Emeshe embracing a pig

Mindful Attention to Rural Life: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Well, the sun is licking DR dry like an over-eager puppy, and the village population is trying to capture as much heat as possible before winter. It seems like these days some of us are embodying squirrels rather than rabbits with borrowing, nesting, and collecting stores on the daily to ensure maximum coziness come November. 

Emeshe here, natural building wexer (work-exchanger), child tamer, and amateur pig chaser extraordinaire. I’ve spent the past four summers living and working at DR. I’ve done this at least partially to soothe the gloomy outlook I picked up while acquiring a we’re-so-screwed degree in environmental sociology. Nothing like a full day’s work caring for cute animals and good people to take the mind off an impending climate catastrophe. Am I an escapist? Maybe, but I don’t really think so. To me, it feels like I come to DR to do some of the work that needs to get done if we want a hopeful future. Growing food on a sustainable scale, building with fewer toxic chemicals, constructing community, and self healing all feels worthwhile. 

It’s not all frolicking around in the fields, however. Our work takes time and it takes attention — a great deal of it. The dairy co-op pays incredibly close attention to their goat herd, always monitoring the animal’s health, the quality of their pasture, and their milk production. While helping with the  morning goat chores, I’ve often seen my friend, Mae, rejoice at the completion of a lush paddock as if she were the one who was going to be grazing on it. I marvel at the attention that Ben over at Fox Holler Farmstead pays to his crops as we harvest and preserve a million burrito bowls’ worth of jalapeños and paprika peppers from his hoop house. And I even get to cultivate this attention in myself as I smooth the final coat of clay plaster onto the bumpy straw bale walls of SubHub, a natural building which will be ready for winter habitation this year.

If something isn’t done mindfully around here, it doesn’t work. Forget about your cook fire for too long, and you get crispy beans; stomp a batch of plaster without inspecting your materials first, you get a wayward screw to the foot; put too much straw in your plaster, you spend the next hour trying to flatten a muddy mass that’s hellbent on staying lumpy. Working with fewer homogenized, industrial products can leave a person sweaty and seething.  

So what’s the value in doing things that necessitate all this extra attention? It’s a question that sometimes sneaks up on me when I’m trying to wrestle goat fence out of a rose bush before I’ve had my morning coffee, or a stampede of ants somehow makes it from the ground into my armpits as I harvest potatoes. After some good mulling over, I think my answer to this question is captured in the Mary Oliver quote: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

I can buy a box of goat cheese from the store and pay zero dollars in attention, but will I care about the animals and people that made it? I could get a job painting houses and cover their seamlessly flat walls all the livelong day, but would I care about the family that was going to live inside? It’s almost as if paying attention to something makes it more real and makes its beauty easier to see. When I work on a natural building here it seems alive, like a big brown creature I’m helping coax into existence. Maybe this is a side effect of devotion; the devotion it takes to do something the hard way. Maybe it is a side effect of love.

In my experience, it is impossible to love something without paying attention to it. And I’ve also noticed that I struggle to work hard at improving something without loving it first. So love is what I see when the people of Dancing Rabbit come together to take a consensus training on a Sunday afternoon, or flood into our new communication class. It’s also what I see when we don our battered work gloves to clean up the village before our annual Land Day celebration. It may not look flashy, but it is a means by which we care for this community by paying attention to its needs.

I think that this is what DR is teaching me: to attend to something until I love it, and to love something in a way that makes me want to attend to it. Maybe this something is the world, maybe it’s my connection to other people, and maybe it’s my ever-bumbling self. It’s a lesson that I hope will be shared with those who come through the village this month for our visitor program and women’s retreat, as the lengthening nights ask us all to pay attention to the things that we care for. 

Emeshe Amade has returned to DR as a wexer for the last four years, working at Foxholler Farm and the SubHub natural building project. Her cheerful nature and hard work ethic make her a welcome return, year after year. We also appreciate her perspective as a guest writer of this column.