07.07.2019 Ben 2

The Summer Fashion Issue: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. Ben here, writing to you on a cool morning from the mosquito-veiled hedgerows and hillsides of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, when I should be weeding and mulching. With the consistent occurrence of oppressive heat, I would normally use this time to accomplish something tangible, like raking mulch, moving animal paddocks, or beaming nice thoughts at my kale, but instead I’m regurgitating my thoughts for the week through this newsletter to be consumed by you, dear reader.

Ben’s herd of pastured pigs.

This past week has been fairly hot, though not the hottest we’ve seen or will see. After some fairly frequent rains, things have begun to dry off a bit. Out and about in the wider community, the hayfields have all been clipped, tedded, raked, and baled. For the first time in six years of raising dairy animals, we actually have hay up in a loft well before we need it. This more closely resembles my definition of insurance, rather than the form of legalized gambling that an actual insurance plan offers. That said, I’ve been having a hard time proving that I’m self-employed, for purposes of paying off an emergency room visit from April. If I could only get one state employee out here to see what it is I do all day, it might be clearer that I do, in fact, work for a living. But they’d have to catch me between the hours of 5:30 AM and 9:30 AM, because after that is my six-hour, unpaid coffee break.

If I weren’t doing this, I’d be just about caught up on my pasture management goals for last week. Oh well. What’s the point of a goal I can actually achieve anyways? After years of observation, consideration, mistakes, and reading expensive books, I’m working on some exciting (to me, at least) strategies for maximizing small spaces for animal nutrition and fertility dispersal, which require minimal fossil fuel use. This year, we’re shifting pigs, chickens, goats, and a cow on paddocks like a giant chess game. We follow up one critter with another to complete the graze, while letting the fowl act like little manure spreaders, and scything down and overseeding any unpalatable grasses and forbs. It’s not like many of these ideas haven’t been kicked around by others for decades, but like so many things that involve being married to a piece of land, implementing tools and strategies such as chicken tractors, and intensive rotational grazing, are awfully site specific. The unobservant farmer can take a wagonload of a hundred chickens and make nothing but a mess if all they have done is read some books.

Unlike factory farming, pasture-based animal agriculture requires that the steward/farmer be fully engaged with all variables in their project, everyday. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for other types of fun, but having  fun seems overrated in light of the possibility of being held in a detention center, or running out of water (along with 4 million of your close neighbors), or having essential medical services stripped away — all things which are happening now.

Yes, it is very hot, and I have a baseline distrust of folks who say they don’t mind the heat. Where are all these people at 3 o’clock in the afternoon? A little warmth is nice, and some excruciating heat at the right time can do a lot to ripen some of my favorite vegetables. (I’ve been having a recurring dream about eating okra.) But when someone says they’ve spent a season in Costa Rica, and they feel cold when the temperature dips below 60 ( I meet these people every year), that someone ought to spend a day loading and unloading wagon of hay in the Midwest. Especially if they consume beef or dairy. For vegans, I also recommend picking green beans some August afternoon.

Some well-designed irrigation infrastructure has helped me in my food growing endeavors, but so often it seems like my ability to work easefully outdoors all boils down to my choice in clothing. Firstly, and this is merely my fashion opinion, you got to wear shoes and a hat. Got to. With sturdy enough shoes and a big sombrero, most other clothes would be considered superfluous, were it not for our totally sensible and reasonable social norms. I observe that sometimes people show up at the ecovillage, see all the barefoot kids, and feel like they’ve been lied to their whole lives; like it’s just Big Shoe trying to earn a buck off the soles of us rubes who own and wear shoes regularly. Children are lighter than us. They exert less pressure on their feet. This place, like many rural areas, is speckled with dropped thorns, old fence wire, the occasional rusty nail, and excreta. Just don’t do it, folks. Both my children have lost a toenail, and both have stepped on honey locust thorns. I’ve performed minor home surgery on the older one, when her toe had a difficult meeting with a piece of hardware cloth.

This doesn’t mean one has to buy fancy shoes. Chaco, (and yes, I own two pairs of Chacos), charges twice as much money for essentially half of a shoe. I got a pair because you can send them in for repair, but after a couple of weeks without them, I ordered a spare secondhand pair, because it was going to be another month ’til the first pair got back. They were super nice on the phone. (I am not expecting an endorsement from the fine people at Chaco.) If I were to promote any line of footwear for homesteaders, it’d have to be Crocs, because they can be easily duct taped back together, they float, they clean up easy, they’re well-ventilated, and nobody ever looks good in them. The best feature is that weird little strap you can use to shift between Action Mode and Lounge Mode. The only drawback is that they can literally fill up with manure — not great for working in the chicken wagon. (I am expecting an endorsement from the fine people at Crocs.)

As far as plastic clothing goes, shoes are about all I can handle. Nowadays, people are selling “technical garments”, but truth in marketing would describe these as “plastic pants”. If you technically sweat, I technically wouldn’t ensconce myself in a well-tailored ziploc bag. It’s like being marinated in one’s own bodily fluids. Go for cotton and linen. As a fair-skinned person, who is constantly up in some fine debris like hay or dried chicken manure, a long-sleeve, light-colored cotton shirt, a size or two too big, is my go-to for any type of field work. I like to complete the ensemble with a pair of underwear, which when not underneath a pair of pants is just some shorts without a pocket. Pockets are overrated. Just like zippers. When I have pockets, I put stuff in them, and I lose some of it. Then my pants get heavy, start falling down, and when I’m in town trying to find exact change for my ice cream, hunting for a dime, nickel, and two pennies, I shed little flecks of lint, hay, and dry manure. (Not to mention pieces of old corn and other weird stuff.) Better to just eliminate pockets altogether, I say. That way, nobody is constantly checking their phone to find out the weather, when it’s clearly hot and gonna stay that way for the next two and a half months.

I top the whole thing off with a wide brimmed straw hat, complete with chin cord, that I scored at the flea market for a buck. The chin cord is essential to keep the hat on my head when its breezy, because I gotta work in the wind, too. I’m also a fan of sunglasses. Really dark ones help me not only look cool, but actually feel cooler when its 99 degrees out. I met somebody once who swore they could strengthen their eyes just by squinting into the sun. Don’t ever do that.

My kids are something of fashion icons themselves. My daughter will wear almost anything, provided its impractical, gauzy, dirty, and falling apart. She’ll stick to an outfit for about two weeks or more, until she comes across something equally inappropriate for all conditions, like a hairnet fashioned out of an onion bag, knee-high fur boots, and my nasty old basketball jersey, all tied together with a poorly stitched satchel and some nylon baling twine. If you’re looking for an outfit that says: “homeschooled at the ecovillage; my best friends are grubs and caterpillars”, then this one’s for you. Arthur on the other hand, donned a sporty ensemble to the pond yesterday evening consisting of some scratched-up swimming goggles and a comically long stick. When he got into the pond, after walking a few hundred yards, he removed the goggles so he could “swim better”, but kept the stick. This playful little number just screams, “I’m going to gulp some pond water and chew cattail fluff, while my dad updates his project list from the dock”. Ooh la la.

