[permaculture] Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe
dtv at mwt.net
Wed Jun 20 09:19:21 EDT 2007
(Matt spent 3 days at Dreamtime Village & this is what he came up
with. Also on the site is a 5 minute video & a few photograph.)
Frugal Traveler | American Road Trip :
Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe
By MATT GROSS
Published: June 20, 2007
DRIVING the back roads, you sometimes cross state borders
unknowingly. Without the enormous “Welcome to ...!” signs you see on
the Interstates, all you have to identify your new surroundings are
subtle clues in the landscape — knobbier pine trees, say, or highways
named for local heroes.
Wisconsin, however, announced itself with no such subtlety. After a
weekend in Chicago, I’d driven west across Illinois, finally turning
north amid the big estates near Forreston. Once I was over the state
line, hills swelled up from the prairie, the sweet smell of manure
wafted from dairy farms, and advertisements urged me to indulge in
Cheddar cheese and frozen custard, bratwurst and ButterBurgers.
By the time I drove through New Glarus — a surreal town modeled on a
Swiss village complete with chalet-style buildings and street signs
in German — I knew I hadn’t simply entered a new state, but a new
state of mind.
As culturally distinct as Wisconsin is, I was heading for a place
that sat at yet another remove from mainstream America: Dreamtime
Village, an intentional community of artists situated in the
driftless hills of southwest Wisconsin (so called because they
escaped the rough, cold touch of ice age glaciers).
Once known as communes, until the word became overly associated with
hippies and other cultural relics of the 1960s and ’70s, intentional
communities have a long history in this country, going back to the
Shakers and even, I suppose, the Pilgrims. I’d long wanted to visit
one, to see how utopian ideals were surviving in the more cynical
America of today, and so I logged on to www.ic.org and searched for
intentional communities in Wisconsin and Iowa. At first, I found what
I had expected: devout Christians, pagan farmers and a polyamorous
“family” (my wife, Jean, vetoed that one). Almost all, however,
wanted serious members, not casual visitors like me.
But for $8 a day and the understanding that I would put my meager
skills to work in the community, Dreamtime Village (10375 County
Highway A, West Lima; 608-625-4619; www.dreamtimevillage.org) was
willing to have me. I didn’t know what I would find there: men
wearing burlap sacks? an all-groundnut menu? But last Wednesday
evening, after following ever-smaller county roads as they arced up,
down and around the hills, the Volvo climbed one final ridgetop and
arrived in the middle of nowhere — the tiny village of West Lima
(population 65, or so).
A century ago, West Lima was thriving. But as the economy changed,
its citizens relocated, and by 1990 the public school and the post
office lay empty, and the gas station and hat shop were fading
memories. Then mIEKAL aND and Elizabeth Was — artists, as you can
tell by the wacky names — showed up from Madison and founded a
“hypermedia permaculture eco-village,” in other words, a small,
sustainable farm where they and other like-minded individuals could
create art and music. On 80-odd acres donated by an eccentric
benefactor, Dreamtime Village grew to 25 members and became a fixture
on the anarchist circuit, attracting visitors like the doctor-clown
Patch Adams and the writer Daniel Pinchbeck.
When I got there, mIEKAL was standing in West Lima’s main
intersection, and the sun was warming the town’s sole remaining
business, a Pepsi machine (50 cents a can). Bright-eyed and sporting
a bushy mustache, he greeted me, expressing surprise that I’d
actually come. A lot of people, he said, get cold feet, apparently
put off by the idea of an intentional community.
More Video »
But from what I could see, Dreamtime’s residents were pretty normal:
mIEKAL’s 19-year-old son, Zon, had just graduated from the Waldorf
School in Viroqua, a couple of towns west; Camille, whom mIEKAL had
married after he and Elizabeth divorced, was a cheerful, inquisitive
filmmaker who had moved there from Romania only a few years earlier
(Elizabeth, who had renamed herself Lyx Ish, died in 2004); and Ken,
a handyman who’d been in West Lima longer than anyone, was quieter
than the others but so what.
At first, I couldn’t quite see how they constituted a community.
Camille and mIEKAL lived in the P.O., the town’s former post office,
while Zon, Ken and I had bedrooms in the rickety wood-frame hotel (it
had been the teachers’ hotel back when the public school was open).
Apparently, another person, Kirk, lived on a far-flung piece of
property, but he and I never even met.
All seemed to be on their own trajectories. Zon slept till noon, and
mIEKAL worked days as the Web master for the food distributor Organic
Valley, based nearby in La Farge. Camille tended to her pet parrots
and film projects. Ken was often parked in front of his computer (we
had dial-up Internet at the hotel, wireless DSL at the P.O.). No one
seemed to share meals. It hardly felt communal.
