Up, up in the Alps

Up, up in the Alps

Schweibenalp – 25th February – 31st March 2017

During the EDE (Eco-village Design Education) course in Glarisegg eco-community, in February I learned about another Swiss community called Schweibenalp, where one of the other EDE participants was living. I loved Sarah’s description of how this community consciously lived together, and from a video I could see that their location, up in the Alps was stunning, so I decided that Schweibenalp was where I would spend the month of March.

Schweibenalp is an hour south of Berne, in the Bernese Oberland Alps at 1100m above sea level. It is a living and working community that runs a seminar centre and a permaculture garden, and is part of GEN (the Global Eco-village Network) since 2011. In the early 1900’s, a clinic was built on the site for treating tuberculosis patients and after WW II it was converted into a children’s home and later into a holiday destination. In 1982 Dr Sundar Robert Dreyfus (who still lives there some of the year), Fredy Aly and Silvia Bollag founded The Centre of Unity: an ashram based on guidance from the Indian teacher Sri Baba. By the mid 90’s the centre declined in popularity, the ashram was disbanded and a new model was formed: a business model called the foundation which is run by a non-denominational community. The community currently has around 30 members including one child and about 6 volunteers. All members and volunteers work in the seminar centre and or in the permaculture garden and most of the members live on site with some living in nearby Brienz. 

The location for the community/seminar centre really is stunning, with views up to the snow capped mountains above and down to azure blue Lake Brienz below. The complex consists of the 5 storey Guesthouse; where all guests are accommodated along with most volunteers and some community members. The guesthouse has a fully catering kitchen on the lowest floor where truly wonderful meals are prepared three times daily, it has a lovely old seminar room called ‘Licht’ (Light), offices, reception and a shop on the first floor. There are two members’ houses on the site and a number of Bauwagens (wooden caravans) for member accommodation.  In the recently constructed seminar centre there is a large wonderful dance space called Freiden (Peace),  four rooms for guest accommodation, a smaller seminar room called Erde (Earth) and the herbiary located in the basement. Also on the 20ha site, is a stunning permaculture garden, many paths, a sweat lodge, platforms for camping, seating areas, fire-pits and access up into the mountains and down to the famous Geissbach waterfall.

In the early mornings and afternoons I often went walking up the mountains before dawn and watched the sunrise or, if they were free, I danced and meditated in one of the studio spaces. Each morning Arati (Hindu fire ceremony) is held in the temple, a reminder of the site’s earlier life as a hindu ashram. Life for the working community each day starts with breakfast at 8am where community and guests eat together in the beautiful dining room. Then at 9am those working for the day meet to update on events and changes and to sing together. Volunteers work 6 hours/day (9am-1pm and 2-4pm) 5 days per week with varying days off. I worked in a few of the different work departments of the seminar centre: maintenance, housekeeping, the herbiary and the kitchen. I was keen to work in the Permaculture garden but as is incredibly popular its is booked almost a year in advance with volunteers. My work included: in maintenance: shovelling snow, cleaning vehicles, in the kitchen: preparing food and dishwashing, in housekeeping, cleaning, changing beds, cleaning bathrooms and in the herbiary preparing dried herbs for packaging. 

My room was in a shared room with two others on the fifth floor of the guest house. To get there I climbed 95 steps to get from the bottom to the top of the house. My low fitness level after a sedentary month of sitting and  learning on the EDE combined with the 1100m altitude rendered me utterly breathless in my first few days of ‘climbing’ and I contemplated just staying on the 5th floor and tying a  basket to a rope and throwing it down to the kitchen; asking them to place food in it for me…. but I decided to embrace each step of the stairs as an opportunity to regain some level of fitness  and to get some muscle tone and I’m please to say that by the end of my stay I was able to run up all 95 steps without falling over! 

What I truly loved about the place was the peace and quiet. I was lucky enough to be there at a quiet time in the seminar season so there were only one or two groups there at any one time. In the height of the season there can be up to 150 guests.  Also I loved having such easy access to the mountains and to the alpine wilderness [see images in photo blog ]  On my walks I would see Roe deer, mountain goats (Chamoix), black tufted squirrels, and even once I saw Lynx paw-prints in the snow! Because of the location, no matter what direction you decided to walk in, you were in for a challenging cardiovascular workout in the ascent and descent ..or descent and ascent.. but it was always worth the effort as you were always guaranteed breathtaking views. 

From my month there my highlights include:

  • Celebrating the equinox by doing two sweat lodges: on in the evening of the 20th and on the morning of the 21st March. 
  • Offering Movement Medicine classes: One of my intentions in this journey is to bring my creativity into community and in Schweibenalp during my time I taught three movement medicine classes. I feel very grateful that there has been the opportunity to teach in most of the communities that I have visited. So far I have held classes in the universal hall in Findhorn, in the ballroom in Newbold, we co-held a ceremony with dance in Glarisegg during the EDE and then in Schweibenalp.
  • Visiting the wonderful Ballenburg the open air museum near Brienz with examples of vernacular architecture from all over Switzerland.  

