If the Milkweed Mercantile (Dancing Rabbit’s very own eco B&B) is the heart of the village, then the big toothy grin of the village is a charming old fellow in plaid. Folks around here like to call him Uncle Kurt. You’ll often find him hanging out at the bar sharing a joke with his friends, a coozie full of beer in one hand with the other petting his beloved dog, Virgil. (Only, that is, when he isn’t petting two dogs at once; that is the reason we have two hands, after all.)
Kurt and I recently met up for a chat in the little yard outside his house, where he regaled me with some of his most entertaining stories. It was so much fun spending some time with him, hearing a few choice memories from his rich past, peppered with the occasional joyous chuckle, and it would be my pleasure to repeat some of them for you.
Back in the early ‘90s, Kurt worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. Part of his training was a cultural immersion in the Ugandan countryside where he stayed with his Jaja, an adoptive grandmother, who showed him the ins and outs of the local culture; for Kurt, it was truly a lifelong lesson in just how much privilege we in the United States enjoy.
“I taught at a local tech school, where I made $100 a month. Meanwhile, my fellow teachers were making just $35 a month, most of whom had families to support.
“Everyone should live in the Third World for a while, just to experience how stupid-rich we are; even the poorest among us. Most of us are taking way more than we need.”
I could see the pain of nostalgia on Kurt’s face as he fell silent for a moment and looked into the distance. Before long he continued: “In Uganda, I learned to appreciate the simple pleasures. All the kids worked back at that time. One of their main chores was hauling water — they had very little time for play, so they would sing and dance on the way to the well and back.”
One particular Ugandan child would make a lasting impression on Kurt, which he relayed to me with his characteristic Cheshire Cat smile. “One day I was walking along the road and passed a little girl. She caught one glimpse of me, started crying, and ran inside. At the time I didn’t understand, and it hurt my feelings, until my language instructor explained that Ugandan parents sometimes get their children to mind by claiming that the mzungus (Swahili for Caucasian people) will come and eat them if they’re naughty.”
Kurt even got to meet Doctor Jane Goodall while he was there. “One day we were invited to Entebbe Wildlife Sanctuary, where we sat in the yard and played with baby chimpanzees, while she answered our questions. One of my fellow volunteers worked to habituate chimps in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and they showed us one of the tricks they use to keep the chimps from getting bored in captivity. They’ll find a big stump and drill it full of holes. Then they inject honey into each of the holes and scatter some straw around. The chimpanzees, adept at using tools, soon figure out that they can pick up the straw and use it to dip the honey out for a treat.”
Prior to his time in Africa, Kurt endeavored to create a community on an 80-acre farm 15 miles from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. “I lived there with my sister, brother-in-law, and their kids, plus my sister-in-law and her husband. The land was hilly and not worth much, but we had big gardens and lots of livestock. We raised about 80% of our food and canned a lot. We lost enough money on paper that we never paid any income tax. The hunting and fishing in that area was good, too.”
“We didn’t have much equipment of our own, so I had a work trade arrangement with one of my close neighbors, who fertilized turkeys. For every two hours I worked, he would come over and work for an hour with his equipment to help cut hay or combine oats.”
Kurt has been a proud member of the Sierra Club since the 1980s, and for many years he went on service trips in the boundary waters of Minnesota and Canada. One year, he was inspired by the club magazine to go on a national backpacking trip. It was on that fateful occasion that Kurt chanced to meet the love of his life: Alline, who was leading the event.
“It was love at first sight,” Kurt told me solemnly with a hand placed on his heart. “We had a long distance courtship at first — she was living in Berkeley and I was still in Minneapolis — so we would take turns flying back and forth to see each other.
“About a year into it, we decided to take the next step and live in the same town. She was helping a friend who was dying of AIDS at the time, so I decided to move. The price of rent was sky high, so Alline watched the paper and called for interviews to help me find a place to live: ‘here’s his picture, he’s nice, he’ll be a good roommate’. Before long she found a school principal who was willing to take a chance on me, and I moved into a marvelous Japanese style house with a flat roof in the hills above Berkeley; my room even had a sliding door onto the patio.”
Their move to Dancing Rabbit was a similar twist of fate. “One day back in 1999 I was listening to an NPR piece about intentional community, which mentioned different places around the world. The internet wasn’t commonplace back then, but we were fortunate enough to work at jobs with web access — she was the customer service manager for Clif Bar and I worked as an administrative assistant for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“We did a quick search, and Dancing Rabbit popped up; even back then DR had quite a website, and it made a strong impression on us. Alline and I exchanged emails at work, much like kids passing notes back and forth in school, as we did our research. Finally, Alline said: ‘yep, this is great, but there’s no way I’m moving to a hippy commune in the middle of nowhere’.
“But we decided to make a visit and joined within four days after our arrival.” (If you want to experience our community for yourself, and maybe make the same kinds of positive changes to your life that Kurt and Alline did, consider coming to our two-week visitor program. I bet Kurt would be game for a chess match with you.)
