups and some tests. I am seldom unwell and do not like to be a patient so I struggled with taking time off and with not knowing what was going on with my body. I was well taken care of and got the answers I needed. And also I quite enjoyed the adventure of engaging with nurses and doctors in Spanish… it was a whole new branch of vocabulary that I had not encountered before and the learning made up for the guilt of taking time off.

And I got to travel further afield:  a group of us visited another community called Calabacino, an hour away in Huelva. In the weeks coming up to the REI members of Calabacino were helping out with the preparation so a few of us went to visit for their annual festival and I went back for weekend to find out more about this community and how they lived (more about Calabacino in a future post).

Details from a beautiful house in Calabacino, Huelva

Storks in palm trees at the public (empty) swimming pool in Castilleblanco de Arroyos

A weekend in Granada – the influence of Islam

It was lovely to get to know the community better during the summer; a few of the members have become dear friends. Along with loving the land and the sun and the food and the pace of life I was interested in becoming a member of the community. The first step is to become a temporary member; this is something that needs to be agreed by all of the community. A person can be a temporary member for 18months and after that the situation is reviewed.  New members pay a minimum of €200 per month (but can pay more) and they are required to work for 40hours per week in the community; this can be on a variety of tasks and can become a set ‘job’ for the most part once a person has found their place in community. They are also part of the main dream circle group and can gradually become a part of community decision making.

During my discussions around joining, the subject of creativity and personal time came up: I had found a certain frustration in the lack of free time and personal space for creativity: creativity in community was the driver for my project of exploring eco-villages so it was important to talk about this and how I would make money in the future to sustain myself. To make money, I discovered, one needs to work outside of the 40hours for community. In relation to creativity: I was asked if I would not engage in my own creative projects for the first 1.5 years as a temporary member. It was explained to me that this is to allow myself to learn about the community, its way of working and its way of life. 

I didn’t know how to respond to this request at first but remained open to discussion around how we can bring our creativity into every aspect of life. Afterwards I thought a lot about what creativity means to me and how I could explore all sorts of different aspects of creativity within the community – as I had done as part of this project: building, cooking, etc.

I left in the end of July back to Ireland for the wedding of friends and with the intention of digesting this information, sure that I would be returning very soon. I was told that it would not be possible to return before November as there were a lot of changes taking place. This gave me time to figure out how I might make money to return as a temporary member and how I might earn money sustainably moving forward.

This issue of finances in community is not always straightforward: there are many ways for a community to arrange its finances:

  • From a very standard model like in Cloughjordan: of people working outside of the community, living in independent financial family units,
  • Schweibenalp and Newbold where everyone works in the community business.
  • Svanholm everyone pays in 80% of their income and the community bulk buy all food, household products and everything is shared equally.
  • Or in Pijao where the small town worked together using the principles of Cittaslow to improve the quality of life of a whole town. 

And this is just a few: it depends on how a community decides to function together and how interdependently they choose to live. I am still not fully clear on how money is generated and distributed in Los Portales. I know that people have been supporting the project for many years and they make money from sale of produce, renting out spaces, hosting workshops. Some people work outside of the community and others run courses there, so there are possibilities that can be explored.

So, over the last few months while back in Ireland I have stayed in regular contact with the community and have had interesting conversations around these topics. Also I have been landing back in Ireland, catching up with friends and family and looking back on the overall journey that I have taken through nineteen different ecovillages and projects.  I have wanted to honour the  journey and glean the lessons from it. So I have been putting my focus on arranging talks and presentations about my experiences.

And in staying in Ireland for a while one thing has become clear to me: the tiredness that I have been feeling in the last few months has become more debilitating and I have not been coping well with returning here with no home or job. I have been feeling depleted and in need of rest and am realising very clearly that I need to take care of my health. 

So I have decided to stay in Ireland for now, to hibernate a little, to build my energy and my confidence and to just allow myself time to percolate and share my experiences. And to listen to the fire in my heart that says to follow my creative projects and see where they lead me. 

It is lovely to be around my friends again and to be back on Irish soil and tuning back to familiar seasons and sayings. And, I do miss community life; I miss Los Portales: the people, the land and the sunshine and the closeness to nature. I am very grateful for my time there: for everyone that I met, for the wide breath of experiences, for smiles and laughter and for the challenges, and I am very grateful for the incredible work that they do there as a community.

As I said the last time I left: I don’t know when or how… but I will be back!

Gracias a todas y todos.


I will be hosting an evening event where I will be talking about my journey, in Fumbally Stables, Dublin 8 on Tuesday 6th November, all are welcome. Eventbrite page  Facebook Event page   Or you can message me for event details on sinead.a.cullen@gmail.com 

 

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletters you can subscribe here.  I will be giving updates on ecovillages, talks, discoveries and my next steps. 

If you know of organisations or groups that would be interested in hearing about my journey place do get in contact with me. sinead.a.cullen@gmail.com

And if you are interested in support my blog and my creativity you can help by purchasing some of my art on my website.  I have recently released a new set of eco-postcards which are copies of 20 paintings from nature, inspired by my journey.

 LINKS AND REFERENCES

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