Welcome to the Real World
Rhizome Collective brings activist ideals down to earth
Thursdays are busy nights at the Rhizome Collective, a three-warehouse complex at the dead end of Allen Street in an industrial corner of East Austin. Collective members live in one of the warehouses; they have dinner, hang out, and relax. A second warehouse is full of the rattle and clank of Bikes Across Borders volunteers truing wheels and tuning brakes, or climbing ladders to choose from among the frames and wheels that hang from the ceiling like an arbor ripe with bike parts. The third warehouse is cozier, with a stage at one end and a kitchen at the other, and a colorful crowd of young activists hard at work in between.
Scott Odierno is perched on the stage, addressing packages of books for prisoners as part of the Inside Books Project. Squatting on the floor, a group of bikers prepares for an upcoming trip to Mexico: They construct homemade tents from Tyvek house wrap (which builders use to protect half-finished constructions) and cut and fold 4-foot-by-8-foot political signs into side-bags that will hold their gear as they ride. Several munch off plates of food cooked from scavenged produce by Food Not Bombs chefs.
Outside, in the courtyard formed by the warehouses' U-shaped arrangement, Emerick Huber test-rides a side-bag whose previous role in the universe was to advertise judicial candidate Stephen Yelenosky. He stands on the pedals and coasts along the wood-mulch trail, between the herb garden and the stack of gravel- and plant-filled bathtubs that work like a wetland to filter the group's graywater. The side-bag, clearly too big for Huber's bike frame, jumps around violently, and eventually falls to the ground.
"Minor adjustments needed," he says enthusiastically, and rolls back into the warehouse to make them.
On the one hand, the scene represents exactly what gives suburban mothers nightmares when their young'uns start talking about a "collective"; all-natural hair and thrift-store clothes and people eating Dumpster-dive stir-fry off mismatched china. On the other hand, it's a picture of discipline, industry, and resourcefulness to make John Calvin proud.
The Rhizome Collective is hard to describe, so let's start with what it's not. It's not a laid-back place to hang out, read a little Chomsky, and grow a few alfalfa sprouts when the mood strikes. It's not a commune, a co-op, or a crash pad. The simplest description is that it's a consensus-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in which some of the members happen to live in the office. That "office" is part of a larger space, sometimes called the "Rhizosphere," where the group practices its urban-sustainability techniques, and which a potpourri of radical groups calls home. But most importantly, the Rhizome Collective is a force that gets stuff done.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the $100,000 grant the collective just received from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a debris-covered brownfield adjacent to the Colorado River Park in Montopolis. Once the site is clean, the group will turn it into an environmental education park. At the same time, the group just got 30 180-volt solar panels 80% paid for by the city, and their installation donated by Meridian Solar Company. These successes demonstrate the collective is not just a happy hydra of benevolent idealism. Rather, it's a surprisingly effective model for connecting people with dreams to the resources they need whether those are grant dollars or bike parts, volunteers or earthworms, or just a cool space to build puppets for your anarchist theatre troupe.
Forward to a Simpler Time
The Rhizosphere is not a huge space. It's about a third of an acre, much of it covered by the 10,000 feet of warehouse that over the last 50 years has served as a bingo hall, auto repair shop, and even a church. In December, the courtyard garden is verdant with winter-hardy greens and root crops. Four years ago, that garden was an asphalt slab; volunteers pickaxed it to pieces, carted off the remains, and started rebuilding the soil. The mulch underfoot is donated by a neighborhood tree shop, which otherwise would have to pay for its disposal. The group has also planted fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables, but the goal is not so much to "live off the land" as it is to demonstrate the many ways it's possible to provide for some of your needs in an urban setting.
"The idea was to create a space where people can come to learn about things like food production, water sustainability, autonomous energy, and waste management," said member Scott Kellogg, who leads public tours Sunday afternoons. "We want to figure out the techniques and simplify them so they're useful to people without a lot of money."
