Solan is a community of 15 Orthodox nuns in the Rhone Valley in France, founded in 1991. The nuns founded their monastery in an abandoned farm complex, without water or electricity. Soon after buying the site they found, to their delight, that in the 13th century the farm belonged to the monastery of Pont St Esprit.
The buildings came with 60 hectares of agricultural land and forest. It is the Orthodox belief that just as humans need help and time to grow to their full potential – land and soil should also be nurtured and cared for. So the nuns started cultivating vines as embodiments of God's Creation (they produce organic wine) and tending orchards (they produce apricot jam and fruit juice, as well as chestnuts and figs).
The biggest challenge was the forests. The local authority offered them a 75 per cent subsidy if they would chop everything in an area, sell it, bring in the tractors, replant new trees and leave for 30 years. But they wanted to care for the forest in a different way.
With the help of a friendly local forester and the initial financial support of ARC they worked out how to let the forest support their monastery, while not destroying it.
They selected 10 hectares to restore. The forester felled selected trees throughout the forest (rather than in a single area) and planted 5,000 new trees by hand. The result was a constantly mature forest with trees at different levels of development. It is an effective model of modern forestry: the owners use the wood for heating while keeping a sense of it being a special, sacred place.
Their example has helped the local authority change its practice – and it now subsidises the hand planting.
Solan operates on strict environmental principles:
• all produce is organic
• produce is sold locally so it does not use up fossil fuels during transport
• the nuns have a principle to preserve biodiversity
• the community has pledged to research and preserve ancient species
• the nuns have pledged to give priority to ancient knowledge above mechanisation, without being closed to modernisation
• the community is heading towards food and energy self-sufficiency with wood and solar power
The nuns’ example has influenced the local authority to subsidise sustainable forestry techniques