Howdy y’all. Ben here, with another field report from our little post-petroleum oasis here in the rolling hills of Northeast Missouri. As I tingle from the sunburns of the recent past I am simultaneously nipped by the cold of autumn approaching. Transition engulfs our environment. Clusters of ripening honey locust pods hang heavy on the branch. Hickories, walnuts and oaks begin to shed their masts, casting dice in the craps game of survival.
The evening hour is thick with the persistent buzz of cicadas, some of them intercepted in mid-air by cicada killer wasps. I am occasionally pelted by their twitching corpses, which descend from treetops overhead. In the lull of twilight, an enormous moon appears. Tonight shall be the harvest moon. Grain corn, sunchokes, turnips, and young roosters all await my knife this week. The forecast calls for nights in the upper 40s to lower 50s. The muskmelons in my garden languish on the vine, the eventual victims of frost or rot.
I must seem a bit maudlin to the reader. It happens every year. This is the springtime of death. If only I could go to seed like the prairie grass, put forth into this soil some encapsulated embodiment of my life’s energy to ensure the survival of myself and my species, then the winter which blows daily nearer might not dampen my view of this year’s work. Then I could truly go dormant.
But I am not prairie grass. My work is unceasing. I am nearer to a squirrel than anything, triggered into one last frenzy of toilsome action by the appearance of acorns. I split a cord of wood per week. I stuff cob into cavities of my unfinished home. I seal a cache of turnips, intern cabbage forever inside crocks and jars. I keep a keen eye on the fattening fowl as my last pair of usable trousers begs for a belt or suspenders. Strolling downs paths of the prairie I glean seeds of trefoil, partridge pea, bundleflower and clover for distribution among the pastures and paddocks of our hoofstock. Donkey manure, hedgeballs, and mown indian grass sit in buckets about my warren. The stuff of my current existence.
At night I dream of rabbit, deer, and duck. I am the coyote. I stalk the edge of the draws, and lay in wait. I am not prairie grass, I am a human being. I set no seed, I harvest the life-stuff of other beings, plant and animal. I am human, and though I attempt not to wage war with my environment like so many other humans, my relationship with my habitat is fraught with challenges. I have perennial allergies this time of year, feeling physically shut down at times. The tops of my feet are scarred by chigger wounds and poison ivy. Vermin steal from me.
Surely, fox and mink are not far away from the barnyard. Give them their tax, I say, but no more than a few birds. At other times it seems my survival is aided only by this habitat, even in a village of like minds and open hearts. I feast on astringent autumn olives near the pond with my daughter. Together we walk an old fenceline, gathering the fallen boughs of osage and oak for cooking fuel. We chew on the fresh oily kernels of sunflower which heavily hang drooping on heads seemingly lowered in prayer.
In and around the village, I absorb the sensual meanderings of our shared simple life. The creaking of cart wheels on gravel, the joyful noise of children and adults at play, the sight of visitor groups about the commons, on their way to workshops and work parties.
Bucket by bucket, villagers put up homes of earth, straw, and wood. The serene prairiescapes are occasionally broken by the appearance of a truck bringing sand and gravel to worksites. I hear the whine of planers and table saws just beyond the nodding, waving heads of blooming goldenrod. Likewise, others in the village hear the consistent splitting of oak almost daily from near my home. I spend a good deal of time performing acts of constructive destruction, which sometimes spill over into destructive destruction, such as when I ever so slightly rock a splitting maul over my left thumb, or drop a log on my foot. My curses blacken the air momentarily before I return to the steadfast thumping of steel on wood. I am the still pond, concealing a current of fearsome unknowable lifeforms underneath.
I am tormented by nasties, not unlike the goats, sheep, and donkey currently struggling with swarming flies. Skeeters buzz in the evening stillness, manifested by my endless collection of buckets. It’s been a good year for spiders. They don’t bother me none, but the cobwebs spread across the newly plastered walls of my house so quickly that they appear ancient. Tent caterpillars dangle in silky nests above, dropping dung as they devour the leaves of my baby hazelnuts. Once in a while I find one crawling on me, callously crush its green innards, then thoughtfully toss it to a chicken. Rodents of various sort gnaw tomatoes off the vine and find their way into our harvest of sunflower and sorghum seeds, leaving behind a telltale collection of chewed up hulls.