Kellogg, a compact 30-year-old with long blond hair, stands beside the collective's "polyculture pond" a bunch of buried 55-gallon drums and points out the aquatic plants. There's rice. Duckweed, a tiny, fast-growing, high-protein plant that floats on the surface like green confetti. And water hyacinth; it's inedible, but it breaks down quickly for compost or methane production. Flitting beneath the surface are gambusia minnows, which eat mosquito larvae. In one corner is a 3,000-gallon rainwater collection barrel, and propped up against it are a couple of tree branches. They may look like mild-mannered logs, Kellogg explains, but beneath their barky exterior lurk spores of edible mushrooms. The group has another mushroom project in the works; they want to see how well different varieties remediate contaminated urban soil.
"Mushrooms can actually rip apart molecular chains," he said. "If you grow mushrooms on soil contaminated by hydrocarbons, they don't absorb it like plants do. They break it down into hydrogen and carbon molecules."
The mushrooms illustrate another of the group's goals: to play guinea pig with little-tested permaculture techniques. For example, they have an indoor worm-composting system they basically feed their kitchen scraps to a tub of red wriggler earthworms, who break it down into superfertile worm poo faster than a traditional compost heap. And they've set up a simple methane-production system that makes natural gas from the hyacinths. It's not useful, yet (other than to show off a cool 6-inch flame shooting out of a tube hooked up to a tub of rotting greenery) but it could be.
This willingness to experiment was one of the things that impressed the EPA about the group's application. "They had a really great idea of where they're going with the site," said Amber Perry, who manages their grant for the EPA. "It was so sustainable, and the practices they're using are very innovative. We didn't see them anywhere else."
For example, the group plans to reuse most of the construction debris on the 9.8-acre site to build the infrastructure of the park, by mounding abandoned tires, for example, into informational kiosks. Most other applicants planned to send their trash to the landfill. Perry was also impressed by plans to fuel their tractor and wood-chipper with vegetable oil.
Kellogg's tour ends in a shady lot behind one of the buildings, where heaps of compost gently rot and a flock of ducks and chickens scratches around in the mulch. The lot extends about 30 feet or so before a standing row of dead ragweed separates the site from rows of cars on the neighboring salvage lot. It's a very unnatural view, but oddly appropriate.
While many attempts to live a simpler, communal life take a romantic view of the land the idea that you could leave society behind and move "back" to a simpler time Kellogg and his cohorts aren't "getting back" to anything. They see themselves as moving forward to a simpler time, simply because it's inevitable: Cities won't stop growing, but resources won't always be as plentiful as they are today.
"It's estimated that within the next 20 years, 50 percent of the world's population will live in cities," he said. "Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, we need to figure out ways we can provide for more of our own needs." And that means embracing trash not as an eyesore, but as a resource gates and trellises around the warehouse, for example, are built from warped bicycle wheels. "When you talk about using locally available, low-energy resources, in cities that means trash," he said.
Perry, of the EPA, said their philosophy reminded her of villages she had visited in Costa Rica, where out of necessity people reuse everything. She was impressed that collective members do the same voluntarily. "Not only professionally, but on a personal level I really enjoyed seeing how they try to reuse everything they can," she said. "They're really going against the societal norm of consumptiveness and trying to take it back to ..."
She pauses a moment before finding the right word.
"Reality," she said.
The Rhizomians began building their reality in 2000. Several of the founding members met each other in such radical hot spots as Chiapas, World Bank protests, or traveling anarchist circus shows. As they discussed their activism and dreams, many came to the conclusion that protesting wasn't the answer.
"We started talking about how we could most effectively use our energies to create the world we want to live in," said Stacy Pettigrew, one of four founding members who still live in Austin. "We decided that rather than protests and speaking out against things, we would work to build an alternative now."
Pettigrew, Kellogg, and other friends ended up in Austin and started spending time with some activist friends who were renting the Allen Street warehouses. When a fire gutted one of the buildings and the owner decided to sell, the group decided to buy. Or rather, Kellogg decided to buy. At the time of the fire, he had just gotten an inheritance that allowed him to buy the $175,000 property outright, and move the group's vision further than they could in short-term, rented quarters.
"I'd been working for years on projects in rented or squatted space, and it was always heartbreaking when something would happen and groups lost the space," he said. "People were always saying, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if we had our own space?' We talk about 'another world is possible,' but what if we actually had a working model of what that could look like?" Kellogg still owns the Rhizosphere, mostly because of legal complications that can happen when nonprofit organizations own property. But while this makes good financial sense, it torments his egalitarian soul. "I try very hard to dissociate myself as the owner," he said. "We're trying to create nonhierarchical structures where no one is in charge. I don't have any more power than anyone else in the group."
