“They walked on, thinking of This and That, and by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest called Galleons Lap, which is sixty-something trees in a circle; and Christopher Robin knew that it was enchanted because nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four, not even when he tied a piece of string round each tree after he had counted it… Sitting there, they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them in Galleons Lap,” from the final chapter of A.A. Milne’s beloved tale about his son Christopher Robin’s imaginative adventure with his animal friends, including Winnie the Pooh.
Galleons Lap is the name of a special place at Dancing Rabbit, too: a vineyard on the outskirts of the village, where you will often find Dan Durica lost in thought, aspiring to permaculture dreams of his own, hoping to make his community, and the world, just a little bit better. I recently sat down with Dan, one of my dearest friends in the area, and picked his brain about his life, his struggles, his joys, and his outlook to the future. Allow me to tell you a bit about this unique fellow, and the exciting projects he’s working on.
“One of the best things about living here is that so many systems have been set up to help people live sustainably,” Dan told me. “We have easy access to land for agriculture and other projects, with the freedom to create new systems without the government telling us what we can and can’t do. It’s nice to be able to share vehicles,” including a tractor, “a micro electric grid, and other infrastructure, like showers. It’s also a huge benefit to have a community of like-minded people to cooperate with, who are educated, care about the environment, and work together toward a sustainable model. I can partake in group activities from time to time, but still be as autonomous as I want to be.”
So much freedom can be a double-edged sword, however, as Dan relayed to me: “Sometimes you have to figure a lot of things out for yourself. Systems for living sustainably require a lot of maintenance and are often in a broken state, in need of repair; you can’t always rely on others to step in and do things for you, you have to be able to do it yourself.”
I got to see some of that maintenance firsthand; while I was interviewing him in preparation for this article, Dan was engaged in the work of installing a new earthen floor in his house: The Flouch. (His house is named after his English grandfather’s birthplace of the same name. According to legend, there was a nearby pub called The Plough Inn, and over time the paint weathered away until it read Flouch instead.)
Dan’s first forays into community living were in Madison, Wisconsin, where he lived for 13 years after his time in university. He lived in cooperative housing, worked in a bakery co-op, and made good use of his green thumbs in community gardens. He was involved in a non-profit related to community gardens and affordable housing, and was even on the Board of Directors for a grocery co-op. More recently, he put those cooperation skills to good use as a member of our community Village Council for a time.
“Living out in the country, close to the beauty of nature, without all the noise and pollution of the city is what drew me to Dancing Rabbit,” he told me. My personal take is that there’s is a tender dimension to Dan’s life here, something ineffably sweet and closely guarded, but always plain to see just beneath the surface, if you look closely. In Dan, I see a great deal of care about the Earth, and about people, tempered with the quiet passion of a man who brought the jewels of his childhood with him into adult life.
It struck me how many of his childhood dreams have manifested here in various ways. For example, he spent a lot of time in his garden as a kid, and these days he can nearly always be found nurturing one plant or another, during the warm season. Regularly going to his neighborhood pool has translated into frequent visits to our community natural swimming pond, which now has a sandy beach, thanks in part to Dan. PBS nature programs planted the seed of his passion for environmental sustainability, led him to study environmental science in college, and ultimately to commit his life to experimental ecology.
Dan’s eyes lit up when he told me about Galleons Lap over a little bowl of cold blueberries; his reticent smile gave way to easy laughter as he expounded on his ongoing project, and I found his enthusiasm for it, as well as his clear affection, to be infectious. I think there’s a good argument to be made that the vineyard is Dan’s life work. (For the record, I’ve never been able to count all the vines. Oh bother.)
“I started in 2008 by planting a bunch of varieties in the poor, eroded soil we have here.” (Years of standard monoculture-based corn cultivation resulted in severe topsoil erosion on much of our land prior to the advent of our community.) “I tested a wide range of juice grapes and table grapes with the goal of determining which varieties work best in our microclimate. My intention is to someday open a winery, with a small storefront.” The dream was almost lost at the beginning, because some folks in the community thought the rows should be curved, on the grounds that there are no straight lines in nature; doing that would have made later improvements to the project impossible. Fortunately for us, the voice of reason won out in that debate. As Dan put it: “our decision-making process, and cooperating with others, has lots of difficulties and challenges.”