Nor was the community particularly isolated. To the west is a big
park, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and to the south is Taliesin,
Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and school (www.taliesinpreservation.org).
Between West Lima and these obvious tourist destinations were dozens
of the swooping, swerving roads that I longed to cruise. (“Nothing
picks you up in its arms and so gently, almost lovingly, cradles you
as do these southwestern Wisconsin hills,” Wright had written.)
The Volvo, however, had been leaking coolant badly, and I was afraid
to take it out for long. At a reader’s suggestion, I’d mentioned the
issue on www.brickboard.com, but still didn’t know where to take the
car for service.
Instead, I quashed my restlessness and tried to adapt to Dreamtime’s
rhythms. The heat meant no gardening until late afternoon, so I spent
the day reading a Chinese mystery novel, picnicking among the 19th-
century tombstones of the West Lima cemetery — I’d spent almost $20
on rye bread, aged Cheddar and weiss beer in New Glarus — and
chatting with whoever happened to pass by. Camille showed me the
visual poetry zine she and mIEKAL had just published, I shared my
beers with the quiet Ken, and Zon told me about a run-in with
neighbor kids when he was 9.
“ ‘Hey,’ he said they’d asked him, not realizing he was a Dreamtimer,
‘so have you met the Satan-worshipers who live over there? They
sacrifice virgin animals to Satan!’ ”
“ ‘Oh, really,’ Zon said he’d responded with a smile, ‘how does that
And around 7 o’clock, we would all migrate toward the gardens. I’d
rake grass clipping to use as mulch or spray garlic water on eggplant
leaves to keep bugs away, and mIEKAL would tend baby plants in the
greenhouse. Margarita, the pet goose, would nip at Camille’s leg, and
the whine of the lathe would echo from Ken’s woodshop. We were each
in our own orbit — I was still preparing my own dinner, penne in a
tomato sauce made with ingredients from the garden — but I was
starting to sense the gravitational forces that drew us individuals
On Friday morning, mIEKAL took me to Organic Valley
(www.organicvalley.coop) for a tour of the offices. The building was
impressively green (for insulation, it used old jeans), but more
astounding was the size of the operation: more than 300 employees and
a network of organic growers stretching from southwestern Wisconsin
to Maine, Florida and California. Suddenly, mIEKAL’s devotion to
permaculture and organic living didn’t seem so oddball, but more like
the crest of a rising wave.
After the tour, we ate lunch in the cafeteria (organic meals for $5 a
pound) with Daisy, a young woman who’d once hitchhiked across the
country. As we chatted about travel, I mentioned my car troubles, and
she asked, “Why don’t you take it to Paul, the guy who fixes Volvos?”
Why not indeed? With mIEKAL kindly escorting me, I took the car to
Paul Schlicht of Schlicht Automotive (741 South Main Street, Viroqua;
608-637-6766), who quickly diagnosed the problem. The heater core
hoses had ruptured from rubbing the dipstick. Because he knew I was
in a hurry, Paul agreed to fix it by Saturday morning.
As Paul tinkered, his friends sat around drinking beer while heavy
metal played on the radio. “This is your truest Wisconsin
experience,” mIEKAL said, “hanging out in an auto garage in the
middle of nowhere.”
Back in West Lima, mIEKAL, Camille and I spent the afternoon drinking
homemade plum wine and talking about an odd cemetery in Romania,
Zon’s future and how the once-reclusive Ken had slowly opened up.
Occasionally, a horse and buggy would clip-clop down the road, a
reminder that Amish farmers, too, had found the driftless hills a
perfect fit for their own intentional communities. Then, at last, we
ate dinner together — a weirdly good stir-fry of organic hot dogs and
mushrooms over saffron rice, with a fresh spinach salad from the
garden — and I returned to my breezy corner bedroom.
The next morning, I knew, I would be leaving West Lima to visit
Taliesin, itself an experiment in living closer to nature, then drive
west to Decorah, the reader-recommended heart of Norwegian-American
Iowa. And for a moment, I felt terrible. In these few days, I’d just
begun to find my place in Dreamtime Village, and now I was abandoning
it. But community, I’d learned, exists independent of geography, and
the bonds that linked me to these not-so-isolated dreamers would
stretch across the hills of Wisconsin and beyond. Margarita the goose
clucked out in the yard; my cellphone, with no signal, lay dormant on
the nightstand; and I fell soundly asleep.
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