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A Small Medium at Large

Dec. 20 2018

DORA, Missouri Part I:  Dateline December, 2038:  “Welcome to Dora: Crossroads of the Bryant and North Fork Watershed Communities.”  The sun is just coming up.  A prosperous cattleman, his hair silvered by the passage of years, peers out from the window table at Roy’s Café.   He’s waiting for my interview. 

“Merry Christmas!”  With a warm greeting, he waves me towards an empty seat alongside his buddies.  A contagion of laughter and holiday good humor swells the sonic landscape of the establishment.  “Have to get in early!” he beams, “Been coming here ever since that first chicken crossed the road and people started questioning its motives.”  Nearby cowboy hats nod in agreement.  

“Crossroads . . . that’s the official slogan,” he points to a nearby sign, “but messaging is critical.  It’s more like ‘Miracle of the Ozarks.’  It’s like a dream that’s so good you pinch yourself.  When you don’t wake up, start pinching each other.”  

I look around.  Even this early, the place is packed.  Compared to this cattleman, easily a foot taller than me, and maybe twice the weight, I must look like a puppy staring at a ceiling fan.  “Name’s Robert” he says. ”Just call me Bob.”

Cattlemen are born philosophers, I’m thinking.  My job as a reporter is to get the story behind the miracle, discover how these folks overcame history’s greatest test together.  A whiff of hot bread blows in the front door in the wake of each customer.  I point to the pale smoke creeping down a thermocline at treetop level.  “There’s something cooking on the 181 Trace?”

“It’s village Bake Day!” he grins.  “Follow your nose past the park pavilion to the clay ovens.  Grain’s grown and milled around here, too- it’s a big deal- and shows off our community spirit.  While you’re at it, shop for some chocolate and coffee at We’ve Got You- Buy The Beans!  Rarity is what makes this town special- and Dora’s unified architectural theme demonstrates the cooperative spirit behind it.”  

I’d come in on the Ava Overland Stage, still parked in front of Roy’s.  Liverymen are trading out the teams for the West Plains leg.  A cutesy ‘commuter rickshaw’ from the Village Cycle Path stands off to the side, available for hire.  He continues: “We needed to use locally generated wealth intelligently.  Eliminating the “fescue fungus” barrier, and putting in silvopasture created new challenges.  Plus, we saw a building boom was coming, and we wanted to design a traditional, farm-friendly town around natural features with an eye to conservation.  We preserved the natural beauty of our rural landscape by clustering buildings together.  The first big fight was over keeping a portion of the crossroads as open space.”

“Fescue fungus?”  I’d have to get back to that one later.  “These developments are well known to Herald readers,” I say, “so I’d like to get your story from a new angle.  Back in the day, you’ve got the nature types, preppers, religious sects; all sorts of free thinkers.  But so few survived . . .  Why you?  Why here?”

Bob winks.  “When our feelings of separation ended, we changed the ending.” 

“Separation?  How’s that?”  I’m lost.  He holds up three fingers:  

“It’s seeing the unity in diversity.  Ask yourself, what’s important to all of us?  Alarms were screaming, but few passed the test when it came.  Second, bestow freely what’s in your hands.  That’s stewardship.  If human life has a purpose, it’s the planets’ purpose, and that, in turn is the Creator’s.  Don’t get it backwards.  The whole point is self-realization.  And third, what’s the community priority?  We resolved to meet the test together, and together we did. Only the soul that’s tested is truly free.  We came through,” he shrugs, “many others didn’t.”

“Unity in diversity?” I repeat. “That’s it . . . faith, stewardship, etc.?  What’s it mean?  Everybody says the same things.   The dead and gone said it, too!”

“You’ve got faith only when it’s being used,” he replies. “It’s not by belief, not by religious conviction, but by faith that mountains move.  That’s a vital distinction. And more this, plus a modicum of grace, is why we’re going strong.”

My doubt remains.  “Don’t half-process this,” he says.  “It’ll come to you.  There’s no formula or education that will elevate you to the same level as those who’ve lived it.  You’ll just conceptualize things, form ideas, identify with certain beliefs, and then live in your head from then on.  There’s no helping you at this point.”