Now of course, there’re always a few people who secretly (or openly) have no desire for clothing whatsoever. Arthur is like this, with the exception of tight pajama pants. (The tighter the better.) Sometimes Dancing Rabbit will get confused with the local nudist RV camp just outside of Memphis, but I assure you, we are not the same folks. If you’d like to leave yourself completely exposed to biting insects, solar radiation, and the fixed gaze of your clothesless comrades, I suggest looking them up. At Dancing Rabbit, I’d at least recommend a thick protective layer of dirt, if nothing else. I learned this technique from the pigs. I’m beginning to suspect it’s perfectly natural to cover up with whatever you got, and ignore the fashion judgements of others. I still smell like a herd of pigs just the same, but that doesn’t matter to anybody anyhow, and that’s something I really appreciate about my wider community.

If you’d like a chance to learn a thing or two about rotational grazing, gardening, and being an observant steward of the land, along with all the other cool things happening at Dancing Rabbit (including cutting edge fashion innovation), come visit us for a couple of weeks. You’ll meet lots of interesting people, enjoy some delicious homemade food, and get to swim in our natural pond.


A Chorus of Many Voices: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. Ben here, bringing you my recent observations from the sodden hollows and misty hills of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeast Missouri.

Arthur, outside and on the roof.

Humans are not generally the first thing I interact with in the morning, and that’s been working out for me pretty nicely so far, as well as for the humans. Every morning I am greeted by an ever-insatiable horde of chickens walking up the footpath from their cold season range, traipsing through the fog and mire for snackies. I emerge from my fitful sleep, and before mixing feed, or even pulling on boots I dash to the outhouse and do what people typically do in an outhouse, except that I chirp out in my chicken-voice, “OK chickens, I’ll get your snackies real soon, babies. I’ll get you your snackies.”

The first cock has begun crowing as I run back to the house, and I wander around until I find the appropriate footwear and handwear for morning chores. The morning song and drone has changed in the past week or two. In my anti-meridian slogging I can hear the bark and chirp of robins, redwing blackbirds, and the staccato whine of fidgety sparrows; perhaps even the chittering of a squirrel that has moved into Caleb’s treehouse. I call it Squirrel Caleb.

On sunnier days, bluebirds alight on the portable electric netting containing the goatherd, the youngest of which cry and frolic, similar to my own human herdlings. Having loaded a cart with dogbones, organic layer mash, water, and communal food scraps, I roll downhill. Muscovy ducks nip along or briefly soar as the guardogs dance and pace along the barnyard fence line, sometimes sprinting off to ward away eagles, hawks, whitetail deer, blue herons, or the schoolbus. Chickens and ducks peck the verdant spires of grass while the hogs push their maws deep into the barn mire for a ball of earthworms, or a cache of crabgrass rhizomes. A nanny goat and wether slip out of the barn to call as the pigs and their babies bellow in breast deep mud. It is 6:57 AM and the agricultural zone of Dancing Rabbit has become a cacophony, if not a symphony — more Yoko Ono in tone and timbre than Mozart.

On some days the sun breaks through the veil of cloud, illuminating the maple buds, increasingly verdant grass, tiny patches of henbit, dandelion, and chickweed awakening from their slumber and contraction. Here we are, just passing through the keyhole of our season of hunger, emerging from a time of austerity. My being feels a deep want for green food again, so I grab at a clump of wintercress and snap off the tip of a walking onion, stuffing the whole emerald chunk of dirty, gritty nutrition into my face-hole. After transferring feed to various dishes, the squeal and moan subsides, and I trek my way back to the promise of coffee and waking children.

My day progresses. Sometimes it regresses. I feed my kids, or at least offer suggestions for breakfast, like eggs, since we are literally sitting on 44 dozen of them. Okay, I haven’t literally sat on all 44 dozen of them, but living in a 400 square-foot earthen hovel with hundreds of eggs resting within a dozen baskets causes me to eventually step on one, or smash a few in my hat or pocket.

When possible, I begin a project, like making paper pots for seedlings, adjusting fence, hauling water, haying goats, picking up mulch, fixing carts, hoeing up beds, sharpening tools, fixing things that broke (this week it was the charge controller for our off-grid electrical system), processing firewood, interacting with neighbors, compiling, soaking, washing, rinsing, wringing, or hanging laundry, sorting and cleaning eggs, butchering ducks and old hens, sprouting fodder oats, germinating seeds, fixing gates, picking up debris, tapping maple trees, starting bread, gathering sticks, showing rudimentary care and affection for my family and friends, supporting my math-averse child in her homeschool homework, looking for matching socks, foraging for nutrition, hauling compost, garden planning, posting to Instagram, making transactions on the phone with other farmers, pulling splinters out of my palm, looking for matching gloves, looking for the duct tape, processing my feelings, writing for the village, figuring out how much money I actually have, trying to get my three-year-old to go outside and then subsequently trying to get him off the roof, kneading the dough, making a new a handle for my hatchet, making a new snath for my scythe, peening and sharpening my scythe blade, sweeping, doing the dishes, paying debts associated with our simple lifestyle, apologizing (just kidding), or, perhaps, getting somebody else to do the dishes. (Because I’m a chef, not a cook, and apparently, I’m a bad communist to boot.) In the evening time, after having accomplished, on average, a half dozen of these tasks, I get sleepy, put on some music, and pass out, unless I can’t convince anyone else on the homestead to feed the dogs.

On the still spring nights, walking back through the twilight, I hear the shouts and barks of coyote packs and the song of spring peepers, perhaps interrupted by the passing of an evening train on the tracks two miles away, hooting into the night with its payload of coal. The owls screech and the tallgrass thatch rustles. I hear the electric pop of goat fence shorting out in the damp weeds, and the creak of the tool shed door hinges in the breeze. A woodcock calls its distinct interjection and a coon dog bays.

Is there coming a time in my life when I will feel lonely? Not likely when I’m living here. One of the things I’ve always appreciated, in theory, about this community is that no one lacks a voice who seeks it. It can be difficult to hone my focus through all the squawks, hisses, grunts, shouts, caterwauls, and chirps, but still, as a rule more than an exception, we tend to let folks make their favorite noises here. It serves the entire organism as a whole, and disregards the tastes and preferences of the individual. Me, I personally vacillate between whimpering and yelling, though I prefer to crow, and generally hope to avoid proselytizing.

My voice can only do so much in this context, and it is so important, in a day where social media provides an ear and an eye to so many voices — some of them full of hope, others full of hate — that I use my voice carefully, distinctly. While I truly benefit from writing my thoughts out once a month or so, it now feels better for me to to mute myself and let the whispers and shrieks speak for themselves.

