BY JINCHEN ZOU
We stood in a circle, holding hands. The early morning dew clung to and soaked the bottoms of my shoes, and I shivered from the wind and the excitement at welcoming the day with the people of Sólheimar. My eyes followed the held hands around, taking in a couple of young twenty-year-olds embedded in between more sober looking adult leaders of the community and the elderly.
Earlier, as groups made their way over to the morning meeting, the warmth with which the young and old greeted each other warmed me up despite the cold and the constant overcast sky. Here in the middle of farmlands and sheep, Sólheimar is an eco-village, an intentional community where the abled live along the disabled in a sustainable manner.
Sólheimar owes its founding to Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir in 1930. Ahead of her time, especially in pre-industrial Iceland, Sesselja created the first orphanage at Sólheimar for children who are mentally disabled. She believed strongly in encouraging artistic expression in the mentally disabled, a novel concept from Rudolf Steiner in Germany. Sesselja, regarded as crazy by some in the Icelandic government for her insistence on allowing interactions between normal and disabled children and her equally important work in biodynamic farming, experienced significant roadblocks in the establishment and expansion of Sólheimar, but she overcame the judgment of the skeptics and eventually secured funding and approval from the government for her work.
The village of a hundred inhabitants sits snuggly and unassumingly in the geothermal region of southwestern Iceland; its location keeps it far-removed from the bustle of the modern capital of Reykjavik. Instead, people at Sólheimar farm and make crafts to sustain their peaceful lifestyle. Today, the President of Iceland scheduled a visit. The occasion has sent all the residents of Sólheimar busy bustling in preparation. Compared to government opposition to the project during Sólheimar’s early history, this occasion reveals that much has changed in the way Iceland perceive ideas of sustainability and social equity.
Sólheimar has embraced the concept of reverse integration where abled people accommodate and structure their lives around the disabled. Every inhabitant of Sólheimar is employed in some way in the village, whether it is cooking, taking care of the greenhouse vegetables, or making candles in the craft workshops, so everyone has a stake in the wellbeing of the community.
The first thing that caught my eye when I walked into the guest rooms was the extensive recycling system, consisting of five or six multicolored buckets each labeled with a different type of material. Sólheimar strives to function with 100% sustainability on all three pillars — environmental, economic, and social. Nevertheless, waste remains, and Sólheimar depends on outside funding.
Socially, the society functions like a well-oiled machine. The residents are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. The four-day stay here is filled with smiles, offers to try the cucumbers in the greenhouse, sharing their artwork. In the corner of the village sits a troll garden, and the dim light makes you believe that maybe, just maybe, fairies live here.