Monday, January 16, 2012

Updated True Confessions – My Life at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, 12 Years Later

My husband Kurt Kessner and I moved to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 12 ½ years ago. We were (and actually, still are) starry-eyed and idealistic. I don’t know about Kurt, but before my arrival I felt sure that by moving to an ecovillage I would become wise and that all things green would become clear. Ha! What I found instead: lots and lots of compromises. Rather than learning all the answers, I found more questions. I now realize that there is more gray than black & white in the world of “green” living.

The Milkweed Mercantile proprietors, in front of a natural plaster and mosaic wall. Our friends Jeffrey & Ha, who had a wedding reception at the Mercantile, had a photo booth set up. Much hammy-ness ensued.

In order to build a life here, I had to find my own way. I did (and continue to do) lots of reading and investigating. Every single day I learn something new. And at some point I had to draw my own line in the sand, i.e.: this is how I feel it is best for me to live right now.

It has taken almost thirteen years for many of our beloved friends to become comfortable with the fact that Kurt and I live in an ecovillage. This is not, we hope, a reflection on our attitudes, but rather their own. We find that we (unintentionally) inspire a lot of guilt and eco-shame where ever we go. Once we utter the words "eco-village" we become unwilling confessors to many perceived eco-sins. I don't need to know how many miles you drive a day, alone, in your SUV, or how many disposable Starbuck's cups you go through. Really. I'm living my life the best way I know how, and trust you are doing the same. I do not claim to have ANY of the answers - I'm just working on my own stuff here.

OK. I'm not going to tell you to carry a re-useable coffee cup. But maybe it would be a good idea, dontcha think?

Many of the choices that Kurt and I have made are different from the choices that others here at Dancing Rabbit, while others are the same. We are by no means representative of everyone who lives in our village. Uniting all Rabbits is an agreement to live by six ecological covenants. We trust each other to make decisions based upon his/her own criteria and comfort. What I'm writing here is just the way Kurt and I live our lives; it is not necessarily the norm at DR. One of the most important things we've learned while living here is that green is a wide continuum - we're just one spot on the spectrum. In the spirit of full disclosure and knowing how far I still have to go to reduce my footprint on this planet, I am presenting an updated peek into my life at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

Below are a few details about some of the choices Kurt and I have made. I am including mostly physical (building) details. Food and social dynamics, both hot-button topics, will be covered in a future post.

Renewable Energy 

Kurt on the day the tower for the turbine was delivered. Even in the freezing cold he's having a great time!

Kurt and I have solar panels and two wind turbines with which we power our house and our Bed and Breakfast Inn. We currently store the electricity in what we acknowledge to be a less than ideal system: deep cycle batteries.

  It takes a village (and a lot of creativity and often laughter) to get a wind turbine up. Pictured: Robby, Dave, Thomas, Tom and Kurt.

While we like the cachet of being (most likely) the world’s only off-grid, solar & wind-powered B& B, we have recently connected the Mercantile up to BEDR (Better Energy for Dancing Rabbit**) for emergency back up in times of no sun or wind for a more dependable power supply. Kurt and I are perfectly content to live with the natural ebb and flow of power provided seasonally, including the dark windless winter days when power runs low, but it has been challenging to run a public-oriented business this way. Guests really like to have lights (go figure), we need to wash zillions of sheets and towels, and we’d like to be presenting the abundance of renewable energy instead of the lack thereof.

July 29th, the day our wind turbine collapsed. Another lesson learned.

Even more exciting, we have finally repaired our 3,000-watt wind turbine. We had been without it since July 29th when it fell over in a windstorm (whoops).  We have been delighted to find that our wind turbine keeps our batteries full (100%!) and so have not yet needed to use grid power.

Heating and cooling
We keep our buildings warm in winter and cool in summer with three components:
  1. 18” thick strawbale walls
  2.  Thermal curtains on all windows (more below)
  3. Poured concrete floor for the downstairs of both buildings (more below)
In the 20-something buildings here at Dancing Rabbit there are many other flooring options demonstrated, from natural earthen floors to wood; there is no one “right” way. We have chosen to have poured concrete floors for two reasons:
  1. Ground Contact – Having the floor in direct contact with the earth (there is gravel under the concrete) provides a constant temperature of approximately 54 degrees. This helps keep both buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 
  2. Durability – We wanted the Milkweed Mercantile to feel welcoming from the first moment guest step in the door, as guests are often already out of their comfort zone when they first come to DR. With poured concrete we found an option that would not require them to remove their shoes, be especially careful with luggage, or have to think twice before scooting a chair, etc. The upstairs floors in both our home and in the Mercantile are made of reclaimed wood and honey locust harvested from across the road. It feels great under foot!  
 Kurt putting the finishing touches on the bay window, while the concrete floor shines from the last layer of sealant.

Additionally, in the winter we heat with wood. Our wood stoves (one in each building) are also very efficient, and produce very low emissions. The wood burned is locally harvested or procured from a local pallet mill and a furniture-making company. These “scraps” are a fantastic deal  - they’re super cheap, kiln-dried oak and chunks of wood perfectly sized for wood stoves –  plus, without our intervention, the scraps, which are considered waste, would be burned simply to get rid of it.

 The Mercantile fireplace - hot air goes upstairs through the vents above the wood storage areas.

