They approached land as a commodity that could be owned, a raw material to be manipulated for producing surpluses that would increase personal wealth. This approach is significant because it assumed transformation of the land and its native communities into something defined as useful—a transformation that occurred [on the prairies] more intensely and completely than in any other [ecosystem]…settlement-era land speculators applied the same ethic to town development schemes across the [prairies], in hopes of reaping fabulous profits.
While agricultural profits soared and towns coalesced…game was depleted, large trees were cleared, native pastures were decimated, waters were sullied, and soils were washed downslope and downstream…For the most part, these environmental costs went unrecognized or ignored.
Cornelia Mutel, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa 2008:15-16.
For over century, North American prairie landscapes have been transformed and degraded by industrial monocrop agriculture, urban and suburban development, the introduction of non-native species, and the suppression of periodic fire. Whether we speak of loss of topsoil, the proliferation of invasive species and disappearing native biodiversity, or the spread of urban sprawl and the destruction of natural habitats, Euro-American communities have not managed prairie ecosystems with an eye to their persistence. The use and treatment of the prairies has proceeded under the assumption that productive human landscapes are constructed by rearranging, eliminating, and replacing natural ecosystem components in pursuit of short-term financial gain (Mutel 2008).
Over the last two decades, the members of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Scotland County, Missouri, have experimented with a different approach to using and inhabiting a 280-acre parcel of the prairie landscape. These activists’ approach to what Gary Snyder and other bioregionalists call “reinhabitation” is grounded in cooperation among humans, places a high value on ecological processes and other-than-human inhabitants of the prairies, and incorporates restoration ecology practices into community life. These ‘Rabbits’, as they call themselves, are recreating the commons on the prairies and, in the process, building new identities and a new community for themselves. Their efforts stand in stark contrast to state-based and individualized, market-driven approaches to land management that have dominated the utilization of prairie ecosystems in the United States.
In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for the decades of work she spent demonstrating that groups of people around the world can and do sustainably manage natural resources by developing and using their own de facto systems of rules and norms grounded in local cultural and ecological contexts. Summarizing the findings of Ostrom and her colleagues, David Bollier. states, “In a commons, the structural pressures to earn money are reduced and the incentives to take into account subtle, long-term factors are greater. As a social institution, a commons is also more likely to care about the long-term sustainability of a resource than the market, because the very identities and cultures of the commoners are wrapped up in the management of the resource” (2014:110) Ostrom’s findings about the commons contradicted dominant Western ideologies articulated by Garrett Hardin. in his influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) Hardin offered a parable of a group of shepherds grazing sheep on a common pasture wherein every shepherd will inevitably increase his number of animals because while the cost of his adding each animal is distributed among all the shepherds, the benefit is his alone. Hardin’s parable suggested that, in the absence of the incentives of individualized private property or the sanctions of centralized government authorities, humans in communities are inherently selfish, short sighted, and incapable of using resources sustainably over the long term.
Hardin’s argument was a cogent and relatively recent manifestation of a longstanding line of thought regarding land management. Translated into policy, including the appropriation and enclosure of Native American prairie commons and the increasing scale, mechanization, and corporatization of Midwestern agriculture, this line of thought has led to a century and a half of private and government mismanagement of the prairies. Indeed, it has led to their near elimination and destruction as described in Connie Mutel’s masterful treatise on the prairies, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa. However, the recent history of the prairies is not only one of destruction and mismanagement. In her book, Mutel also documents multiple public and private initiatives to preserve and restore the prairies, but none of them takes the form of the community-based commons approach that characterizes Dancing Rabbit.
