Update June 6/2021: several rabbits have been kind enough to give feedback on many inaccuracies in this post, including long comment from Alline which I approved. I will be updating everything shortly, in the meantime just know that there are factual errors here and other perspectives that need to be mentioned — thanks, Marco
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage review: Visitor program, economy, governance, sustainability, zoning, power, water and sewer, building, relational culture and more
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Overall Summary and Conclusions
I attended 8 days out of a 2-week visitor program at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in late May 2021. I left early partly because I had some allergies, partly because I had other exciting things planned, but mostly because I was just “full”. They did an absolutely kick-ass job of educating us on the nature of village life (like “drinking through a firehose”) and I liked the relational culture of the place, especially of the visitor program itself in which we connected quite deeply.
I am writing this review to help others who might be considering the DR visitor program or who are exploring moving to DR and/or living in an Ecovillage. In summary, my impression was almost 100% positive (this is quite rare for me, btw, as I shared in our morning check-ins that I am a “glass half-empty” kind of person and its not that easy to make me happy). There is very little not to like about the place. The main drawbacks from my perspective are the climate and the sustainability requirements which make wood heating practically obligatory. If you don’t like hot humid summers (my case) or wood heating, this is probably not a good match for you. Although you might want to use it as a 3-season residence, its possible (depending on whether you want to flee the summer or winter).
My overall sense of the place is there is a great deal of “human and process density” (25 years of trial-and-error) in terms of the economics, sustainability, governance, and culture. The relational dynamics can be (have been) some degree of “shit-show”, especially in the last few years (see below), but this is typical in ecovillages and I don’t think things are any worse here than other comparable places. To quote Diana Leafe Christian, the real purpose of intentional community is “friction”, and if you don’t like that, forget it. There are a lot of very smart and very committed people living here, and the people who ran the visitor program were very professional, not afraid of vulnerability, and left an overall very positive impression. Don’t expect to be showered with love and attention when you land here btw, either as a visitor or even resident or member, they only do that in cults . It’s pretty much creative anarchy here (although within the so-called “covenants”), which to my mind signifies a successful ecovillage.
The economics of living here are incredible. There is no joining fee and one can lease a “warren” (land to build on) for as little as $125/mth plus the municipal taxes, say roughly $2000/yr, and this includes common house facilities — so you could have a “house” that is just a bedroom and use the common house showers and kitchen. Members are also expected to contribute 2% of their income, on top of this.
It seems that the building and sustainability requirements have relaxed in the last few years and that now traditional construction within certain guidelines is allowed. More details on this below.
DR has radically changed in the last 2 years. As of May 2021 the community is in a collective trauma (their description, not mine) from a double hitter: about March of 2019 one of the pillars of the community was arrested in a child sexual abuse scandal. Charges were dropped for lack of evidence (or inability to find people to testify, depending on who you ask), and he and his family left the country (to Honduras [?], a non-extraditable jurisdiction). It tore the community apart, and on top of that Covid hit in March 2020 and they could not agree on what to do about that, either.
As a result, in 2 years they lost about 30 of their pre-crisis population of 70, so there is about 40 living here now. Currently more women than men. This, we learned (people leaving), is the hardest part of living in community. Intentional Community is not necessarily intended as a “forever” environment and so people leaving should not be viewed as a failure (anymore than people moving around in traditional life should be a considered a failure — America is a very mobile culture). I believe that all DR founders have now left. Since the community was founded in 1997 (see DR history article), that makes it just under 25 years old. The longest-time member that I met was about 17 years here (don’t quote me on that one). The point is that turnover is a fact of ecovillage life, and also there are A LOT of divorces or relationship breakups, which is another very common thing in ecovillages (i.e. one spouse leaves or else polyamorous “family groups” breakup). These things tend to be very painful and upsetting when they happen, even in much easier situations than a child-abuse scandal. I think they are doing great in terms of surviving this.