If I sound like I’m complaining, I’m not. Well, perhaps I sort of am.
My musings these days are merely the result of a life spent increasingly integrated into the natural flow of the seasons, though I am lucky enough to be insulated by some type of economy. Were my lifestyle to be truly subsistence, I would probably starve to death. However, this is an ecovillage, and I can get by as a person who’s really only good at growing turnips.
On the other hand, if I really was a squirrel, I’d get by fine in this mast acorn year, without communal support. Or not. And it wouldn’t matter, because I wouldn’t have the leisure time to mope around musing on the rodent condition. As a human, I don’t starve gracefully. I spend these autumn days retrospectively saddened by what hasn’t been accomplished, and what has been lost.
Still, there are successes this year. The house is much more well sealed. The goat kids are growing by leaps and bounds, the pastures are becoming richer, our roof is now covered in dirt and planted to winter wheat, our drainage has been perfected, my firewood is mostly split and seasoned, and I still contend that we Critters have the finest compost on farm.
But pride in my work is no different than a lack of pride in my work, and I am left to wonder if this land would be more harmonious if I were to shed my humanity and become a coyote, a squirrel, or a stand of grass, thrashing about my existence, sticking to my role in this habitat, all without complaint, or pride. Relearning harmony with the earth at this time in existence is a great undertaking, in a world where bug spray, Big Macs, smartphones, and petroleum are readily available.
And as I sit on the sagging porch of rotten soft maple that I never got around to fixing this year, amid buckets of clay, feathers, and dreams left unused, duck manure under my feet, I cannot help but feel some glimmer of hope for the whole remarkable enterprise we have undertaken, as an ecovillage, as a subcommunity, and maybe even as a species.
Because in a year in which I got more inches of rain than dollars, a year in which I found a grand total of five blackberries, a year in which I can officially check off less than a third of our outlined goals as a homestead, I can look northward in the direction of an approaching winter and see the bobbing head of my child combing the woods and fields for puffball mushrooms, tender leaves of violet, healing yarrow leaf and bee balm.
This is the springtime of death and I am the tired drying prairie grass that sets seed in the soil I’ve manured with my own sweat and blood. And my own manure, too. Autumn is here, or will be soon enough, and I may as well lay dormant like the slumbering grasses and forbs, or expire as surely as the rooster who likes to crow into our window every morning, or lay beneath the nearing snow, confident in the seeds we’ve cast if not the fruit of our collective labor.
Then again, all of this is a lot of words and high falutin’ metaphor, and there’s wood that needs splitting, walls that need plaster, and ducks that need processing. The cold is a-comin’, but it ain’t here yet, and I reckon I’ve done enough yammerin’ about my situation for up until the snow hits the ground, and between now and then I think I’ll just keep hiding turnips and chopping wood like I’m prone to do. Even if I envy squirrels, or feel like a coyote, or aspire to be grass, the fact is I’m merely human, and I have a lot of human things to do right now, not to mention all the human things I’d like to undo…
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Dancing Rabbit’s Annual Open House and Village Fair is coming up: Saturday Sept 27th, 2014, 1-4 pm is your chance to see all the changes since the last time you were here, or to attend for the first time if you’ve never been! Free tours happen every half hour, and there will be lots of friendly Dancing Rabbit folks on hand to answer your questions, a Village Fair selling unique crafts and goods, and some complimentary refreshments. Check out www.dancingrabbit.org/ohfor details.
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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an intentional community and nonprofit outside Rutledge, focused on demonstrating sustainable living possibilities. A regular free tour of our village happens on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, April through October: the next will be Saturday, September 13th, beginning at 1:00 pm. Tours usually last one and a half to two hours, and you don’t need a reservation. Or come to our Open House (details above) on the 27th! If you need directions, please call the DR office at (660)883-5511 or email us at email@example.com.