In this article, I explore two decades of common property management and community building on the Missouri prairie by the members of Dancing Rabbit. My aims here are twofold. First, I wish to show how a group of ecovillagers is demonstrating that effective commons management is possible today on at least a small portion of the North American prairie. Second, I wish to explore their efforts to simultaneously restore prairie ecosystems and develop productive human landscapes through cooperative stewardship of their collectively held acreage.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage
Dancing Rabbit is an intentional community of approximately 60 people, founded in the mid-1990s in Scotland County, northeast Missouri. The nomenclature “ecovillage” is used by many contemporary intentional communities to define their collective identity and indicate their shared commitment to living in more ecologically sustainable ways. The term first appeared in the 1970s, but its popularization is most commonly attributed to a report called “Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities” which was written by Robert and Diane Gilman for the charitable organization Gaia Trust. in the early 1990s. In that report, the Gilmans defined an ecovillage as “A human scale, full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future” (cited in Dawson 2006:13) This definition has since been revised and added to multiple times. On its website, the Global Ecovillage Network, an organization that helps ecovillages around the world network with one another, states that “[a]n ecovillage is an intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability (social, culture, ecology, economy into a whole systems design) to regenerate its social and natural environment.” In general, deliberate, collaborative, multi-dimensional approaches to living in more ecologically sustainable manners are defining features of ecovillages, especially in more affluent countries of the world.
From the beginning, the Rabbits adopted this mission statement: “To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research”. The community includes the local ecosystem in its definition of the term ‘sustainable’. As the community’s mission statement goes on to state, living sustainably involves living “in such a manner that, within the defined area, no resources are consumed faster than their natural replenishment, and the enclosed system can continue indefinitely without degradation of its internal resource base or the standard of living of the people and the rest of the ecosystem within it.” Deliberately situating themselves relative to both the local and the global, both the human and the other-than-human, is a defining feature of these Rabbits’ commons endeavor.
For the last decade, I have been part of a team of researchers that has been working with the Rabbits to help them assess their progress toward sustainable living. We have done this by measuring their consumption of resources and their experienced well-being, and comparing these measures with those of mainstream American society. Our results indicate that, in many key areas, they are living on about 10 percent of the resources used by the average American, while maintaining about the same experienced quality of life [see Lockyer 2017] for a full analysis and interpretation of our results.
As part of this work, I also turned my attention to the community’s land use and land management practices, along with the ways in which the community is transforming its collectively held landscape. One of the community’s goals is to restore a parcel of degraded farmland as a functioning prairie ecosystem that is able to sustainably provide for many of their needs while also creating habitat for the many other-than-human prairie inhabitants that used to be so ubiquitous here. In this article, I make no attempt to quantitatively measure their progress either at providing for their own needs from their land or at restoring prairie ecosystems; rather, my aim is simply to describe their efforts to steward their land.
Dancing Rabbit’s approach to land management and intentional community-building is what Bollier and others call an act of “commoning”. Like the members of most contemporary intentional communities, the Rabbits are activating the power of social cooperation to build community, achieve goals, and manage resources. Dancing Rabbit’s commons system is manifested via a number of components. These include a community land trust model which replaces individualized speculation on land for short term economic profit with collective stewardship of land for long term ecological sustainability. It also includes a community governance system where, through a variety of forums and processes of grassroots democracy, people work together to make decisions about and develop policies pertaining to use of the land they own together.
Dancing Rabbit’s land is collectively owned and managed through a 501(c)2 land trust and an associated 501(c)3 research and education nonprofit. Both of these organizations are overseen by a board of directors (on which I serve), but the day-to-day management of land and community rests primarily with the Rabbits who live on the land. The whole community makes decisions and formulates rules concerning land use, including the long-term leasing of individual land parcels to individuals or small groups within the community for residences, businesses, and food production. As their website says: “The land trust model takes land out of the speculative market while still providing an ownership-like option for our members. Each individual or household can lease a small plot of land for a monthly fee. …Leaseholders do not own their land, but do own any improvements on their land, including any buildings, orchards, gardens, etc. These can be sold to another member if someone leaves the community or moves to a different leasehold. Since members can’t sell their land, there is no ability to speculate and land can be a permanently affordable resource…” (Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 2015).
Further, each leasehold is designed and used according to a collaborative ecological design process: “Each new leasehold must go through a community approval process. The community attempts to guide new members through an ecological design process to make sure they are taking into account both the needs of their household or garden and the effects it will have on their neighbors and our land. Our goal is to allow great flexibility for each member to realize their vision of a sustainable dwelling or garden while also fitting their goals into the larger design goals of the village.” (Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 2015). The community balances many priorities in its approach to using and managing the landscape with long term, collective sustainability deliberately taking precedence over short-term, individualized profit.