One of the interesting aspects of life in communally-owned organization is that the so-called “last man standing” owns the property. For instance, Skyhouse was originally a communal house, and since now all the founders have left, whoever lives there now owns it (and its a big $150k+ resale house). Note that this is not necessarily true for all the houses. In general, houses are privately owned on land that is leased from the land trust. Since so many people have left, there are a lot of houses for sale or rent. House asking prices range from about $10k to $70k, and rents are cheap, of course. To buy a house you have to be a full member, which (obviously) restricts the market. You can’t get mortgages on land-trust houses btw, you have to pay cash or build using cash. More below on building codes
Ownership and Legal, Economics, Zoning, Power, Heating, Cars, Water and Sewer, Building, and Food co-ops
Ownership and Legal
There are several legal organizations and I am not fully understanding (or even fully interested) in the details. But there are two main legal entities, the land trust and the village. The land trust owns and administers the land, whereas the village administers everything else, especially the common house.
There are two levels of membership (not including visitors), which are Residents (6 months to 2 years maximum) and full members. In either case you must pay the “village” fee (sorry I can’t remember the legal entity name) of $80/mth per adult and $20/mth for “sewer” (Humanure, see below), and this includes use of the common house and the maintenance of all shared property, roads etc (something like a “condo fee”). Using the common house kitchen regularly would add another $50/mth or so. A warren lease (Zone 1, see below) is $0.01 per square foot x 2500 square feet minimum = $25/mth. Hence my number quoted above, $125/mth, plus municipal taxes, plus the cost of building your house, represents the minimal cost for your accommodation (not including power etc). Plus, as mentioned if you are a member, you are supposed to give 2% of your income, which is not policed (something of a voluntary declaration).
Economics and Livelihood
Only a handful of people are employed full-time by the village or land trust. Most have remote jobs (municipal internet is very fast), commute to work to nearby towns, or have money. There are only two (to my knowledge) commercial agricultural projects. One runs a dairy farm (cows and goats) and sells eggs (its called the Critters) and the other is experimenting with a vineyard.
Much of the land is under CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) under a category called “highly erodable”, which is a USDA program that pays money to NOT farm. This has been quite profitable and has paid off the original land acquisition (hence the reason for low cost of living here). I personally think of this as quite a coup, justifying the choice of south eastern Missouri, a place that in other respects might not be especially desirable due to the climate and low soil quality
The intention at DR is to gather the housing into a higher-density “village”, with building lots (“warrens”) of 2500 square feet x number of people — so for instance, the single-people houses (some of them are just bedrooms) are allocated 2500 square feet in Zone 1 @ $0.01 per square foot. In this scenario, a 2-story house of 1000 square feet total would occupy 500 square feet of the 2500 square foot lot. A 4-person family house might be allocated 10,000 square feet lot. There is also Zone 2, gardens directly outside the village @ $0.001 per square foot and Zone 3 (agricultural area) further out still @ $0.0001 per square foot.
Note that this scheme is different from some “permaculture” type zoning where each house is surrounded by gardens and agricultural land (and this has caused some conflicts and people have left). The intention is a (relatively) densely-built “village” with the buildings closest to city center required to be 2 storeys (the DR equivalent of an office skycraper LOL). The village zoning includes small parks, walkways, and small gardens surrounding the houses.
To get power at DR you must either be completely independent via solar, or else use their in-village hookup system which is a mixture of solar and municipal grid hookup, and pay the rate of $0.57 per KWh, which is 5 times the municipal rate. The intention of the grid hookup is to use the grid as a “battery”, meaning there would be at least equal consumption (power taken from the grid) and re-supply (feeding solar power back to the grid). The original intended ratio was 2:1 (i.e. twice as much power fed back to the grid as consumed) but this has been slipping and has some people concerned. DR was and still carries a very strong sustainability agenda. One of the negative impacts of this decision (including the forbidding of fossil fuels, although propane is allowed for stoves) is that electric heating is prohibitively expensive, even heat-pumps which have a higher efficiency than baseboard electric. A few use heat-pumps and spend $200+ per month in winter for very small houses. Most houses are heated with wood. This poses other challenges which are mentioned below.
