Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Culture Forming in Northeast Missouri

When the two couples that arrived in northeast Missouri in 1974 to start Sandhill Farm, there were hints of alternative culture in the region, but not many and nothing that had any legs.

There was a rumor of a group called Rippey's Orchard located somewhere in the vicinity of Coatsville (on the Missouri/Iowa border northwest of Lancaster), but we were never able to locate them. There were also individuals scattered here and there who were hippie wannabes or early subscribers to The Mother Earth News, but as far as we could tell the nearest other intentional communities were more than 100 miles distant. We were essentially on our own.

We were trying to create a beachhead of cooperative living where there had been none before. (I think of it as the alternative culture equivalent of terra-forming.) While we had some tenuous moments our first five years—where a strong wind might have toppled our resolve to continue—we survived (mainly by a virtue of a potent combination of pluck and luck) and gradually became an established outpost.

As an amusing (in retrospect) aside, I recall our frustration when we had persisted for five years and were hopeful of a much-needed boost in attention from being listed in the 1979 Guide to Cooperative Alternatives, put out that summer by Communities magazine—the most robust directory of communities ever produced—only to discover that we were mistakenly listed as being located in Rutledge, Montana, a town that doesn't exist. As near as we can piece it together, someone unused to translating state postal codes must have thought MO meant Montana. Sigh. I can't tell you how many times we received excited inquiries from people looking for community in Big Sky Country, none of whom ever wrote a second time once we'd explained the mistake. What hurt worse, of course, were the people we never heard from because they'd dismissed our listing because they were looking for something in the Midwest.

In any event, we endured. While Sandhill has always been a small community (which we style a family of friends), it was apparent after two decades in the saddle that we didn't have as much breadth of relationship (choices for both friendships and partnerships) as people needed to thrive. In an effort to address that, in the mid-90s we entered the national sweepstakes to recruit Dancing Rabbit (DR), a nascent ecovillage, to locate near us. With the potent assistance of inexpensive land prices and no zoning, we were successful in our suit, and Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away in 1997.

From their unpretentious beginnings in a rented double-wide, they have now become 60+ members living in about 20 custom-built eco-residences, with more people expressing interest in joining every visitor period.

When some DR members were unhappy about the community's adamancy about maintaining a high population density, they started the spin-off community of Red Earth Farms, on 76 adjoining acres in 2007. Red Earth is based on a more agrarian, homestead model of land development.

Through the miracle of cellular division, alternative culture is thriving in northeast Missouri. Today, Sandhill has the smallest population of the three communities, and it's a challenge just to keep straight the names of all the members of the tri-communities—much less the names of all the guests and work exchangers that pass through seasonally.

Dancing the Blues Away
While I fully expect more new forming communities to be drawn to the area (it's far easier to continue a successful trajectory than to launch one), I want to focus today's blog on the next major evolution of our collective culture: attracting others to experience alternative culture—not principally because they're prospective members, but because they want a taste, or an inspiration to bring back home. Kind of like going to Lourdes to drink the water. Not because we're holy, but because we're wholly.

This past summer, DR member Rachel Katz commissioned the construction of Casa de Cultura, a facility for events in the ecovillage. Completed on schedule, the inaugural event at the Casa was Off Grid Blues, a weekend dance instruction and performance opportunity Oct 7-9 that attracted 40+ people from all over, included top-notch instructors who donated their time in exchange for travel subsidies and the chance to push the envelope. The weekend was a huge success.

This coming summer, my partner, Ma'ikwe, is putting together a full version of the Ecovillage Design Education course (June 30-Aug 5), using the Casa as her main classroom (when the students aren't out in the ecovillage with their sleeves rolled up, learning by doing). It's notable that she's already getting inquiries from people on both coasts who want to be part of the teaching staff. I figure when you get people on the coasts clamoring to come to the Midwest in order to be on the cutting edge, you know the tide is turning.

Enrollment will be limited to 20, but I predict the course will be fully subscribed before the snow melts—both because northeast Missouri is hot right now (more than can be explained by global warming) and because we can offer this course at significantly lower costs and still compensate the faculty decently, because the cost of living is low here and the overwhelming majority of the faculty will be local.

Amazingly, northeast Missouri is becoming a destination site to experience alternative culture, the better to get off to the right start elsewhere.

Train the Trainers
Looking ahead of the curve, I think our next challenge is to parlay our burgeoning experience in teaching into teaching how to teach. My hope is that northeast Missouri will become a place where people will want to come to learn how to light a fire under others to become more sustainable—preferably before sustainability is thrust upon them. We won't be looking for people to simply emulate what the tri-communities have been doing, we'll be looking for people who want to understand the principles so that they can go home and do it their way, with the resources and people peculiar to their locality.

On the one hand, I'm dismayed at the enormous scale of the challenge ahead (it is overwhelming to contemplate how much energy it will take to turn the global culture sufficiently that our crash against resource limitations won't be catastrophic). On the other hand, I'm buoyed and inspired by how far we've come in 37 short years, such that I have the audacity to think that northeast Missouri may become a beacon of hope to guide us safely through the storm-tossed seas ahead. This may actually occur in my lifetime. Wow. Margaret Mead was right.

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