Last summer I was inspired by the film ‘Paths Through Utopias’ – documenting a road trip around Europe visiting communities who are already living post-Transition futures, to varying degrees – to make my own journey to see some real-life examples of the world we’re trying to create. Having spent the last decade or so with pictures in my head of how I’d like the world to be, and trying to work towards building a new world in the shell of the old with very few tangible reference points, I needed real life visions, sustenance and some confirmation I was on the right path. I was also about to initiate Transition Dartmouth Park and felt like I needed some inspiration.
So my son and I made a wonderful journey by train and boat to Transition Ibiza Island, and on the way home we stayed at Can Masdeu on the outskirts of Barcelona – an abandoned leper hospital, squatted ten years ago and transformed into a post-capitalist community, social centre and epic food growing project.
I’d met Chris and Tara from Transition Ibiza the previous year at a Transition training weekend in London and was transfixed by their tales of beach party recycling days and the permaculture community they lived in. Pre-dating Transition Ibiza is the Greenheart movement they are a part of and Chris also ran Ibiza Friends of the Earth and was a Green MP on the island. He started La Casita Verde fifteen years ago, renting a tiny house with no roof and trees growing through it, on the side of an arrid valley. Since then, with the help of volunteers, mostly permaculture students and artists, regular visitors, and permanent residents Tara and Mike, the house and site have been transformed into a stunning example of permaculture in practise.
Their ethos is that on an island of the beautiful, competing with bars, clubs and beach parties, permaculture has to not only be practical and good for the planet, but look great and be fun too. Hence the beach cleaning parties, the state of the art compost toilets, made from cob and decorated with mosaics made from recycled tiles, by visiting artists.
And the fantastic demonstration buildings they have built to join the original house – a bottle house (my favourite); the Gaia centre where we stayed which is made from part of an old stable; and another in the branches of a carob tree. And their Sunday cafe, site tour and music fest which attracts around 50 visitors a week.
When I visited, Transition Ibiza had been going for a couple of years. On one hand it’s amazing: a model of permaculture which hosts new visitors every week at their cafe and through school visits. They are also a member of the farmers cooperative and are trying to buy a carob processing machine so the island’s main harvest can be used on Ibiza and made into local products like carob coffee and syrup and sold in their shop in Ibiza Town. On the other they face some common problems of TIs – like loads of people coming to the first meeting about something and no one coming to the next. And in terms of involvement of individuals and businesses on the island they still face a huge task.
Volunteers usually work on a permaculture project of their choosing but as I didn’t have any particular skill in this area I was asked to write an info booklet about Transition aimed at Sunday visitors. I also harvested carobs from the many trees, early in the mornings before the sun was too high. When it got hotter I wrote in the bottle house or shelled almonds while drinking tea with Tara and Lily. Late afternoons we would head out in the vegetable oil powered mini bus for the beach. Luca generally found someone who was working on something he found interesting and variously learned to distill used cooking oil, make fertiliser from seaweed, almond shells and carob skins and make wooden moulds for cob bricks.
I was hugely impressed with how harmonious it was and how people managed to work together so well and share workload. And as a volunteer how much trust was placed in me to decide what to work on and how to contribute. In my experience this is very difficult to achieve and some previous groups I have been part of were characterised by unadressed imbalances in workload, responsibility and lack of trust, creating resentment.
It was a wonderful and transforming experience to be part of it. I have spent a lot of my life in activist groups, running social centres and most recently transitioning, with some idea of the kind of society I wanted to be part of. Being at Casita gave me the opportunity to experience the kind of community I wanted to live in and have my son grow up in for real, and see what I am working towards, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Seeing how Luca responded to living in a community was amazing, particularly that he immediately understood everyone as family, and although I was still his mum he was able to seek out whomever he wanted to learn from. It felt far more enriching than a nuclear family situation where he would be restricted to only closely interacting with and learning from two adults.
We broke our journey home to spend a few days at Can Masdeu perched on the hills above Barcelona; one of the communities featured in ‘Paths Through Utopias’ and home to my friend Martin. Residents form a non-hierarchical collective, and take turns to clean, make food and maintain the building, and most are part of neighbourhood assemblies which have formed in response to the banking crisis. They were also part of the occupation of the main square in Barcelona last year. Several children were born into the community and attend an anarchist school in the valley.
Since it was squatted around 10 years ago the semi-derelict building, and most dramatically the land below it have been transformed. The huge terraced gardens had fallen out of use and Can Masdeu invited the local community of working class commuters, to come and grow food. Most had no experience of this but over the last decade around 80 local people have taken up the offer and have their own allotment plots next to the squatters communal growing space. We were lucky enough to be there for the very well attended weekly gardening session where old and young tend their plots side by side and share advice.
We stayed in Martin’s newly built passive solar house, next to the main building. Round and made from cob, it will eventually be covered with green walls and a roof, blending into the hillside. Arriving in the evening we awoke the next morning to stunning views, and the disconcerting sight of Martin shooting a wood pidgeon through the window which he fried and ate for breakfast! I partly think he did this to horrify me (I’m a vegan) but Can Masdeu residents, although they eat mostly vegetarian food, have decided that wild food they kill themselves is fine, particularly if it’s attacking the lettuces you planted the previous day!
A part of me thought hard about whether I would like to remain in either place or live somewhere similar. Tara observed – you can’t do a day job and then Transition as a hobby, it’s a change of life. She’s right but I still came away feeling that my home is London and I want to bring what I found to my own community, and enable children here to experience what Luca did. But the inspiration and strength I took from my journey definitely helped me to initiate Transition Dartmouth Park.
Pictures: 1. Luca and I man the Transition Ibiza stall during the Sunday cafe; 2. the bottle house at La Casita Verde; 3. state of the art compost toilet at La Casita Verde; 4. Sunday cafe at La Casita Verde; 5. Luca outside the Gaia house at La Casita Verde; 6. gardening day at Can Masdeu; 7. Luca on the balcony of the cob house at Can Masdeu.