I don’t know if humanity as a whole, as a global species/culture, will rise above its desire for consumption. There is this mytho-poetic image of the snake eating its own tail. Now I’ve met a lot of snakes, and I only ate one of them, but they don’t do that, just like lemmings don’t actually commit suicide. We’re the only species on this planet that actively consumes itself. Is the type of simple living that I promote here the solution? Naw, just a part of it. I have my flaws, and some of them, despite my dedication, lead toward a road to ruin. Y’all do important work too; and yet you’re probably as flawed as me. If we don’t have all the answers, we can still ask all the questions, and maybe asking questions is the biggest way we can care for this planet, and each other. Thanks for asking questions, and listening to the answers provided, within ourselves, and out there in the real world, or what’s left of it. I’m out, for now. Gotta plant these beets.

Would you like to visit Dancing Rabbit and hear from villagers one-on-one? Would you like to spend some time listening to nature’s symphony? Would you like to sneak out to the Fox Hole in the wee hours of the morning and hear Ben’s chicken-voice for yourself? You have a chance coming up soon! Our first visitor session of 2019 starts on April 14th, and we still have a few spots left — you could still have one of them, if you hurry. Click here to start on your application right now. During your visit you’ll get to sit in on a wide variety of workshops covering all kinds of interesting subjects, ranging from communication skills to natural building and renewable energy. Towards the end of the session it might be warm enough to take a dip in our swimming pond before heading in for a delicious homemade dinner, possibly in the company of a new life-long friend. The cost to come for two weeks is only about $50 a day, and that’s an excellent deal, once you factor in the costs of three squares a day, maintenance for tent platforms, and all the time and energy that workshop leaders, cooks, and non-profit staff put in to making everything possible. If you’ve been reading our weekly column for a while you probably know a thing or two about our village, and recognize many of the names, but there’s no substitute for visiting in person. Send in your application now, while you still have time to call in your vacation time at work, and make your travel arrangements. We can’t wait to meet you.


Monsters and Ice: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. You know, whenever I have a hard time talking about what’s really going on — or worse, no idea what the other party could possibly be thinking — I like to discuss the weather instead. So I think I’ll start there.

Ben’s chickens scrabbling for oats in the snow.

Ben here, writing to y’all from the icy physical and emotional purgatory that is Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, tucked away in the impassibly slippery rolling hills of Northeast Missouri. This has been the hardest winter I’ve ever experienced, maybe. Then again, I’ve been through some pretty hard ones. Everything outside is glazed over in a thick layer of perilous, unstable ice. As of this morning there is just a dash of snow on top. Making it to the barn, the outhouse, or the nearest “frost free” hydrant is like traversing a glassy stream of discarded banana peels beneath a veneer of deceptively fluffy little beads of ice. I’ve had hay carts fishtail about. I’ve seen bloody chins, and made unintentional snow angels upon the cold gravel. I’ve found it nearly impossible most days to make it off farm to stock up on necessities, like hay, dog food and other vittles.

Not only am I physically marooned here for the time being, but I’m emotionally and intellectually trapped; forced to confront daily the horrific news here. It is not lost on me that I have to be very conscious about my words, as do we all. Being careful with my words isn’t something I ever seem to do when speaking, (I also use a few more expletives than when I’m writing) and I don’t particularly enjoy writing, at least not about child sexual abuse. But somehow, for no understandable reason, that is what my week has been about. That and I think I want to take up bobsledding.

Knowing what to say to my children, my family, my friends, and neighbors is difficult. I hardly have words; hardly know what or how to think, and I know very little about where others are at. I’ve said it before, but this place is too disagreeable to form a cult around. There is no groupthink, no status quo statement that can speak for all of us. Our whole system of governance is based on taking into account nearly every present viewpoint on an issue and melding it all into something that isn’t particularly thrilling to anyone. (It’s called consensus, you should check it out.)

While in the past I’ve occasionally wanted the work I do writing for the newspaper and website to be financially compensated, I feel very fortunate to be able to offer my perspective, whatever that is, as a volunteer and as someone independent of our non-profit organization. I’m not selling anything, at least not today. What I can say is that, from where I’m standing, nothing makes sense anymore. As I see my friends and neighbors pulled into this ongoing investigation, including my own child, what I want is for this to be just another nightmare; something erased and made null by the light of day. But no, it’s a slippery h*ll-hole; one where I must navigate my own feelings of fear and betrayal, and show up to have the hard conversations with my own children explaining to them that those times when I told them that monsters don’t exist were well-meaning lies, that the world does contain in it some form of evil. The whole time I have to spin through the facts, rumors, self-created innuendo and conspiracy theories in order to reckon with the fact that something so horrible can happen — does happen — in every community, and has happened for all time.

Unlike some others, I did not move to community because I have an innate trust in humanity. I came here because I was sick of seeing how people treat each other and completely desecrate their own surroundings. I wanted to try something different. As a young father, I came here because I wanted an environment where the greatest risk my offspring could encounter was something physical, like falling off a sled, getting snagged on a barbed wire fence, or falling face first into frozen creek mud; something where they might shed some blood, but where they could also hold onto their hearts. (Not like the environment I grew up in.) Personally, without kids, I’d have chosen to sleep in a hollow log rather than Dancing Rabbit. It better suits my winning combination of self-important and self-defeating tendencies.

My days are filled with bumps and bruises. My little boy is almost three. He falls down, pinches his fingers between magnets (I stash a lot of magnets), somehow manages to clock himself in the eye with a toy truck, and he seems to get stung by bees more than anyone else I know. This stuff happens every day. In fact, anytime we get our strawbale home above sixty degrees, hornets fall out of the cracks in the ceiling, so he’s almost been stung twice this week. I tend to his wounds, no matter how superficial they seem, and I tell him that he will be okay. Maybe I distract him with a snack. Now, when I pick him up from his bumps and bruises, I feel like a liar. Sometimes I can hear the murmuring of others, folks who I do or do not know. I feel their questioning: whether we are doing enough, whether we are doing the right thing, whether or not it’s anybody else’s fault, other than the abuser, when children are abused. Sometimes I’m the one, murmuring these things to myself.

Well, I’ve lived here a long time, y’all. I am not to blame. This community is not to blame. After learning there may be a monster is your midst, finger pointing does little. Words fail. Actions speak volumes. I didn’t come here to talk, I came to this place to act, and I believe in justice for all people. How those scales tip is up to the individual. Crimes against children are the worst injustice, and I have no doubt that they will continue to occur among our species, being the sick, mixed up, traumatized bottle of humans that we are. If my words don’t work, if they fail us, well then I have a quote; and I hate quotes.

This one is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but it actually belongs to Friedrich Nietzsche. Frankly, I prefer Twain to Nietzsche. Mark Twain was a local boy to here, and a fairly clever one. Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi, and a philosopher to boot. If anybody ever proclaims themselves a philosopher to you, I highly suggest finding different company, and if they quote Nietzsche, then just run as quick as you can. It’s difficult to escape the pretense, but here I go. What Nietzsche said was, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Cool, Fred. I get what you’re saying. But here’s the deal. My own child is being interviewed by the state. Of course, like anyone, I hope this isn’t true. I hope it’s all a bad dream. But as my granddaddy said to me, and I quote, “Boy, you can hope in one hand and [expletive] into the other. Tell me which one fills up faster.”