Member Linden Seltz says the ownership issue is unimportant. "It's a reality that land has to be bought, and the [Rhizosphere] would end up as some other stupid warehouse if it wasn't bought," he said. "I think if you looked at a lot of communities around the world, someone, or a small group, had to purchase the land. Does that mean that that small group has control over what happens? No." Seltz adds that the whole collective owns the brownfield, which the group received as a donation.
After the purchase of the Rhizosphere, Kellogg, Pettigrew, and the other founding members "put out a call" that they were building a community. The response was overwhelming, in more ways than one. "We went through a period of transition when we were kind of figuring out who we were," said Pettigrew. "There was a divergence between people who saw this as an activist project, versus just a cool place to live." Kellogg puts it more bluntly. "We call those the circus years," he said. "It was great to have people juggling in the courtyard all day, but they weren't really helping out."
Over time, the slackers drifted away. The group now has about a dozen members. Membership confers an equal voice in the collective's consensus-based management process. In exchange, members offer a long-term (but not permanent) commitment and some combination of labor and low rent to help buy, say, earthworms, plus an activist vision, which may or may not have much to do with permaculture. Founding member Bracken Firecracker was devoted to bicycling, so she founded Bikes Across Borders, which fixes up abandoned bikes and gives them to people who need them in Austin and Mexico. Member Scott Odierno runs the Inside Books Project, which mails books to prisoners.
But many more people are affiliated with the collective than its members. Groups like Austin Indymedia, the Austin Zine Library, Food Not Bombs, and others rent cheaply or are given space in the warehouse, creating a kind of activist hub. For example, Simon Sedillo used to run Indymedia out of an apartment. Now its precarious stacks of computers and electronics, sometimes topped off by an orange cat named Lucy, occupy a walled-off corner of the warehouse. He welcomes the change. "It's been incredible," he said. "What Rhizome has done is given value and worth to the work I'm doing by making it easier to do it."
Having so many groups share the space means there's a constant stream of friends and volunteers wandering through, especially on official volunteer nights like Tuesdays and Thursdays. Member Sachi Decou says that although this can be stressful for people living in the warehouse, it's great for the activist groups. "Each project attracts different people to the space, so many different people get exposed to all the different projects," she said.
Linden Seltz agrees that "space issues" are the biggest challenges of a group-living experience that is otherwise very positive. "It's a more fair, egalitarian way of living," he said. "And there's always something going on here. I don't participate in the bike thing, but I'm really glad it's there, and that I can just look out my window and see it going on."
But if the first years of the collective were dominated by building the physical and social infrastructure of the Rhizosphere, some members feel the group is now moving into a different phase. "A huge focus of ours right now is ways to make the work we do more accessible to the community," said Decou. She cites as an example a Bikes Across Borders project to connect Pickle Elementary kids with donated bikes and the skills to repair them; other collective members teach afterschool art projects at Allen Elementary.
Engaging with the community helps members who struggle with the whiff of hierarchy inherent in suggesting "another way" to neighbors whose poverty is not voluntary. After all, it's one thing to spend your free time in the hard physical labor of activism when you're a youngish single with time to spare; it's another thing entirely when you're working multiple jobs to support a family. Kellogg admits it's a concern. "We're not telling anyone they have to be like us," says Kellogg. "We're just here as a resource, and if people see something that inspires them, great."
In that way, the EPA grant opens a valuable opportunity for the collective to raise their profile, and give the Montopolis neighborhood something all can enjoy, no matter their opinions about compost or puppets. But like anything, that comes with challenges of its own. While the EPA dollars will fund five paid positions, it also brings significant government paperwork and oversight. That's in addition to the two square acres of trash to be reused and recycled before the park's neighbors can stroll amidst educational kiosks, or use the trails to get from Montopolis to the Colorado River Park.
Sitting on a hay bale in the chicken yard, and blinking into a fast-falling afternoon sun, Kellogg reflected on the new challenges of turning from career anarchist to federal contractor. "Before we were just a community of activists, and now we're negotiating this bureaucracy," he said. "That can be hard. It really helps to be able to just come out and sit with the chickens, or go stick your hands in the worm shit."