Most houses, including the common house, are heated with wood (including hot-water). These technologies are of various qualities. The cheaper of these technologies pollute the internal air; and all of them pollute the external air. In winter there can be a cloud of smoke hanging above the village. The more advanced technologies and insulation systems (including the common house) use hot-water pipes in the floor in well-insulated buildings, and only need to be fired up every few days even in the winter. One member lives in a large commercially-made yurt (cost only about $3k plus accessories like the stove) to which he has added bubble-wrap insulation. It looks super-comfortable and cozy and he says its fine in winter, although of course gets very cold over-night. Winters are very cold here.
In general, by the way, temporary structures (which includes yurts, tiny homes and RV’s) are not allowed here. There is a strong culture here AGAINST gas-consuming motor vehicles and pre-built (or mobile) structures, and these are typically not allowed into the village, with a few exceptions that include the tractor and moving / transporting stuff in and out of the village (like setting up your tent). [Question: gas-powered lawn mowers and weed-wackers? Scything seems to the popular way of cutting grass, and its quite fun although physically demanding ]
I personally, don’t have enough information to judge the viability of wood heating, especially in terms of internal air quality and the work involved in feeding the stove. It seems to be cheap enough with most houses using 2-3 cords of wood in winter @ roughly $120 per cord. I would like to come back to DR in the winter and see for myself. I find the idea romantic and I like the smell 🙂 . I do know someone who cured a recurring cold after moving away from wood heat, so there are potential health risks with wood heating.
Cars, Motor Vehicles and Sustainability “lines in the sand”
One of the most divisive issues in the village (at least in the past) has to do with motor vehicle ownership. Full members are not allowed to park a privately owned motor vehicle within about 12 miles (the distance to the nearest car-rental place). Instead they are encouraged to use the car-pool system, which is quite efficient but a bit pricey (although arguably, cheaper than private vehicles especially for short trips. You pay by the mile). Note that Residents (which are like trial members) are excluded from this rule, but you can only be a resident for 6-24 months before officially joining. Residents can own private vehicles but they can’t lease land or build houses. They can vote (I believe) but they don’t have veto power over consensus decisions.
The reasons for this policy are historical. DR was a created with a very strong ecological orientation, especially with regards to fossil fuel consumption and carbon footprint (wood is considered a renewable resource, which not everyone in the world agrees on, btw). Private vehicle ownership, along with fossil fuels for heating houses, appears to be one of those “lines in the sand” that the community will not cross.
My personal belief here (for all its worth) is that the primary purpose of eco-villages should be education, given that there is zero chance that the whole world would move into eco-villages and hence solve the climate change problem. As such I find the “obsession” with carbon footprint at DR… slightly obsessive. And yet there is nothing fundamentally that I can disagree with in terms of an experimental project, and also the limits don’t make living here impossible. You WOULD need to heat with wood to live here, or else pay-through-the-nose for a heat-pump and/or air-conditioning. Either one is doable, if you really want to live in an eco-village and deal with (survive and thrive) with the relational dynamics and governance. So be it.
One of my visitor-friends here says she needs a bathtub in her house. This is possible but not easy or cheap (see “water” below). This is an example where the “barrier to entry” to DR might exclude people, who would otherwise be very good matches. All IC’s (intentional communities) must have “filters” in place to attract members they want to attract, and repel those who are not a fit. There is no “one size fits all” intentional community.