I don’t know what’s happening here. Information comes in at a trickle. But don’t ever doubt that I — that we — aren’t doing enough. As you know, we are cooperating with this investigation, and that comes with challenges. I strongly suggest that if anybody doubts my effort, my struggle, or the bigness of my compassion, that they come here, carefully shuffle a mile in my frigid boots across this forsaken tundra, and say it to my face.

I believe in justice. That’s what ultimately motivates my existence here. And I’ve been thinking about predator/prey relationships a lot lately. Just a little bit ago, I went out into the still winter silence to get some air; get away from this screen full of words. My daughter was sitting still as the ice, her outstretched, ungloved hands full of grain, training the chickadees to come, trust her, and take oats from her hand. The chickadees know she’s big, scary, and dangerous. But with time, they gather at her feet, and next to her body, taking the offerings she’s scattered. Up in the gray sky a bald eagle is soaring, hunting. The lazing barnyard dogs take notice, pirouet and bark, scaring it off from the huddled groups of chickens and ducks. The chickadees can do nothing but trust. This is a harsh winter, and they must risk their own lives to take the oats, to see to it that they have a future in this place, that they can go on to rear their young in the springtime that must eventually burst forth. The eagle is not a monster. The eagle is the same as the chickadee. It takes great risks to tear forth and dislodge a piece of meat from the icy landscape. It only does what it does in order to survive, in order to provide for its unhatched offspring.

There aren’t any monsters in the natural world. Monsters are a human construct, and only humans can become monsters. But it is only we humans who can do battle with the monsters, ourselves. No chickadee, nor eagle, nor trained dog can balance out the scales of justice, only we can. And things aren’t going to get any better if we don’t. That’s why most of us are here. I don’t want to defend myself, or my family, or my friends and neighbors, no more than I want to offend any of them either. I’d rather live by deed than by word, and so I will stop offering any more words to y’all. What I can do is be honest and compassionate with myself and with my family. And I think I know how to do that. But I honestly do not know what’s going on, or how this is going to impact the community I’ve helped to nurture into being, and the not knowing, that’s what’s killing me.

Editor’s Note: This is one person’s valuable take on the most challenging situation Dancing Rabbit has ever faced. As always, other folks in the village have a range of different points of view.

2018-12-31 12.59.16

Doing Good As A Pessimist: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Ted putting some finishing touches on the purlins of the new barn in preparation for roofing.
Ted putting some finishing touches on the purlins of the new barn in preparation for roofing. 

Howdy y’all. Ben here, your favorite manure-encrusted freelance writer (emphasis on the free), bringing the latest news from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in cold, dreary Northeast Missouri. I’m encrusted in manure for a few reasons. One is that my work area this afternoon is a somewhat rare combination of icy yet muddy conditions; it’s like scrabbling over frozen chunks of waterlogged earth frosted in a thin veil of poultry leavings, which have been warmed over by a balmy sun. It has a consistency similar to a grainy, watered down layer of your favorite, copyrighted and trademarked boxed gelatin dessert product. Also, my New Year’s resolution for 2018 was better manure management, a sword upon which I have fallen many times in the past few months, being as I’m awful busy. Finally, I just like to get a little manure all over myself sometimes; often in community it can be difficult for folks to perceive my personal bubble when I’m too clean, and an aura of mephitic debris does wonders in this regard.

Bodily cleanliness is a spectrum. I try to maintain a balance somewhere dead in the center between utter filth and hygiene practices that waste resources and destroy my beneficial microbes. With the pond out of service until sometime around May, I occasionally take a bath using about a quart and a pint of warm water and a rag. I hit up all the essential areas, and I rely on friction, not soap. I think soap is kind of a scam. I wouldn’t describe myself as “clean” so much as “not that gross”. And yes, we do have a community shower co-op here at Dancing Rabbit — I’m just too stubborn to use it. Being cantankerous is my superpower. If I was less stubborn than I am, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far.

Of course, I wouldn’t toil needlessly in the droppings of chickens and pigs. This is pay dirt: the biological fuel that will heat the new hoophouse and nourish the gardens and pastures. Short of being able to eat homegrown food year round, manure is the most profitable part of farming. These compost piles are my savings account. I imagine that by the time my children are ready for college, they’ll be as valuable as tuition, especially if humans continue stripping nutrients from the earth and consuming land at the current unsustainable rate.

In a culture where people (okay, just some people — the ones who use the most resources) have access to innumerable lifestyle options, choosing to power down one’s consumption appears to be a step backward. In this world of artificially intelligent robot assistants, next day air-mailed anything, dating apps, and cheap, industrialized food I consider my life here to be both fulfilling and even appealing. It may not be for everyone, but eventually everyone is going to have to live this way. I prefer voluntary adaptation to a simpler life rather than experiencing “resource scarcity” later on, say ten or fifteen years down the road, when the conventional, First World way of life becomes impossible at our current rate of pollution and resource extraction. People are capable of change over time, but often the process is slow.

I haven’t given myself over to meditation or other non-corporeal activities in earnest, and I don’t believe breatharianism (the belief that humans can live on a magical life force called prana, rather than food and water) is the answer to resource consumption, but I do often contemplate stuff while I’m mucking out hog stalls and spreading mulch. Having “less” shouldn’t lead to a diminished quality of life. My assets merely look and smell different.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere (probably here) could take a look at the trees we’re planting, the soil we’re building, and the bellies we’re filling and put a dollar amount on them. In that way, I’m no different than anyone else who’s on a daily grind for capital. The difference is that in leaving behind some of the trappings of First World life, like cell phone service, central heat, firsthand clothing and goods, running water and convenience food, I am better able to afford this level of simplicity. While it could be argued that I’m still chasing after worldly, material things, I’d like to think that those worldly items are going to exist long after I’m gone and nourish generations to come.

The truth is that my updates are composed in hopes that folks from the affluent “western world” will see the beauty in the form of simple living we promote here and adopt a lifestyle which not only values limiting resource consumption, but actually walks that talk as well. But just because we’re building utopia doesn’t mean we don’t import all of the trappings of our former lives. Dancing Rabbit doesn’t exist in a bubble. I am keenly aware that the ice caps are melting, that asylum seeking children are being kept in cages, that environmental protections are being cast aside in the name of short-term profit, and that our nation boasts one of the biggest industrialized prison systems in the world.

Every meal I take I recognize the privileges being here has given me. I have access to land (albeit pretty run down land), which means that I can feed and be fed. Even in the dark days of winter, and without refrigeration, I can get into my box of winter tomatoes and eat organic produce that didn’t come at a price of thousands of miles of transportation and the exploitation of migrant workers. There’s a lot to be grateful for here, but it would be harder to appreciate if not tinged with the knowledge that we have to build more sustainable systems and cultures than the status quo provides.

That said, and I know I’m probably not supposed to say this, the simple life is no walk in the park. For the past week and a few days I’ve been in a fairly deep isolated state, if you don’t count the critters. My family is away traveling for awhile, and my already tenuous mood is further affected by the perpetual veil of gloom that has settled over our region. Still, humans or not, I am prone to despondency this time of year. (And no, I haven’t tried yoga.) Some of it is seasonal, and some of it comes with just being me, I think. Experiencing fragile emotional health isn’t always easy in community, either. While there are number of ways folks here uplift and support each other, I find a lot of “growth work” difficult to engage in, as if I’m not already doing my best just to show up for my daily responsibilities. Still, if you’re into it, that’s cool, I guess.

