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The ecovillage where volunteers relearn the skills the world forgot

The ecovillage where volunteers relearn the skills the world forgot

Words: Nils Adler

Photos: Ken Hermann

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Many of us would love to start putting the planet first in our daily lives, but may not have the know-how. At Suderbyn ecovillage, these skills form the core of the community. From growing organic veg to producing biogas, those prepared to pitch in come away with an invaluable insight into what it takes to go green.

The Swedish island of Gotland began its existence millions of years ago as a reef in the warm waters near the equator, before the drift and shift of continental plates placed it in its current location in the middle of the Baltic Sea. As a result, the island’s limestone-rich landscape, long sandy beaches and sculptural sea stacks give it an otherworldly beauty.

In a way, the island’s anomalous nature makes it the perfect setting for Suderbyn, a unique ecovillage that is home to a diverse community of international volunteers and some 35 long-term residents united under the common goal of leading a more sustainable lifestyle. It is one of an estimated 10,000 ecovillages around the world.

From green fingers to green skills

The beating heart of Suderbyn is the main house, a charming rustic building with old creaky floorboards and decorated with an eclectic mix of bric-a-brac, including an excessive collection of pumpkins. It’s here that everyone gathers for breakfast porridge – nicknamed mopo – and a morning meeting before spilling out into the fields or the workshop for the day’s work.

Antoine Arquié gets the garden ready for winter.

“Antoine likes to lead by example, walking barefoot in the soil despite the chilly autumn breeze”

An earnest Frenchman with a dry sense of humour, Antoine Arquié oversees the gardens, a series of horseshoe-shaped areas where most of Suderbyn’s food is grown. Antoine came to Suderbyn five years ago initially as part of the Green Skills learning and volunteer programme. Funded by the EU, the year-long programme  provides young people from all over Europe and neighbouring countries with an opportunity to develop practical gardening skills and experiment with alternative ways of living. 

When he first arrived, Antoine knew nothing about growing food. Now he likes to lead by example, walking barefoot in the soil despite the chilly autumn breeze as he explains to volunteers how to mulch, a process of covering the ground to maintain moisture, reduce weed growth and improve soil conditions. Suderbyn’s gardens are designed according to permaculture principles, seeking to work with nature, instead of fighting against it.

Suderbyn co-founder Robert Hall inside the geodesic dome where they’re currently testing vertical farming techniques.

Life in an ecovillage revolves around minimising waste and making the most of the resources you have.

Rediscovering circular systems

This approach also sees that Suderbyn residents, the land, and the infrastructure work together to create zero waste and resilience seen in natural systems. Antoine describes it as “closing the circle,” with one such example being the reuse of the community excrement and urine to fertilise the gardens “the same way a plant’s waste, oxygen, is a resource to us, our waste is a resource to the plants” he says. 

The garden has produced several different foods this year, including carrots, beans, and peas, but next year may be completely different due to the process of crop rotation designed to keep the soil healthy. 

For many volunteers, getting your hands dirty is the perfect antidote to life in an ivory tower – a way of connecting with the natural world and the systems that support life. There is no set syllabus but rather a system of knowledge sharing and personal research. Of course, ultimately, it is up to each individual how much they work, but the real-life consequences of inaction would mean there simply wouldn’t be any food. 

“Humanity has spent thousands of years like this”

Inês Pinto

In a few months, Antoine will move to the Swedish mainland with his girlfriend, applying the skills he picked up in Suderbyn to work as a market gardener, growing and selling organic vegetables. He is currently training his protégé, Inês Pinto, an easy-going but dedicated Portuguese volunteer to take over. 

Is gardening really a skill that anyone can pick up? “It’s way easier than you think,” says Inês who views it is something innate in all of us “this might sound a little bit cuckoo, but we have to consider that humanity has spent thousands of years like this, I believe in the collective unconscious, the concept that this knowledge is still there”.

Europe’s first

In addition to sharing age-old practices, the community also nurtures new knowledge in terms of sustainable living. One example of this is Relearn, Suderbyn’s homegrown NGO and applied research hub located on-site in a geodesic dome. This outlandish construction is shaped like a turtle and designed to house a closed-loop system that produces energy and food all year round. Inside the dome sits a micro-biogas digester, the first of its kind in Europe, that runs only on kitchen waste which it then converts into biogas. It also produces a nutrient-rich organic fertiliser or ‘digestive’, that is used in an aeroponics system arranged in gigantic tubes made from old municipal pipes. This fertiliser is recycled a few times by the plants, which suck out the nutrients and eventually results in clear water that can be used to feed the digester. 