As the community’s population has grown, its governance system has evolved, from full group consensus decision making to a representative village council whose members render decisions and sometimes delegate deliberation to committees, which in turn report back to the council or community as a whole. There is also a land use planning and policy component, overseen by a committee that, with community feedback, designs land use rules. In addition, the community reserves several days a year for a retreat where all community members gather to discuss and update community issues, including its relationship with its land.
The overall goal is to give community members ample opportunity to actively participate in management of commonly held resources. This is an ongoing process of learning, experimenting, and adjusting their practices to achieve desirable results relative to the Rabbits’ overarching mission and goals: “to design a resource-minimizing and community-promoting, pedestrian-scaled village that minimizes our footprint on our land to leave space for agriculture and wildlife habitat” (Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 2018).
To balance community-building and the meeting of human needs with long-term sustainable land management, Dancing Rabbit has adopted a number of initiatives and areas of focus. These include dense urban design, agricultural production and development, and prairie ecosystem restoration and reforestation.
As Connie Mutel indicates in The Emerald Horizon, the parceling of prairie landscapes into individualized portions for agriculture and urban development has been a key driver of the prairie ecosystem destruction. When Dancing Rabbit acquired its acreage in the mid-1990s, the land was a post-industrial farmscape that had not been farmed for over ten years and included only a few buildings left over from previous decades of industrial farming.
In order to allow the majority of the community’s land to heal, the Rabbits agreed to build their community infrastructure on only a small portion of their land. Current urban development is contained within approximately twenty acres, with plans to expand to forty acres (see Figure 4). In the early years, the challenge was simply to provide housing, but throughout Dancing Rabbit’s history, community members have paid attention not only to their physical footprint on their land, but also to the embedded energy contained in the building materials they use. In addition to having a small geographic footprint, houses are constructed using a variety of natural and green building techniques, often incorporating locally available materials such as straw bales, clay, and reclaimed lumber. As a result, a dense cluster of eclectic buildings has grown up on the southeast corner of the land.
Through its land use planning and leaseholding process, the community continues to update and revise policies regarding the use of space, including the placement of foot and cart paths (vehicles are kept on the village perimeter, except under exceptional circumstances, often involving construction), the orientation of buildings to roads and to each other, and the incorporation of green space into the urban area. The overall aim is to create a densely populated urban village on one small corner of the acreage.
Planning for the development of a commons in a way that considers the needs of both current and future residents is, as the community’s website indicates “[a]n ongoing challenge,” given “the tension between overarching design and organic growth.” The website cites “[the] need to have a plan for the future that holds our values and vision, while also meeting the needs of the current community members. It can be tricky at times to plug each individual’s or family’s vision into the village plan and still promote the long term patterns for growth we are hoping for.” (Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 2015) This tension between growth and development on the one hand and sustainable use on the other lies at the heart of the challenge of successful commoning. It will be interesting to see how the Rabbits address this challenge as their community grows over coming years.
As the Rabbits increasingly met their needs for shelter during the early years, many of them were able to turn their focus to producing food for themselves and their community. This has entailed rehabilitating land that, while fallow since 1987, was degraded by decades of industrial corn and hog farming. In addition to residential leaseholds, the community has garden leaseholds where people produce food for the households and the kitchen cooperatives they are part of, as well as commercial agricultural leaseholds where people produce food for sale to their fellow community members and residents of surrounding areas. Currently, the members of the village have designated fifty acres for food production, much of which is yet to be developed.
Food produced using standard industrial methods employed on private property, but organized according to policies designed by centralized state governments, has been one of the main drivers of unsustainable use of prairie landscapes. In contrast, Ostrom and her colleagues have documented more sustainable land use practices and food production systems in many successful commons institutions. At Dancing Rabbit, agricultural development proceeds according to models much more in the latter vein than in the former. The scale of production at Dancing Rabbit is smaller and more diverse, often integrating multiple species into a field and sometimes, as in the case of forest gardens, integrating wild and domesticated species into the same plot. Permaculture, a design philosophy for human food production that is based on working with natural forces rather than against them, underlies many Rabbits’ approach to food production. While such systems have the direct and immediate benefit of producing food for people, they are also designed with an eye to interconnections and indirect benefits such as fostering habitat for wildlife that may be hunted, and to restoring soil fertility over the long-term.
