COMMENTARY: While the Mainland Sleeps

Learning "green" the hard way
© Photos by Michelle McAlister

The Isle of Eigg in Scotland, where the author decides a work camp will help her experience the land of her ancestors.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself selfless, or "eco-friendly" for that matter. Apart from recycling my old salsa jars and scrunched Diet Coke cans, I really can’t be bothered with the latest "eco-mandates" or what "trading on carbon offsets" is supposed to mean. It all sounds like white noise to me. I tune it out—definitely somebody else’s problem.

But after spotting an ad for international volunteers to help with the construction of the burgeoning Earth Connections Sustainability Center on the remote Isle of Eigg in Northwestern Scotland, I knew I had to go. But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have a sudden change of heart in an ecologically gung-ho sort of way. No. I signed up because I figured participating in the work camp would be a good way to explore the land of my ancestors—on the cheap. Plus, what’s a little hard labor? Sure, the work would be a distraction, but I was positive I could find a way around that.

Arriving at the Isle of Eigg, my local contact, Norah, meets me at the ferry dock with her three young boys. Earthy, braless and barefoot, Norah’s confident eye contact unhinges me as she approaches, her boys hanging off her every appendage. Norah suggests we sit on a grassy knoll and get to know each other before meeting the other volunteers.

"We’re really looking forward to making progress on the solar water heaters," Norah tells me.

Already I’m wondering about the breadth of the labor, and exactly what it is that I will have to do. I look longingly out toward the green hills of Eigg behind Norah, wishing I could sneak away and explore the rolling valleys full of strolling sheep and their young twins crossing ravines, bleating with newborn anxiety.

"What sorts of tasks will I be doing?" I ask.

"Well, let’s see," she says as she scans the Scottish sky for her list of chores. "There’s planting crops to be done, soldering the copper pipes, then there’s clearing out the hydro-electric tubing and countless other chores."

Soldering pipes? I don’t even know what it is but sounds real blue collar. Dread descends.

Magda, the Polish librarian, demonstrates how to pick mint.

"Yes," Norah adds. "Loads and loads of work to be done if we’re to get this center up and running." Norah declares.

As I push for more specifics, Norah raises the corner of her turquoise top and her ample milk-white breast drops down into plain view. Clyde, her one-year old son, vigorously latches on. I try my hardest to connect with her eyes but my eye sockets, like some renegade autonomous entity, strain and stretch downward—a mighty tug-o"-war between my rubbernecking eyes and my do-the-right-thing brain ensues. Norah doesn’t notice my struggle, nor would she care if she had. While her three-year old son, Logan, writhes and twists on her other knee, his skinny arms wrapped tightly around her neck, she fails to notice her other son, five-year old Murray, stealing chocolate biscuits behind her back, snickering and reddening as he gets away with one right after the other. Norah has her hands full with her three young boys, but this doesn’t matter. From what she’s just told me, she has a world to save.

When Norah and I finally arrive at the center, two other international volunteers have already arrived. Magda, a shy librarian from Poland, wears her black hair in a gold barrette; thick wire glasses frame her green eyes. When we speak, her timidity limits her to short bashful glances. Midicia, from Serbia, is the antipode of Magda. Midicia moonlights in a traveling circus during the summer to supplement her teacher’s salary and she has a restless and weary flicker in her tired brown eyes. When she looks at me, I get the feeling that she knows something I don"t.

We all sit on the dusty floor of Bob and Norah’s dilapidated centuries" old home while Bob outlines our chores in pink chalk on a child’s chalkboard. After Bob’s done talking, the tasks of constructing solar energy panels, solar water heaters, and planting organic crops seem outright daunting. This is not what I envisioned. I imagined simpler chores like sweeping, painting, organizing, but solar water heaters? I want to run away to Edinburgh and be a tourist—the proper way, wallowing around castles with ice cream cones, buying postcards. Instead, I have stranded myself on a distant tiny isle being debriefed on the use of a sledgehammer and some sort of blowtorch. And it appears I am not alone. I later learn that Magda and Midicia have come to Scotland with the angle of improving their English—making a grand total of three disinterested, listless international volunteers not excited about building solar water heaters.

For our first day’s work, Bob corrals us in front of his overstuffed bookshelf, pulls out a hardback book and opens it with care. Bob looks us each in the eyes, checking to make sure we are paying attention. Meanwhile, Bob’s clear blue eyes bulge with anticipation as he presents us with the treasure in his hands—a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) guidebook, complete with foolproof numbered steps and funky circa 1970’s photographs detailing the construction of what could be your very own solar water heater.

Bob holds out his dog-eared book like it’s a book on fine art as his fingers glide slowly across the tattered pages. It’s evident from all the chicken scratch scribbled in the margins that Bob has studied each chapter, each page, and every letter, meticulously planning for this day. The text is old fashioned and the outdated clothing in the photographs date the hippies hammering away at their clunky solar power boxes. Bob looks like a long lost brother of the men, somehow un-aged and transported into 2007.

