Howdy y’all. Ben here, with another update from the dusty, dry, wasp-ridden savannahs of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeast Missouri. Wasps are in the forefront of my mind, as I’ve allowed the buildup of several large nests around our homestead (peaceful creature that I am) and I am feeling a few stings related to that decision. Between some welts, an old shoulder injury, and a freak knife accident, right now feels like a fine time to sit down for a minute and give y’all a brief update on life here.
As the summer chugs along, the inevitable stagnation and entropy that comes with living closely with the elements has taken hold of my weak little soul. There’s the dry soil; the dozen or so bruises, punctures, rashes and bites; the gaps in the fence; the total social overwhelm with the accompanying lack of faith in communal and demonstrative living; the accelerated growth and appetite of the pullets and piglets; the list of goals still unmet; the disappointment of failed crops; the flowering ragweed; and the accumulated humidity in our earthen hovel. After three years of being happily in the ground, about half of my hazelnuts are dead, for some as yet unknown reason.
While I’ve turned the corner from care and cultivation to harvest on some of the garden crops, like tomatoes, okra, and peppers, there appears to be some critter taste testing only the finest specimens. I’ve eaten summer squash every way I can think of. There are no more ways. Shredded and fermented is my favorite. Ferments are fun, because each jar is unique, and if something doesn’t rev your motor, it can be taken to potluck. The okra-fennel jar was pretty all over the map, but the coriander-zucchini has the familiar tang of gringo-fied taco seasoning packets from the grocery store.
Although the mosquito-filled malaise of summer, paired with the tragicomedy of being forced to advance as a human being in the fishbowl of a community where it seems like other folks are more invested in my personal growth than I am, has chipped away at my soul for weeks, or months, or years now, my investments in this land and lifestyle have begun to pay off in many ways, excluding financially. We have a couple of new, if not complete, barns built to last with an overall low embodied energy, a steadily improving series of pastures and tree plantings, a surplus of fertility and organic matter in some places, and a continuously evolving understanding of how to more efficiently and sustainably produce food. Yet still, the work it takes to get here is exhausting. In spite of all the ways I’ve been able to advance in these projects due to the cooperative nature of living in community, the allure of a less complex life still calls to me on occasion.
Tomatoes can be walked away from. Building projects, humanure buckets, overdue bills, and weird pickles can all be ignored at times so that matters of the spirit can be tended. But a dozen pigs, a dozen goats, several dozens of chickens, turkeys, and ducks, two dogs, and a cow can’t merely exist on their own for even a few hours without the hand of human intervention. (Cats are fine without us.) Perhaps that’s what made having the opportunity to drift away from the ecovillage with my family for a few days, for the first time in years, really nice. I didn’t do much of anything on my three days of vacation. That was the point. Thanks to the folks who helped make it happen. Upon our return, I discovered that the weeds in our garden got to be waist high, that we have several played-out pastures, and a malfunctioning cow waterer, but not having to know about these things for a minute was nice at the time. I have a lot of catch up work to perform now.
All of this toil might seem romantic, or ridiculous, to the outside observer. I know it looks that way to me most of the time. Is there any practicality in growing my own food when there’s a massive infrastructure of industrial farms, transportation, logistics, and corporate welfare combining to make obtaining nourishment easier than it ever has been in human history, at least here in the affluent western world? Is there any logic in carefully tending a patch of strawberries, or lovingly selecting and maintaining perennial onions, that most folks would rather not eat? Is breaking less than even on organic eggs or pastured pork pointless when there’s a commodity market out there flooding the shelves with any number of proteins suitable for human consumption, from cheap, sad bacon to cheap, sad tofu, nestled in their plastic tombs? Probably not now, while there’s a whole petro-industrial complex and culture of consumption propping up the affair, but that system can’t stand forever.
Sometimes it seems the things I value have no value in them. I can raise pigs and chickens to express their full pigness and chickeness, improve eroded and deteriorated soils, plant pecans that likely won’t bear nuts in my lifetime, and raise my little boy to use the advantage he has as a white man to become an ally to others rather than to oppress, but these things do not pay the bills, and outside of my bubble here, I somehow doubt they hold any meaning at all. Then again, most millionaires have fewer bills to pay than the rest of us, so if financial solvency is a moral imperative, I’d prefer to take a look at those folks rather than those who need some assistance, if our system of democracy is supposed to be equitable.
While it is perhaps true that living in poverty never fixed anything, I still maintain that a life of thoughtful, voluntary simplicity is a step forward for humans, rather than an existence of conspicuous consumption, and I dearly hope that Dancing Rabbit always remains a place where folks choose to demonstrate this. Within our recent history of unfettered conquest and capitalism, the human race owes all of its advancement to broadened knowledge and understanding of the sciences, material and social. GDP has little to do with it, and the material and social breakdowns we face on a global level have always been the result of a prosperous few. I have seen more folks uplifted by community than by capitalism. The signs of it are everywhere, not just in a place where we intentionally cooperate, but in the local diners and gas stations where neighbors slip cash into a jar for folks affected by sickness or natural disaster. Nobody in northeast Missouri kicks down five bucks for a neighbor’s cancer recovery and expects a tax write-off, and I strongly suspect that’s the case in other places as well. Humans on the individual level are highly capable of assigning value to things without using the framework of money. If this could occur on a cultural scale, some things might turn around for us as a global community.
The day here is still young. Mother hens are striding and scratching far and wide with their little chicks scampering about, plucking seeds from the ripe foxtail. Below the heavy umbels of elder, laden with purple-black berries, some fat pigs are snorting and snuffling in the duff. I lay down a couple lines of grass with my scythe for tree mulch, a procedure that would take 5% as much time with some petro-diesel and the right machine, but the kids are still dreaming sweetly and I can afford to do this by hand. How many folks can afford living simply when they’re chasing a buck? When I’m doing the work, caring for the land, my people, and my livestock, it’s pretty easy to put away the stress of medical bills, feed bills, and land payments. I can feel the value of something bigger than a figure on a spreadsheet. I am hard-pressed to assign a dollar amount to one of these big, warm Cherokee Purple tomatoes. I’ll leave it to the market, I suppose. For now I’ll live my values, instead of seeking value. It’s just another day, another dollar for me; except no dollar. If there was a dollar amount I could pay to ensure other folks could afford the privilege I have in being able to live simply and freely, then I’d dig deep. We have the knowledge and the resources. Thousands of years of hoarding surplus grain hasn’t brought us any nearer to abundance. Nor has continuing to extract resources that ought to remain in place. Abundance is building a culture where folks freely give what they can and take what they need, and I honestly don’t see what’s so difficult about that.
Would it interest you to come see our village and meet some of the people who live here? Join us on any Thursday, from 4 – 8pm, for pizza and a beer at the Milkweed Mercantile, our very own eco tavern. The desserts alone are worth the drive; last week, Alline made peach cheesecake and a peach-blueberry pie. For the best directions from your location, search Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Google Maps. See you soon!