Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A glimpse into Dancing Rabbit.

Hey everyone! As promised, I've uploaded some pictures. A big THANK YOU to John Caldwell, who helped me with the computer gear I forgot at home.

1. My Humble Abode

I sleep in a two-person tent sheltered by an additional tarp tied to surrounding foliage. It's pretty swanky. The whole system has managed to weather a few significant thunderstorms and although the gusty winds cause some serious shakin', the floor and all my belongings have remained completely dry. The log on the left-hand side of the picture is serving as kind of violin bridge, wedged into the ground and supporting the majority of the tarp. I don't do much more than sleep and store my stuff in the tent.

2. My Project

Ted, Sarah, and Aurelia currently live in a two-room house with a small greenhouse. The house is made of recycled lumber insulated by blown cellulose and recycled shredded blue jeans. You can see the top of the house's four solar panels peeking over the roof. Their kitchen is another building entirely (see next photo). Aurelia is getting bigger (today is her FOURTH birthday) and the folks have decided to slap on a pretty big addition. I arrived with most of the foundation already in place. The beams that you see in this photo are part of the work I've accomplished with Ted and another work-exchanger, Sean. The process is slowed significantly by the hard osage wood and our recent lack of solar energy. We should be back on track soon.

3. Ironweed Kitchen

In my previous entry, I explained how the village is divided up into several eating cooperatives. I eat at "Ironweed Kitchen." This building showcases many of the ecological building techniques that Dancing Rabbit residents often employ. Firstly, you can see that four solar panels on the south-facing roof. The southern wall has the most windows and is further sheltered by a translucent tool shed. This shed doubles as a temperature shield during the extreme months. The walls are made of cob, a combination of clay, sand, and straw sealed in cob plaster, all of which was excavated from Dancing Rabbit Property. The walls are also very thick (up to 16 inches) in order to provide the building thermal mass. This allows the building to adjust slowly to changes in temperature. Therefore, when it's a punishing 90 degrees outside, the inside of the building is warming up relatively slowly from the cool evening. While it's no air conditioning, the air is certainly "conditioned" and done so for next to free! Notice also the rain barrel. All water in this facility is provided by the clouds. Our drinking water is filtered, but our dish water is basically rain water and is powered by good, ole' fashion gravity.

4. Brand New Wall!

I spent this afternoon finishing this wall on Ted and Sarah's balcony. The wall is made of cob and decorated with empty glass bottles. Besides looking really cool, the bottles also let light in through the thick wall. Cob is pretty amazing stuff. I actually extracted the clay for this cob and mixed it with sand and straw using my own two feet. The hairy looking stuff is straw that will be plastered over at a later date. Cob serves as both structural support and insulation, and will protect a building from moisture if sealed thoroughly. My hat, by the way, is hanging on a bottle sticking out of the wall.

5. The Common House

One of the first buildings you see when driving into the village is a large, salmon-colored building called the Common House. This serves as an all-community gathering place and is used for meetings, musical performances, movie-watching, cooking, dining, houses an excellent and comfy library, internet access (the building I'm currently sitting in), showering, and laundry. It's a lot of stuff in one building. Of course, all this activity requires ENERGY, which is provided by an enormous solar array. The energy level is constantly monitored and displayed in a green-to-red color code (not unlike the homeland security terror alerts). It's been sunny, so we've been on "green" for the past few days. Long term plans for the community involve constructing an even larger common house to the north. But for now, this building seems to be serving the village pretty well.

6. Ziggy and April's House.

This house was too cool not to show in the blog. It's a circular cob home with a living roof. Ziggy built the home about a year ago and apparently it's been featured in many ecological building websites in the web. And yes, that's Ziggy taking a break from a hard day's work. His garden is in the foreground.

More pictures to follow!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

No one is really "self-sufficient". Nor would they want to be.

(Written Yesterday)

Today is Saturday, and as such, we’re taking a break from work, and thank goodness because it’s ninety degrees, sunny, and huuuumid. I endured the first thunderstorm in my tent last night, complete with gusty winds, lightening, and torrents of rain. I am happy to report that my tent and all its contents remain completely dry!

I spent much of the morning engaged in an intense game of ultimate Frisbee- a Saturday morning community ritual at Dancing Rabbit. Later in July, residents of DR (myself included) and its two neighboring ecovillages will compete as a team in the “Show-Me State Games” in Columbia, MO against any number of teams throughout the state. For most of my life, I’ve unconsciously avoided keeping score during pick-up games of basketball, softball, or name-that-pick-up game. I’m not one for scores. Therefore, blending in to the non-competitive fervor of ecovillage Ultimate Frisbee was a pretty seamless endeavor. The team rosters change constantly as participants sub-in and out, and the game ends when everyone runs out of energy. The experience is topped of with a blissful dip in “the pond”, the thermo cline of which a human of my stature can reach right around knee-deep. Few experiences are as refreshing, except for maybe a Bela Fleck accompanying Ruth Akello on thumb piano.

