Goat kids and does on fresh pasture.

Sweeter Milk Equals Better Cheddar: A Dancing Rabbit Update

These are not normal times for any of us. For the second year in a row the peaches are almost entirely bloom-less, even though the pears and apples are bursting into a full complement. We actually managed to get peas in the ground in a timely way this year!  

No, like everybody else in the world we are learning and unlearning new things here every day in these strange times. In my 45 years I have never lived through anything that has so thoroughly gripped the entire world at once as this COVID-19 event.  

Ted here to bring you the news from Dancing Rabbit, where intentional community has taken on a different sort of meaning over the past few weeks as social distancing, purposeful isolation, and sanitation practices have seeped in and co-opted our daily lives. 

For several weeks now I’ve had the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera running through my head as I contemplate the changes in daily norms we’ve all been rapidly adjusting to. In a place where hugs are a frequent greeting between fellow villagers, where we often share potluck meals, walks, games, and other events with each other, and where infrastructural elements like kitchens and bathrooms are frequently shared between unrelated people, things really feel like they’ve been turned upside down. 

Like any community, we are a mix of people with different circumstances here. Some are younger, some older; some live with background health issues, some not; some have more exposure to the wider community through their work, while others can go weeks or months without venturing further than Rutledge, Sandhill, or Red Earth – just a few miles’ radius. Accordingly there have been varying degrees of concern about the possible arrival of the new coronavirus in our midst, but increasingly a sense of common cause, all of us trying to adjust our habits to care for the most vulnerable among us.  

As more information and understanding about the particulars of this pandemic have accumulated, we’ve been refining our strategies for keeping everybody safe and healthy. For many years we’ve staffed an Emergency Response Committee for the village. For most of those years (aside from a chicken pox event coinciding with the arrival of a new baby more than a decade ago) the committee’s work has been mostly theoretical, but the team rapidly scaled up a month or more ago, meeting virtually and regularly offering guidance and information resources for the village. We are grateful for their work! 

One of the most noticeable adjustments of this time for me has been the increased awareness of who we are each connected to in physical space. Whereas the family might be the basic unit of shared exposure if I lived elsewhere, the daily contact I keep with other Ironweeders to share kitchen, food, and cooking means that for COVID exposure purposes I am connected in turn to the other people each of them shares their days with. The kitchen also serves as the storage center and distribution point for the dairy co-op and all its members, so we have two groups with overlapping use of the same space.  

Danielle works in the Dancing Rabbit office in the common building, and Prairie and Aurelia each make use of the piano there on a daily basis, so there is overlap with those who frequent that building for their daily needs, though masks have become de rigueur there. Sara is a midwife with regular trips outside the village and the need to avoid exposing clients to contagion. She has been almost daily in touch with other midwives very actively adjusting to the needs of the moment, including moms at all stages of pregnancy who had not previously considered home birth but are now keen to avoid a hospital setting. Multiply this range of factors for each other grouping of people in the village, and it gets increasingly complicated. 

What I’ve loved, and will long remember about this period (assuming I make it through it!) are the individual efforts to help out while still having fun. Katherine, who as one of the consistent users of the common building took on sanitizing its various doors, switches, and surfaces on a daily basis, has also started manufacturing and distributing beautifully made cloth face masks from a workstation in the great room. Alline, along with Apple at Red Earth and others, have joined in producing these as well. Villager and Rutledge fire chief Javi has been deputized to receive and distribute supplies from FEMA to various departments in the area, though there has been precious little coming through, given the challenges first responders are facing in this crisis.  

Alline last week arranged a party for Kurt’s birthday where individual chairs were set up in the road in front of the Mercantile at six-foot distances (along with grouped chairs for various families), each with a cupcake, candle, and mini book of matches. At the appointed time, we all gathered, each lit candles (or tried to, in the breeze), sang to Kurt, and sat about talking and eating together at approved distance before going our separate ways again. Andi, who as a paramedic for Knox County must already be out and about, has taken on Kurt’s regular weekly town trips, doing errands for everybody once a week and allowing Kurt and the rest of us to stay put and get our needs met without venturing out into the world.  

Groups that do share exposure with each other, like our eating cooperative, are being re-enlivened as social lifelines. Several evenings after dinner last week, Ironweed sat around the table playing games, and one night ventured up onto the roof of Osage to see the village from a higher vantage and greet passers-by from an approved distance. Ultimate Frisbee has not been happening (sometimes as much for the windy days as the potential for viral exposure), but some of us have started going out to at least toss a disc each day, sanitizing afterward. New residents and work exchangers are still arriving, and others returning from winters away, and spending two weeks isolating before venturing further into the village. 

We don’t know how long all this will last, but it is comforting that amidst all the new and different, there are plenty of things that don’t change. As spring ripens, the earth greens up, flowers open, trees bloom, and we prepare garden beds and hundreds of tiny seedlings with which to populate them. Turns out gardening is a fine activity for people to share at a slight distance while still providing each other company and contact. Sugar’s milk is sweetening up as she ventures on to the first green pasture, and now is the time for making the best cheddars of the year.  

The goat kids are growing by the day and soon we’ll be milking the does again and have a steady supply of chevre. In a time of scarcity on grocery shelves and difficulty getting to the stores, it is extremely gratifying to have abundance here at home. Thank goodness the trees are leafing out, because it has become just as hard here as anywhere to procure toilet paper. Thankfully we tend to buy things by the case when we buy them, and our household had just bought a case of 60 rolls in early February! 

Another thing that doesn’t change is the need for organizations to keep working. At a time when we would already be hosting our first visitor session of the year alongside Mercantile programs and other events, the nonprofit is turning its energies to producing virtual visitor programs. Prairie and I will be filming the making of sauerkraut this coming week, and those of us who normally offer workshops to visitors have been approached about recording our usual offerings like mine on land use planning and alternative energy. We are working on significantly boosting our online offerings all around, and hope you’ll keep checking in on the latest. 

Speaking of which, Dancing Rabbit is among the many nonprofits and other organizations participating in this spring’s Give STL Day this coming May 7th. Many of us are stretched thin in the pocketbook these days with the upending of normal work schedules and paychecks, but if you are in a position to contribute to your favorite causes this spring, and want to help keep them afloat amidst unprecedented financial turbulence, the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture at Dancing Rabbit gratefully seeks your support! Check out www.givestlday.org as May 7th approaches, with opportunities to multiply your giving with matching gifts. And if you just can’t wait, you can also visit and donate on our web site any time you want: www.dancingrabbit.org. To all of you out there who have supported us over the years, thank you! We are deeply grateful. 

There are many more stories to tell, and perhaps Christina will offer more of them in a couple weeks, but we’d also love to hear how you’re holding up out there. Despite the  massive economic cost of this epidemic, I’ve been heartened to see the many stories about how rapidly the polluted skies clear over cities around the world as industry has shut down. Do we really have to trade economic progress for breathable air? I’m hopeful for the many policy debates and personal discussions that will inevitably come out of this event, and hopefully lead us all to thoughtful consideration of what future we want to share.  

The best stories, though, are those about individuals like you, stepping up to do your best and then some amidst unprecedented circumstances that lead us to question all our assumptions about life. However you are getting through this time, whatever inspiration you are finding, I applaud you and hope you’ll keep your spirits up and let us know what is keeping you going. From all of us at Dancing Rabbit, strength! Love! Hope! 

P.S. Thank you all for being connected to Dancing Rabbit and its continuing mission to spread sustainable knowledge. On May 7th you can further maximize your gift by giving in the hour of 12pm-1pm. Most importantly, stay safe during this uncertain time. – Matthew Bunge, CSCC Development Director