Lessons from the Ecovillage

Guest blogger Jami Gaither reports on her recent stay at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, located in Rutledge, MO.

Guest post by Jami Gaither

I expected my three-week Visitor Session at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to expose me to natural building, cisterns and alternative power. What I didn’t expect were the surprises I encountered.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

The first surprise was the amazingly good vegan/vegetarian food. Who knew it could be so tasty, filling and energizing? We had meat for only three meals in three weeks. While I rarely eat fish, at my first dinner back in “concrete world” I ordered Mahi Mahi. This was the most attractive item on the menu and a healthy alternative to my usual chicken or pork. My time at Dancing Rabbit influenced how I see and consume food.

The limited and well-planned use of vehicles was another revelation. Each week, residents review the needed vehicle plans. Seventy people manage to share four vehicles: a Jetta, a Passat, a Leaf, and a large work truck with optional trailer. They do this by planning trips and combining them when possible. The cost for each trip is paid by the member taking it. The $0.65/mile covers the cost of the car, gas, insurance, and maintenance.

For example, a 125-mile round-trip from Dancing Rabbit to the Possibility Alliance, an educational homestead in La Plata, MO, cost me just over $20 ($81.25 divided by 4 riders). This initially seemed pricey to me. But I realized that minimizing the need for travel and sharing rides makes the cost of having a vehicle very reasonable.

The full schedules of members was a third recognition. “Rabbits,” as residents are known, are busy building homes (largely by hand) while raising food (via small-scale organic gardening) and children (some are home-schooled). They do all this in keeping with a commitment to the Dancing Rabbit mission:

To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.

Members and residents spend a few to several hours per week on tasks that keep the community and co-ops functioning. Tasks range from clearing paths and dumping humey (humanure) buckets to cooking a meal for a food co-op. Many also pledge hours to committee work. Since discussions are consensus-based with open/clear/respectful communication by all, this important work can be some of the hardest to do.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

This brings me to the biggest surprise of all: the commitment to interact using non-violent communication (NVC) and mediation. My NVC training was eye-opening; it takes much energy, commitment, honesty, and trust.

Some say that living in an intentional community is the most expensive, longest lasting personal development program you’ll ever experience. The community becomes a house of mirrors. Even in my short visit, I learned how my perspective and experience govern my words and deeds. Several interactions indicated I’d hit a nerve or spoken callously…unaware or inconsiderate of the perspective of the other. Working on self-improvement can be a long process.

Some argue that we do not have environmental problems, only communication problems that prevent us from using resources wisely and for the greatest good of the whole. The more we communicate, the closer we feel to others. That sense of connectedness encourages us to take care of others and be less self-focused.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

I believe that with some effort, we can each make strides to be more self-aware and considerate. In time, we can interact more effectively and humanely with our fellow beings on Mother Earth.

Ohio native Jami Gaither is a recently retired metallurgical engineer now pursuing a lifestyle based on sustainability, simplicity and fun. While not yet certain of her life path to come, the process of exploring is keeping her enthralled. She lives in Minnesota with her husband Danny.

A Sacred Act

“Healing the wounds of the earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption and persistence. it is not a liberal or a conservative activity; it is a sacred act. It is a massive enterprise undertaken by ordinary citizens everywhere…”

—Paul Hawken, in Blessed Unrest

People's Climate March 2014 NYC
Some 400,000 people demonstrated for climate action in New York City last weekend. (A friend and I went to the youth-led Bloomington rally to help “raise the alarm” about climate change; the best part after the hooting and hollering was singing “We’ve got the whole world in our hands.”)

Stay tuned for a guest post from someone who joined the NYC demonstration.

To Look Up

It hit me hard last week when the Audubon Society reported that half of North American birds’ migratory routes are threatened by climate change.

If loons find it too hot to summer in Minnesota, then what? You’d think they should just aim farther north, but will they find the food and cover that matches their needs? Are they supposed to migrate higher and higher till they fly right off the planet’s roof?

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

The scenario is not confined to some far-off future. It’s now. Southern California saw 90 to 95 percent of raptor nests failing because of drought. No nests, no procreation. How long can a species survive climate disruption?

I find I can’t stay with this topic; it’s too painful.

I felt the same last month, learning about a gigantic crater that opened in the Siberian permafrost. Scientists link the melting to warmer-than-normal summers the last two years, and say such sinkholes release vast amounts of methane.