I’m not entirely powerless, even when I’m depressed. I do my best to consume vitamin D, stay away from the news, and find joy in tromping through the mud with buckets of turnips amidst squealing pigs and squawking chickens. Sometimes I walk our big, energetic livestock guardian dogs and go pick up kindling out in the woods. Sometimes neighbors comes by for a meal — usually a huge pot of the same stew I’ve been working through for days — or I see Ted working on the fly rafters of the barn, which will hopefully be roofed before we enter the coldest part of the season. My children will return from Nebraska, which is stressful in its own right, but at least it’s distracting. When I’m more optimistic about my mental health situation, I see my own depression as being something of a superpower too. It’s like a unique form of vision that’s unobscured by trite niceties.

There’s things to do and that need done to make the world a better place, and I’d be willing to bet that almost a third of them are actually somewhat fun. Firewood needs processed. I have to sprout grains for the animals and drag cartloads of straw through the muck. I have to make phone calls to various hay brokers (pretending to be normal), and find just the right nails to keep the barn roof from turning into an enormous kite. I’ve been wearing the same two to three pairs of pants for the last week, and I need to rearrange the order. I also want to give the dogs some scratchings. As surely as the days are technically growing longer on this other side of winter solstice, this malaise will burn away, eventually.  The goats will drop kids, the pigs will grow fat, and the peppergrass and chickweed will start sprouting here and there. Already the daily yield of eggs is increasing to nearly two dozen a day. I’ll be ordering seeds and trees by the month’s end.

One time, an acquaintance of mine told me that “you can’t save the world by being dirty.” This is probably true, in the literal sense. But having a protective layer of filth is more of a mindset than a reality. I didn’t come here to be happy; when I am, it’s just one of the perks of building an alternative to the self-cannibalizing nature of our global economy. As a pessimist, I find myself motivated to try harder at doing good. Whether your glass is half full or half empty, we all need access to clean water.

If your New Year’s resolution is to help make the world a little more sustainable, consider joining us in May for our annual Permaculture Design Course. By then the pond should be warm enough to swim in, and Ben’s mephitic aura won’t be quite so pungent. You’ll get a chance to learn about a variety of climate change solutions from some of the folks you’ve been reading about each week, and earn some hands-on experience along the way. We hope to see you then!

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The Ongoing Fiasco: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. I guess it’s my turn to write this thing again. I’ll just tell you, because I’m required to do so, that my name is Ben and I’ve been bumbling about Dancing Rabbit for a hot minute now, doing things and touching stuff in a vain attempt to live a little simpler than I could outside of a community like this one. Some of my attempts succeed—like using all three sides of the toilet paper—while others seemingly drag me into an ever more complex fiasco of using resources in order to save resources. Sure, if I could find a level and a tape measure and if I understood what they do, I wouldn’t have to shim up every piece of furniture in the house, but my house is sort of an amorphous blob lacking a flat surface anyhow. Besides, at some point every year we obtain a little indoor rain, so having sloping countertops which naturally drain is a bit of a boon.

One of the more persistently complex fiascos I encounter is finding alternative methods for feeding livestock. Now, it doesn’t take a degree in agronomy to grasp the concept that using arable land to provide food for your food is kind of a net loss in terms of calories, fuel, and fertility on a finite planet such as our own. Still, feeding an animal to obtain a yield can be a totally sensible approach to feeding people depending on what the critter eats and how it’s kept.

A pig family lounging at Critterville

Our pigs are currently munching on immature or frost-bit produce, like squash, tomatoes, and peppers. A widespread frost came a couple days ago and instantly denuded the mulberry trees, leaving crispy piles of high-protein fodder on the ground for the goats to nibble. Sugary-sweet honey locust pods hang from thorny branches across the prairie. Perhaps these are the soybean of the future. Like soybeans, honey locust pods might function as human fodder when properly modified. I consider myself a food artist and while I’m always excited to throw down some tasty vittles, I have no reservations about eating something that tastes weird either. It’s just that the margin between starvation and deep intestinal distress is drawn too thin for my tastes with some of these fodders that are infinitely more appreciated in the chomping, frothing jaws of a hog than my own. As for corn, I have plenty, but unfortunately, I can’t digest that either.

A couple/few weeks back, we went on over to the Huff’s farm about three miles up the road and put in about half a week walking fields of blown-down corn, gleaning what we could. It was imperative for their herd of cows that the corn be removed, otherwise they might become sick or die from bloat when they are moved out into the fields. Like a lot of important work, this was a job that could never be mechanized and so, some of us went out and gathered what we could. Now, as the benefactor of these spoils—not to mention our pigs and chickens—I need to build a corn crib. There’s a lot I could say about picking up corn, but I’ll just leave it at this: I move a lot of things back and forth. All the time. That’s just what I do. It never gets old, ever. And maybe that’s how a sane and sustainable world ought to operate, as a constant reshuffling of resources toward their next highest use.

Our culture throws away a lot of stuff. It wastes and then it employs immeasurable amounts of fossil fuel energy to make all that waste go “away.” Not me, not here, not anymore. That’s why I have piles of stuff, boxes piled with stuff, and piles of stuffed boxes. My house currently reeks of languishing sweet peppers, fermenting tomatoes, Asian pears, and laundry. The pears and the laundry are kind of mixed together. That was an accident, but I’m gonna let that situation ride itself out for a minute because I need to write this thing. But don’t worry, I’ll put it all to good use even if it’s kind of weird tasting or my pants smell vaguely fruity this winter. At some point, it’ll be too cold to sweat anymore, and I’ll just cease doing laundry altogether. My little boy is done with diapers, so I don’t have all his necessaries to wash. In the winter, I use something called “cold therapy,” where I hang my pants outside for a couple, few days, let ’em get frozen and windblown, and put them back on like everything’s normal, which it’s not. Everything is not normal. The cleaner the pants, the closer to my body they go. A month or two from now I’ll be wearing three pairs of pants anyhow and they can just kind of shift position every day of the week in a constant cycle of renewal. It’s a theory I’m working out in practice, but today is only a one-pair day.

And so, we’re on the cusp of the cold season here in northeast Missouri. While many of the leaves are stubbornly clinging to their branches, there are some freshly dropped ones underfoot here and there. The grass, for all intensive [sic] purposes, has ceased to grow. For now, pasturing the livestock is a chess game until whenever we can finish their new winter shelters and get hay. The wafting odor of billy goats in rut is carried in the breeze. To me, this is a lingering whiff of stanky musk too sensuous to enjoy, like a dessert that’s too rich—way richer than the green tomato pie I’m working on. Green tomato pie looks nice, is mildly toxic, and doesn’t taste all that great, by the way.

