Heatwave, Visitors, and a Sad Farewell: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Althea hugging her duck. Photo by Ben.

Althea hugging her duck. Photo by Ben.

Howdy. Ben here, bringing y’all news from the stormswept prairies, soggy draws, and humid homes of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. It certainly has been an eventful week here, though to be honest I haven’t had an uneventful one yet in my four years of time on farm. I’ll just stick with the formula y’all have come to expect and give you the weather report first.

We’ve spent the past week enduring a nasty heat wave here, with temps pushing towards a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, intense humidity, and still, stale, boggy air. The top eight inches or so of our swimming pond are unsettlingly warm, like broth. The fish might not bite under such conditions, but the crawdads are really nipping my toes these days during my daily cool downs at the old swimmin’ hole.

The sole motivation for completing my afternoon chores is the mere thought of our animals running low on fresh water. Come three in the afternoon, the barnyard is reminiscent of a ghost town, ducks and chickens peering from beneath the shade of cedars and sheds, the pigs nearly completely submerged in their wallows.

Other telltale signs that this is the height of summer include the whine and drone of cicadas, the emergence of partridge peas out in the field, and a sudden abundance of blackberries, perhaps the most I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here. In our kitchen co-op we’ve had enough for pie, wine, and consistent, daily snacking. Still, there’s more on the way. The paths are speckled with blackberry scat, perhaps belonging to possum or raccoon.

The only thing I’m more abundant in than berries is flies. It has been a banner fly year. I’m not sure if you’d call it a good fly year, or a bad fly year, but let’s just say there’s a fair few of ‘em. Appreciative as I am of all forms of biomass, I could stand to have fewer flies tickling my ankle hairs and landing on my baby during naps, but I’ll just remain thankful I’m not a goat on pasture, as they’re also seeming quite annoyed, stomping and shaking in the midday sun. Bring on the spiders, I say.

The mud daubers agree, as they busily take clay from our cob buckets and construct nests stuffed with paralyzed little orchard spiders, the living meals for their young. Such strange, fascinating things, these itty bitty critters do.

As of yesterday evening the sweaty, nasty, dense haze of summer moved out for now, pushed along by a swift, torrential storm, complete with corn-flattening winds. Here at Critter Kitchen, dinner was about to be served. In addition to our usual crew of diners, I was preparing a meal for about a dozen or so visitors. Dinner would be the usual fare, turnip fritters, collard greens, and pintos. Yum yum.

Keep in mind that our kitchen is outdoors, and has only one wall. Caleb hollered down from his tree house that a storm would be blowing in shortly, but being tired of this same old story (we’ve had many rains inexplicably navigate around us this year), I shrugged it off as I added yet more grease to my turnip cakes.

Then came the rumble and roar of thunder, a creaking of tree limbs, and intense, horizontal rain. The sorta rain that hurts. Five-gallon buckets, cloth diapers, feed sacks, tin cups, leaves and thorny little sticks all started whipping about. I might’ve seen a chicken set a flight record.

This is about the time all the visitors showed up. After a few moments of sorting out the sensible and unsensible desires of this crew, most folks headed to our root cellar on the count of three. It can fit a lot of people when there’s no food in there.

Eventually, the severe weather subsided, I checked on the toilet paper, the livestock, the rain gauge, and dinner, in that order, and after a few more moments spent picking up and drying off our plates, we had a swell time eating greasy turnip patties, joking and dripping wet.

While some folks have a preference for slightly more formalized get-to-know-you type activities and conversations, these are the kinds of bonding moments that I appreciate about our visitor sessions: sharing in the experience of the natural elements, be they as pleasant as the taste of wild berries, or rough as the late July heat followed by an intense gullywasher. Nobody, as far as I figure, makes it through Dancing Rabbit without at least a little mud on ‘em. You ought to come on and try it some time. The mud you have at home ain’t quite the same.

After a storm, especially a windstorm, a common sight in our village is helpers. A handful of folks will usually walk about, check on people, animals, tents, and homes for signs of damage, and help out if an outhouse needs propped up, or if some laundry needs to be found somewhere out there in a three-acre radius, or if some scattered chickens or goats need herded. I’d like to think of us as a community of helpful doers. No one can probably help me with my windblown tomatoes, or my wet toilet paper, though.

Sadly, I must announce that one of our helpful doers has passed into the next cycle of existence. Dennis Hoffarth, my neighbor and good friend, and a very helpful doer well before Dancing Rabbit was even an inkling of an idea, was laid to rest here one week ago.

Anyone who’s spent time with Dennis can tell you that he was a tireless worker for change, a dedicated builder of hope, and the sort of idea man who was willing to walk his talk. That is not to mention that he was a truly fun friend to work with, and funny as hell, too.

I can only attempt to memorialize Dennis from my own point of view, as I know his impact was felt in innumerable ways, by innumerable people. I will probably always think of him when I’m riding or tuning a bike, training my left hand to saw as well as my right, or hoisting an improbably large object into the air.

In my first year here at DR, I had the opportunity to work on the frame and foundation of Robinia, the home he built with his partner Sharon, and in that time I was introduced to concepts as mundane yet useful as shims and kerfs, and some greater, deeper ideas, about how to treat people and the planet with thoughtfulness and respect. I myself, and many others, will miss his wit, observations, and ideas. I aspire to be near as helpful a doer as he was.

For a person dedicated to cooperation, Dennis did things against the grain, at least when that was beneficial for all of us. One of his major pursuits in that department was practical, functional bicycling. Before it was cool for grown adults to ride around on bikes (ok, it’s always been cool, just not hip), Dennis was talking that talk, and walking it too.

Maybe peddling the pedal, would be the appropriate wordplay. He paved the way for whippersnappers like me to ride bikes safely and meaningfully. That’s why it seemed obvious that he ought to be brought to his final rest by bike. Supported by many friends, family, and neighbors, Dennis took his final ride last Monday morning, as well-secured cargo on our community bike trailer. Many helpful doers made preparations for the burial site and ceremony, and even more were on hand and available for the necessary help and support in Dennis’ final days. I lack the words for all y’all. Maybe just thanks, and I’m sorry, and love you.

An ecovillage, by definition, is meant to be a fully featured settlement. We have the occasional need of midwives, and yes, the occasional need of undertakers. A few hours after Dennis was laid to rest, our July visitor session began, and although we had let them know by email and phone what the community was going through, I am sure that many of them became more immediately aware that Dancing Rabbit was in a place of tenderness and mourning. I hope that they see it as a place of great caring, too.

Death sure can be scary, and it is coming for all of us at some point. What happens after that ain’t none of my business.  I’d like it to come for me in a place like this, where the experience can be shared and felt more equally, where we can be as present for the dying as we can be for the children growing up in the world that the dying have given us.

And Dennis wanted to give us a better world for growing up in. I cannot help but look at my own kids, one of them fierce, free, and occasionally sweet, the other one basically either sleeping, laughing, or crying, but typically drooling, and hope that all of us together are going to build the world that others have so thoughtfully dreamt up for us. Happy trails, neighbor.

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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an intentional community and nonprofit outside Rutledge, in northeast Missouri, focused on demonstrating sustainable living possibilities. Find out more about us by visiting our website, reading our blog, or emailing us.

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