Spotlight Iowa City: An environmental Renaissance


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Melissa Holland feels strange shaking hands.

It’s not that she’s unfriendly. It’s just that she prefers hugging and making use of her hands in other ways, such as crafting leather boots or building a tent in the middle of the desert.

This survivalist know-how extends to living effortlessly without electricity or running water — and knowing how to rock a 15th-century bodice with style.

Holland is a “Rennie.”

This means that 27-year-old UI student, born and raised in Iowa City, is part of the Renaissance Fair community, and she has been for the past six years. Though she’s currently on a short hiatus, she normally migrates from fair to fair from February to December, shifting from the Arizona dry heat to the thin mountain air of Colorado. She lovingly erects a 20-by-10-foot tent, complete with a propane-fueled stove and a cozy living room. She nests, then two months later tears down the tarp, rolls up her carpet, and starts again at the next fair.

“We’re choosing to live our lives making as small of an imprint on the land as possible,” said Holland, who wears a self-designed white gold ring on her left pointer finger, an intricately etched acorn in the center.

Indeed, she lives environmentally friendly, making hearty potluck dinners and sweeping the scraps into a compost.

“I feel completely wasteful in Iowa City,” she said, noting her qualms with throw-away coffee cups and overusing electricity. “It’s not that I haven’t been around electricity at all, I just use it sparingly.”

The Rennie community is made entirely of artists and creative minds. They throw talent shows in which colorful aerialists dangle out of trees, fire eaters extinguish flames inside their mouth, and musicians — Holland on the violin — form bands and jam.

Holland’s father, Del Holland, a like-minded environmentalist, sees value in his daughter’s alternative community.

“The more I got to know about it, I really realized it is a community,” he said.

Julia Bemi, 29, is Holland’s best friend and works with her managing a custom leather-boot company at the fair.

“Melissa is ingenious,” Bemi said. “The fact that she even figured out this lifestyle makes her that way. In the Renaissance community, people can make the most beautiful things out of the smallest spaces.”

Del Holland is also continually impressed with his daughter, he said, including her ability to design and rebuild shelter and her acceptance of the natural world.

“We’re all independent, well-respected hard-core women,” Bemi said. “Not like a bad Beyoncé song, but the real deal.”

There are plenty of things Melissa Holland struggles to get used to outside the Rennie World. Here, her feet are sore from walking on cement instead of dirt. Here, she doesn’t fall asleep with the setting of the sun or the flickering of a candle. Here, she shakes hands instead of sharing hugs.

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