As Bob rattles on about who’s in charge of what, Magda’s desire to learn English, coupled with Bob’s inviting slow English, surpasses her timidity—Magda seizes the opportunity to ask a question. Carefully scripted and phrased in her mind, Magda physically braces herself against Bob’s homemade dinner table, preparing herself for verbal communication.

"We make this box, yes?" she says, nodding, confident she has produced one hell of a sentence.

The volunteers stuff the solar boxes with eco-friendly, and readily-available wool for insulation.

Bob reluctantly lifts his eyes from his DIY book and confirms Magda’s revelation.

"Eh, yes, em, that’s right."

For the next few days, Bob puts us to work on his solar water heater—nine 5 feet boxes in total. We solder copper pipes, drill screws into boxes, and varnish them with countless coats of linseed oil. The work is exhausting but if all goes well, the boxes should harness every ounce of energy that the Scottish sun will produce. In my baggy painter’s suit, under a cloud of paint fumes and smoldering copper, I can’t see the big picture, but Bob can.

To insulate the copper pipes in the wood boxes, Bob instructs me to pack in bundles of sheep’s wool, an eco-friendly alternative to fiberglass. He leads me to a hall closet filled with rolls of wool stacked high and deep. When I unfold a roll, an intact cape appears—complete with a cutout from around the neck where the previous owner’s comical and startled face used to be.

Bob and Midi

cia pick apart the wool and spread it evenly across the pipes, creating leveled blankets of insulation, but I don’t want to touch it. The wool is dirty. Really dirty.

"Do you have any gloves?" I ask.

"For what?" he asks.

Bob seems bothered.

A return to simpler pursuits can be its own reward.

"Yeah, if you want me to work fast, I’m going to need some gloves."

Bob audibly sighs. "It’s only bits of poo, just pull it apart."

My stomach drops. What have I gotten myself into?

I slowly proceed, trying my best to avoid the "bits." As I pick through the poo, Murray and Logan run into the room and dive head first into the wool-filled boxes—sheep beds, they call them. The boys roll around, giggling and laughing. I finally give in. If Murray and Logan can roll in the bits of poo, then I guess I can spread it around the box.

After two weeks of work, Bob and Norah’s Center begins to sprout and take shape—much in the same way that the fair-trade organic mung beans that I planted will soon sprout from their pale ovoid seeds.

I am exhausted. Blistered. Worn out. Working for Bob and Norah, helping them to cultivate a green lifestyle, shows me just how hard it all really is. Left far behind with their decision to go completely green and self-sustaining are basics that most of us enjoy without thought: a light switch, hot water on tap, a washing machine, a grocery store, and instant warmth from the push of a button. Living green, chopping wood, planting and gathering herbs, vegetables and fruit, and assembling and maintaining solar powered devices consume every available minute time has to offer. They say turning green is easy, but it’s not. It all seems incredibly difficult from the inside.

As our last evening on Eigg sets, Midicia, Magda and I set out to gather wild mint. Murray and Logan, both barefoot like their mother, dart ahead of us. The boys tug our hands, leading us across their Isle, their playground, pointing out wild garlic, rosemary and mint growing in the shaded woods. We skirt the steep rocky coastline of the Isle leaving only our footprints, treading lightly. When we find a suitable patch of mint, the boys teach us to cull just the tops of the plants—what they can afford to give. As I duck under trees choked by mulberry bushes dripping drops of sweet endless Scottish drizzle, I feel earthy, calm and empty. Harvesting wet garlic flowers and minty leaves straight from the woods fills me with a sense of simplicity. The boys play with twigs, long-legged bugs and point out deliciously lush fuchsia flowers. The organic rosy smiles on the boys" faces know no spoils from the place that I call home, and they don’t seem any worse off. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the way it should be—the way it used to be.

Dirty work: Medicia from Serbia does the painting.

We collect bunches of mint and trek back to the house. Norah is sitting on a pillow in front of a fire, Clyde in her arms. I take a seat with my steaming mug of mint tea and watch the family from the back of the room. While the mainland sleeps, Bob is still hammering away at his tenth solar powered box—a complete set to power his home through winter. Norah calls Bob for a tea break, and although he has miles to go, he stops to sit on the floor with his wife and drink the mint tea from the wild plants of Eigg that his two young sons picked.

I shift around in Bob’s homemade chair to steal a better look at one-year old Clyde. He’s banging a knobby twig across his forehead, laughing, smiling, growing up barefoot, captivated by nature’s most alluring toys. And then it hits me. When I arrived on Eigg, I was bothered, bored even, by the level of labor and the endless details it takes to construct a working solar water heater. But strolling through the woods with the boys on my final night on Eigg, I realize that all this green business is for them—all the planning, drilling, hammering, soldering, pulling apart sheep’s poo. After weeks, I had helped to build a tireless renewable source of energy, ensuring the boys a steady reliable stream of stability in a world of uncertain climatic changes. I used to think that going green was somebody else’s problem, but having just met a few of those somebodies, I now lean forward, tune them in, and wonder what I can do to help—poo and all.

CONTACT: Isle of Eigg

MICHELLE MCALISTER is a freelance writer and world traveler.