Before the ultimate game, I took time to photograph some of the more exciting structures in the village. I’ll do my best to post some pictures as soon as I get a hold of the necessary hardware to transfer pictures from my camera to my computer. While wandering the village, I entered into one particularly fruitful conversation about “self-sufficiency” with a neighbor. As I’ve discussed earlier, members of this community produce much of the energy, food, shelter, and waste management on-site. Relative to conventional residential development, which replaces gardens with supermarkets and roof-top solar panels with regional-scale power plants (and their accompanying security risks), ecovillage life is often described as “self-sufficient” because residents are able to fortify most of these systems locally.

But, as I discovered, there are multiple “levels of self” throughout this village. Very few residents actually do everything alone. For example, it would be very difficult to construct your own house without at least some help raising walls and transporting lumber. For this task and others, DR residents have outsourced work exchangers (wexers), like myself, opting to trade food and knowledge for labor. There are other more formalized “levels of self” throughout the village. Very few residents actually eat/cook in isolated households and have, instead, opted to form food cooperatives to share the cost and energy burden of a kitchen. The largest food cooperative, called “Sunflower” combines multiple families and their wexers. They share the burden of cooking with a rotating schedule, and eat together in the common house, a large central facility. I eat in the “Ironweed” eating cooperative, which meets in a comparatively smaller and newer kitchen a bit further from the center of the village and, conveniently, right next to my work site. Ironweed also shares an enormous garden, the food of which supplies a kitchen no more than 50 yards away.

Shared kitchens also reduce space and energy burdens. The best way to keep a house cool in the summer is, well, not heating it. By keeping the heat of kitchen appliances outside homes—especially during the summer—residents lower the effort of cooling their homes. They can also conserve the amount of space needed in their homes, which reduces the ultimate cost of construction materials and labor.

Energy is another resource that is shared amongst neighbors. The eight solar panels that power Ironweed kitchen share power with several neighboring households, many of which are not members of the kitchen itself. The community has also assembled similar cooperatives for cars, orchards, and other resources some of which encompass all official community members and others that are more restricted in scope. It is a community of multiple "webs" of sufficiency.

Therefore “self”-sufficiency may be an inappropriate word to describe life in an ecovillage. There are probably very few people, anywhere, that are entirely self-sufficient. This would be a lonely and arduous existence, indeed. Perhaps a better phrase is “locally” sufficient—a reliance upon resources and other people within a distance that can be perceived by the senses on a regular basis. This parameter makes sense in many ways. By relying upon the things and people we can see, hear, and touch, we reduce the risk of abusing the finite resource of our planet and increase the responsibility and love we have toward each other.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Pace of Ecovillage Life

At first glance, much of DR looks like a smattering of construction sites. That wouldn’t be an inaccurate description. In my short stay thus far, I’ve begun to learn that the pace of ecovillage life must be understood through a different lens than that of conventional, industrial-scale life. For example, the house I’m currently constructing, when complete will be comprised almost completely of locally harvested materials. The walls, which will stand sixteen inches thick for thermal mass (a concept I’ll explain in a later entry) are made of clay and straw from the DR property (or very nearby) and the supporting beams are made either from the branches of an osage tree (the hardest, toughest wood I’ve ever worked with) or recycled 2x12 boards. This makes for very unconventional construction. While standardized soft wood framing could be easily harvested from far-off-istan, and purchased by a contractor from Home Depot, osage branches from Scotland County, Missouri are twisted, variable, abnormal (as in not ninety degrees), and did I mention, very very hard?

When Ted cut these branches, he had to carefully select segments that were “straight” enough to serve as support beams. Not all were the exact same length. The construction process, therefore, had to adjust to what nature supplied.

I think this is an important distinction between ecologically-conscious living and conventional Modernist lifestyle: the former works with nature to every extent possible, while the later attempts to dominate and engineer nature to abstract standards. This simply concept- working with nature to achieve your goals- can be applied at any scale.

Yesterday, while resting in the shade, Sean, one of my workmates, mentioned, “There are no right angles in nature.” Aside from one counter-example I’d learned in physics class, I agreed with Sean completely. The "right angles" and straight lines we place on zoning maps and architectural plans rarely have any basis in nature.

The pace of ecovillage life, therefore, is determined by nature to an extent I have never experienced before. Most residents go to sleep shortly after sundown, and begin work when the sun rises. Mail takes a long time to arrive, and the most proximate “convenience” store outside the village has a relatively limited selection. Local construction materials are imperfect and the residents opt to build their homes by themselves and with the help of worker exchangers instead of importing the materials and labor.

