The Utopia Experiment (April 2007-September 2008, pics) was conceived by Dylan Evans as a scripted experiment in post-crash primitivism in which volunteers lived in a small community in the Scottish Highlands as if society as we know it had collapsed. From the comment section following an article by Evans and twitter-buzz it appears that the results of the project were, euhm, confusing (?), with Evans himself pulling the plug because he thought his volunteers too weird and social group dynamics moving into unwanted trajectories. James Durston observed it for a month and wrote a report for The Independent. Go read it, fascinating stuff. After noting that his desk skills (typing, googling, etc) are inadequate for yurtian self-sufficiency Durston learned that one learns very quickly, and that soon after one can pass on these new skills to newcomers. This is not that strange because, after all, gardening, foraging, simple construction work, do not demand special skill or intelligence; they are part of our core capabilities as humans.
I spend most of my time in the garden, mainly because I consider it the most urgent aspect of setting up a self-sufficient community. Others, though, have different priorities. Tommy is here to see how the artistic and cultural sides of the community develop, and gets straight down to painting a welcome sign. Graham, a 19-year-old architecture student, is keener to build things, and starts hammering together the compost bins. Carla is more experienced in communal living than any of us and moves between spinning wool, making cordial and salting the pork joints from one of our butchered pigs.
In fact there is evidence that, all through the project, new arrivals have been able and willing to slot into whatever gaps need filling, as well as discovering their own. Take Dougie, a 49-year-old from Aberdeen with wanderlust. Tommy and I quarrelled fiercely with him on two occasions after we thought he behaved rudely to visitors to Utopia. In those moments, I questioned whether someone so antagonistic was appropriate for the project. But during his week on site, Dougie collected armfuls of chanterelle mushrooms from nearby woods, picked winkles and mussels from the shoreline and introduced rabbit roadkill to the Utopian menu. Without him, Tommy and I, the only other volunteers, would have continued ignoring our surroundings as a potential source of food.
That kind of personal knowledge, I soon notice, passes quickly to other members of the community. Within a day I discover that dandelion roots and stinging nettles make nutritious side dishes when cooked correctly. A week passes and I am baking my own bread and making dinner for nine people. Two weeks in and I have built a bunkbed, made a chess set and put up a sturdy support for a clutch of runner beans. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that the major challenge at Utopia is not the learning, which is contagious: the more one does the more one feels liberated enough to continue doing.