[permaculture] Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe

mIEKAL aND 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

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  
work?’ ”

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.

More information about the permaculture mailing list