A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

On Villaging: Roots and Relations

By Helen Zuman

What is villaging? And why does it matter?

For me, villaging means witnessing, tending, restoring, honoring, and grounding the web of relationships—human and more than human—that gives us life. When villaging, we dig beneath business and politics, carbon emissions and climate change, to the soil we all share, the questions we all answer, every hour of every day: What merits our energy? What will we nourish? How will we invest the moments of our lives?

It’s tempting to imagine that as long as we stock our shelves with the right products, and our capitols with the right representatives, we’ll be fine. But I say, every choice deserves scrutiny, because every choice—from what we eat and where we poop to how we interact (at a distance? in person?) and how we generate cash—affects the health of what’s most fundamental to our thrival: not our political system or the extractive core of our economy, but the web of life itself.

Let me tell you a story.

In December 2015, about nine months after I’d moved to Beacon from Brooklyn with my husband, Gregg, we bought an old house dug into a slope east of Fishkill Creek, in what was once known as Matteawan. Built in 1860 or earlier, the house had endured at least two rounds of radical revision: around 1920, one set of owners jammed in plumbing, electricity, and hot-water heating; in the latter half of the twentieth century, additional sets of owners smothered the structure, inside and out, with faux wood paneling, asbestos siding, plywood flooring, carpeting, ceiling tile, and other materials of questionable value.

Having grown up in Brooklyn apartments—and spent a number of years, post-college, living communally—I was ill-prepared to co-own a home. However, I did know something about homesteading, and was looking forward to building fertility, and self-reliance, over time. Plus, since our family was helping us finance the purchase, it seemed likely that we’d be able to reduce our monthly costs for shelter below rental levels, in the long term.

But, soon after we moved, loneliness and fear set in. I felt lost, sharing a full three stories with just one other person. And, though I understood Gregg’s compulsion to strip away the house’s suffocating petro-layers—the day we closed, we removed the worst of the carpeting together—I freaked out when he attacked a dropped ceiling, only to reveal gashed plaster and moisture damage underneath. Why couldn’t we just live in a hut, I wondered, flanked by a tiny writing shack? Why take on the troubles, and tangled history, of this haunted behemoth?

Had the decision been mine, we would have downsized. Rapidly. But Gregg was determined to free the homestead from its twentieth-century straitjacket, and honor its origins by drastically reducing both the presence and use of fossil fuels on site. And, as the bones of the house began to show themselves, while latter-day divisions disappeared, I started to catch glimpses of what it could be: a gathering place. A space for weaving relationships.

At Earthaven—an ecovillage in Black Mountain, North Carolina where a large chunk of my heart resides—many community-wide events, including weekly potlucks, holiday celebrations, and semi-monthly Council sessions, take place in or near the Council Hall, in a parcel called “the Village Center.” Thinking of this phrase, I saw that our homestead could serve not only as the pulsing node of a growing web, but also as a hub for practicing and learning about villaging.

This was a start—and there was more.

On New Year’s Eve 2018, at a peyote ritual I participated in with friends from Earthaven, I received the news that, in restoring and tending our home, Gregg and I were to honor our ancestors—by making an altar for them, and remembering them in our daily and seasonal patterns, our bonds with plants and animals, our ways of welcoming and working with our fellow-beings. As aspiring villagers, we were to turn for guidance to those who’d known nothing but villaging. Who better than they to show us the way? To lead us out of the ever-present temptation to lock our warm bodies in the cold caress of our electronic prostheses? What if we humans touched each other, and other living creatures, as often and as tenderly as we now touch our screens?

To village is to pose such questions—and embrace the joy and grief, the risk and release, of listening for answers.

Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). She lives in Beacon, NY and Black Mountain, NC, and blogs at helenzuman.com.

Photo: The Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland is a well-known example of successful community living.