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Page V of my lastest adventures: The Findhorn Community on the Isle of Erraid.
| A Natural Lifestyle
The community of Findhorn has extensive gardens that sweep down toward the rocky shore and are contained by a wind-defying wall that’s periodically punctuated by metal gates and solid storage sheds. The wall and the extensive outbuildings are built of the same indigenous pink-flecked gray granite. There’s a candle-making studio, a workshop, a multipurpose barn and a boathouse that also acts as an occasional ceilidh and performance space. A ceilidh is an Irish or Scottish social gathering with traditional music, dancing, and storytelling.
Guests may participate in the community if they so choose. I came to Findhorn to help restore their Celtic Herb Garden, so I was given a supervisory title for the duration of my stay. Every morning, guests would decide what project they’d be on for the day, and luckily for me, I was able to consistently recruit the same four or five willing volunteers. Other projects included splitting logs forthe community‘s many wood burning stoves (which also provide the hot water for showering and kitchen chores), gathering seaweed in the cove, working in the organic vegetable garden, candle making and organic food preparation.
The community grows seventy percent of what they eat, cultivating the land on this mile-long island in a purposeful and sustainable fashion, nurturing not only the soil, but also the community itself. During my weeklong stay at Findhorn I ate a vegan diet of the most incredible foods. In late February they were still harvesting leeks, brussel sprouts and baby carrots. The energy contained within these vegetables was simply awe inspiring and the taste exquisite. This was not a community of gourmet cooks but, rather, of people sharing in simply prepared foods and honoring honest methods of food preparation and display.
I can’t recall ever having eaten so well or feeling so healthy because of those foods. Everyone took a turn helping the cooks, whether they were baking, producing the simple soup and salad lunches, or preparing nutritional and delicious suppers. The extensive range of vegetables, fruits and berries produced as a result of the island’s compost and kelp-enriched soil provided a wide variety of menu choices. After a hard day of working outside, I found it most enjoyable to tuck into a heaped plate of steaming, colorfully assorted and arranged vegetables that were happily growing in their well-tended plots barely an hour before.
| An Island Paradise
Despite the presence of a flock of hardy sheep on the island that graze hungrily throughout the year, the island is delightfully rich in wildflowers, particularly in the warm late Spring. Flag iris, bog myrtle, harebells, bluebells, grass of Parnassus, wood anemones, primroses, and even two rare types of insectivorous plants, sundew and butterwort, collectively adorn the heather-topped and grassy hummocks.
Interestingly, the forgotten herbal purposes of bog myrtle, sometimes known as sweet gale, have promoted much research. The oldest and most traditional use in Scotland of this worthwhile plant, bog myrtle, is as a midge repellent. Even nowadays, shepherds and walkers in Scotland, myself included, put a sprig of uncrushed bog myrtle behind their ear or in their hat. This has been found to keeps the midges (gnats) away, as well as the clegs (horseflies). Sweet gale was well known to the Vikings, who used to drink a brew before going into battle with their customary berserk frenzy. Though they believed it was the brew that gave them extra strength and the battle madness, I think it is rather more likely that it was certain other substances they took that caused this happy and reckless mental state.
Although its culinary uses are not widespread, the small leaves of the bog myrtle were often used in olden times in Scottish cooking, and you can still find high class restaurants that prepare fish and chicken dishes when the plant is young and in season. There are breweries that use it to make sweet heather ale, and some home or small brewers do the same according to their own family recipe handed down over the ages. Bog myrtle adds a very pleasant and very different taste to regular ales, even real ales. Fortunately, I discovered that it’s available in a surprising number of pubs in Scotland and does warm the body against the fierce cold winds and sharp rain here in the inner Hybrides. As the saying goes, a little does indeed go a long way.
Grass of Parnassus is not really a grass at all, but rather, it’s an herbaceous dicot. A dicot is any member of the flowering plants, or angiosperms, that has a pair of leaves, or cotyledons, in the embryo of the seed. There are about 175,000 known species of dicots. Most common garden plants, shrubs and trees, and broad-leafed flowering plants, such as magnolias, roses, geraniums, and hollyhocks are dicots.