Wet weather seems to have halted the soybean harvest from what I gather, because the thousands of Japanese ladybugs haven’t started creeping into every orifice of our home yet. The days, when not mired in constant cold rain, are crisp and sunny, sometimes exceptionally windy. Woolly bear caterpillars creep about. Nothing seems to eat them. In the midday sun, garter snakes cling to the gravel roads basking while they can. These are all signposts that it’s time to take your vitamin D, pick up sticks for burning, and get your woolies on.

Our final visitor group has made its exit. The hedgeapples have begun to drop off the Osage orange trees, many of them hitting overhanging roofs and then rolling loudly for moments. I have hundreds of them in my yard and I’m basically amazed they haven’t taken out any of the ducks or chickens. They sound like gunshots, which I expect I’ll hear soon once firearms season begins. The acorns have dropped, everything is dying—or at least conserving its resources for the dark and cold ahead. We have taken one or two bites from the buffet of death’s springtime. It’s the harvest season. Weekly, I am butchering as many mature ducks and roosters as I reasonably can. Daily, I watch the movements of a local sparrow hawk sometimes hovering and hunting the sparrows, sometimes being chased off by them. The elm leaves hang half-dead, dusty, and grayed. Icy, northerly gusts send the sharp thistle seeds and goldenrod “floof” in a torrent. Half-frozen grasshoppers and katydids lie in cold paralysis, awaiting peril. If the cold don’t kill ’em, the chickens will. Last night, I saw a nice sunset over near the pond at Dandelion, complete with geese flying north and fiery plumes of giant Miscanthus maiden grass glowing on the horizon, the last thing I saw before twilight.

A few days ago, about the same time that I got the truck stuck in the mud trying to move the chickenmobiles, my neighbor-friend died of cancer. I honestly don’t know if he’d appreciate being eulogized or memorialized in this publication—probably not—so I’ll make no major attempt to do so, and besides, I lack the words. Words can do a lot yet only do so much, and often, they can’t replace action. Here, in what we call the tri-communities, we’ve had a lot of highly intelligent, caring, and talented people come through and I’ve been happy to see some of them stick around. My friend was highly exceptional in his intellect, his care, and his talent. He was honest, too. With me, he never limited his opinions. Many a time I got to hear all about how bad my rocket-stove was. I think it was all just a part of his compulsion to innovate, to make things somehow better and simpler at the same time.

He created a lot of innovation out of mere scraps, piles of shuffled and reshuffled resources. I’d like to be as tender with my children as I think he was with his own child. Occasionally—at seemingly random times, usually late in the evening—we’d have this sort of ambulatory, roving, two-person party. More than once I’ve been lost in the dark—perhaps stuck in a fence—listening to his sometimes sharp, sometimes obtuse, philosophical rants. Often it was even fun for me and I don’t normally enjoy listening to people talk. I don’t know, everything living dies I guess. And it’s sad, even though it’s perfectly normal and natural and I’m getting more and more used to it daily.

But perhaps, at least for me, it’s sadder still to quit innovating or striving to become better and simpler. I think we desperately need more people in the world living their lives creatively. Things are hard enough for me as I’m sure they are for many others. A piglet gets sick, a fence falls over, I’m out of firewood, out of water. After a day of fixing problems and trying not to drown in them, it can be difficult to motivate further and continue to innovate, conserve resources, and build things better in my physical-material reality and in my personal relationships. I just hope we can all continue to strive for something different than this. And so, I’m done with my words for now, they only do so much. I think I’d like to go make a difference now or at least shuffle my piles of boxes and buckets of stuff around.

Want to see more of what life is like on Ben’s homestead? Check out our Patreon account for an insider’s view of the village. Support sustainability education and outreach and gain a more intimate look at life at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Come along and join the online community today!

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It’s Almost Soup Season: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. My name’s Ben. I have a master’s degree in duck husbandry and domestic thermodynamics and a minor in bull manure, which is probably how I ended up on the prestigious list of presenters and learning leaders for Dancing Rabbit’s new, homegrown Permaculture Design Certification currently in progress. Now a person can read some of the several, thousand-page tomes on the subject of permaculture or attend a class such as the one being offered here at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, but don’t be surprised to discover that there’s a bunch of permaculturists around who don’t even know that they’re already doing it. Like my great Uncle Shedd who had an outhouse suspended above his hog yard. (I’m in no way endorsing this practice, just so you know.)

So, what’s my elevator pitch for permaculture? How would I describe it to someone who’s never heard this made-up word? Well, I wouldn’t call it a pyramid scheme, at least not without laying out the bait first. When others have used the term on me in the past, I’ve felt like maybe it was a secret society, like the freemasons, with a lot of arcane mumbo-jumbo about ethics, principles, and secret handshakes. Like a very well-intentioned plan for world domination, centered on designing sustainable, life supporting systems for everyone. Especially microbes.

Permaculture Piglets. Photo by Ben

And so, whether capital “P” Permaculture is a new-age conspiracy created by hyper-intelligent soil biota meant to sell hundred-dollar textbooks, I think humans can do a lot with the basic design principles it teaches, not just in agriculture, but in the manipulation of all material resources as well as social ones.

Scientists, activists, teachers, builders, and gardeners are making huge strides in developing technologies and techniques (or borrowing them from ancient and indigenous cultures) that can put our species on track for mitigating a carbon crisis and feed everyone on earth. And not all seven billion people on earth need to be indoctrinated. Just a few people who wield political clout could be the leverage needed to begin building a saner, more sustainable planet.

While I openly malign most experts—and the world of permaculture has lots of them—I had the opportunity a couple of years back to take a Permaculture Design Course myself. I bristled at the notion of studying to get a piece of paper saying I was qualified to do what I’d been doing for years. I rolled my eyes and snickered at some of the material from time to time. Then we got to this sort of archaic primer on land-use called P.A. Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence and I realized that while I had good ideas and sound practices on how to build a sustainable farmstead, I’d really been implementing it all wrong. With some attention to the finer details that make all the difference, like observing how the water flows on the land, or considering how fertility is distributed; I’ve been rebuilding and redesigning our project ever since.

Living in an ecovillage, I’m already familiar with the accusation of being involved in a cult (despite knowing this place is home to some of the stubbornest, most contrary individuals I’ve ever met). And I’m sure someone will prove my point by disagreeing with that. Still, permaculture even has the word “cult” hidden in it. Despite my best attempts, there’s no way I can encapsulate it in an elevator speech, or even a sentence, which is true of any religion, organized or disorganized. All I can do is point to some of the ways it has helped me to better manage resources, feed humans, animals, plants, and soils, and do less work.

Every year we are producing more animal protein on less and less commercial feed. Collecting food scraps from other villagers and casting them out to the livestock was low-hanging fruit, but now we have literal, low-hanging fruit that our livestock can harvest and consume without help from me at all.

I haven’t had to carry a bucket of water to our livestock since winter (with a few exceptions) now that I have a system of rain-fed, gravity-powered waterers. Our laying flock is consuming between two-thirds to one half less organic, laying ration now that our hens are being rotationally grazed. We’ve made significant cuts in our losses to predators by employing dogs. I hardly mow grass anymore or spread fertility. Every year we yield more and more food with less physical labor.

