Lidiya, Liam and myself made our way to Svanholm after several very interesting days at the Floating City in Copenhagen, with the amazing Signe as our host.
Our arrival at Svanholm was semi unannounced. We got in touch with the right people several months in advance, but closer to the date we couldn’t get a reply to confirm an arrival date. I was a little nervous on arrival, but five minutes after Rene greeted us, we were all ecstatic. We arrived to volunteer, or rather live as guest workers, for about a month. The conditions, or better, the quality of life for all members of Svanholm is really incredible. We had access to the largest kitchen I’ve stepped foot in, decked out in nothing but organic, and largely local produce. The accommodation was in very comfortable and beautifully placed in the south wing of the historical estate.
Svanholm is a an international collective, based in Denmark, sharing common ideals concerning ecology, income sharing, communal living, and self government. The 32 year strong community runs their own commercial organic farm, sowing grains, potatoes and veg of all kinds; agricultural produce is sold to supermarkets and used for the communities own nutritional needs. Livestock are organically kept also; milk is sold and the meat is used by the collective. Surprisingly for me there are only two vegetarians in the approximately 150 person large village. I was something of a wonder because I eat like a vegan. Most members like their meat and the manure the cattle provide is essential to the organic farming process.
An income sharing economy is in place which originally saw the income of all members going directly into the collective economy. All necessities were in turn provided. Less than ten years ago a reform took place and now the economy works on a 80:20 ratio; where 80% of each member’s income goes to the economy and 20% is received to do whatever you like with. Most members work in a professional capacity outside of the community, but internal jobs are created as well; several people are employed by the Building, Kitchen and Agricultural Groups, as well as in the Organic boutique, the kindergarten, in the main office and without doubt some other places I’m not aware of.
For electricity, two windmills are owned and operating, with excess energy being sold to the national grid. Several cars are shared successfully, managed by a booking system. A very new wood chip burner heats everything, the radiators and water. The wood chips are provided by the community’s sustainably managed and outstanding forests. When we arrived in mid October, the weather was still warm and Liam, Lidiya and myself were running or walking almost daily through the tall and powerful trees decked out in the height of autumn.
Meals are cooked in the evenings by the kitchen staff and the food is fantastic. And meals are shared in a great dining area, joining the equally great kitchen. These times are very important I feel, it’s the time when the community is most visible. Everyone lining up to fill their plates, sitting together, talking, kids running around tables, or in the play room on the upper floor; it’s very much a large family. The dishes are taken in turn with all members of the community involved and on the weekends, kitchen staff get a rest and again community members take up their share. I stayed for two months in total and after the first, guest workers are asked to take up these responsibilities also, which is more of a treat than a chore. I always felt grateful for having food cooked every night, dishes washed… So when the one or two nights a month of your service arrive, it’s a nice feeling to put in your bit.
The main answer I received when I asked why people moved here was to bring up kids; it really is a paradise for them. A kindergarten operates within the village which is public and the surroundings are dotted with the most interesting and beautiful playground pieces; another community company creates what you could call very interesting, alternative and natural playgrounds.
My fondest memories from my time here include, cycling north to a local castle with one of our fellow guest workers and friend, Nis. I distinctly remember feeling the winds force increase as we descended our first gentle hill; the sound of speed and ease of movement increased and I seemed to involuntarily fill my lungs as full as can be. I exhaled slowly, felt a warm and relaxing current flow around my body and saw flicks of Liam’s, my brother’s, hair curling out and back giving way to the wind; Lidiya cycling in front of him; Nis in front of her. With the sense of relaxation came a thought; Here we are and this is what we’re doing and I’m quite sure this is how we’re feeling.
Tom impressed me much, a very young spirited man, who continues to lead an incredible life. He is part retired, but still drives a bus, and changes the world everyday. He visited us for an evening to show us photos of the most incredible houses he built in Sweden and we spent another in his little cabin in the woods, fire stoked and stories flowing.
Jorn, showed me how to work with leather, supplying his tools and skill. Toke and I had some great conversations which have given me so much rich material to grow with, some of it incredibly timely as to consider if it was coincidence or not… If you ask…
I remember our dance evening. Carina, another part-time guest worker, anthropological student and very gentle person, her boyfriend Christian, a fantastic and attentive teacher and person, the super aforementioned Nis, along with Lidiya and myself shared our little combined dance knowledge and waltzed, tangoed and Irish danced an evening away; after the evening went we invited the night and it accepted. 🙂
Tats, a Japanese guest worker with a passion for welfare and dream of building an ecological cafe with the aim of supporting people with special needs, worked enjoyably with Lidiya in exchanging words and sentences from Japanese and Bulgarian, a beautiful cultural mix.
I wrote on my Bulgarian blog last year about self-questioning the fact that I seemed to not miss people so much. I happily concluded that I simply long for the next time we’ll be together and don’t like pulling on the past, but honestly I missed my brother when he left. We are running a marathon in April, the Connemarathon, and our training very enjoyably started here. We travelled together for five weeks and did some incredible things. He now publishes his work at liamohanlon.wordpress.com. ( I haven’t asked, but I don’t think he’ll mind me putting up one of his pieces 🙂 )
I could spend several full and energetic lifetimes with Lidiya and she would teach me something new every day and keep my spirit warm. The memories are uncountable and to explain any further right now would take from the whole brilliance. 🙂
A wealth of things, but I will give my greatest impression from the collective; the decision-making process; simple, beautiful, encouraging creativity, solidarity, cooperation, construction, the building of paths to reach a shared vision where all are happy.
In short, monthly meetings are held, decisions made everything involving the collective are based on complete consensus. Everyone must agree for things to move forward. In similar democratic systems, this means painfully slow change, where one blocks the road, rejects a decision, and holds up everyone else. Here is you say ‘no’, it is necessary that you work towards a solution that sees everyone agreed. That might mean the decision is deferred from the meeting and a smaller group is formed between those putting forward the idea and those objecting; together you must find a shared solution.
This is simple, but there is hidden magic here. Firstly a divide isn’t created. If you have a majority consensus, you automatically create a two way split after a decision, pushing people apart; some get their way and others have to live with it because they are the minority (I’m aware some definitions of majority consensus democracy include that decisions be made with respect to minorities). So a complete consensus is a beautiful idea on paper. But in some cases, as I’ve been told is the case in the anarchist community, Christiania, in the centre of Copenhagen, one person can simply object and that’s that, the proposal is dead. It’s key that ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’, it means ‘no, but I am willing to work on something that will work’.
There are oceans and planets of distance between knowing what you don’t want, and saying no, ‘I don’t like, take it away’, and knowing what you want, or at least making an effort to uncover what you want through positively intended and creative efforts and collaboration. I asked whether those who have lived and experienced the model think it could be applied to governments and the answer was an outright no. There are limits within which this self-government effectively operates, and here is within those limits. I don’t think there it is by chance that the population of Svanholm hovers just under Malcom Gladwell‘s magic community number of 150.
I had a very strong feeling that it was important for me to come here, that what I would learn would be incredibly enjoyable and support me for the rest of my life. And I’m happy to say I was very right. I recommend to anyone to come and experience Svanholm.