The stalk of the grass of Parnassus can reach up to eight inches, the leaves up to four inches, and the petals up to an inch and a half wide. The flower has five white petals, each with light green vein-like lines on them that seem to be landing lights for the flies and bees they attract. In Erraid this flower blooms in late summer, around July and into late fall, and is the symbol of the clan MacLea. This clan is also known as the highland Livingstone clan, and it is said that the Parnassus flowers were the favorite blooms of St Moluag, the Irish missionary whose staff is held by the clan chiefs. The flowers look like the blooms of the wild, white anemones here in the United States. The petals of the Parnassus flower are thicker and more upright, and it is truly a plant for bog, arctic and alpine habitats.
All these plants provide brilliant splashes of seasonal color among the tufted grasses and dun-brown heathers that carpet the island. In sheltered hollows and often in the lee of imposing granite buttresses and canyons hardy clumps of stubby oak, hazel, birch, rowan and aspen trees grow, along with the always pervasive gorse.
The wildlife, undisturbed by vehicles or the other destructive side effects of human habitation, is allowed to flourish unhindered. Hares and the occasional red deer wander over its undulating braes, while its sheltered coves and stream-fed inlets offer safe habitats to shy otters that can be occasionally seen frolicking at the water’s edge. More permanently, a family of about forty Atlantic seals basks contentedly in their private cove on the west side of the island. These graceful creatures balance with gravity-defying ease on their rocky perches. Rarely are they disturbed except by the occasional throb of a yacht’s outboard engine or an over-inquisitive sea-kayaker causing them to flounce, begrudgingly, from their relaxed poses into the security of the turquoise waters below. Once when I happened to amble by the seals’ ridgeline perches with Goosy the goose, they merely grumbled and didn’t even deign to move.
When I think of Erraid, my work there, the people I met from around the globe, and the delicious food I ate, I’m reminded of Elvis Presley’s song, Thanks to the Rolling Sea. The song says: " Everything here that your heart desires, Thanks to the rolling sea. Living is good and living is fine. We're happy as can be. We owe all this to the salty brine, Thanks to the rolling sea. We work all day but our hearts are gay, And while we work we sing."
I would like to thank Paul Johnson and David Munro of the Findhorn Community for their contributory information about the Findhorn Community on the Isle of Erraid.
Continued on Next Page
|The Findhorn Community, which makes Erraid its home, usually averages seven or eight hardy souls. The attraction is the lifestyle the community offers: working simply and closely with the land, the menagerie of working animals, including cows, hens, sheep, and an aging Canadian Gray goose, known somewhat imaginatively as Goosy, who followed me all around the island on my foraging or sightseeing trips. The community also has three dinghies, two aging tractors and a long wagon for collecting seaweed for the gardens.
The granite cottage with the yellow door was Gwenythe’s residence while visiting Erraid. These are more like small homes than cottages. A large living room with the wood stove that is used for hot water and heat is cozy, large and lined with shelves of rare and interesting books. Two good sized bedrooms, galley kitchen and granite shower stall, floors and walls in the loo. The compost outhouse is a short walk up the hill behind the cottages. These walks became long walks, as I was tempted to stay outside at night and enjoy the starry wonder of the dark skies of rural Scotland. Free from urban light pollution, they offer stunning views of the stars and planets.
|A lonesome Gander named Goosey|
|The Isle of Erraid is only one mile square. Everywhere there are picturesque views across the ocean. In the distance here is Belfour Cove, where seaweed is collected by the wagonload for use in the gardens at Findhorn. When the tide is out, the inlets are peppered with pirate caves. Of course, I had to explore them! Wildlife here includes sea eagles, golden eagles, puffins, corncrakes (a common Eurasian bird, crex crex, with a short bill and brownish-yellow plumage, found in grain fields and meadows), otters, red deer, dolphins, porpoises, whales and seals. All the isles have an abundance of wildlife residents throughout the year, as well as migratory birds, and Erraid is no exception. Erraid’s shrubbery consists mainly of gorse and heather. The turf on some of the hillocks is food for the birds and the sheep that roam freely.|
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