I certainly wouldn’t consider the pace slower. Speed, of course, depends on the unit of measurement. If DR measured its “pace” as number of homes constructed per year, indeed, the pace would be “slow.” But this description would be an injustice to what I’ve experienced as very arduous, thorough, and very satisfying work. Ted, my host and patron, mentioned to me, “There are few feelings as satisfying as building your own home. People in this country don’t do it very often anymore” I believe it. If you consider that residents here also generate their own energy, process their own waste, harvest their own food, collect their own construction materials, and help each other along the way, I can imagine that life here could be very satisfying, and strenuous at times.

Tonight I prepared a meal for myself and the three other members of my food cooperative (there are normally more, but they’re out of town). Lentil and mushroom stew, kale salad, some borrowed venison, and tortillas (actually ended up more like corn cakes, but still delicious). With the exception of the barley flour in the corn cakes and the lentils in the stew, all the ingredients were grown on DR property. I picked the kale for the salad from the garden at 2PM and worked from 3PM to 6PM to complete a meal that was the epitome of freshness. Hard work? No doubt. Slow work? No way. Rewarding work? Absolutely!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Getting Started and Energy Shortages

I’d have never guessed that on the first night of my ecovillage excursion, I’d be sitting outside a rehearsal of Grease! the musical. Indeed, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (DR), put on the production yesterday (day 2), accompanied by a cadre of musicians and a "crew" consisting of one busy man with two large flashlights.

I arrived at DR on the afternoon of Monday, June 21 just in time to walk with Ted – my host and work patron—to the “land day” celebration of Red Earth, another ecovillage to the northwest. “Land day” is the anniversary of land purchase, and Red Earth is five years old. A short hike through the woods, and we arrived at a large, man-made pond, on the edge of which sat a small wooden pavilion filled with 20-30 people of all ages drinking homemade mead (yes, the age old drink), homemade blackberry currant tea, a mysterious drink called “rainwater w/ alkohol” and, of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon. I knew from different communications with Ted that nudity was something I’d encounter here. Didn’t think I'd experience it within the first ten minutes, however. Everyone swims nude here. When walking between the pond and their home- also nude. I have yet to do this, but I think it’s only a matter of time.

Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and Sand Hill are three distinct ecovillages. They share similar missions and, on Tuesday nights, they share food. Ted informs me that the land for DR (founded in 1997) was chosen because 1) it was near an existing village (Sand Hill came first), and 2) in a county (Scotland County) with minimal land use restrictions. It was actually chosen over some place in Illinois, but I’m still not sure where. Only one of the founding "Rabbit" still resides here, although several members have lived here for quite a while.

There is a hierarchy of sorts amongst the people living here. There are MEMBERS, who pay dues, own land, and can construct buildings on it. There are RESIDENTS, who live here indefinitely but don’t pay dues and don’t build. There are WORK EXCHANGERS (or “wexers), like myself, that stay from one to many months under the hospices of a host that feeds them and provides them tent space. Many of the current members were wexers at one point, arriving here, working, loving it, and deciding to stay for the long haul.

My tent and formal place of residence—courtesy of the Bangert family—is set up on an elevated platform hidden in some trees and brush, but exposed from the north and west (from whence storms come, uh oh.) I’ve been assured that a good tent setup can withstand pretty brutal weather and Ted has helped assemble a resilient tarp structure supported by surrounding trees. My commute to work involves rolling out of bed and walking about 100 yards along a creek to Ted's house.

I’ll have to be brief with this entry, and the reasons are very illustrative of the lifestyle here. You see, it’s been cloudy here for the past few days (granted today is quite sunny). Most buildings here are solar-powered. Less sun = less energy on reserve. The common house in the village's central square has a large chalk board with color-coded energy notifications. Today we’re on “orange” meaning we’re using more energy than we’re creating. This is just one of many ways that life here is very dependent upon the weather and other natural conditions. I'll elaborate during sunnier times, but for now I must sign off as not to compromise well, all things electrical in the village.

More updates soon to follow!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Destination: Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

In the course of my ever-lengthening formal education, I've had the privilege to visit some pretty exciting places. From the vibrant cultural mecca of Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico to the sweltering coastal hamlet of Santiago Tapexlta, to the upper-reaches of the Orkney archipelago, I've learned more from the local anecdotes of elders and my own personal follies than from all the knowledge I've extracted from text after text. (I don't mean to bash the book, but the written word only served useful once civilizations had to communicate complex messages over long distances. Why settle for books when you can learn through doing/seeing/hearing?) So it with deep satisfaction and anticipation that I am embarking on the next phase of research, in a human settlement that is so close, yet so so far away.

