o n e

Late March in southwest Wisconsin: fresh, wet snow was on the ground, and I was on a wooded hilltop with Mark Shepard and Miekal And making maple syrup. I was cold and uncomfortable; my right arm ached from cutting firewood. Still, I tried to show no signs of discomfort as I continued to saw. Both older, bearded, both fathers, Mark and Miekal came off as experienced, confident and skilled. I had to prove that I wasn't just a pampered liberal arts student. I felt I had to to prove this because I wanted to come into their community, Dreamtime Village, to write about it, and them.

Noticing my discomfort, Miekal said to Mark, "John's having second thoughts about living here this summer."

I sawed harder. "You're not such a good mindreader," I said. Miekal's joke had touched a nerve. In reality, I wasn't having any second thoughts. I was worried about their thoughts. Dreamtime didn't have anything like a membership committee; I was there on my Spring break to introduce myself, to feel out people's reactions to me. Approval had to be sought out nonverbally, or by innuendo.

Miekal tended the fire while Mark and I went off to carry back buckets from the tapped sugar maples. Mark began narrating our path through the forest, pointing out the different species of trees as we went. His passion for the forest, his knowledge of it, and his eagerness to share this knowledge all made a deep impression on me.

"See that little guy up there?" he said, pointing out one young tree. "The reason why he's so crooked„" Mark briefly adopted the posture of the tree, bent to the side, arms bent up at different angles and fingers splayed„"is because he's being shaded out by these other trees. It's not gonna get any bigger than that. It'll be dead in a few years."

I blinked in reverence. "This man just became a tree in front of my very eyes," I thought to myself. Mark told me that the forest had been logged, but that it would regain its stable, climax state in a few hundred years. He pointed out a thicket of small, spiny trees just up the hill. "Those are Prickly Ash; they act as pioneer plants, reclaiming the logged areas." More and more, Mark began to resemble a pioneer himself, or perhaps Beat poet and backwoodsman Gary Snyder: the slim, rugged face, the beard and jutting chin, the Carhartt coveralls.

It was a long day. The work was harder than I had expected. After twelve hours of maple syruping, Miekal, Liz, their child Liaizon Wakest (Zon) and I made our way down the hill with buckets of maple syrup, moving slowly by starlight. I gradually became aware of sensations in my mind and body: fatigue, lucidity, strength and joy. I knew then that living at Dreamtime Village could never be only a matter of "study;" it would affect me as a whole person.

From "Dreamtime Talkingmail" #6:

The inception of Dreamtime Village was inspired by the donation of five southwestern Wisconsin properties in 1991 to Xexoxial Endarchy, Ltd., a tax-exempt arts organization founded in Madison in 1986. Xexoxial had been looking for some time for new headquarters to facilitate its multifarious activities. Its Madison headquarters had already become an over-crowded visitors' center for alternative art culture; the front yard display (Avant-Garde Museum of Temporary Art) was running out of room for the homeless works frequently donated to it; acreage was needed for gourd growing & experimental gardening, and so on...

The centerpiece of the donated properties is the Old West Lima School, a 2-story brick building built in 1920, on 3 acres, with attached gymnasium & quonset hut... Other properties include the former West Lima post office building, a block from the school, which functions as offices for computers & publishing set up, & yoga studio upstairs... Also in town are 2 other houses. The first is adjacent to the school & is called the Hotel. It has many small bedrooms & provides indoor accommodations for visitors & short-term residents. One block from it is the Mansion, which was quite cheap & is awaiting major renovation. Three miles down the road, in the Pine River Valley, is the 40-acre Beaver house... home to a growing wetlands complete with beaver dams & lodge & several Dreamtimers live in a large bungalow. Lastly, a 30-acre undeveloped wooded area with an old one-room schoolhouse (which we call the G-School) structure on it makes a great nature retreat for those who need it...

This was to be my first summer lived on my own terms, away from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Most of my friends had left D.C. to travel and relocate in more stimulating parts of the world. I myself had no particular love for the area, and knew that I would probably not be living there again. I seemed to be approaching the future much faster than at any other time in my life. The possibilities were unlimited„this was not just a fork in the road, but a tangle of intersections„and this was both frightening and exhilarating. Dreamtime was a way for me to assert my independence and become comfortable with the idea of life after higher education; it stood before me as a doorway into the unknown.

I stood in the doorway of the Hotel, my backpack still on. This was the first day of the five months I was going to spend at Dreamtime Village, and I didn't have any idea what I was getting myself into. It was as if I were walking blindly into the wilderness.