I could hear roosters, horses, a donkey- the sounds of an awakening Dora.   I’d seen a goat standing on a doghouse, busy chewing off one end of its roof.  The dog, clearly an ally, could care less.  Now the stage is leaving.  Orange light and blue shadows creep over a patchwork of walls, gardens, and clay tile roofs.  Daylight glows upon this unlikely boom town in dramatic swing.  

Bob continues: “We asked a basic question:  What if we, ordinary Missourians, sitting on a trillion dollars of hard equity assets, organized our affairs without the political and party middlemen?  Why don’t we use the same legal and financial instruments traditionally used to bleed the peasantry, and intelligently manage everything for ourselves?  Make our own charitable foundation, self-tax with a donation at the time of death, grow our food, make things again, and respect the planet, etc.?”  

I note the hybrid chestnut plantings, large gardens and the young silvopasture understory.  Many roadside fields are bordered with accessible food forest plots.

“Food resilience is just the substance of our truer relationships made visible,” Bob says.  “We had much to learn from each other.  The architectural battle illustrated the great need for dealing with decision making tensions- an unexpected upside.  Things did get a bit heated at times- but we inadvertently prepared ourselves to take on the big stuff when it hit the fan.  Required is a common goal, a direction, a time line.  Three simple things, but no one had put them together until the 20-Year Plan came along.  Our tolerance for political mediocrity quickly gave way to the democratization of hope.  Local self-organization made survival possible.”  He adds in afterthought: “We took heart, vowed to feed everybody, and now we do.”

“But how,” I ask, “do you bring bread and butter issues into the challenge of grassroots mobilization?  How do you coordinate a process of decentralization?” 

He replies, “Well, it’s the art of bringing two contradictory forces into harmony.  To leave a better world for our children means, above all, they must survive to enjoy it.  We must accept our duty.  Second, we need the flexibility to conform to little steps to reach our bigger ideals.  True, most saw the ‘permaculture revolution’ as just a way to pay their own bills.  But when big results clicked in, we began mobilizing; neighbor helped neighbor without top-down direction.  We woke up; nobody was to be left behind.  This resolve kept Spirit itself alive.”

Bob then heads off into the weeds:  “We came together in the process of taking a conservation design and incorporated natural and cultural resources that the local citizens wanted.  The aim is to reflect the broader environmental, economic and social goals of the community in our architecture and planning.  We want to incorporate native building materials within a flexible design to provide for natural resource protection and job creation.  So, we created a design and review process.  Decisions are made in the open public forum.”

“You have your phosphorus-nitrogen export development costs, less impervious surfaces, narrower roads, onsite storm water treatment, more open spaces, etc.  We leave some unconstrained land as permanent open space in squares, parks and greenbelts.  The New Village- our artisan hamlet- provides the spice of life.  A good neighborhood’s as important as living in a good home.”  

“Dora’s known as an open-cluster village,” he continues. “Take the perimeter track past the Ice House and from the crossroads head out towards the valley hamlets.  There are fine new homes, stonework, orchards, and steam-driven enterprises.” 

“So,” I reply, “it’s a more compact form of development, a tighter post-auto pattern, one fit for our horse and bike reality.  It’s like those picturesque villages in Europe which emphasize layout and streetscape issues.  And, I’ve heard you’ve put architectural ceramics and eye-level surprises down by the square.”

“Right!  It’s the art of man and the beauty of nature coming together.  The golden ratio factors into every aspect of composition and we settled for a cloverleaf design.”  

By that, Bob means that each of the three town ‘centers,’ as created by natural tree lines and drainages, has a different commercial function, each connects through a central park area featuring a kid’s park/playground. In turn, each petal has a small open space park in its center.”  Color choices are a surprise.

“The livery’s painted blue, the fire station’s red, grocery is green, and so on.  Visitors can tell where to go at a glance, and our color code’s now being copied in other places.  Construction methodology and the architectural details can smoothly interface with valley generated commerce.  Streets are deliberately curved so that the travelers’ eye rests upon the Central Green, or the fountain, or goes down a bike path into surrounding fields and forests.” 

I look around.  The packed room’s proof enough they’d pulled it off.  Robert draws out a battered pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and carefully lays it on the table.  The conversation quiets as we regard the heirloom.  To be continued …