Today’s post from Daniel explores in detail what Steward Wood is and what we do. It’s a long post, but we think the story deserves telling well…
Steward Community Woodland or Steward Wood is a low impact settlement comprised of a group of people living and working together in a 32 acre former conifer plantation on the edge of Dartmoor. We are committed to fostering environmental awareness, providing innovative sustainable solutions and examples of sustainable land use.
Since 2000, we have been exploring and experimenting with: permaculture techniques for land use and food growing, community organisation and dynamics, renewable energy and appropriate technology, small-scale woodland management, experiential and home education, and building and maintaining our own low impact dwellings using timber from the woodland and reused materials.
Our community is based on the ethics of friendship, co-operation, earth care, people care, and resources for need not greed. We value open, honest communication, wisdom and group cohesion and enjoy sharing our skills and knowledge and value learning from others.
Planning, People, Animals and the Web of Life
Since becoming resident on the land on ‘Earth Day’ in April 2000, we have been granted two five year periods of temporary planning permission, first in 2002 and then again in 2009. These were both hard won on appeal after public inquiries. We are currently in the process of seeking permanent permission with a Public Inquiry coming up in April, which is the reason we’re running the current fundraising campaign
From 10 adults initially, we are currently 14 adults, 5 children, 4 teenagers, along with dogs, chickens, sheep and goats. Meanwhile, wildlife is all around us. We share this wood with the wood ants, the plants, the ravens, owls and tits, the spiders, bats, mice, fungi, lichens, ad infinitum. We are a humble part of, and an important and integral part of the Web of Life.
Having lived under wood and canvas for 16 years, we are a prime example of ‘low impact’ living. We prefer the term ‘positive impact’, for rather than having a low adverse environmental impact, we are finding our way back to our place in the forest – the place we left as hunter gatherers, then semi-nomadic pastoralists hundreds or thousands of years ago. In other words, humans have lived in community on the land for the vast majority of their time on this planet as an integral part of a healthy functioning ecosystem, with a positive impact on biodiversity.
Here at Steward Wood, we are working to combine these ancient ways of living with modern technologies (solar panels, computers, the web, etc), and innovative ways of thinking and organising (permaculture, sociocracy, rewilding, etc). This is all within the context of the huge environmental challenges we as humans face on this beautiful Earth today. In contrast to how as a species we have abused and degraded this paradise and still increasingly do so, our role on this planet should be as guardians and stewards for all of life.
Coming out of the 90’s activist scene, we were young, energised, enthusiastic, inspired by permaculture and wanting to not just rail against what we felt was wrong with the world but to create a positive alternative. We wanted to be living on the land, researching and experimenting with sustainable ways of living, with the aim of inspiring others. Those were heady days and over the years we have matured, responded and adapted. After six years of only using crosscut saws and axes to fell and process trees for firewood and building materials (an achievement of which we are very proud), we made the practical and realistic decision to start using petrol chainsaws, freeing up our time and energy enormously for other things. We still, however, fell and coppice most trees using hand tools – combining the old ways with the new and finding the right balance. We were also, for the first six years, a vegan community but we eventually adapted to our changing needs and perspectives on life. It’s now left to the individual to choose what they wish to eat, and we make sure that at communal meals everyone’s diet is catered for.
Despite using fossil fuels, we are working to reduce our dependency on them through exploring alternatives. To this end we generate electricity from a micro-hydro scheme (making use of the streams running down the hill) and from solar panels.
The Art of Community
Rediscovering the art of community, of cooperation and sharing, is the foundation of how we go forward as humanity. It is only by living together in harmony that we can find and implement solutions to the environmental challenges of our times. This is a journey from a competitive, individualistic, materialistic, and youth-centered dominant culture to a rediscovery and embodiment of the ideals of love, cooperation, sharing and mutual respect. It’s finding the right balance between total communal living and the nuclear family. To this end, each family and household at Steward Wood has its separate dwelling and family life while we share communal facilities and come together often to discuss, to work, to eat together, and to play. We share skills while valuing our unique talents and gifts – we are both empowered individuals and dependent on each other – in short, the community is greater than the sum of its parts.
Another important aspect of intentional community is having a communality of purpose and ethics and a commitment to working with others towards that purpose (which can adapt and change over time as we’ve seen), while accepting and celebrating diversity. Again, we feel we have found the right balance for us and it’s for this reason, along with the love we feel for each other, that we are thriving.
Organisation & Governance
The land is owned by a Workers Co-operative of which all residents are members. We are a non-hierarchical group and, having used consensus decision-making for many years, in recent times we have moved over to the Sociocracy model of organisation and decision-making which is working well for us. Sociocracy is a consent-based approach aiming at inclusive decision making, efficient governance and the ongoing evaluation of our project. Objections and ‘arguments’ (reasonable, logical reasons given to support or object to a proposal) are welcomed as gifts that test the integrity of ideas and enrich the creative process. The principle of consent allows for ‘good enough’ measures to keep the creative process moving, along with the peace of mind that comes when everyone has the power to influence change when it becomes necessary and beneficial to do so.
When there is capacity for new members and a possible suitable person, then they will undergo a trial period of at least 3 months with frequent feedback sessions to monitor how they are progressing. We have been a stable group for many years now, with very little coming and going of members.
From time to time, those who wish to do so form a Listening Circle to share their feelings, listen to others, and work through any challenges or difficulties that have arisen in the group.
Although we generate financial income from our activities on and off site, the most important factor in our sustainable livelihoods is the subsistence element. In other words, Rather than maximising income and profits from our business activities, we provide most of our material needs from the land and by ourselves, thus reducing the need to earn large sums of money. Subsistence is a significant and bonding element of our community and ethos – and it allays very significant costs (financial and environmental) that would otherwise be incurred if we lived elsewhere.
The subsistence goods and services we provide for ourselves include: Water; Fuel wood; Wood as building material; Food; Electricity generated through renewable sources; Sanitation and composting (organic waste recycling); Shelter; Homemade furniture, clothing, toys, etc; Social goods such as shared childcare, shared transport; Holistic health care including herbal medicine; Maintenance of the low impact structures and infrastructure by ourselves or volunteers (rather than employing plumber, electrician, boiler man, builder, etc); Entertainment & Music.
The majority of our time is spent working on site to meet these needs. Day-to-day tasks include: child care and education, firewood processing, woodland management, human and organic waste disposal, structure maintenance, wildlife monitoring, garden maintenance, food production, community dynamics, peer counseling, recycling schemes, laundry, and herbal medicine making. These activities are an integral part of our day-to-day life and are a vital part of what we have to offer in demonstrating a sustainable way of life.
Commercial Activities On-Site & Part-Time Work Off-Site
We generate our financial income from commercial on-site activities by running courses, and making and selling timber, value added timber products, tools, and herbal preparations. Our courses include Healing Hedgerow, Bushcraft, Bird Language Interpretation and Nature Awareness, Green Woodworking, Wild Foods, Permaculture Design, and Off-grid Renewable Energy.
In addition to the commercial activities carried out on site, we also earn money from activities off site. Often these are the same activities carried out at other locations.
Woodland Management, Food & Medicine
We are managing the land using the principles of permaculture, forest gardening, and continuous cover forestry. Our management of the woodland is for fuel, timber, and the creation and protection of wildlife habitat. Our success in this area was recently affirmed by an officer of the Devon Wildlife Trust who stated: “Overall we consider that your management is having a very positive impact on your local biodiversity.”
Providing food and medicine for ourselves and volunteers is a vital and intrinsic part of demonstrating low impact living. We do so by: growing and cultivating; gathering and preserving wild foods, herbs and medicines; animal husbandry (chickens, goats, sheep); swapping excess produce and seeds with other local growers; hunting squirrels, rabbits and deer, thus controlling local pests and providing ourselves meat with no food miles.
Community Outreach and Voluntary Work, Volunteers and Visitors
Residents have a significant positive effect on the local community through the many activities and groups we are involved within Moretonhampstead and environs, such as the Moretonhampstead Development Trust, the primary school, community projects and events.
We are also a WWOOF host (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and accommodate volunteers through the year from all over the world. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship – we get lots of jobs done with the fresh energy of volunteers, and they learn new skills and experience community life and the beautiful woodland. We also have many visitors throughout the year on our Open Days, on educational trips and at other events.
Education of Children
Three of the children go to local schools, while five children/teenagers choose to be home educated, with one teenager going to college. The education that they receive by living here and being a part of the community is a vital part of their lives. Given the prospects of climate change and other environmental challenges, we believe that living here with the children fully integrated, is the best way to teach them important skills in sustainable living, being in harmony with nature, care-taking the land and its creatures.
We encourage the children to have active involvement in every aspect of communal living as part of their education. This includes generating their own power, keeping themselves clean and warm, growing and cooking food, sustainably harvesting wild food and medicine, providing shelter, woodland management, dealing with waste, and relearning lost skills of communication and resolving conflict in a peaceful way.
The children are also able to pass on their skills and knowledge to other children and adults through play etc as well as being a part of running workshops and courses, giving tours, talks and demonstrations. Visitors are frequently amazed when the children demonstrate their skills in firewood chopping, fire making, cooking, music, and by their contribution to social interaction. The children frequently bring their friends back to the woods to play and for sleepovers, increasing the connections with the wider community and giving those other children the opportunity to experience low impact living and community life.
We are currently seeking permanent planning permission. As part of this, we are shifting the Settlement Area within the woodland a little downhill so most of our homes are below the waterline and to reduce the trekking uphill needed to get to them. We are also moving away from canvas-based structures to using shingles, turf roof, and timber cladding, while improving insulation (e.g. by using straw) and making more use of thermal mass (in particular, cob) to maintain heat. Furthermore, we are applying for a turf-roofed Roundhouse Interpretation Centre, a Polytunnel and a disabled-accessible Compost Toilet.
We look forward to a future of continuing and deepening our connection with the land and its wildlife, with each other and the wider community.
Remember, you can watch our new film and read all about our project and the current situation over here at the crowdfunder page.
Thank you for your continuing interest and support – we cannot do it without you!