The basket of community

I grew up in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, in the island known as Lewis in the north, with Harris to the south, the two divided not by sea but by a mountain range. When I look back now, some aspects of our life might seem hard. We got our drinking water off the roof as there was no piped supply when I was young. There were frequent power cuts, and little choice in the shops. That was all substituted for by the wonderful richness of community life. My father was one of the island’s doctors, and most of our neighbours worked the land, fished the sea, or were weavers of the famous fabric, Harris Tweed.

I realise, now, that each of us was held in the basket of the community. You weren’t just your family, you were the village. You were taught how to be the village, the older folks weaving the weft to the warp of each child’s emergent life. In an island, you have to be interdependent, especially in those days, but it’s still the case. You learn to look out for one another. We didn’t just go fishing, or bring the peat (used for fuel) in for ourselves. We did these things for and with one another. Loneliness was much less when you could wander in and out of one other’s homes, the doors mostly unlocked. It’s true, religious life was a heavy scene. But as I’ve gotten older, and as the heaviness has loosened in the community, I’ve come to appreciate the spirituality of it all.

Such is the kind of experience about which I can share a little and which shapes my books – especially Soil and Soul (on the campaign for land reform), Poacher’s Pilgrimage (about ecology, mythology and spirituality on a 12-day walk through the island) and Riders on the Storm (my latest book, with the subtitle, The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being). World as archipelago? Well, just as natural ecology recognises the value of ‘ecological islands’ to give non-human life a chance, so we can perhaps create islands, metaphorically if not literally, in our lives, to give the life of the soul a chance. I see no other way to change the world.


Alastair McIntosh

Alastair is one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners, distinguished in his ability to join together the outer and inner life. His book Spiritual Activism explores such paths of reconnection of the inner and outer worlds, which he argues is nothing less than learning how to sustain the flow of life. If we don’t do this, he states, “then our work will fall on stony ground, we’ll burn out or we’ll sell out.”

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