Oct 6: Abundance and Fairfield

Oct 6: Abundance and Fairfield

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on October 6, 2004, immediately after the post about Sandhill and Dancing Rabbit]

Hi, folks! Sorry to send so much at once, but I was out of dialup range for quite a while. In my last message I promised to tell you why Abundance Ecovillage and Fairfield, Iowa knocked my socks off. Here goes...

First and foremost, the people here are dynamic and energetic and talented. My host, Lonnie, is probably one of the biggest movers and shakers environmentally speaking, so my perceptions may be skewed by the people he introduced me to, but even so... here are some examples; I'll try to get the facts straight. Lonnie's father worked in hydroelectric power, so that was his introduction to renewable energy; since then he's learned enough about solar and wind power and permaculture that he teaches classes and consults both in Fairfield and in Hawaii.

He built his first strawbale house twelve years ago from locally-grown straw and lumber; that's the building I stayed in. His second was "experimental" and looks rather more like a hobbit hole than a traditional house, but Michael and his partner live there. Michael makes biodiesel fuel from used sesame oil he gets from the ayurvedic spas in town, and he uses it to fuel his own vehicles as well as the ecovillage's emergency generators. He also tinkers with electric cars, including a Sebring-Vanguard Citicar of the type I drove in high school.

Lonnie's third strawbale house is the one he lives in now, next door to the one I stayed in. These two houses are not at the ecovillage but two miles away, in a development where all the houses are off-grid: they produce their own electricity and heat, cool themselves in summer, and catch more than enough rainwater for household use. Lonnie says there are probably 40 such houses in Fairfield, with only 3 so far on the ecovillage site. So this is not just an ecovillage thing; it's all over town.

Lonnie's next-door neighbor Grover took a course from him in Hawaii, decided to move here and build his own house, and now teaches organic agriculture in Chiapas when he's not gardening and working here. Lonnie's wife Valerie is from Paris but caught the farming bug and now handles most of the farming at the ecovillage, from planning to market. She was out of town most of the time I was there, so I didn't get to talk to her much.

Brian was working his way across the country as a construction worker this summer when he stopped in Fairfield and decided to stay as an unpaid intern for the ecovillage. He's 24. He helped Lonnie teach a permaculture / renewable energy class at the University here in town just a few days ago, and the plan is that he'll supervise a permaculture intern program that will be held at the ecovillage next spring. And there are five more fascinating people who live in the first "model" house at the ecovillage, plus another group building a house right now, and still more who plan to build but haven't started yet. I met quite a few, but I can't keep their names and bios straight!

Second, there's a great sense of community and a spirit of working together all over town. After the movie Thursday night, Lonnie and I went for dinner at a Thai vegetarian deli (!) where, over half an hour, everyone who walked in the door not only knew Lonnie but was involved in some exciting piece of the puzzle: organic CSA farming, running the farmer's market, organizing the upcoming "Bioneers" conference, and so on. We left there for the health-food store -- the largest such store I've seen since leaving Minneapolis -- and he ran into another friend and the mother of one of his recent students. Friday night we attended the monthly Art Walk, when downtown businesses host art shows and concerts all evening. Then on Saturday there was a harvest festival (supplementing the weekly farmer's market), which was chaotic at times but very entertaining and profitable. It seems like everybody's working on something exciting to bring the community closer together.

Third, the cult factor of Maharishi University of Management turns out to not be as much of a turn-off as I had assumed; that's what's kept me from visiting Fairfield before. Although Lonnie is a devotee of Transcendental Meditation and goes to "the dome" daily to meditate (as required of all MUM faculty and students) and has pictures of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on display in both his houses, it's not something he talks about (unless asked) or has imposed on Brian. Same goes for the ecovillagers, many of whom are building their homes in accordance with Sthãpatya Veda™, the Maharishi's version of Feng Shui. It's a personal thing, apparently.

But I'm not the only one who's been scared away from the place because of TM's reputation as a cult; Lonnie says even some of the townspeople who don't meditate avoid events attended by meditators, even though the events may be completely unrelated to TM. (Note: very few people have learned TM in recent years because Maharishi set the price of training in the US prohibitively high. This is clearly counterproductive to the discipline as a whole and to the ideals it stands for, but nobody wants to go against Maharishi's wishes.)

Fourth, I had no idea any of this stuff was here, even though I lived less than two hours' drive away for four years. Grinnell is proud of (or at least resigned to) its reputation as the hippie capital of Iowa, but it appears to be in second place. For example, while Grinnell College was debating whether to allow students to have a garden on campus, MUM was committing to grow essentially all its own food, with students participating in every part of the process. It would have been useful to know that.

Finally, the name "Abundance" is right on target. Most ecovillage projects I've seen seem to start from the assumption that to live sustainably, you have to give things up: flush toilets, TV, hot showers, etc. Lonnie and his friends seem to be demonstrating that you can have more than enough clean water, more than enough hot water more than enough electricity and food and income and everything you need for satisfying life ... and still leave more than enough for the community of life around you. So my ecovillage map gets a big ol' dot in Fairfield. I don't know that I'd want to live there per se, but I do know that wherever I do live, I want it to have the dynamic, the community spirit, and the potential that I saw there, and it's good to know where to turn for a model!

Lonnie has an extensive library of books, magazines, videos, etc. in the house where I was staying, covering everything from The Far Side to the most obscure points of permaculture, computer programming, and electrical generation. I only looked through a couple of these, but they're worth mentioning: Computing Across America: The Bicycle Odyssey of a High-Tech Nomad by Steven K. Roberts is the book that some of you seem to want me to write about my trip. Trust me, Roberts has done a much better job than I could do. Not only does he write better prose (and better puns) than I do, but his trip was much more hard-core than mine, in pretty much every respect. So next time you think I should write a book, read this one instead. He even looks kinda like me. Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People is a compilation by Hildur Jackson and Karen Svensson of essays and case studies from around the world. Lots of luscious photos and useful information.

Favorite Iowa quirk: unlike Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where essentially every road is paved, most county roads in Iowa are gravel. The paved ones are designated as county highways, and though they might not have any additional signage on location, Delorme's Atlas labels them like highways, making them easy to follow from town to town. I got used to this convention on my previous bike trip, so I was disoriented early on in this trip when it turned out not to hold true in other states.

Ben Wed, 10/06/2004 - 16:27

to Geode State Park, IA

to Geode State Park, IA

It got cold last night -- so cold that ice formed on the autoharp case.  I woke up around 4 and couldn't get back to sleep because I couldn't get warm, and I was wearing 3 layers.

I put the tent away still damp, thinking I'd have time to dry it out in Burlington.  I did get to Burlington around lunchtime, but after that plans went awry.

Burlington, IA is a quaint, historic little town on the Mississippi.  It's clearly trying hard to retain its small-town charm in spite of the suburban sprawl going on to the west ... that's West Burlington, a separate town.  But because the downtown is  quaint and historic, I found I couldn't do any of my errands there and had to go west.  Everyplace I asked if I could use the phone line -- welcome center, library, a UCC church -- I was told, "That's not a service we offer," as if my modem was threatening to pull them into a different century.

Anyhow, I got all the errands done, but it took about two hours longer than I expected, so I never did get the tent aired out.  I rode hard to Geode State Park and just barely made it to the campground by sunset.

Total distance: 44.61 mi

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Ben Wed, 09/29/2004 - 00:00

to Fairfield, IA

to Fairfield, IA

The ride from Geode to Fairfield was difficult only because it was gravel for several miles; I chose a more level route than I could have, but still it was gravel and took a lot out of me.

I arrived in Fairfield sufficiently late in the afternoon that I headed straight for the ecovillage, even though I could tell I wanted to see more of town.  On the way out of town, I passed a housing development of Maharishi Sthapatya Veda homes featuring energy-efficient windows and lighting, passive solar heating and cooling, and low VOC paint.

When I got to the village, I found a half dozen people at work on various buildings.  I headed to where Lonnie had told me to look for him but found another man, Michael, at work on his own house, a strawbale construction they built 10 years ago.  He showed me around and pointed me back out to Lonnie's home.

By the time I met Lonnie, I'd heard so much about him from so many people that I didn't know what to expect, but he turned out to be fairly young-looking, very energetic.  He offered me a bed indoors as the weather is predicted to get very nasty tomorrow.  The house I'm staying in is next door to Lonnie's current house and has a kitchen but no working bathroom; Lonnie's has a bathroom but no kitchen.  Both are strawbale construction, but you can't really tell from inside, and both are totally off the electrical grid; in fact the entire development is off grid.  Lonnie says there are probably 40 homes in Fairfield that are off grid.

We went into town to watch the movie "What the Bleep do we Know," which I thought was fantastic.  Then we went to a Thai deli for dessert and to a health food store that rivals the Wedge.  Everywhere we went, everyone knew Lonnie.

When we got back, I met Brian, who was traveling across the country doing construction work when he found Abundance and decided to stay as an unpaid intern, working for room and board.  The three of us jammed on guitar, bass, and autoharp for a while.

total distance: 46.54 mi

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Ben Thu, 09/30/2004 - 00:00

Abundance Ecovillage

Abundance Ecovillage

Today the rain was forecast to last pretty much all day. Brian and Lonnie and I went over to the ecovillage to work for an hour or so on a greenhouse project before the rain started; then they gave me a tour of the grounds. We returned to Lonnie's house(s), where I stayed for the rest of the day while Lonnie had meetings and such.

Lonnie let me use his computer for a few hours (solar powered, but with DSL), so I updated my Web site. Then we had an incredible lunch with the last of the summer harvest. I basically lazed around all afternoon with books and things.

Anyhow... Abundance is a good name for this place that has more than enough of everything. What a treat to be around so many competent, energetic, enthusiastic people! They seem to be making progress on every front simultaneously.

In the evening we went to the health food store's restaurant for their weekly Italian buffet, which was excellent. When the restaurant closes at 8, all the food is free, but we arrived before then and still got a good deal. Then we explored the Art Walk, which is a monthly event: many of the downtown businesses open their doors all evening for art shows, poetry readings, and concerts. It was really neat!

Lonnie says that few non-meditators attend events that are perceived as meditators' events, even if they're unrelated to TM, like the Art Walk. That seems a shame.

Ben Fri, 10/01/2004 - 00:00



Today was market day - not just the usual Saturday farmer's market, but a harvest festival with artist stalls and demonstration booths and live music.  We got up early to bring in the harvest, but the lettuce had frozen overnight, so we  had to wait for it to thaw before we could pick it.

Brian and I went to Vedic City, a nearby organic farm, and picked the last of their field peppers to sell.  They have huge greenhouses full of produce as well, so they can keep growing and selling all winter.  I wish I had gotten a photo of the inside of the greenhouse -- the rows were so long and narrow that they looked like they went on forever!

The market festival was a blast: probably two dozen farmers and bakers, most of them organic, plus the artists and musicians and lunchtime food booths.  There were also people demonstrating how wool is processed "from sheep to shawl" and how cider is made.  The finished cider was sold for $2 a quart, and it all sold.  Since so many of the farmers knew each other, everyone started selling each other's stuff... it was chaotic but I suspect very profitable.  I spent way too much money myself.

Afterwards we returned to Lonnie's place and I did some laundry to take advantage of what had become a warmish afternoon.  I tried to do some work on  my bike but found that Lonnie didn't have the tool I needed (a cone wrench), so I went to town to buy one and wound up going to Wal-Mart for longjohns and to Econo Foods for Sweet Obsession chocolates.  Mmm.

Ben Sat, 10/02/2004 - 00:00