I asked Kurt to tell me about some of his favorite things about living at Dancing Rabbit, and what has made it worth his while to stick around for so long. “Well, I know everyone,” he told me. “My work day is flexible, and I get to stop and chat with folks. I can also find help any time I need it. And hey, we get to live on a 280-acre farm that only costs us $50 a month.”
Naturally, living in community comes with some challenges as well. “I’m a pragmatic, get ‘er done kind of guy, but consensus doesn’t work that way. Over time it has become one of my favorite things, because no one gets excluded. An individual has power. My advice to anyone thinking about living here is to take your time and listen, and understand that what you hear from one person might be different than what you hear from another person. You’ll probably have to work two or three jobs to keep body and soul together, and definitely don’t bring any debt.”
Back in the days when the Mercantile was under construction, he and Alline hosted a group of work exchangers to help with the process, and one of them was Kurt’s niece, who of course called him Uncle Kurt. Before long, everyone was calling him Uncle Kurt, and the name stuck.
“Building our own house and the Milkweed Mercantile has been lots of fun, and it’s a great feeling to employ so many Rabbits, and infuse the village with money. Now that the Inn is run by a co-op, I look forward to spending more time in my woodshop. After twenty years, it would be great to finally finish the inside of our house.” (Kurt is also known for making furniture and cabinets, and many of the village trees are sporting birdhouses made from his old work boots, though he confessed to me that he’s more apt to start new projects than finish them. Alline likes to refer to the sawdust clinging to Kurt’s beard as man-glitter.)
“There’s an old saying that a man gets to have one good woman and one good dog. I’ve had half a dozen good dogs, but Virgil is the best — he’s a good boy, that’s for sure — and Alline is the best woman out of the bunch, by a mile.”
At the top of the list of reasons is that Alline is such a wonderful cook. They have a tradition that you get to request anything you want to eat on your birthday, and Kurt’s favorite is meatloaf, a baked potato slathered in French onion dip, and a side of canned green beans. (Sign me up! Alline obliges, even though she hates green beans.) “My favorite dessert is Alline’s chocolate chip nut cookies sprinkled with sea salt,” he said, “but she also makes a killer carrot cake.” (You’ll find the recipe below, which Alline got from the former librarian in the nearby town of Memphis, Missouri.)
Alline is known for cooking for our visitor groups as well. Breaking bread and sharing meals with the folks who live here is one of the core experiences you can have if you decide to visit us next year, along with much, much more. There will be loads of engaging workshops to learn from, hands-on experience helping villagers with their current projects, and plenty of opportunities to relax, enveloped by nature.
One of my favorite memories of Kurt and Alline was the time they sang a duet together at a bonfire, during my own visitor experience back in 2014. They sat beside each other on a wooden bench, Alline resting her hand lovingly on Kurt’s leg, while he played the guitar. I’ll never forget the chorus: “He’s my honey, and she’s my baby — I’m never gonna let ‘em go.” May everyone be so blessed as to find the love that Kurt and Alline share, surrounded by a community of friends and loved ones.
Queen Alline’s (Not Just Any) Carrot Cake
Preheat oven to 350°
Grease and flour three 9” round pans (this makes too much batter for a 9×13” pan – the middle will not cook and the outside will be dry) or two 9×13” pans. 8” pans are too small.
1 cup salad oil
1 c. white sugar
1 c. brown sugar
1 ½ – 2 c water or soymilk
4 c. unbleached white flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
3 c. grated carrots
1 c. chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
½ c. raisins
Blend oil and sugar, add water and beat.
Sift the flour with remaining dry ingredients and add to sugar mixture.
Add carrots and nuts and mix well.
Grease your pan/pans.
Bake in a 9×13” pan at 350 for 35-40 minutes.
Remove from oven.
Pour Buttermilk Glaze (recipe below) over cake (while it is still hot from the oven and still in the cake pan).
Let cool. Remove from pan.
Frost with Cream Cheese frosting (recipe below).
Genese Lewis’ Buttermilk Glaze (vegan option below)
NOTE: The cake is just fine without this but it does make it especially yummy.
Yield: 1 ½ cups
1 c. sugar
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 Tb light corn syrup
½ c. buttermilk OR ½ cup milk + 1 Tb lemon juice or vinegar
½ c (1 stick) butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Bring first five ingredients to a boil over medium high heat.
Boil, stirring often, four minutes
Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla.
NOTE: for vegan option, substitute unsweetened soy/almond/rice milk with lemon juice and vegan margarine (such as Earth Balance Buttery StIcks)
Classic Cream Cheese Frosting
12 ounces Cream Cheese (1 ½ packages)
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter, softened
3 c. sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Beat together Cream Cheese and butter until fluffy, using stand mixer with whisk attachment.
SIFT the powdered sugar.
Add in ½ cup increments, beating between every addition, scraping bottom and sides of bowl. Add vanilla.
Add more sugar if frosting is too wet, milk if it is too stiff.
NOTE: for vegan frosting, sub 2 containers Tofutti “Better Than Cream Cheese”, and 1 stick soy margarine (we use Earth Balance Buttery Sticks)
Cake recipe inspired by The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, Buttermilk Glaze courtesy of Genisse the Librarian. Vegan options created in the Milkweed Mercantile kitchen.