Methane gas is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide, with 20 times the impact on climate change, according to the EPA.

In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben describes a number of self-reinforcing feedback loops that lead to a faster and faster rate of climate change. The crater is just one example. He explains the feedback loops in this video.

Here we are, immersed in our lives, going around feeling one minute one way, the next another. I feel despondent. I cheer up. My writing goes well. My writing goes poorly. I help someone. I say something dumb. I worry over my sick cat. I celebrate her recovery. I walk around my neighborhood and love the trees. I come home and feel lonely, pleased, scared, self-satisfied, hopeless, and on and on.

I’m a dizzying universe. As are we all. Most of us barely keep it together, doing what needs to be done to meet the day-to-day demands of life.

And all the while, this other thing is winging above us. This bigger picture of demise.

Rise up...

And to look up invites so much pain, which we already have aplenty.

Two things help me face the times we live in. One is external, the other internal.

On the external side, I reach out, take action, make something, do something. I connect with neighbors who care as deeply as I do. Or join a demonstration, like this Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City. (I will join a crowd closer to home, at the People’s Climate Gathering in Bloomington.)

I plant a seed. I get moving.

On the internal side, I stay still and connect with what endures. I remind myself that matter is just slow energy, and energy can’t be destroyed. Feeling into my energy body takes me to a place beyond fear. Whatever the future brings, it will be better if I stay in this moment.

“Look up and see the light from the sun. And now see everything beneath it, everything around you. You are in the garden.”

—Karen Maezen Miller, Paradise in Plain Sight

Note: If you’re on the fence about joining this weekend’s events, read Rebecca Solnit’s new essay. “Only great movements, only collective action can save us now,” she writes.

Reconnecting

Today I enjoyed time with two friends in two separate food-related endeavors. One of them crazy enough to get up early and go questing for a supposedly killer purslane haul. The other tenacious enough to spend several hours shredding produce in my kitchen to make two varieties of sauerkraut.

Two crocks of veggies are fermenting on my table right now.

A batch we made together another time.

A batch we made together another time.

The purslane was a little “gone by,” but we are salvaging it as chicken feed.

And in both cases, we had a great time together, reconnecting.

It made me think of something I just read in an e-newsletter from an eco-village called Dancing Rabbit.

Relearning harmony with the earth at this time in existence is a great undertaking, in a world where bug spray, Big Macs, smartphones, and petroleum are readily available.

Young Thoughtful

It is a great undertaking, I agree. Everything in our culture pulls in the opposite direction. But friends can ease the way. They make swimming upstream companionable.

What about you? In what ways do your friends join you in living a bit more lightly on the planet?

Now We’re Cooking…with Sunshine

We offered our solar cooking workshop last weekend to an enthusiastic “crowd” of 17. That’s the biggest group a Pogue’s Run Grocer class has ever attracted, so we were pleased.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy has developed a wooden model, but we’re still working out the kinks. So we focused the class on “the old workhorse,” our tried-and-true cardboard box cooker. We wanted to show that you can start cooking with sunshine using only cheap (or free!) materials.

Judy adapted the design out of our solar cookery bible, Cooking with Sunshine. And you can find DIY instructions online as well.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector--and you can make this out of a wire hanger.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector. You can make this out of a wire hanger.

One of the attendees, a firefighter, plans to make the box cooker at the firehouse. He has a big vegetable garden, and he brought us all kinds of herbs and veggies in thanks for the teaching. He was eager to try using up garden produce in all-day stews and soups.

And we discovered after the class was done that another of the attendees has already been experimenting with solar cooking quite a bit. He sent me this inspiring video, proving me wrong when I said, “No, you can’t solar cook in the winter, because the sun’s too low.” Check it out!

The company behind this innovative design is called Solar Clutch. Its mission is promoting solar cooking in high risk areas of the world. I hadn’t heard of Solar Clutch, but I’m proud to find my home state of Indiana producing such a company.

Perhaps solar cooking season doesn’t have to end on Sept. 15 after all!

Good to Grow

Guest post by Luke Taylor, who started a business called Good to Grow with his wife, Emily

Luke and Emily Taylor

Luke and Emily Taylor

Based out of Irvington, on the east side of Indianapolis, Good to Grow aims to harness the power of community to revolutionize the way we interact with overlooked natural resources.

What does it look like to “harness the power of community?” And what are these overlooked natural resources?

