Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Working as a part-time neurologist in Hawaii while writing his newsletter in his free time, Dan Vekhter is passionate about helping the environment in any way he can. As he became curious about experiencing new ways of living, Dan stumbled upon Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which describes itself as “a thriving sustainability demonstration project in Northeast Missouri” with a community of people who care deeply about helping the earth. In this fireside chat, Dan opens up about his thoughts and experience of visiting Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage for 12 days.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Reflecting on his experience, Dan embraces the importance of building community in his daily life.
What’s an ecovillage?
I’m not sure if there’s a specific definition, but my understanding, at least from Dancing Rabbit (DR), is that it’s a bunch of people creating a new way of living from certain principles. Imagine if a village were intentionally designed from the ground up, starting with principles of sustainability.
What led you to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage?
They have a very active online email list that you can find on their website. They have different villagers writing articles talking about their experiences living at Dancing Rabbit. I’ve been following them online for over a year and I wanted to see what it was all about in real life.
Even before visiting DR, I’ve always been interested in starting an ecovillage or being a part of one. The thought of an ecovillage and living differently has always been in the back of my brain.
Throughout much of my life, I’ve asked myself what we humans can do to improve our relationship with nature. One option is to take political action. Another option is to limit consumption within our current society. A third option—one that seemed promising to me—was to create a whole new society from the ground up.
If you design a whole new society, you can change it internally vs. trying to fight the big corporations and other players that have deep pockets. Then, if the alternative society is successful, it can serve as a model and an inspiration for the mainstream society. This was the line of thinking that brought me to DR.
What was your first impression when you reached out to Dancing Rabbit?
I was pleasantly surprised by how normal the people were. It didn’t feel cult-like and there wasn’t any intense ideology. I corresponded with Prairie, a villager, before deciding to visit. One of the things Prairie said was that Dancing Rabbit is an experiment. I liked the humility in the way Prairie was speaking. She wasn’t claiming to have all the answers.
On the very first day of the visitor program, Alis, a member of the village, took us on a tour of their recycling facility—a huge garage filled with junk that the village doesn’t know what to do with. Alis said, “I take people here first, because I want people to know that we don’t have everything figured out. I want people to know that Dancing Rabbit is not perfect.”
There are a variety of people at DR with different interests. You can think of DR like a container that houses many sub-communities within it. There are some people who are into agroforestry or gardening, others who are passionate about nonviolent communication, others into governance, etc. The way people spend their time could be extremely different within the ecovillage.
How do you participate as a visitor (specifically the governance aspect)?
The visitors can shadow meetings and see how decisions are made as a fly on the wall. Governance is not open to visitors in a participatory way because there’s different tiers in the village based on commitment level. The tiers are: village council, members, residents, and then visitors. Visitors have the least power because they haven’t committed anything to the community, so there’s no reason for a villager to have a voice in decision-making.
I’m not an expert in the governance structure, but I think they use consensus to make some decisions. Consensus means that for every decision, everybody has the power to veto it. There was also the village council, which is like a representative democracy. It felt like they were creating a society from the ground up.
What was a day in the life like at an ecovillage? How would you contrast it with a day in the life outside of the ecovillage?
My experience as a visitor was quite different from the day in the life of a member. The visitor program was very organized and there were a lot of lectures. I stayed for 12 days and each day was pretty packed with lectures. The work was pretty light, and the lectures were quite detailed. It felt like going to school about every part of DR.
There were also work parties, which is what members also do. Examples of activities involved planting trees, making mushroom logs, rolling hay bales, moving chicken tractors, working on the garden, cleaning the common spaces, etc.
There was also a big community element. Every day, there was a happy hour at 4pm when people would gather and sit in a circle drinking a beer or a seltzer and just hanging out. Almost every meal was a communal meal, which was a lot of fun.
The purpose of the visitor program is education, as well as for DR to gain new members and grow. No one is pressuring you to join, however. As Alis said, “If we didn’t have this visit visitor program, we’d just be a bunch of weirdos living in the country. Education is a big part of our mission.”
What do people do for work in the ecovillage?
People are pretty much on their own for money, but the cost of living is low in Rural Missouri. There are some people who moved there in their early 20s and who are now in their late 30s. They have much less money in their retirement accounts compared with many living in mainstream society, since they made the conscious choice to value community and sustainability over money.
Wealth can mean various things for various people—villagers at DR might be lower in financial wealth but higher in social wealth.
Some people in the ecovillage have jobs in the nearby towns (eg., teachers, healthcare workers, fire dispatchers). If they have to drive into town, DR has a car sharing policy. It can be challenging to live in DR if people want the flexibility of car transport.
Some people go to DR when they retire and have savings. Some people have a tech job that they can do remotely. Other people seem to live with little money, and value other things more than money. Money can still be a challenge for some people at DR. Though, the goal is that the community would grow, and support many more local jobs in the village (eg., a village baker).
What are your most positive takeaways from this experience?
I can only speak for myself. One thing I got out of the experience is that there are “many roads” to making a positive environmental impact. I initially had the idea that ecovillages were “the answer” and that it was too hard to reform society from within. When I visited DR, I saw how diverse the villagers were in what they did. I met people doing everything from political action, to regenerative farming, to organizing visitor programs, to natural building. Each of these jobs were aligned with the goal of environmentalism, but they were all very different.
I realized that whether you live in DR or not, you will have your unique talents to contribute to the “Great Turning”—what Joanna Macy calls the movement of humanity beginning to live in harmony with nature as opposed to exploiting it.
Another thing I took away was the importance of working with like-minded people in community. One thing I heard said was that people come to DR for the eco and stay for the community.
There’s this concept called the hive switch (coined by Jonathan Haidt) where we switch into a state of happiness when we’re surrounded by a community. It felt good to be at the ecovillage because I was with a community all the time.
I also lived an extremely simple life in the ecovillage. I didn’t spend much money. Even though I spent $800 to stay there for 2 weeks, all of my needs were met—food, community, entertainment (dance parties, live music, a full moon ceremony, and sports like ultimate frisbee). I also felt a sense of purpose and belonging there, in doing work alongside others (planting trees, gardening, even changing out the composting toilet buckets). It was powerful to see how little money I needed to be happy, and how much I needed community and meaningful work.
What components of an ecovillage can people implement in their daily lives?
I realized that I really value community and this is something I’ve been trying to build regardless of where I am. Also, that no matter what you are doing as part of your environmental journey, you are contributing in some way. It’s okay to not have everything figured out (because no one does, not even the people at Dancing Rabbit 🙂).
I leave you with a simple mantra: To get out of despair about the state of the world, look for the helpers, and join them.
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