Building houses out of straw to save the Earth
Photos by Daniela Buvat
Originally written for Urban Plains
Dust billows from beneath my tires as we hold on for dear life. The roads in Rutledge, MO are often unpaved. On top of that, they wind up and down steep and sudden hills. We’re making the treacherous drive to see Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a sustainable feminist community focused on helping the environment and living harmoniously. The drive is to see exactly how a group of 60 people – 20 of them children – changed their lifestyles completely to preserve the environment. Hidden deep in the hinterlands of Missouri, Dancing Rabbit isn’t a farm or a commune, but “a diverse range of people living ecologically sound lives in a community that truly serves as an example of positive human action within the natural world,” according to their website.
As we turn onto another unassuming dirt road, a cheery hand-painted sign welcomes us to the village. We pull into the visitor’s section of the parking lot with a dozen other cars there for the last village tour of the season. Dancing Rabbit started out in 1997 with six members, and has grown to a full-fledged community in the 20 years since. As we walk towards the village square, buildings poke out of the early fall underbrush with rustic looking walls and decorations, the rest of the village is sprawled out along dirt paths. Some buildings stand out even at a distance because of their vibrant colors, while others hide under the earth. If Thoreau had ever traveled to the Midwest, this is where he would have written Walden.
The various buildings stand on 280 acres of land and are made from straw, clay, recycled busses, grain bins, shipping containers, and packed earth. We come upon the main square and the Milkweed Mercantile where Christina Gil, the tour coordinator for the village. She leads us out from the chilly fall air and into the cozy mercantile, with thick walls, a hand-built mantle, and well-loved wooden furniture.
Once inside, Gil explains the history of the village and how new members come to be residents. Dancing Rabbit actually started as an idea of students involved in a co-op at Stanford University in 1993. Since then, the Rabbits moved to Missouri and started building. The community was founded on tenets of sustainability and gender equality.
The process for becoming a member of Dancing Rabbit is a long and thorough one. A visitor has to live in one of the available rooms or buildings in the village for at least a few weeks. During this time, visitors have to attend workshops on sustainability and conflict resolution. Other workshops are optional, like classes for shamanic breath work and writing. The workshops cover important lifestyle changes to remain aware of when living in a rural landscape. After the required workshops are completed, a visitor can become a resident. Residents can stay anywhere from six months to two years before they have to move away or become a permanent member. However, some applicants balk at some of the requirements of being a village member.
“Once you’re a member you have to get rid of your car,” Gil says. “For some people, it’s really hard.”
Getting rid of personal vehicles is one of the sustainability requirements of the village that were established to preserve the environment. Permanent members can own buildings and have more input in village decision making. The village has all of these rigorous requirements and processes so that they know for certain that someone is a good fit and dedicated to living sustainably before they move permanently into the village.
Other sustainable efforts in the village include a car co-op for eco-friendly travel, personal food gardens and rain-gathering water cisterns.
“Anybody who’s drinking rain water is filtering it,” Gil says. “It goes through a UV light and its PH neutral.”
Dancing rabbit also has a process for recycling human waste.
“The short explanation is we pee outside and we poop in buckets,” Gil says. “We poop in the buckets, put sawdust on top of that. When it’s filled there’s a dumping ground, and then it stays there until it’s becomes soil in a few years and that’s the system.”
The village is solar punk to the extreme, they try not to waste anything that can be repurposed. The village even has clothing swaps, where villagers bring old clothes they have no further use for and trade with other villagers for different garments.
Dancing Rabbit has also looked into growing their own food in a sustainable manner on a larger scale, but currently there are only the private gardens that residents and member maintain for themselves.
“People have their own gardens,” Gil says. “There’s a lot of interest in figuring out a way to grow food more collectively. I think a lot of interest happens in the winter and then once actual garden season starts, there’s no time.”
In addition to using things inside the village to remain sustainable, Dancing Rabbit also sources services from inside their own ranks. The village is home to a paramedic, two midwives, and a retired nurse who help out with minor illnesses and injuries so villagers can get their medical needs seen to in-house.
The village also has no need for outside law enforcement, as one of the workshops required to be a resident involves restorative community justice, though Gil says there hasn’t been much need for justice in the village.
“I’m just laughing because the only crime is that there were two kids that stole some money,” Gil says. “They had to earn the money back and pay people back, and go and apologize. That’s the only crime that I know of.”
Residents can also find education without leaving the village, as Gil uses her years of experience teaching in a public school to homeschool some of the children in the village.
“I was a high school teacher,” Gil says. “I just got tired of it. My husband and I had a midlife crisis at the same time.”
So, Gil and her husband packed up and moved from New Hampshire to Missouri, and dedicated themselves to living a sustainable lifestyle. Dancing Rabbit was the first result they found in their research, and Gil didn’t want to look into any other options.
“I didn’t visit any other communities, just came here and in 48 hours I was like ‘ok that’s it we’re moving,’” Gil says. “I think for a lot of years I was looking. I think a lot of people are looking for something but they don’t know what they’re looking for, and I think the thing they’re looking for is community but they don’t realize it.”
Gil isn’t the only rabbit who found a sense of community in the middle of the Missouri hinterlands. Kurt Kessner, who runs the mercantile, also found a place to belong.
“Something I’ve always looked for was community people,” Kessner says, “working together towards a common goal.”
Kessner, who has been in and out of the construction industry for 40 years, built quite a few of the village’s structures. He started building the mercantile in 2007, and finished in 2010. The reason behind the straw and clay structure of the mercantile and other buildings is all about climate control inside and sustainability throughout. The walls are a clay and straw mixture laid over straw bales that sit between wooden struts. The walls are about a foot thick, and keep temperatures even inside.
“I built our house, I built my shop, I built this little bungalow back here,” Kessner says. “I’ve built a lot of houses, but our house is the first one I built for myself, which is kind of nice.”