On Monday, June 21st, I'll drive about 4.5 hours west to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (, just outside of Rutledge, Missouri. By Anthropological standards, the place is in my backyard. By Urban Planning standards, however, I'm traveling relatively far for a discipline that extracts most of its data from online government data sources or telephone surveys. I'll be living at Dancing Rabbit from June 21 to July 31.

I've been interested in ecovillages since my first experience with a dry latrine in Oaxaca in 2005, but it only recently occurred to me how relevant such settlements can be to research in Urban and Regional Planning. My reasons are manifold and deserve the detailed explanation of a much longer paper. I'll provide a summary below.

Ecovillages are one type of "intentional community," an umbrella description of communities that are formed around some shared purpose, other than kinship. Co-Housing communities are another type of intentional community growing in popularity in the USA and have existed for a long time in Denmark (ah Denmark, you wonderful little bike-happy seed of everything good in the world...but I digress). Many intentional communities are founded upon the principle of ecological preservation and resource conservation. Co-Housing communities, for example, construct tight-knit clusters of housing , share kitchen and storage facilities, thus conserving the space, energy, and expenses of a conventional residential development. Ecovillages take these principles a step further and opt to generate their own energy, grow their own food, process their own waste, harvest their own water, and often provide on-site employment for most of its residents. The line between co-housing communities and ecovillages is hazy, and the two development types share many attributes. They might center around spiritual or religious norms, or adhere to principles of self-sufficiency and social equity.

I've noticed that ecovillages share several attributes in common with the ever-multiplying American gated community. On one level, they could not be more different. Setha Lowe (2003) explains that American gated communities demonstrate a type of "moral minimalism," whereby residents work very hard to AVOID face-to-face interaction with their neighbors. Gated communities often impose strict behavioral covenants that determine how you decorate your home, where you store your cars, when you mow/water your lawn, your christmas decorations, the list goes on. These rules are often enforced by a paid third-party so as to avoid interaction with neighbors.

Ecovillages, from what I gather, are highly social places and value (perhaps rely upon?) face-to-face interaction. In this respect, these ecovillages and gated communities stand in stark contrast.

They share several aspects in common, however. Gated communities consciously reject municipal services. Residents have opted for private security, road maintenance, governance, and infrastructure repair. Similarly, ecovillages have opted to forego traditional public waste, water, and energy facilities. They also adhere to behavioral covenants, although I imagine they are different, in principal, to those upheld by gated communities.

In the next month, my hope is begin to formulate questions for a larger, longer-term research project (a disseration? Mayhaps!). Some initial questions (copied/pasted from a recent final paper) include:

· What motivates communities to consciously reject municipal infrastructure and “mainstream” market services for privatized, “off-the-grid” services?

· Where did residents of ecovillages live before, and what motivated them to move?

· How do ecovillages distinguish themselves from other communities of intent (i.e. co-housing, communes, co-ops) and privatized (gated) communities, which all actively seek alternatives to mainstream urban development?

· What differences exist amongst ecovillages? Are they different in different geographies?

· What are the perceived benefits of living in ecovillages, and have ecovillages met the expectations of their aspirants over time?

· What kinds of skills and capital are necessary to initiate and maintain an ecovillage?

· What types of social structure and informal social control are necessary to maintain an ecovillage?

· What factors influence ecovillage size (land area and population)?

· What symbolic role does nature play in the community? What symbols, images, or rituals distinguish ecovillages from conventional developments?

· As an “intentional community” are ecovillage necessarily exclusive? How are residents chosen? What are the obstacles to becoming a resident? Are there hierarchies of membership?

· In a community that intentionally unites members of common interest, what difficulties do ecovillages face with regard to diversity? In other words, does an interest in ecological preservation transcend race, class, gender, and age characteristics?

· What gender, age, or income cleavages exist within ecovillages? Do any of these characteristics manifest hierarchically in ecovillages?

· To what extent do ecovillages live up to their stated objectives? What contradictions exist between these ideals and the lived actuality of ecovillages? Are they really as sustainable as they purport to be?

· What outside resources are needed to maintain an ecovillage lifestyle?

· How does planning work in ecovillages? What epistemologies are valued? Who makes plans and how do these intersect with the “outside” world.

· What are the institutional obstacles ecovillages face, for example from local planning and subdivision regulations? How have local planners aided or rejected ecovillage development?

· How is land-use in ecovillages distinct from zoned land in urban areas?

· Can ecovillages be considered at type of “insurgent” development, acting in defiance to conventional social structures?

· What can urban planners learn from ecovillage development? How can “mainstream” development apply the lessons of ecologically oriented development?

I'll be sure to keep you posted of my progress in the coming month!