The other day, we harvested 155 pounds of winter squash, approximately a third of what is on the vine. Back in May, we direct-seeded an envelope or so of seed and watered it into an old hill of mulch left behind from feeding hay to the goats. It was a half hour of work and now I can eat as much squash as I’d like. The pigs are not only being raised without commercial feed, they garden for themselves dispensing fertilized seed bombs throughout the barnyard that turn into stands and patches of sorghum, squash, and tomatoes.

Still, not everything flows as well, looks as pretty, or smells as nice as the illustrated examples in the permaculture books. Hoses get clogged or sliced in half by a scythe. Gates get left open and forty adolescent chickens ransack the ripening tomatoes. Goats get their heads stuck in old barbed wire. I can feed a whole kitchen co-op on homegrown produce, but some of the meals are mediocre bordering on weird. Nobody likes or respects walking onions as better than commercial onions. I can’t find my socks and it’s getting cold. They say that when a permaculture homestead is fully functioning, the designer becomes the recliner; but that person probably doesn’t have goats, or children, or live in community. Still, I count my blessings. We have loads of squash and seven tiny little piglets. We have three livestock guardian dogs who are diligent in their work and have more intellect than some humans. We have access to food, fuel, water, and shelter, and these resources are becoming more accessible and of a smaller footprint every day.

Look folks, I’m not here to sell you permaculture; I’m here to sell you a duck. But, the reason I can even provide you with one without going into debt—financially or energy-wise—is because of some of these permaculture principles. Whether I picked them up from a book, a class, or Uncle Shedd, you can be one of us. You don’t even need to know the secret handshake.

It’s fall now. The tippy-tops of the cottonwoods have begun to turn yellow. Walking about, I crack hazelnuts with my teeth and in the early morning, I catch slow, cold grasshoppers to toss to our chickens. The dogs bark at deer emerging from the shelter of the creeks and draws. Cardinals and nuthatches have begun to leave the woods and seek seeds from the desiccated sunflower stalks in my yard. The ducks are full-feathered and plenty fat, flying about rooftop to rooftop every morning, ready to move on to their next stage of existence. The Indian Grass is in full flower. I’ve eaten about a dozen, ripe Asian pears. Autumn olive trees are festooned with scarlet berries that don’t taste very good. I’m beginning to collect, sort, and process firewood for the winter. I’m looking for some socks and some long pants that won’t fall off. If autumn is like death’s springtime, then the skein of geese I saw headed southwest yesterday is sort of like the first emerging crocus. Stock your larder and find your socks folks, it’s almost soup season. But, before we get wheelbarrow loads of turnips and a good frost, I’ll be plenty busy in many directions. I might design, but I don’t recline.

Want to see what it’s like living in an ecovillage where permaculture is applied? Come visit us this year to get a glimpse into how we live and how you can incorporate these practices into your own life. There is only one Sustainable Living Visitor Program session left happening in October. Come join us!



Abundance and Adaptation: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. Ben here, checking in from the slightly moist dust bowl of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, northeast Missouri. We got about a half inch of rain overnight, just enough to make the step outside my outhouse slippery and keep my sweet potatoes from quitting for one more day, not to mention get some mildew brewing and keep me from dehydrating the metric boatload of produce I’m tripping over.

After months of arid conditions, the cottonwoods are already dropping leaves due to stress. I drop things when I’m suffering from stress, too, mostly tomatoes. We are at the height of abundance and with abundance comes steady work. During my morning chores, I’m collecting between five and ten pounds of tomatoes a day. Some of the plantings are located between different poultry runs, in sort of a patchwork-style of alley cropping. I never think enough about bringing a clean harvest basket, as most mornings my wheelbarrow is maxed out with grain, whey, fruit drops, and duckweed, and so inevitably I end up carrying vegetables in my shirt and hat, the round ones often doing what round ones tend to do—roll out of my grasp, landing on the ground near the waiting beaks of rapidly-growing, young chickens and ducks. If I stoop over to get one, three more fall out. Whatever, everyone needs a little lycopene. In fact, tomato pomace, the byproduct obtained from making tomato paste and other tomato products is a well-known fattener for maturing pigs; so, I’d like to think that one way or another, we’re getting all our nutrients back. Eventually.

Tomato eating a tomato. Photo by Ben.

Tomato eating a tomato. Photo by Ben.

Speaking of swine and nightshades, our really tiny, really sustainable pig project has gotten an upgrade in the form of our first boar. We named him Tomato, but you can call him Mr. Mater. See, that’s a pun, I think. He’s been gradually transitioning to our scene, and it’s been a little stressful at times. We don’t feed grain of any type to our pigs, but this little guy didn’t know that anything other than corn could be eaten. Now I’m happy to report that after a few days of sulking about and ignoring overripe pears and cucumbers, he finally ate a tomato this morning. The sows we hope he gets to know better in a few months are easily twice his size, and so he’s got a lot of apples and squashes to digest before he’s ready to perform the duty he’s here to perform. Otherwise, he may well end up with an apple in his mouth for good.

Organic or not, pigs typically consume a lot of grain, at least in modern times, and that equals a lot of land and fuel resources that could instead be utilized to feed humans directly. Additionally, as the current president seeks to make America great again, or whatever, he’s seemingly doing a bunch of monkeying with the sale of conventional ag commodities, like soybeans, and burning farmers on the prices they can get on their products. This couples pretty disastrously with climate instability. So yeah, I’m of the opinion that if it takes two years instead of six months to make a hot dog, and all you need is grass and byproducts from human food production; that’s a way more sustainable hot dog. And thanks to Tomato, I’ve got all the chromosomes I need to get started. I’m looking forward to that BLT I’ll get in 2019.

And while I’m of the opinion of sharing my opinion, let me say this . . . I’ve never seen lettuce and tomatoes available in the garden at the same time. What a ridiculous sandwich. Put some lambs quarters on there, kale, something. We’ve got it made in the affluent, western world. With enough money, I could get a live lobster airmailed here tonight; it’s too dry to find a crawdad right now. Think about the poor lobster, wandering the ocean floor, covered in armor, thinking to itself, “What could go wrong? I’m covered in armor?” Until, that is, it is pulled into a completely unfamiliar world, its claws bound in rubber bands, stuffed in like, what, a Styrofoam crate, put in an airplane, and dropped into a pot of boiling water, just so landlubbers can eat something which basically tastes like a cicada.

I do believe that one day our decadent western diet will have to change for simpler, “localer,” less processed food. Like cicadas. And by the way, I’m not sure that hermetically sealed tofu is all that much better for the planet than airmailed ocean life. I believe the food of the future might taste weird. Like aronia berries. I just juiced some. It’s going to have to become hooch or something, because the theoretical health benefits just aren’t doing it for me. It’s like if you took the skin off a blueberry, wrapped it around a cotton ball that’s been soaked in alum, and then made into the most abundant, pest- and drought-resistant fruit you could grow organically in the Midwest. Lots of anthocyanins, I hear. Good for ya, I guess. Know who likes aronia berries? Pigs. Maybe not Tomato, not yet. But I’m working on him.