There is more information about this (how IC’s erect barriers to entry) in the article “We Do This at Dancing Rabbit”: Recruitment and Collective Identity Processes in the Ecovillage. It’s a very good article, which unfortunately you would need to subscribe to the academic journal in question (Sage Journals) to read fully. The basic idea, as already stated, is that IC’s preserve their culture through a combination of attraction and repulsion. Interestingly, there have been 4-5 academic research studies on DR already, which are quoted in the footnotes of this very interesting article by Zach Rubin, who is currently a professor of intentional community in Greenwood, SC (who knew such positions existed, especially in South Carolina 🙂 )
Sewer and “Humanure”
I finally get to this, despite the fact that it’s THE deal-killer for a lot of people. DR doesn’t have flush toilets, instead you poo (and pee, especially if you are female) into a bucket. When the bucket is full, this bucket goes into a collection area and from there is transported (you pay $20/mth for this, see above) into the compost area, with a 3-year rotation. Meaning that, every 3 years the last “humanure” area is dug up and used as fertilizer. As per USDA regulations (which occurs as stupid from my perspective) the 3 year old human compost is not allowed in gardens or commercial agriculture — although it is used here for tree planting. But regardless, there is no escape from this system other than a few more traditional “composting toilets” that are used (for instance) at Mercantile for the B&B guests.
Meaning that: there is no black-water disposal system at DR. The more expensive houses have running water pulled from cisterns (see below) and “grey water” sewage systems. “Grey water” is showers and dish-washing effluent (you must use non-phosphate soap and shampoo) which flow into the irrigation pond. This pond grows a lot of algae and is used for garden irrigation. You would not want to swim in it. Apparently the plants like grey-water as it contains nitrogen. The irrigation pond DOES dry up sometimes, and/or gets too dense to pump (the gardens are adjacent). Not sure what they do about irrigation when this happens.
The soil is too dense (too clay) for economically viable wells here. However the climate here is very wet (except for the winter). The houses that are just “glorified bedrooms” use the common house for water and showers. The more expensive houses typically use 1200-3000 gallon holding tanks (or cisterns) fed by roof rain-water, supplemented by (as need be) municipal water hookup. The municipal water supply is limited as DR is considered as ONE home-stead, but so far, this does not appear to be a problem. The cost of municipal water (if my memory serves me) is just $1 per 100 gallons (i.e. almost nothing). Once they get to 500-1000 population, which is their stated intention, it remains to be seen whether this will work.
As such, the more expensive houses have good heating and hot-water systems (albeit with needing to be fired up with wood every few days), running water fed by holding tanks, and hot showers. They might look like “normal” houses other than the humanure system (i.e. no black-water disposal) and big wood stoves / hot water systems that need to be fired-up periodically.
So back to my visitor-friend’s desire for a bathtub: you would need a wood-fired hot-water heater (probably expensive) OR an electric water heater (cheap to buy, but expensive to operate). You would also need a grey-water sewer hookup, and a DR-grid hookup for the electric. All this probably not cheap. A lot easier to live in a Yurt 🙂
Many people choose to eat in food co-ops (or Cooking co-ops). With 5-6 people you would cook and clean-up once a week and eat 5-6 times. From an economic (or efficiency) point of view, this occurs as a no-brainer. Of course you would have to like the other members of your cooking co-op and also their food. The “cooking houses” are typically the more expensive houses (i.e. the ones with running water), however not all cooking houses are expensive. The Milkweed co-op cooking house does not have running water, and the Critters cooking house is outdoors and shuts down in winter and early spring. Critters cook at home by themselves in the winter (if my understanding is correct).
There is also a very well-stocked self-serve food “store”, which has luxuries such as chocolate-covered almonds and frozen meats, in addition to a large selection of grains, spices and more. The way this works is, you weigh your produce, enter it into a ledger, and get billed each month. The prices were reasonable (and frankly, even if you are paying 20% for the convenience, its worth it and you are supporting your village mate, in this case Cob the store owner). You can also bill your alcoholic drinks and coffee at Mercantile. There is something (to me) very friendly and “old-timey” about the credit system at DR. They even used to have their own currency, which was (reportedly) running close to a million dollars a year in transactions at one point, but government regulations forced them to shut-down.
Internet here is fast, and, if I am not mistaken, getting even faster with fiber-optic. This is a big advantage of living here, as not all rural communities have usable internet, which is especially important for remote workers. The common house has fast internet included in the obligatory membership, but only two spaces that could be used as “office space”, so this probably not an option for remote workers, unless they have an in-home office. Wifi line-of-sight “beamer” technologies are now fast and cheap up to 1 mile or more, so you could get your internet (theoretically) from a friendly neighbor even if you did not have a commercial hook-up.
Building Codes & Sustainability Requirements (“Covenants”)
When DR was founded, building codes were very strict. They required full “natural” building techniques (typically cob, straw bale, of earth-bag), or reclaimed lumber. All this is now significantly changed. My understanding is that any kind of “reasonable” construction technique is allowed, including lumber that is certified as sustainably-grown. This hugely opens up housing possibilities for more conventional construction, with the limitation that the local electric grid is required (at 5x the municipal electric rate), or else house solar; and there is no black-water sewage system, i.e. no flush toilets. The humanure system is obligatory.
Governance and Membership Process
This, once again, has significantly evolved. It used to be all decision were taken in community meetings. Now it’s a village council of 5 people, on a 2-year term with 1-year rotations (i.e. half the council rotates each year, if my understanding is correct). The process to choose the village council is intense and requires everyone’s obligatory input, although “declining to participate” is a viable option. There is a job whose name I forget, whose role is convincing people to run for council, and “harassing” people who fail to respond to the obligatory survey. The upside of this job, is that you aren’t allowed to run for village council yourself. There is a quite complicated process for choosing village council, and even more complicated process what the power of village council decisions are and the appeal process. Like I say, there is significant “density” here in terms of governance and legislative power, which has evolved over 25+ years of success and failure in decision-making process.
The pathway from visitor to resident to member is as follows. Anyone can become a visitor by finding a host, and there is a public list of people who are looking for hosting. Hosts may reach out to you, if you join this list, which was my experience (tip: Cob is a fabulous host. If he offers, jump on it). Standard fee to hosts is $40/day (negotiable), plus food which is typically $10/day. Some people consider this high. I find it very reasonable in terms of the work involved in hosting and orienting people to the community.
Beyond finding a host and visiting in that way (it’s not allowed to just show up), the 2-week visitor program is pretty much obligatory if you want to be a member. I myself tried to “get through the back door” by finding a host, and was told this would not fly if my intention was to be a member. I was and am very grateful for the feedback as the visitor program was a home-run for me. The visitor program currently costs $500 for one week and $700 for 2 weeks. Once again, some people consider this high, but I did not. I found it an amazing value in terms of the quality of education, food and group facilitation (quality of accommodation might be another story, varies greatly and would be extra money if you don’t want to camp); and lower rates for the visitor program are negotiable, on request.
Once past the visitor program, and you are still interested, you apply to be a resident. A questionnaire goes out to the community asking anyone who has had any contact with you what they think. Short of any deal-breakers, which would be rare, you are from there approved to become a resident for 6 months. Resident status can be extended up to 2 years, but not beyond. It seems to me, to be to people’s advantage to extend the resident period because you don’t have to deal with vehicle restrictions; but as a down-side, a resident can’t lease a warren or build a house.
Your options as a resident are either to rent a room (or whole house), or else camp on one of the tenting platforms, which obviously won’t work in winter. As of June 2021, there is a great selection of cheap rentals, including the top-end which would be the Mercantile for about $350/mth for a room (less, perhaps, if you agree to feed their wood-stove or whatever). Some of the houses, such as Woodhenge which is currently for sale, are more suitable for 2 or more people living together, so you may want to find a room-mate. Please ping me if you want a room-mate in winter 2021/2022 🙂
Relational Culture and Relational Technologies Used
Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is widely used at DR and there are very relationally-savvy people in leadership. To name a few (not comprehensive list) Danielle, Nathan, Allison, Prairie, Christina and Cob. There DOES appear to be collective buy-in to NVC as a relational technology, but a lot of people appear to be (as of June 2021) still in burnout. The turnout at a village meeting that I attended was quite low. The visitors in this meeting outnumbered the “rabbits” by a large margin. Even so, the process was interesting and well led, and based on NVC.
I led 4 Authentic Relating circles while I was there. One of them was a shit-show and three of them were glorious. This btw is “par for the course” in terms of A/R circles, at least ones that I lead, although the usual ratio is 10:1 in terms of “glorious” versus “shit-show” circles. To note, however, that the purpose of Authentic Relating is to make mistakes, be you a leader or participant, and so “shit-show” isn’t quite accurate either. I prefer the term “successful failure” and in fact in the end, this particular circle made me much closer to the participant in question, and we became good friends after I later apologized to him. The participation was small, usually 3-4 people (out of a visitor group of 12 and larger community of 40).
The challenge with enrolling people in A/R circles (I am calling this “Circling within the Authentic Relating tradition” now in order to distinguish it from other “circle technologies”) is threefold. First, its hard to describe the real depth and power of the modality, and if I told them the truth of what I really think is possible here in terms of transformation, I would sound like an idiot, or maybe delusional; second, most people are terrified of real intimacy, as they should be (real intimacy is scary. Paradoxically, this is what makes it so interesting and exciting); and third, all descriptions fall short, as the only way to get a real understanding of an A/R circle is to participate in one — and even then, it can take a while to really “grok” the modality. A/R circling is a very deep and fundamental paradigm shift from traditional ways of relating. Not everyone is attracted to it or ready for it, and of course people’s developmental trauma is very active here, as it is everywhere.
My experience is that there was limited interest in A/R circling within the visitor group and very little real interest in the larger community. This is not really surprising given the limitations I have described, but those who came to my circles tended to have big experiences, and so it was very worth it for me to run these groups despite low turnout (you don’t need a big turnout to have a good time in A/R circling, in fact its best in my experience to limit groups to 6 people plus the leader). Also there was one person in the larger “rabbit” community who was totally interested and engaged (it’s because of him, that I am thinking of going back in the winter and spending a few months there). All this btw I did not take personally, as it also reflects the pace of life at DR. Most people are very busy and the visitor program was pretty much full-on, all the time. As such it was a bit of work to convince anyone, visitors or residents, to do anything “extra curricular”.
I did receive (retroactively) some negative feedback that I was perceived as “selling” my programs for commercial intent. The charge of commercial intent occurs to me as silly, as I did not ask for money for my programs there (despite the fact that I do this professionally and get paid for it), and I have no intention of charging for my programs at DR. My motive is to explore A/R in intentional community, given that these two topics are my great passion. However the feedback has a grain of truth in it and I have spent some time processing this. My first response was a bit reactive (or defensive): as an “Authentic Relating Evangelist” I consider it a good thing that I am getting push-back: If I was NOT getting push-back (the reasoning goes) I would not be doing my job. A better or more mature response, however — and more in line with “walking my talk” — would be to look at this feedback as an “excuse for intimacy” and to approach it with curiosity. I can easily see any attempt at “selling” anything (no matter how good and no matter the commercial intent or lack thereof) would get a negative reaction, given the amount of “selling” that happens in the larger culture, all of it for commercial intent, and often of dubious value. As such, my desire now, is to probe at the reasons for the push-back. Aside from echoes of “selling” that occur in the larger culture, what might be the reasons that would generate push-back to Authentic Relating? I could name quite a few off the top of my head, but this would have little value, outside of an actual conversation with the people involved.
Any thoughts? Share your feedback here with a comment. Be bold, let your voice be heard!
And where am I now?
I am currently at Solidarity Collective in Laramie WY and so far (just 2 days into it) it’s a home run for me, even more than DR, although I am still toying with the idea of spending a few winter months at DR. If you are interested in Solidarity Collective please reach out to me.