A small number of Rabbits incorporate rotational grazing into their approach to food production and land management. While many Rabbits choose to be vegan or vegetarian as part of their sustainable living philosophy, a number of them recognize that prairie ecosystems are particularly appropriate contexts for the production of animal protein. They deliberately use animal agriculture in an attempt to mimic the role of grazing herbivores such as bison in the Pre-Colombian prairies. It is here that the Rabbits’ approach to food production overlaps with their efforts at prairie ecosystem restoration.
Prairie Ecosystem Restoration
Of Dancing Rabbit’s 280 total acres, 160 acres are managed through the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Administered by the Farm Service Agency, CRP pays farmers and landowners to remove environmentally sensitive tracts of land from agricultural production with the goals of improving water quality, preventing soil erosion, and preventing the loss of wildlife habitat. Most of Dancing Rabbit’s efforts at prairie ecosystem restoration are undertaken on its CRP acreage.
Thus, in addition to categories of land specifically set aside for urban development and agriculture, Dancing Rabbit has a category of land labelled ‘Prioritized for Ecosystem Health’. Land management which prioritizes ecosystem health is part of the community’s efforts to balance the needs of the human and other-than-human inhabitants of their land. According to the community’s website, “This is the area in which we will encourage and assist in ecosystem health, stability and resiliency. This area consists of all Dancing Rabbit property not… [designated for urban or agricultural development]. We expect to establish native species, stabilize soil, encourage diversity and control invasive non-native species…. We’ve planted native grasses on over 15 acres and have been maintaining them with regular prescribed burns, an essential part of the prairie’s life cycle. We hope to rebuild the diversity of plots by replanting patches of the few native wildflowers and grasses that can still be found in northeast Missouri. While we do not work directly on wildlife management of native animals, our land provides a sanctuary from the expanding farms, roads and towns elsewhere” (Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage 2015).
Dancing Rabbit members have undertaken to inform themselves about their land’s history and the destructive transformation of the North American prairies in general. The community’s common library includes dozens of books focused on related subjects, and the community’s approach to healing the land is a frequent topic of conversation. During an interview with me as part of our research project, one community member described a meeting with a long-time local farmer who informed him that Dancing Rabbit’s land was “probably the most over-grazed, over-farmed piece of land in the county.” For many decades, the land was used for industrial scale commodity food production, primarily for corn and hogs, which eliminated most natural components of the prairies and degraded the soil. Studies of attempts to allow prairies to recover from industrial farming show that prairies can be so degraded, they often only further degenerate when left to the natural succession process; prairies require human intervention for successful conservation and restoration (Mutel 2008). Dancing Rabbit therefore desires to actively steward the healing of the land rather than passively abandon it to natural processes of succession. While not all Rabbits agree on the best approach to doing this, the community’s land-use planning committee and Dancing Rabbit’s forums for collective governance provide venues for decision making about the community’s continuously evolving approach to prairie stewardship and restoration, which at this writing includes in-progress restoration of over 15 acres of native grasslands.
Another collective initiative undertaken by Rabbits, with the aim of restoring prairie ecosystem health and expanding native biodiversity, involves reforestation. Original prairies in this part of the country included oak-dominated woodlands, especially along watercourses, where the effects of natural and man-made fire were minimized and where more moisture was available (Mutel 2008). These woodlands were cut back as industrial agricultural fields expanded, starting especially in the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, the Rabbits have planted over 15,000 individual trees of species native to the prairies while also removing invasive woody species by using controlled burns and other methods.
One Dancing Rabbit member who is heavily involved in the land use planning committee has estimated that the community is gaining, on average, an acre of forest each year through the expansion of remnant woodlands and the maturation of tree plantings. This has resulted in some of Dancing Rabbit’s land falling out of eligibility for the Conservation Reserve Program, as forested land is not in a condition to go back into agricultural production.
