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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