The power of community is a shared vision, and many hands. Our vision is one that makes it easy for neighbors to make choices that not only benefit their community, but also themselves. Choices like saving their food waste to create compost—and collecting rainwater to reduce water bills and strain on municipal utilities.

Good to Grow's custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Good to Grow’s custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Some might call this “being green,” or recycling. I am happy thinking of it as purely selfish.

If you have altruistic notions of saving the world one recycled cardboard box at a time, great! Continue seeking out ways to heal your part of the world through changes large and small. Your community needs more people like you.

Many in your community, however, need a layup. (Editor’s note: a layup, for the basketball-uninitiated, is the easiest of shots, more difficult to miss than make.) These folks will only choose to recycle if they are standing next to a bin or a forest ranger is looking in their direction.

Or if they receive something free as a reward. In short, they need incentive.

Developing an incentive framework to support behavior change is our goal at Irvington’s Good to Grow.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor's vegetable scraps.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor’s vegetable scraps.

One such framework is Irvington’s composting program. Already being championed by 16 households, this initiative’s ultimate goal is to collect compostable food waste and distribute finished compost (a valuable organic fertilizer) at the very same time. The idea is to connect beneficial behavior as seamlessly as possible with valuable incentive and convenience.

It is my hope that this idea encourages communities to create incentive frameworks of their own!

Luke Taylor moved to Irvington, Indianapolis with his wife Emily in early 2013. They chose this neighborhood mostly because of its strong sense of community. The Taylors wanted to be a part of it, and to encourage its growth. With Good to Grow as the vessel for delivery, they have a vision for Irvington that will amplify and enrich our local resources, bringing together an already blossoming Indianapolis community. One day, they dream to be able to enrich other Indianapolis communities in the same way by sharing the Good to Grow framework.

Building with the Mudgirls

I spent part of last week at a workshop offered by the Mudgirls, a natural building collective in British Columbia.

The Mudgirls strive to live lightly on the earth while sharing skills among themselves and the wider community. And when it comes to resilience, building shelter from earthen materials is about as serious as you can get. This is a group that embodies the reimagined world, and a powerful DIWO (do-it-with-others) spirit.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

Collective member Rose hosted our workshop on cooperatively owned land on Denman Island. We camped in the forest by night and bartered our labor for instruction by day. About 15 others took part, bringing enthusiasm and good humor to the work.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Rose is converting an existing structure on the land into a home for herself and her family. Using temporary plywood forms, we packed the walls with insulating material called slip straw. We made this insulation from straw and a clay-and-water slurry.

Making "slip straw" to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

Making “slip straw” to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

In a few weeks the walls will be dry enough to plaster.

house

House with slip straw insulation in the walls. The plywood is temporary, just to create a form to pack the slip straw in.

A hand-laid stone foundation forms the base for a cob-walled addition. (The team that worked on setting the stone found it a lesson in patience.)

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

We all helped mix the cob, which is a blend of clay, sand, and water, with a sprinkling of straw. While clay has compressive strength, it lacks tensile strength–the role of the straw. We learned that the straw has a similar job as rebar in concrete, adding internal structure to the dense material.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Building the wall was perhaps the most exciting task.

Building the wall

Building the wall

Some people made it look easy. But I’m still not sure the section I worked on could be called plumb!

Room addition taking form, with window.

Room addition taking form, with window.

I asked Molly, one of the Mudgirls who helped with instruction, how the Mudgirls mission fits into the broader picture of ecological and societal upheaval. Beyond  her passion for natural building, she told me, what excites her is the community that’s being nurtured.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

The women of the collective have known each other for years and have a solid commitment to each other. They make decisions by consensus, taking the time to talk things out (though in recent years the talks are shorter as the big issues have been resolved). Members all know that they have each others’ best interest at heart, and each agrees to take responsibility for her own needs and desires.

Molly said that people who come to workshops often reconnect at later events, forming lasting friendships. So community extends beyond the core collective. She sees participants as pollinators, taking our inspiration beyond the islands of British Columbia.

Example of a finished cob house (actually this one's a hybrid).

Example of a finished cob exterior.

For me the experience was all about the freedom to try something new. I had to grant myself compassion for the learning curve, and work on forgiving my body its frailties. The Mudgirls’ supportive environment made that possible.

And it was thrilling to help build an actual home. These hands that spend so much time on a keyboard are part of Rose’s homestead now.