We’ve had two weeks at Steward Community Woodland an intentional community in Devon. It’s been an amazing experience for all sorts of reasons and the most perfect start imaginable to our adventure and voyage of discovery.
We arrived and were slightly traumatised by the hill the community live on. It is very, very steep and thanks to a spring at the top which supplies water and also generates hydro power it is very muddy in places too. We were greeted by dogs -four live there full time, my personal phobia – and a collection of dreadlocked people using hippy talk like cool, awesome, man. Everyone lives in benders or other low impact housing, clad with army surplus tarps and solar panels, a communal ‘longhouse’ is where WWOOFers are hosted, everyone is fed and gathers for chatting, meetings and regular social events such as music evenings or storytelling sessions. There is a compost loo, sawdust urinals and strawbale urinal for men and women, a bathhouse with a wood burner to heat the bathwater and we were shown to a flat area chiselled into the hillside with stunning views to pitch our tent. Sleeping in a tent for two weeks in March was a challenge, at least twice the overnight temperature dipped below zero and there were two very heavy frosts. Food is vegan or vegetarian, organic, wholefood, there is no alcohol, WWOOFers work mostly on splitting or chopping wood, carrying heavy stuff up or down the hill, assisting with gardening tasks, helping with food preparation or whatever else needs doing at the time. It is very seasonal with a heavy focus on wood.
Our work varied from chopping and splitting firewood, taking bark off felled trees (which is then used to surround the base of saplings to suppress weed growth), carrying mulch (made from chipped wood, bark, pine needles etc rotted down) up or down the hill to put around the saplings, we helped in the kitchen, lit the bathhouse burner most evenings, did some clearing of areas – much of the woodland is left alone as it is wildlife habitat but areas are cleared and coppiced and two different areas of forest garden are being planted out. We did lots of brash clearing, moving piles of ivy, branches and wood from one pile to another and put up a brash fence around an area of young hazel trees to protect them from deer and spent time clearing another area ready to put up a goat pen. The work is physically demanding, there is no denying that but it does all make sense – there is a logic and rhythm to spending your day chopping wood to provide heat, warmth, cooking, hot water, planting trees for the future, using everything to create such a minimal level of waste.
There was plenty that would push us to look for a different permanent home; the hill being the main decider, but Steward Wood is changing; it has only very recently moved from being a vegan communal area to a vegetarian one; they keep chickens and at a meeting while we were there it was passed for them to start keeping goats for their diary needs. Almost all of the community actually eat meat in their own dwellings. They started with no machinery at all but now use chainsaws and one of the community has a landrover which is used for winching felled trees, moving large and heavy things. There are challenges and down sides to living in a community; occassional tensions when ideas and ideals clash but they seem to have communication and discussion down to a fine art and things are aired and talked over rather than left to fester so while there are frustrations when consenus can’t be reached on issues and people have to compromise it does have the feel of a loving, large family.
We learnt a huge amount there – practical stuff like how they make use of and harness solar and hydro energy, how much wood is needed to keep everything operational, a small insight into how their buildings are constructed, how the toilet systems work, how they filter drinking water only, how long term plans have to be and how most of them realise that the work and energy they invest today will possibly not even come to fruition in their time for them to enjoy, but that’s not why they are doing it. We learnt from the individuals there; some of them shared their stories with us, showed us their homes, taught us things they know from bird language and wildlife, to wilderness skills, their personal spiritual beliefs and customs, we learnt about sharing, about community, about openness and entitlement.
The people are what makes Steward Wood such an amazing place. It has stunning scenery, rich and varied wildlife with ravens, buzzards, bagders, deer, owls, foxes and much more. It has gorgeous views (the upside to the hill!) and it’s a woodland which is a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend time, watching, listening, being. But it is the mix of fantastic individuals who live there who make it such a special and inspiring place to be. The community began with a group of ex protesters, who had spent time living on protest sites fighting road widenings, by-passes, holiday villages, Tesco stores, housing developments from claiming chunks of nature. They had some victories too but many more losses and all of the negative attention that comes with living outside of society and fighting against change. One of the community told me she was just tired of always spending energy on negative things and wanted to be investing herself in something positive. I think that sums up Steward Wood for me really, it’s Something Positive. It demonstrates that you don’t need running water, flushing toilets, gas and electric, you don’t need supermarkets, chemicals and televisions, you don’t need a washing machine, fridge or built in oven and if you want to change the world the very best place to start is by changing your world. I guess we already knew that but Steward Wood was a fantastic place to spend time to prove it and give a living example to us.
But there is much more we want to learn, see and experience. This was merely the beginning of our adventure. So we’ve added all the best bits to our wish list, forged some close bonds with some of the amazing people there and have promised to stay in touch, visit again and spread the word about them and now we’re off to the next host.
Some words from everyone now on their bad, good and what they learnt at Steward Wood:
Bad: The food, I tried all the food but I didn’t like most of it.
Good: It was really, really good fun. I enjoyed the work, learnt about solar power, made new friends
Learnt: How much can be run off solar panels.
Bad: Missed cheese and butter and meat
Good: Made loads of new friends and I liked the food I tried
Learnt: About ravens
Bad: putting cold and damp clothes on each morning after a night in the tent
Good: All the new people I met; members of the community, visiting friends and other WWOOFers
Learnt: building fences, lighting fires, bird language, about keeping goats, some basic Chinese Mandarin from a fellow WWOOFer, startling example of the power of people working together as a team.
Bad: The hill. I struggled with all sorts of aspects there – the food, sleeping in a tent, the hard work, the mud – everything else is surmountable and possibly changable but the hill will always be there and it was the single toughest aspect of the time there for me – my knees protested, my feet ached from slipping up and down and I wheezed and gasped my way up hill whenever I had to go up. every single task is made 10 times harder because of the steepness of that hill.
Good: Amazing people, stunningly beautiful location and everything just makes sense. The theme of permaculture runs through everything but every task is logical and has a purpose and end result.
Learnt: Hard to pin down to one sentence really; I learnt I have so much more to learn and I really want to learn it.
We’ve had a night in a campsite – the only people here, topped up our meat rations with a mighty cooked breakfast eaten sitting outside in the sunshine, we’ve dealt with all the dirty washing the weather conspired against us to not get dry outside and now we’re off to the next host, ready to meet more new people and learn more new skills.