What really stays with me though from my time in Schweibenalp was my connection to the people I met there. I deeply appreciated the company and connection with my co-volunteers Natalie, Pascal and Angelica; I enjoyed our daily connections, conversations about language and geography, and our general laughter. I had somehow missed this sense of friendship and laughter in the last few months and deeply appreciated this time together in our own little volunteer family.

Through my work I got to know some of the members of the community: Corinne and Iris through housekeeping: these wonderful women sit and relax for while before work each day and pick angel cards and make intentions for the day. Laszo: through working in maintenance and through dance. Our volunteer coordinators; Monica and Anne: these two amazing women brought smiles to my face every time I saw them. Monica spent time in Findhorn for many years and brings a warm grounded energy into the community, and Anne lives between Berlin and Schweibenalp and inspired me so much with her capacity to understand and care for interpersonal relationships within the community. Meeting Anne was a real highlight for me: our conversations around maintaining communication and heart in community really inspired me and allowed me to see how special the community in Schweibenalp is. Charlie a co-founder of two other communities: Zegg in Germany and Tamera in Portugal also lives there and brings wonderful music and song and his wisdom from many years of community living.

I was able to meet community members at our morning meetings at meals and at work, but in the evenings they all disappeared to their respective ‘homes’. So there was unfortunately little social interaction with the community outside of work. As there is a high turnover of guests (people attending seminars, workshops etc) and volunteers working from one week or up to several months, there is a sense of transience about the place and I can understand how the community are protective of their own space and reluctant in a way about making connections to people who will ultimately leave. I also appreciate that it can be exhausting to live and work in the same place so I understand why people seek privacy in the evenings, but it felt strange to see them all disappear. It meant that we created our own little volunteer family and spent many evenings chatting together in the dining room, which was really lovely but also it felt somehow like we were not somehow part of the community. By comparison, in Newbold house where I spent November and December last year, which is a very similar model to Schweibenalp, there are community evenings once a week where everyone gets together to play games or go on a social outing, also through the use of the model of sociocracy, Newbold accepts proposals from volunteers and includes representatives of the volunteers in their core community meetings in a process that allows feedback loops through the different facets of the community.   

From having experienced communities with a similar structure: a community running a seminar centre, I realise that it is really a challenge, and  takes a lot of consciousness effort and communication to be clear that you are a community that happens to run a business where community at all levels is the priority, rather than a business that happens to be run by a community where the business is the priority.

After all the changes on the site over the years, Schweibenalp feels as though it is still going through a transition from an ashram and is working to define its identity as a community: it is known as a seminar centre by some, for others it’s a community, for some it is a permaculture centre, for others it is the Centre for unity and for others it is still an ashram. Perhaps it can be all things to all people? I could see that in Schweibenalp the community work really hard to maintain their priority of being a conscious community.  A few times a year a core group from the community come together for 2 days to work through community issues and one such gathering happened while I was there. From talking to members I learned that this is an intense time; using systems such as constellation work, forum etc but I could see that the time they put in yields a greater connection within the community. I would have loved to been able to witness these processes but they were not open to volunteers.

I am travelling to eco-communities as I wish to be a part of the running of community, to be a part of decision making, understanding of organisational behaviour, I want to be a part of understanding how we transition to a new culture, I don’t want to sit on the side-lines observing, I want to be in there in making my contribution or at least learning how I might be able to do it. As I don’t speak German or Swiss German I was limited in my capacity to fully engage with all members of the community and found this frustrating.. I have my limited linguistic skills to blame, in part.. Most of the community are Swiss German or German but most also could speak English. So although they mostly spoke Swiss German or German was spoken in our morning meetings (at which times I would ask someone to translate for me), but sometimes English was spoken. And as relieving as this was communication-wise it also brought a sense of shame that I was the only English speaker and could not speak the language of the country that I was in. The issue of language had never really occurred to me as part of this journey, I guess that’s an indication of the ‘curse’ of English being your first language: it is almost expected that people can speak it wherever you go…and the truth is that they can but it creates an inherent laziness and a sense of expectation in English speakers. I will be travelling to Spain in May and on to Colombia in August so I look forward (an dread TBH) immersing myself in Spanish and surrendering my mother tongue!

I went to Schweibenalp because wanted to get a sense of what it was like to live in this particular community and I did get a sense of that although I think it would take longer and a knowledge of the language to really get a greater sense of it. What I am left with after my month there is the memory and huge gratitude for having spent time, and worked, with some really great people who work hard to create a better way of living in a location that is truly spectacular. I greatly admire the people of Schweibenalp for their courage and commitment for creating something new and inspiring in the world.

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My project of exploring communities is funded by my creativity, through the sale of my art and by community, through crowd-funding. If you would like to support me on this journey you can check out my art on www.sineadcullen.com or make a donation on my Crowd funding https://www.gofundme.com/LetsCreate