“One of the inspirations behind the vineyard is that alcohol is such a big part of our social culture, as well as one of the main things that routine import to the village, and this is one of the few kinds that we can actually grow on our land. We can’t grow barley, and other kinds of alcohol require sugar to be added, while grapes are a very sugary fruit, so it produces more alcohol than most other crops, allowing for a high quality product to be made without importing extra inputs. It’s also a perennial crop, which conserves the soil; if I were growing an annual tilled crop in our rolling hills with this soil that is highly vulnerable to erosion, it would continue to destroy the precious little topsoil soil we have worked to create.”
“Getting established was challenging, because of the poor soil and lack of irrigation. Then in 2012, when the vines were just starting to reach the trellis,” which was made using locally harvested, untreated black locust posts, “we had a horrible drought that slowed things down considerably. At other times early frosts and fungus issues caused by heavy rains have been a problem. Growing organic grapes in our climate is almost unheard of — I grow American grapes and French-American hybrids because we can’t grow French grapes here; it’s too cold, and they’re heavily dependent on pesticides — but I finally determined about half a dozen varieties of grapes that do well here, and I am already making some wine on an experimental scale. One of the wines I make now is a concord type, which is sweet, if not as sweet as what people sometimes expect. I also make a white wine using a cold fermentation process to bring out the fruity qualities of the grapes, and a full-bodied red aged with oak.” Dan is also an accomplished cheesemaker.
In the early days, the vineyard incorporated animals as part of a permaculture-based plan to enhance the fertility of the soil. “We had chicken tractors running in between the rows,” a chicken tractor is essentially a portable cage, containing the birds while also affording them frequent access to fresh ground to forage on, “filled with laying hens that produced lots of eggs, which we sold. We also rotated baby doll sheep between the rows to do the mowing for me; these days I have to get in there with my scythe, and it takes a lot of my time.”
A crucial stage in the vineyard’s development happened with the help of a grant from the Department of Energy, which allowed Dan to install a solar powered irrigation system. He also got a cost sharing grant from the USDA that paid for 90% of a large hoop house to help fund the growing of more local food, as part of the economic stimulus package made available in the wake of the subprime mortgage crash around 2008. Before you rush out to apply for a grant yourself, take note that these grants likely don’t exist anymore. As Dan put it: “The Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress seem to be doing everything they can to undermine anything sustainable.”
Eventually Dan shifted from chicken tractors to intercropping between the rows in the vineyard. He has grown hundreds of pounds of winter and summer squashes, onions, strawberries and more, including a diverse mix of irises, most recently, as part of a project he’s working on with yours truly. He also grew local greens in the hoop house through the winter and sold them for many years — just $7 for a huge sack.
“In 2014 it finally sunk in that it was going to take a long time for the grapes to mature, given the conditions here. I began to question whether it was ever going to be a viable business. Making money has always been a challenge, being in a remote place, far away from populations of people and sizeable markets.”
“We’re so used to dumping fossil fuel on a problem to make it cheaper and faster, but when Old World vineyards were started thousands of years ago, they probably took generations to get established, and this modern approach has changed our expectations, including my own, of what is achievable in a lifetime. We have to deal with that. Nonetheless, nowadays the grapes are fairly well established, and I can be confident that they can deal with erratic weather, and I can expect a good crop of grapes without spraying anything — as long as I can manage to keep the birds away. We have many micro-biomes on our land, which allows us to have an amazing diversity of birds, and they all love grapes.”
As for the name, Dan said: “There is something meaningful to me about there being a place in the woods where the dreams and imagination of a child can continue to exist, even though as adults we learn to wean ourselves of that free thought and imagination.”
