Unglaciated Utopia: Five Months at Dreamtime Village

Five Months at Dreamtime Village

by John Brinker


I lived at Dreamtime Village between early June and late October of 1995. A lot of people ask me about it, and many of the same questions come up time after time.

"Where is Dreamtime?"

America's Dairyland. Dreamtime Village is located in and around West Lima, a small town in Southwest Wisconsin. It lies within the Driftless bioregion, which was spared a flattening by the glaciers as they rolled south during the Pleistocene.

"Is it a commune?"

Dreamtime is not a commune, as the term tends to imply a greater degree of shared space and property than Dreamtime has. While its founders may prefer the title "experimental hypermedia village," I think it fits well within the concept of an "intentional community."

"How many people live there?"

The number of people living at Dreamtime fluctuates depending on the season and other, less predictable factors. The number of permanent residents hovers around six or eight, and is slowly rising. Then there are others, who range from the semi-permanent to those who leave before anyone can learn their names. In Winter, Dreamtime shrinks to its most dedicated core. In the Summer, it swells, and nearly bursts in mid-August, when a hundred may show up for the Corroboree, a two-week festival. When it is neither too hot nor too cold, you may expect to find 20 or so people at Dreamtime Village.

"What are the people like?"

They are good people. Many are youngăin their early twentiesăand are just beginning to find their balance and direction. Many of them come from a background

of political activism, and many of them have been involved in anarchism, in which daily life becomes the testing ground of ideals.

"What do they do there?"

They garden. They chat, they gossip, they argue. They keep their homes and their cars from falling apart. They play atonal saxophone music. They publish a quarterly magazine, "Dreamtime Talkingmail." They make art objects, they cook and clean. Sometimes they dance. Some of them occasionally drink a beer or smoke some pot, but rarely to seek escape or the oblivion of excess. They work and they play, and they try not to separate the two.

"What did you learn there?"

I learned about gardening, and construction, about mail art, improvised music and group living. I also learned that writing about real people is harder than it seems. The problem is that you have a responsibility towards them that fictional characters rarely demand. I met dozens of amazing people at Dreamtime. Not all of them appear in this text, and many are seen only in brief glimpses. In a longer work, there might be the space and the time to be more even-handed, but ninety pages of writing aren't equal to the task.

I have chosen to take more in-depth looks at some people. In the interviews, I began by asking three questions. First, I asked them to tell me, in the broadest sense, how they wound up at Dreamtime. I was after an autobiographical sketch that would include a sense of key turning-points, connections made, forks in the road. I asked everybody what they saw as their role at Dreamtime. This was to see how personalities shape and are shaped by the community. I also asked whether they thought Dreamtime was best understood as a model for the reform of American society, or a refuge from it. This was a trick question, and most responses negotiated some path between the two easy answers.

While researching and writing this piece, I asked myself many questions. Not all of them were answered, but they are the implicit underpinnings of the work.

What produced the negative spark of dissatisfaction in each of their lives that led them to Dreamtime? Is it truly possible to escape from the society into which we were socialized, or do we carry it with us into whatever other arrangements we imagine or create? If so, how do "alternative" societies relate to the larger one? If not, can the emergence of these societies (or the very idea of them) be seen as a periodic ideological refreshment of the larger society? In other words, does social change move from the inside out, the outside in, or both simultaneously?

To what extent does Dreamtime consciously break with some of the habits of the larger society and how successful are they? Acknowledging the existence of interpersonal and ideological conflict at Dreamtime Village, what issues make people leave? Even more interestingly, what makes people stay? What motivates someone to keep at the work of establishing and maintaining a community, even when this is a constant struggle? Can Dreamtime change in response to the needs of its residents? If so, how might it change? If not, why not?

I have tried to keep in mind three levels of analysis. One level is that of "our" culture in general, Euro-American ideas and ideals. Another is the level of the community, in this case Dreamtime Village, and how it works as a coherent whole. The third level is that of the individual, and it is here that the story begins and ends, with the lives of the people who call Dreamtime Village home.

On to Chapter One.
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