There were two guys eating their lunch in the living room of the Hotel. One was a blond giant in a muscle shirt; the other had long brown hair and the smile of someone who knows something you don't.

"Did you hitchhike?" asked the giant (whose name, I would learn, was Eric).

I hadn't, and I wasn't happy to admit it. I suspected that they knew I was too soft for hitching just by looking at me. "No. I flew."

"Oh„you must be the anthropologist," said the long-haired one (Lee).

Nightmare! I'd been talked about. They were probably prepared to reject me on the spot, or make my life very difficult.

"Are you going to measure our skulls?" Eric asked.

"I'm not a phrenologist. And I'm not exactly an anthropologist, either." I was trying to maintain a gracious, relaxed smile, to keep myself on the right side of the humor.

Lee said, "We're just giving you a hard time."

"Yeah, I know," I said with feigned rue.

Over the next couple of weeks, I would get a lot more teasing, especially from Lee and Eric (who kept the phrenology jokes coming). I didn't mind„at its heart it was fraternal, giving others a way of voicing their suspicions without being hostile, and giving me a way of talking about myself and my project. Some others might have had a harder time accepting me, largely because I was "studying" them. From these people I heard very little during my first few days at Dreamtime; perhaps if they had lobbed a few jokes in my direction, we might have come to terms with each other sooner.

I moved my belongings into a Hotel room which everyone called the Sewing Room. It had a couple of mattresses, a sewing machine, rolls and swatches of all kinds of fabric. Some artwork lined the walls, childrens' impressions of what aliens might look like: big shiny black eyes and smooth white heads. The Sewing Room never felt comfortable, and by the end of the week I had moved into another first-floor room that had been abandoned by Ken, Dreamtime's most long-term resident, in favor of an old bookmobile he lived in during the warmer months.

The Hotel, like most of Dreamtime's buildings, was old and had been poorly maintained by previous owners. These country houses surprised me with their relaxed shoddiness: sagging floors, poor stone masonry and general decrepitude. The Hotel had many of these idiosyncrasies, including a muddy, mildewy basement that was a thing of childhood nightmares. But the Hotel was also sunny, with south-facing windows, and had a genuinely homey feel that many less funky houses lack. The building had earned its name because of its nine small bedrooms, ideal for housing transients.

My approach for the first month at Dreamtime was to throw myself into work with abandon. This was the best way of getting to know people, and it was the best way to become familiar with the breadth of the different projects going on. It was also a way for me to atone for college; whether motivated by guilt or a profound sense of imbalance, labor became a way for me to temper my intellect with intuition and a sense of immediate physical presence that I felt I lacked.

I spent most of my first two weeks working on a new garden that was on a small piece of land that Eric had bought in town, a gently sloping, south-facing plot that overlooked dairy pasture. Heather and Janell, two women about my age, both worked with me on and off. Often, I was silent and by myself, weeding for hours under the unseasonably hot sun. Cows lowed, birds sang and neighbors mowed their lawns. Eric was often just uphill from the garden, building his house without any help; I got used to hearing him swearing over small mistakes and talking to himself. The heat and the repetitive task of pulling invasive grasses from the soil combined to put me into a trance-like state for much of the time. I could close my eyes and see rhizomes dancing in front of me. This was learning to garden by total immersion.

Eric and Lee invited me to work with them a few times the first week, once installing drywall in one of the rehabilitated rooms in the Mansion, and once loading a trailer up with sawdust for mulch. We were at a big lumber mill in town, shoveling from a ten-foot mound of half-rotten sawdust, making it into as much of a game as possible. After the work slowed down, Lee announced: "Fourier says no more than two hours of any one kind of work." And though it hadn't been two hours yet, the trailer was nearly full, and we got the point.

I was in a fog of dislocation. After a day of planting potatoes, riding back to West Lima in the back of a pickup truck with Janell barefoot beside me, I watched the rolling landscape of pastures, hills and deciduous trees fly past. Although the setting was not as exotic as many others I could imagine, I simply couldn't believe I was there. As we came around the bend into West Lima, the back of the School and the side of the Hotel swung into view: goats and chickens, laundry hanging to dry. The Hotel's ragged screen door hung open in the summer air, letting in the prodigious Wisconsin flies. Whether I believed it or not, this was the door to my home.

When I was back from planting, Eric asked me in passing, "Are you having a good time?"

I said, "I don't know yet. Everything is still too strange."

On to Chapter Two.
go to Chapter: introduction 3 4 5 6 7 8 9