The biogas generated will soon be used to heat Suderbyn’s buildings and for cooking food, heralding a further step towards greater sustainability together with the site’s own solar panels and self-built wind turbines. The residents of Suderbyn are also happy to share their research through collaborations with the University of Gotland, local schools and other educational institutions. The biogas digester has even inspired similar sites in the UK. So what happens here has a knock-on effect elsewhere.

Enduring youth

The ecovillage is the brainchild of Robert Hall and Ingrid Gustafsson, who met at university in 1983 before pursuing successful careers in the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the UN, respectively. During years of globe-trotting, the then-couple developed a deep interest in alternative sustainable living, visiting ecovillages worldwide. In 2006, when a stint in Albania came to an end, Robert and Ingrid decided it was time to invest in their passion. “We realised it was time to stop just buying fancy books for the coffee table and do something,” explains Robert. The pair, who are now approaching 60, exude a youthfulness that would convince anyone of the virtues of sustainable living. With a thatch of hair a 20-year-old would be proud of, Robert is the oldest at the ecovillage, an omnipresent sage-like figure always on hand to help anyone who needs it. 

What sets Suderbyn apart from other ecovillages, where long-term residents are often allocated individual plots, is that the focus is on the community and the social integration of its multicultural residents. The steady influx of international volunteers also means a constant flow of new ideas on how to make life at Suderbyn more sustainable. 

A quieter, calmer life

Suderbyn’s residents are united by their interest in minimising their impact on the environment, but the reasons for originally moving to the ecovillage are often deeply personal. For example, Kamuran Kaftanoglu, from Istanbul, decided to move to Suderbyn in 2017 after growing tired of living a fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle.

“It’s an exercise in understanding how our choices affect our surroundings”

“I had to work a lot to earn money to be able to pay for my apartment in the centre of Istanbul,” he explains, “even though I didn’t reap the actual benefits because I spent the whole time trying to afford it”. In a twist of irony, Kamuran is now in charge of Suderbyn’s accounts, spending his days at a desk navigating Swedish bureaucracy. But for Kamuran, being closer to nature has been a liberating experience. “The big city was stuffed with information; advertisements, noise, lights,” he says. “Nature, in contrast, is much calmer.” He has also learned to connect with the cycles of nature; “The day, the night, the seasons, the weather. Big city life is very sheltered from these elements”.

While it may sound idyllic, living in closer sync with natural cycles requires discipline and a strong commitment. Planning and coordination are woven into the daily routine and the consequences of slacking could threaten the carefully cultivated balance of this mini-ecosystem. It’s an exercise in understanding our place in the world and how our choices can directly affect our surroundings. Drugs are completely prohibited, and alcoholic drinks are a rarity; after all, what you put in your body will only be put back into the earth.

After his experience, Kamuran will not go back to his old consumerist lifestyle again, but instead, aspires to a more meaningful existence. He plans to eventually live in the countryside or a smaller village with his wife Hedwig Brandsma, a Dutch volunteer who he met and married at Suderbyn. Such is his changed outlook since moving to Suderbyn, that he now refers to his ‘old self’ and his ‘new self’.

Life in an ecovillage isn’t for everyone, and even for enthusiasts like Antoine and Kamuran, it doesn’t have to be forever. But their experiences show what we could all gain from exploring our relationship with nature. It’s a journey that can start, literally, in our own backyard. Why not plant a seed and see what happens?

Antoine’s five tips for growing your own food:

  • Observe and interact with your garden
    Get to know your soil. Think about what you want from your garden? What do you want to grow? How much time, energy or resources do you have? Answering these questions will help you design a garden that works for you.
  • Plan and rotate
    Plan what to grow by season and decide what to sow and when. Be sure to rotate your chosen veg to retain soil nutrients.
  • No dig, cardboard method
    With this, you can transform a boring lawn into a beautiful garden bed. You can find out how to do this here.
  • Feed your soil
    Using natural mulches such as hay, leaves or compost, to keep soil bio-organisms alive and rich to support, feed your plants, save water, and weeds at bay.
  • Grow for pollinators too
    Get to know local wild plants, flowers and trees that provide food for wild pollinators that help support your garden and life around it.

More to explore

Interested in finding out about Suderbyn Ecovillage?

Read here

There are lots of different kinds of eco villages around the world. The Global Ecovillage Network has a great overview.

Discover more
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