During my visit to Dancing Rabbit in the summer of 2018, it became clear that unprecedented drought conditions were driving decisions that would have unforeseen impacts on the community’s efforts at prairie ecosystem restoration. In July 2018, the community granted a neighboring farmer’s request to use tractors to produce desperately needed hay for his cattle from the 160 acres of land which the community had allocated to the Conservation Reserve Program. Some community members were dubious about the impact this would have on their ecosystem restoration efforts, while others suggested that such haying might actually do a better job of removing invasive species than would the community’s infrequent controlled burns. Whatever the case, this recent development in the community’s relationship with its land drives home two points that I wish to make as I move toward my conclusions.
The impacts of global climate change will undoubtedly introduce unpredictable variables into efforts to restore prairie ecosystems, whether at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage or elsewhere. Furthermore, while the Rabbits do their best to systematically monitor the outcomes of their landscape management endeavors, they are exceptionally busy with making a living for themselves and would benefit from more involvement by qualified scientists who have expertise in these areas. Concurrently, scientists also stand to gain through analysis of what is a living experiment in land management and prairie ecosystem restoration.
During two centuries of Euro-American colonization, the prairies were largely destroyed through processes of agricultural and urban development. The community at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is trying to restore a small portion of the prairies while also producing food and developing an urban area on its parcel of degraded prairie farmland. The community’s practices of agricultural and urban development, quite different from those so predominantly employed elsewhere in the prairie region, are worthy of closer examination and analysis. In its almost twenty years of existence, Dancing Rabbit has made significant changes in the surrounding physical landscape. Through cooperative and individual endeavor, a mostly uninhabited 280-acre tract of degraded farmland has become a patchwork of regenerating prairie ecosystems, a developing urban area, and a variety of edible landscapes. All of these changes have taken place as the community used a land trust model and grassroots democracy to manage its collective relationship with the landscape while conducting an experiment in common property stewardship.
How successful has Dancing Rabbit been in its aims to transform its landscape into a restored, diverse prairie ecosystem while also engaging in productive activities that met human needs? The current answer is almost certainly “only partially.” However, just as the destruction of the prairies was a long-term project, so will be their restoration. As a researcher and Dancing Rabbit board member with long-term familiarity with the community, I aim to help develop future collaborative research projects at the community. Such projects may include helping them to monitor ecological restoration—soil testing, grass, flower, & tree species inventories, and wildlife monitoring, among other activities directly relevant to prairie ecosystem restoration. At the same time, we will continue to monitor if and how the Rabbits are able to meet their needs from the land in sustainable ways that lessen their impact on ecosystems elsewhere.
How much food, fuel, fiber, and building materials are they able to harvest from the land, while continuing their efforts toward prairie ecosystem restoration? Can the Rabbits find a sustainable balance between development for a growing community and ecological restoration? Only time will tell, but I hope that ongoing research can lend a crucial hand in helping the community achieve its goals and demonstrate that people in modern western societies can still find ways to cooperatively and sustainably manage the commons. Scientists with relevant expertise who are interested in undertaking research at Dancing Rabbit are encouraged to contact me at [email protected].
I’d like to close with a quotation from Wendell Berry, a poet, farmer, professor and philosopher who has spent much of his life reflecting on what is required for a healthy relationship between people and land in American culture, and particularly in the agricultural Midwest. Although Berry uses the term ‘local culture’ in this quotation, I think he is really talking about a ‘local commons’ such as the one Dancing Rabbit is creating.
The loss of local culture is, in part, a practical loss and an economic one. For one thing, such a culture contains, and conveys to succeeding generations, the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used. For another, the patterns of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it, and so, finally, the local culture will carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and also the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly. The only true and effective ‘operator’s manual for spaceship earth’ is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.
Wendell Berry 1990: 166.
Dancing Rabbit is only in the beginning stages of creating its local commons. The community’s acts of commoning involve developing knowledge, respect, and affection for its place and its landscape so that it may be lived in “well and lovingly used” across the generations. Conducting research at Dancing Rabbit over the last ten years, I have seen this creation emerging in the way community members spend time deliberately observing, interacting with, learning from, and stewarding both their landscape and their community. I see it in the fact that they often name their buildings after native prairie species that may disappear if their habitats are not restored. But perhaps the best measure of their success or failure in creating a local commons will only be revealed in the actions and choices of the younger generation currently being raised in this community and on its common land.