[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.