Within the hills and dales of northeast Missouri are far fewer miles of paved roads than rivers and creeks. Signs at one-lane bridges warn of flooding, and roadside markers are positioned to measure high water, foot by foot.
These are not comforting details to notice when driving under a flash flood watch. The occasional farm or town seems miles apart from the next, but my final turn – onto a lonely gravel road with lush isolation – arrived before the rain.
The solar panels, thigh-high grasses, shed with bicycles and one-of-a-kind buildings – some a patchwork of materials – were not a surprise. Then came The Milkweed Mercantile, which – when I visited – sold Walla Walla Onion Relish by the jar, Farmhouse Ale by the tap and four cozy, homey rooms without frills by the night. On Thursdays, a crowd gathers for thin-crust pizzas, topped with organic mozzarella and feta cheeses, both made within this unusual village.
The two-story Milkweed building with screened porch looks conventional, but under the lime plaster is straw bale insulation. Add energy from solar and wind power, a rainwater cistern, composting toilet and note to not use hair dryers.
“We don’t have nearly enough doilies for the B&B crowd,” jokes Alline Anderson.
She and Kurt Kessner built and opened this business in 2010, one year after moving from Berkeley, Calif. They are a part of the 260-acre Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, whose 40 residents are toddlers to retirees who opt to live simply, peacefully, compactly and off the grid. In the mix are global travelers and PhDs, farmers and teachers, midwives and mediators.
The community was established 20 years ago and has since gained international attention. The Milkweed is owned and operated by eight of the “Rabbits,” as the intentional community refers to itself.
Dancing Rabbit is the largest of three such communities in Scotland County, population 4,800, just south of the border with Iowa and 40 miles west of the Mississippi River. Just six of Missouri’s 114 counties have a smaller population and only the county seat, Memphis, contains more than 1,000 residents in these nearly 440 square miles.
The Milkweed’s guest rooms are named after environmentalists Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Rachel Carson and David Brower. There is wifi but no television, ceiling fans but no A/C. Add a shared bath and communal dining.
“It’s not for everybody,” Anderson says. “We make people eat with us and actually talk to us. People usually come because they want to change their eco footprint or make a change in their life but are not real sure what it is.”
The inn’s café does not accommodate drop-in visitors but feeds overnight guests at a long table and single seating. What’s for dinner depends upon the pantry, garden harvest and foraging. Cornbread might arrive in a cast-iron skillet. Zucchini and just-shucked peas might be mixed with beet greens and fresh mint during late spring. Decadent treats include gooey cinnamon rolls, for breakfast.
Repeat visitors include folk/pop singer Kristen Graves, a Green Bay native known nationally for her music, activism and humanitarian work. “Visiting Dancing Rabbit will expand your imagination and open your eyes to different ways to live in the same world,” she says. “There are examples of ingenuity everywhere you look.
“The place serves as an environmental inspiration, not as a way to shame people who are new to learning about conservation, but as a way to meet people where they’re at with discovery in order to help them learn new and different ways that they can live a more sustainable life.”
Nik Garvoille of Spring Green, an artist and graphic designer, arrived as a visitor and stayed for years, which is not unprecedented. Travelers come for a tour, an overnight, multi-day workshops (yoga or writing to food preservation or permaculture design) and multi-week immersions in the lifestyle (through an internship or work exchange).
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we live lighter” ecologically, Anderson says. Brooke Jones of Dallas, an anthropologist, made a Dancing Rabbit energy audit her thesis topic in 2013 and stayed until this year, long after completing her project.
“I expected culture shock but didn’t feel it until I went home for a visit,” says Jones, who concluded Dancing Rabbit’s resource consumption is 10 percent of the national average.
The community exists because West Coast eco activists wanted to live what they preached but couldn’t afford to do it with California prices and building codes. So they formed a nonprofit community land trust in 1993, but a lack of income sharing means this is not a commune.
“We really had to create our own culture and entertainment,” Alline says, of the early years. Today that means Tuesday potlucks with a neighboring farm, Wednesday song circles and occasional “no-talent shows.” Touring musicians, in addition to Graves, pass through. So do organized bike rides, like the Big BAM (Bicycle Across Missouri).
Danielle Williams, executive director of the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture (a nonprofit within the village), arranges programing there and online. One overriding message: Living a sustainable life doesn’t mean a life of deprivation.
Reality TV producers have called, but the Dancing Rabbit is wary. “It’s a very difficult balance between living our lives and feeling like a Disney exhibit,” Anderson says. She and Kessner this year expanded Milkweed Mercantile ownership to include six other Rabbits because “we’d like to have that simple country life that we keep hearing about,” especially as they near retirement age.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, near Rutledge, Mo., is 320 miles southwest of Madison and 200 miles northwest of St. Louis. Tour happen by appointment and at 1 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays, April through October.
The cost of Dancing Rabbit workshops depends upon the topic, length of stay and type of accommodation (bring your own tent to private cabin rental). Remaining this year: permaculture design, Sept. 16-24, and inner sustainability, Oct. 26-29. dancingrabbit.org, 660-883-5511
Milkweed Mercantile Eco Inn room rates start at $100, which includes breakfast. milkweedmercantile.com, 660-883-5522
Vendors and campers converge on 85 acres for the monthly Rutledge Flea Market and auctions, Sept. 8-9, Oct. 13-14 and Nov. 3-4. rutledge-fleamarket.com