Dan talks a good game about being an adult, but he’s not fooling me — Dan is a kid at heart, and that’s one of the reasons why I like him. This imaginative spirit is evident in his alter ego: Fred Blenderhead, who, as the name implies, wears a blender on his head along with a bright red coat trimmed with fur. (Vermin Supreme 2020!) Fred is a fictional character in a comic strip Dan created back in college, which he inked for the university newspaper, called The Whitebreads. Like Dan, Fred doesn’t easily fit into conventional society; his ideas are out there, but progressive. He is the best friend of a pair of radically progressive suburbian boys who revel in pointing out the fallacies and cognitive dissonances in the worldview of their very ignorant, very conservative parents, as well as various political figures. Dan revived the project in the early 2000s with a graphic novel called The Whitebreads and the Apocalypse; it’s rare, so a copy could be worth millions someday.
When I asked Dan about the challenges of living at Dancing Rabbit, most of the points he cited have to do with our rural location, including the obstacles to making his vineyard and food production income models viable. “Enjoying cultural experiences, like going to a play or seeing live music, isn’t easy; there’s nothing like that anywhere nearby.” Unless, that is, Dan is the one playing the music. He’s great with a guitar; my favorite song of his is a rendition of Lucinda Williams’ Side of the Road.
“Living with people that you might be in conflict with, and having to deal with those conflicts, is also a challenge here. Romance can be difficult here, too, with a limited dating pool. If you do happen to meet someone, you have to address the questions around them moving here, or shifting things to spend time with them outside the village.” For what it’s worth, I’d make the arguable claim that Dan is Dancing Rabbit’s most eligible bachelor. He’s in his mid-40s, thin and handsome, caring and attentive, well established with a home of his own and a rental property that generates income, AND he’s an excellent cook. He enjoys listening to NPR, homemade candle-lit dinners featuring his own vintages of wine, and long bike rides on the beach. If you want to get your foot in the door, though, you’ll have to get past Banjo, his vicious canine companion. (Just kidding, Banjo is just about the most docile dog I’ve ever met, as well as the bane of the long-eared rodent horde that plague the gardens of our community.) “She is rather aloof, unlike those attention-seeking, slobbery dogs. I call her breed the northeast Missouri shitzulot.”
Dan’s strategy for coping with the doldrums of living in the rurals is to spend his winters in Saint Petersburg, Florida. “I went there one year to work with a company that offers theater performances on a 100-foot-long ship, while living in a newly established ecovillage, and have since returned again twice. I enjoy staying connected to that community, as well as kayaking, fishing, and going to the beach. There’s lots of cool stuff happening, a huge art scene, lots of people interested in sustainable living, and I can get to everything by bike. It’s much better than sitting in my house freezing, constantly tending a wood stove.”
Another recent shift in Dan’s life is his primary income model. He isn’t selling greens or vegetables much anymore (the local market just isn’t big enough, for the time being), and he worked for several years doing search engine analysis for a sketchy company that never seemed to overlook an opportunity to screw over their employees. He quit that wretched job in favor of spending his time on a youtube channel called Hardcore Sustainable (you can thank me for giving him the initial idea), where he makes videos available about his life here, showcasing different sustainability techniques he uses in his everyday life. Check out one of his videos below.
“For me, the channel is a fun way to express myself and get across my political and sustainable ideas. It also allows me to show what’s going on here, and feel a little less isolated. You work hard, early on, to get established in living a sustainable lifestyle. Each new piece of progress feels like a milestone. Then you start living that way and it becomes second nature. It gets easier, and you tend not to reflect on it very often. Having a chance to talk about my life here, and inspiring others to follow my lead, has restored my self-reflection on sustainability, and restored my passion for sharing it with others.”
Dan inspires me to self-reflect about sustainability as well, and to keep a glowing ember of imagination alive and burning bright as we go into an uncertain future. Given the chance, A.A. Milne might have summed it up this way: wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the outskirts of Dancing Rabbit, a little boy at heart, and his little dog Banjo, will always be playing.
Have you always dreaming of living a life like Dan’s? Maybe you’d like to build your own house, have a garden, and work with like-minded people toward a meaningful goal. You can look forward to visiting us in 2020; your first chance will be from April 12 – 26, and you can go ahead and reserve your spot now, if you’d like. The rest of our 2020 schedule should be posted soon, so keep your eyes peeled, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions. We can’t wait to meet you.
Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture