A visit to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I spent two weeks in October visiting the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. In this article, I give an overview of how that experience affected me, and what I learned from the members of that community.

It can be emotionally rough for the children of the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to have new friends enter their lives so frequently, only to leave again in a whisper of time. I have now returned from the two week-long October visitor period at Dancing Rabbit, where, a few days into my visit, one of the children who lives there approached me to ask if he would see me again: would I be coming back? Dancing Rabbit is making extraordinary progress at embodying its core values of sustainability and community vitality, and I grew attached to its children and non-children alike, but living there would not be consistent with my own core beliefs, for their spirit is one of self-improvement rather than cultural revolution.

Members of Dancing Rabbit are acutely aware of existing environmental and ecological problems, and they are continuously confronting the emergent implications of this ideology. Thus the village, itself borne by a 280-acre swath of reclaimed farmland carved from farming country in northeastern Missouri, presents itself as a tapestry woven from reclaimed artifacts; carefully designed structures; and vibrant, practical, and exuberant gardens with animal trails beaten through them, where the animals happen to be humans. Practically-sized open spaces and a few roads, primarily for walking, also insinuate themselves. All of this is a manifestation of the ideas and values of the people making up this community.

The Dancing Rabbit community values transparency: they provided us with detailed information about the many facets of their lives in a series of seminars covering different topics, as well as a bracingly intimate view of their personal lives at the village. Many of the days during the visitor period were spent gathering casually for breakfast at the common house; providing a status update, called a check-in, that helps members and visitors stay apprised of needs and impressions; attending one of these topical seminars; gathering for lunch at one of the food co-ops; helping with a work party; and closing the day with dinner at a different co-op and, often, a social event.

The community has made available high level descriptions of their various practices; this discrete documentation provides a good perspective on the reality of sustainable living, but actually experiencing practices such as these adds a depth of understanding, as well as a personal sense of connection, that no amount of reading can provide. Obviously, reading this article won't change that dynamic, but I do hope that it will help you get a sense for what a visit to Dancing Rabbit feels like, as well as why visiting the village is valuable for making the ideals of sustainability very concrete and tangible.

When we first arrived, and then strolled into the heart of the village, one of the members greeted us and directed us to another member, who offered us a casual tour of their village. The next day, the first full day of our visit, we had a more in-depth tour of the village as well as the first visitor seminar, which covered the history of Dancing Rabbit. These introductions offered us an initial sense of the village and some key details: the locations of the tent platforms where we could set up our tent; the fact that they compost all human excrement, so poop ends up in a bucket and needs to be managed properly, and people are encouraged to pee outside; and where to find and how to use the communal showers and sinks and other communal resources such as cubbies, the library, the kitchen in the common house, and the computer room. As a result, much of the lives of the people who live at Dancing Rabbit gets orchestrated into a sort of dance within their chosen co-ops, such as when cooking breakfast, which becomes fun when done in a spirit of understanding and cooperation.

Living sustainably involves thinking carefully about the sources of the things you use, and the disposition of the byproducts that result from this use. Note how carefully I danced to avoid using the word "waste", because in fact the very concept of waste implies things that cannot be used at all. In a closed system, true waste should not exist, and Dancing Rabbit works hard to minimize actual waste. The basic resources that flow through a community include water, food, and energy, and the members of the village think carefully about how to manage all of these streams.

The village uses rainwater collection as its primary source of water, although they do have access to the chemically treated municipal water, if needed. The rainwater is filtered after collection, although there is a prominant warning posted—and visitors were warned explicitly—that there are still risks associated with drinking this water. I drank that water, and have not yet suffered any apparent ill effects; neither are there any in the members nor in my fellow visitors.

When it rains, the first thing that happens is that a lot of junk is washed off of a roof by the rain. In order to deal with this, many members install a diversion system in which a certain amount of water is directed into a separate reservoir (usually a reasonable length of pipe); when that reservoir fills up (with water and whatever else has been caught up in it) the rain then overflows into the main cistern. The reservoir can then be flushed by opening a valve. One member of Red Earth Farms, which is an adjacent community, disagrees with this strategy, claiming that it does not allow for enough initial washing; instead, he has a diversion system that flows freely and requires manual intervention to switch the flow into the cistern.

We had some ostensibly hospitable weather for our visit. It was continuously sunny (and warm) during the day for almost our entire stay, which was good for the supply of electricity. We got a bit of rain the first night we were there, but we didn't receive any more until the last night. A few days prior to that second rainfall, one of the members warned us to conserve water because the cistern in the common house was running dry. We did so, and the next day things were back to normal: they had tapped into the municipal supply to deal with the problem. This is just one of a whole battery of areas in which having a pointed awareness of the sources, and hence limits, of various resources profoundly affects your consciousness, and hence the community's culture.

As for byproducts, water used for cleaning—greywater—is directed into a constructed wetland, where plants help to filter the water. This is one reason why the community is very careful to use soaps and other cleaning agents that do not include any toxins or other dangerous chemicals. As mentioned earlier, all human excrement is composted without using extra water, so there is no blackwater to manage.

Dancing Rabbit is not actively working to become a self-sufficient community, and one facet of their lives that illustrates this is food supplies and cooking. While they do obtain a large portion of their vegetables from their gardens, they need to import a large percentage of their calories, although they are still acutely conscious of the source of this food. In their own words:

At [Dancing Rabbit], we attempt to eat organic bioregional foods in season. We currently grow many of our vegetables on site and try to get as much of the rest of our food as possible from local organic vegetable gardeners with most of our grains and beans coming from an organic foods distributor.

They face similar challenges when it comes to cooking. Some of the food co-ops cook as much as possible using wood stoves, or even solar ovens where possible, but others, including the Sunflower co-op at the common house, still rely on natural gas. Again, they describe these struggles clearly:

Unfortunately, we have not yet found the ideal way to prepare food that uses minimal energy and water, no fossil fuels, tastes great, and takes a reasonable amount of time. We are experimenting, however.

Dealing with the byproducts of eating is easy enough: scraps and inedible parts are composted. For imported foods, containers are still a problem, but they recycle as much as possible.

As to electricity, this village of ecogeeks clearly still values computing and telecommunications highly, as well as the other luxuries that electricity makes available, such as artificial lighting. At the same time, the larger world has concentrated much of its anemic efforts towards the remediation of environmental damage on electricity production, so the options for electricity production are seemingly obvious and well-understood. We had a seminar on Dancing Rabbit's alternative energy strategy, which was largely a useful class on the high-level electrical engineering principles needed to understand the photovoltaic (PV) arrays that form the obviously high-tech dimension of the ecovillage.

Dancing Rabbit is off the electrical grid, although they are very much plugged into the telecoms grid. They have a few small windmills in the mix, and they are considering installing a municipal-sized windmill; this would also involve plugging into the municipal electrical grid, which they would use as a cache or battery for their electricity, maintaining the goal of producing all the electricity that they use. At one point during the visit, another visitor asked whether using PV panels and windmills was ultimately sustainable, given the materials and embodied energy needed to manufacture them. The members of the ecovillage are aware of the limitations of some of their decisions, and that they may have to make tough decisions in the future. For the moment, however, they still value their electricity, and they certainly value telecommunications with "the outside world". As with the other key resources, though, this awareness of the source of the resource dramatically reshapes the culture in this small village. For example, members emphasize the importance of conservation, that is, reducing consumption, as a first step. In contrast, as soon as I returned to "the outside world", I felt the corresponding return of the strong temptation to repress my respect for these resources, to use clean or hot water, electricity, food, and basically every valuable commodity as if they are essentially unlimited, infinite.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the initial work in a village is in construction, and this is certainly the case at Dancing Rabbit, where builders have a large role in the local economy. I was particularly struck by the scope of the responsibility these people have invested into their own lives when I learned about how they design and build homes and other structures while keeping in mind their ecological principles. In the seminar about their natural building techniques, the instructor gave us a crash course in the entire scope of a structure, from foundation to roof, and in the different approaches that have been the target of experiments to deal with the effects of heat, cold, frost, rain, wind, moisture, and animals: things which I had never before even considered. It was a dramatic learning experience, and we had a number of opportunities to expand on that by helping with ongoing projects at various work parties throughout the visit. The community does a good job of providing an overview of their experiments with natural building in their document answering the question What is Natural Building?

For a group where first principles lead naturally to sharing as much as possible, and which has explicitly structured itself so that people live close together to encourage the development of strong community bonds, it is not surprising to learn that they govern by consensus. The seminar on consensus was particularly enlightening. Our leader was quick to disabuse us of the notion that a system of consensus is equivalent to requiring a unanimous vote on everything, which to outsiders familiar with a larger political universe can smell like a recipe for perpetual, total gridlock. In reality, a vibrant consensus process requires a deep understanding of others' needs prior to making a decision, which makes it a very loving and relational system. I would like to write up my notes on how to understand consensus from the seminar, but they might overwhelm this article; perhaps I will do that in a separate article.

One interesting aspect of the Dancing Rabbit community structure is that it has been designed to allow for the creation of sub-communities, and we got both a literal and figurative taste of this throughout our visit. As mentioned earlier, we often swung in orbits with the Sunflower food co-op, which gravitates around the common house. We also shared meals with members of the Skyhouse community, which has a more methodical feel than much of the rest of the village; with the Wabi-Sabi food co-op, which emphasizes living simply; and at the Milkweed Mercantile, which is a general store and inn that provides pampering to those visitors who might need a more gradual transition. The Dancing Rabbit community encourages the formation of these different smaller communities within the decision-making structure of the community as a whole.

One of my favorite meals was a dinner with Wabi-Sabi that I helped prepare. I was largely in charge of the salad, which was entirely taken directly from their garden. I harvested fresh Sorrel, Mustard Greens, and Kale; I cut down stalks of green onions; and I picked several fresh green peppers. I didn't know you had to massage Kale before eating it! I cleaned and chopped everything, all the while enjoying some subdued company with the other members of the co-op in the middle of another invitingly warm and sunny afternoon. That salad turned out to be delicious; the entire meal was. I don't think I'd ever had Sorrel prior to my visit, but now I want to find a way to make it a regular part of my life. We ate together in the one-room house of one of the Wabi-Sabi members, with night pressing in on all sides, in cozy companionship.

In addition to encouraging diversity with sub-communities, there are also two separate sister communities nearby. I mentioned Red Earth Farms earlier; they are a community of homesteaders practicing permaculture, and their community is immediately adjacent to Dancing Rabbit. A few miles away lies Sandhill Farm, which is a commune, meaning the members collectively share their incomes. We visited both: Sandhill for one of the regular Tuesday potluck dinners, and one of our seminars was instead essentially a field trip to Red Earth. The visit to Red Earth was extremely informative. As homesteaders, members of Red Earth live further apart from one another and primarily practice organic farming techniques. They are experimenting with permaculture, using techniques such as composting almost everything in place, and carefully considering how water moves through their natural systems. Like Dancing Rabbit, they have beautiful gardens; it was at Red Earth that I first tasted Sorrel, when one of the homesteaders plucked leaves from a plant as she was introducing us to a variety of produce.

I greatly enjoyed life at Dancing Rabbit. I have already touched on the daytime beauty present at the village, arrayed into sun and sky and garden. With the people I enjoyed music, conversation, dancing, and I reveled in their rigorous games of ultimate frisbee. They play aggressively, but they mix up the teams often and display great sportsmanship, which I find deeply attractive. Day would give way to night, with all of its attendant glamour. When the moon is hiding, the stars shine forth like a glistening cosmic map through the implied infinity of the glossy black that they pierce. Whenever it shone forth, however, the moon occluded ever more stars as it waxed toward full each night, repainting the whole world in a palate of lustrous silver enchantment. How much beauty do we abandon when we embrace the city! I cannot remember the last time, prior to this visit, that I was able to see the pale arm of the Milky Way. It stretches across the sky grandly, our minds reaching out to meet it, our instincts aware of the immense disparity in our celestial relationship.

So why can't I commit to being a part of the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage? It's a good question, and one I confronted many times over the course of the two weeks. I might have hoped that expressing an idea would become easier with repetition, but it appears I was wrong. I grew passionate and emotional every time an opportunity arose to preach about the need to push back against the larger culture of exploitation that defines civilization. The larger culture has lost so much, and so badly needs to reclaim it! Nearly everyone who talked with me agreed about the destructiveness of that culture, but the members of Dancing Rabbit feel that it is enough to try to create an exceptional model of sustainability and try to lead by example, and while I applaud the degree to which their efforts reflect the intensity of their ideals, I disagree that their ideals are sufficient.

This page was first published on 2010-11-12 14:57:00-05:00.

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