We try to use as little petroleum as possible. It is certainly a challenge – everything from plastic wrap to toothbrushes to calculators to cameras and chain saws use some form of petroleum. Here at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage we have all agreed to disallow propane for anything except cooking (i.e. no propane refrigerators). Because of this we have grandfathered in propane (for cooking only) until we can find a better solution. Additionally, for much of the year many of us use solar ovens – both commercial and home made. This is an especially exciting solution for hot summer days – with a little planning one can cook an entire meal this way. Elsewhere at DR, there are many wood cookstoves, rocket stoves, and hay boxes.*

Major Appliances

Our refrigerators and freezer are chest styles from Sundanzer. They are DC, and run directly off of our batteries which are charged by our solar panels (without having to go through the AC inverter – I don’t want to get too technical here, as all of the electric stuff seems like voodoo to me and someone else could do  a far better job of explaining it!). They are really efficient, well-insulated and use less power than conventional models. We use one fridge for food, the other for beverages. At last count we carried 32 kinds of beer – we want to make your trip here worth the effort.

Big Hobart mixer
Used for weekly for bread & pizza dough, and monthly for making butter (we get raw cream five gallons at a time – heaven!).

We use a conventional (i.e. hand-me-down) small chest freezer. It’s the first thing to get unplugged when power is low.

Clothes Washer
We have a front loader, which we really like. We didn’t do much research, but instead bought the brand that our local (Memphis, MO) dealer carries. We lucked out – it extracts tons of water (the clothes come out feeling practically dry already) and, at the risk of sounding like a 50’s housewife, really gets our clothes clean.

Clothes Dryer
It’s called a clothes line. Everything smells amazingly fresh and clean,  no dryer sheets necessary. It works just fine, thank you very much, even in the winter. Fortunately I am easily entertained – to me there are few things funnier than frozen underwear hanging on the line (ah, yes – life without television!).

Something else we don’t have: A commercial (electric) washer. They use a LOT of electricity. We wash all dishes by hand. Let us pause here for a moment of gratitude for interns and friends who pitch in to scrub.

The Brothers Washalotsov take a break from their dish-washing labors

Our water, used for drinking, bathing and cleaning, is collected rainwater stored in a 7,000 gallon cistern under the porch of the Milkweed Mercantile. It is pumped with an electric pump throughout the building. The water is filtered with a 5 micron filter and passes through an ultraviolet light. Our water consistently passes all tests by the health department.

Hot Water
The hot water in our house comes from a solar water heater, and in the Inn we use a wood- fired boiler from Heatmor. We love it. In addition to providing hot water for the showers and sinks, we have plumbed a radiator into the downstairs Inn bedroom for extra warmth in the winter, and will eventually plumb a hot tub and the water in our house to this same system. It is located outside so that in the summer we are not heating the building while heating our water.

The Heatmor boiler being installed.

Our phone is a land line (it's a princess phone!). Cell phones still get only marginal coverage here, which I kind of like. Do I really want to be available all the time? No way. I got sucked into technology lust and now have an I-phone, but am appalled at how much time it spends being charged. Thinking about that power usage multiplied exponentially across the world boggles my brain. And it hurts a little. So I’m rethinking this bit of technology…

In our home we use the Joe Jenkins Humanure system, but in the Mercantile we have chosen to go with a Phoenix Composting toilet from Advanced Composting Systems . It is user-friendly and is a great demonstration to the public about how pretty much everything can be composted. For more about composting toilets, see my this blog post Don't be Afraid! Composting Toilets at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

 The not-so-scary composting toilet.
Window Shades
On the windows we have Roman Shades made with insulated fabric called Warm Windows. Made of five layers, including a moisture barrier, batting and an outside layer of ivory-colored cotton duck, it is a breeze to use. I cut it to size, cover the side facing the room with my own fabric, attach rings and draw cord, and screw it into the window frame. There is a way that you can install magnetic strips so that the shade seals the window completely, keeping cold air out in the winter and hot sun out in the summer.

The five layers of Warm Windows fabric, which we use in all of the Mercantile windows.

Wrap Up
There are folks here who do not have electricity or refrigeration in their homes, and who do not cook with propane. Others have homes with no electricity but use the power in the Community Building. Some cook on rocket stoves or belong to an eating cooperative that uses a propane stove. Green living is a spectrum, and there are many appropriate choices.

I’m still waiting for my “simple country life” to manifest, but have come to realize that as long as I continue to say “yes” to opportunities I won’t have much “spare” time. It is all about choice, and I still want to do everything. Sigh.

Regardless of frustrations, there is great satisfaction in knowing that we are living in a way that feels true to our values. We don’t claim to have all of the answers, but are happily seeking better solutions. We spend a lot more time than the average American doing things like growing and cooking our food, but we spend a lot less time working at jobs we don’t like, commuting or driving anywhere. We get to know our neighbors, spend plentiful time outside, see the stars at night and learn to recognize the songs of birds. There are lots of great trade offs for the things we are “missing.”

Another thing I’ve learned is that life is not a contest, and everything is subjective. It’s all about attitude. One man’s eco is another man’s disaster – none of us benefits from comparing ourselves to one another. So do your best, be happy, breathe deeply, and drop me a line if you have any questions.

Thanks for reading!