The food of the future doesn’t have to taste bad, but I think it’s a good idea for all of us to become better cooks. Take the simple, lowly winter squash, for instance. It’s alright. Some are better than others. But, if you put a bunch of garlic in it and apply the proper amount of time and heat, it tastes like boxed macaroni and cheese powder. I mean that in a good way. Put some nutritional yeast on it, cook it longer, and it turns into a Cheez-it. Not that I believe nutritional yeast is a food of the future. That is, not until someone can tell me what it is and how it’s made.

Some more practical commentary on this is to compare different methods of home food-preservation. Many folks are familiar with the canning process. We do it too, from time to time, especially with our meat, because we don’t have the solar power to run a freezer at our homestead. But canning requires a lot of manufactured stuff, like jars and lids, a lot of water, a lot of fuel, and a lot of time, the last one being something I’m often short on.

Fermentation, on the other hand, is going to happen to all food at some point eventually, so just controlling it more by excluding air and including salt is an easier, fuel-free way to make something that is most likely going to taste interesting. Which reminds me, I’ve got some jars and crocks I really need to go look inside.

Dehydrating is often done using electricity, but there are all types of passive-solar type projects you can do yourself. With an earthen oven, we can dry some foods out overnight, utilizing otherwise wasted thermal energy after baking. This year, many of the varieties of tomatoes we planted were selected for being tasty and drier, good for this type of practice.

I’ve made my own ketchup twice now, and both times have been disastrous messes, but with pretty tasty results. Anyhow, I think I’ll probably just buy ketchup, as much as I hate to admit. In a future where there is no manufactured ketchup for sale, I’m sure I can figure out another condiment to dip my cicadas into. Now I’m getting hungry, so I’d better go and eat some okra. Anything that slimy has got to be good for you. If people can eat chia seeds, I may as well start selling bottled okra slime. Okay, someone else can take that idea and run with it. Just send me enough royalties to get a large supply of ketchup. I’ll be needing it.

Want to see what living cooperatively is really like? Come visit us this year to get a glimpse into how we live and how you can incorporate these practices into your own life. There is only one Sustainable Living Visitor Program sessions left and a couple of events and workshops, like Singing Rabbit and the Permaculture Design Course happening between now and October, how will you choose to get involved?

Thomas, Brian, and other workshop participants raise a bent on the new goat barn. Photo by Ben B.

Human Scale: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Howdy y’all. Ben here, with an account of this week’s happenings at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Northeast Missouri. It’s hot here; the sort of heat that boils the motivation out of my blood. Somehow, the air is extremely humid, but the soil is dry to the point of forming fissures. At this point, if you’ve been reading updates from me, you may have noted that I have a major fixation on complaining about the weather. The life we are creating here leaves little space for hiding from it. When extreme temperatures hit, there are a lot of lives at stake, both vegetable and animal.

I wrap the long hot days in parentheses of labor in the dusk and dawn hours. I am becoming crepuscular, like a possum, only less cute, and with more ticks. As the goat pastures have become dry and overripe, the task of moving them comes around more rapidly. At least every other morning or evening, between now and November, it falls on me to scythe grassy pathways for the portable electric fencing. While we have a tractor that occasionally functions, it strokes my ego in a necessary way to know that I can accomplish the same work more quietly, with a slighter footprint. In fact, I believe that a majority of the work that is done by machinery might be accomplished with hand tools, by dedicated humans, albeit a bit more slowly.

Thomas, Brian, and other workshop participants raise a bent on the new goat barn. Photo by Ben B.

I believe in taking the time to slow down and bring our labor back to a human scale. As a village, we have co-created a place where many of our needs, both material and social, can be met at the pedestrian level and I look forward to a time when our perceived need for combustion-driven energy can take a total backseat to simpler tools, mechanisms, and practices.

One way in which that has basically happened this week was in the framing of our new goat barn. For a grueling week of sawing, chiseling, touching stuff, and doing math, Thomas and Cynthia led a group of timberframers, almost all of them green in their experience, through the process of fitting together and raising a geometrically masterful set of heavy, lincoln logs. Now, just a couple hundred feet from where I live, there’s a barn skeleton that will likely stand long after we all lay down forever. Ok, granted, there were some power saws and drills employed a couple/few times and everything was brought in by a truck. Still, with sharp tools, ingenuity, and dedication, human beings are limitless in their ability to do good, ethical work. I can’t imagine what this world might look like if more of us created without employing the forces of global destruction. It would probably have a lot more pegs in it though.

In addition to my steady stream of farm and family chores, I remained fairly engulfed in tasks related to the workshop; mainly baking. There are few things I enjoy more than firing earth ovens when it’s a hundred degrees outside, except for perhaps processing bowls of sweet fruit when it’s fly season. Lucky for me, it is both hot and pestilent this time of year. While serving french toast for our last meal seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, I never want to bring syrup into our outdoor kitchen again. In fact, I’ve consumed more sugar this week than I have since I was eight and I’m feeling a mild hangover from it. I just like to look at pie, I don’t even really want to eat it.

Everybody ate everything we provided, mostly, even though I suspect a full ninety percent of the food contained sawdust and peg shavings in some form (and the leftover raccoon wasn’t exactly a grand slam despite being the most haute cuisine menu item provided). It felt important to throw down some tasty, nutritionally-dense meals, especially because I wasn’t the one hand-sawing in the sun on some forsaken goat pasture. With a high level of precision, I might add.

So, despite the fact that our work on this barn has really only begun and I have a week’s worth of tasks to make up for, I’m calling it a success. Safety was maintained, fun was had, stuff got built, and I think I only reached extreme levels of overwhelm and anxiety like half a dozen times this week, which is pretty much average. I have to go soon and haul some slop, find my kids in the tall grass, and see how much water I can pour into the cracks in the soil, brush my teeth, and try to find out if I own a single pair of pants without an inappropriately placed hole, but stay tuned in the future for more news about potential workshops here. If nothing else, you’ll get to go home when it’s over.

As I look out from my narrow vantage point across my bucket-ridden yard pulsing with baby chicks and ducklings, out past the wooden monoliths sitting plumb and tight, down along the hot dry fields, and through the exploding crop of chest high tomatoes,I cannot quite reconcile how our lives here, so physically and emotionally arduous at times seem to pay off in terms of the total quality of our existence. The work is hard, the yield is often meager, and my brain hurts. Still, I don’t think we’re freaks because of what we’re attempting. I mean, I’m definitely a bit of a freaky individual in real life, but it isn’t because I value the hard work of building a community. I think doing things “the hard way” is a test of how we want to be, as humans. And there’s plenty of hard work for all of us to do, if we want a planet that’s survivable for all life. Well I’ve been cheating enough today, sitting on this computer in front of a fan. ’Think I’ll go toil now.

Come visit us this year to learn practical ways that you can incorporate radical sustainability in your own life! There are still two Sustainable Living Visitor Program sessions and several more workshops happening between now and October, how will you choose to get involved?