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

On Villaging: The Pulse of Human Kindness

By Helen Zuman

Last October, as part of my perpetual intermittent book tour (for my memoir, Mating in Captivity), I traveled to Bishop Hill—the site, from 1846 to 1861, of a communal utopia founded by Swedes fleeing religious persecution—to present at the annual conference of the US-based Communal Studies Association.

At this conference, I learned about groups like the House of David, known for operating a zoo and amusement park, fielding a long-haired barnstorming baseball team, and succumbing, in the 1920s, to a fatal case of #MeToo; the South Union Shakers, who welcomed African-American members into their Kentucky community decades before passage of the Emancipation Proclamation; and the Panacea Society, a British sect who believe that the secrets to eternal peace and bliss reside inside a box not to be opened until all the bishops of the Church of England convene in its presence. And I met some interesting people. But I left with a full mind, not a full heart. That is, I filled up on information, not connection.

Nonetheless, I went ahead and signed up for the triennial gathering of the International Communal Studies Association, held in late July 2019 just an hour or so north of Beacon, at four Camphill communities in and near Hudson, New York.I expected that the setting would both attract more participants involved in living communities (as opposed to scholars studying communities tucked in the past) and foster a convivial atmosphere. And, indeed, it did.

The Camphill movement—represented in Columbia County by Camphill Copake (also known as Camphill Village USA), Camphill Triform, Camphill Ghent, and Camphill Hudson—started before World War II, in Scotland, when founder Karl König fled Austria seeking sanctuary from the Nazis. There (near Aberdeen), he created a community in which those with and without disabilities lived and worked side by side, rejecting the distance imposed by diagnosis. This model—called “lifesharing”—became the basis for more than one hundred Camphill communities around the world. 

Baked into the Camphill ethos is a deep regard for each individual, of any ability, as a “trifold” being, comprising body, mind, and soul. In addition, Anthroposophy—the worldview developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and adopted as Camphill’s spiritual foundation—holds that each human being has a distinct job to do, and has arrived on Earth to live out a specific destiny. So every one of us, metaphysically speaking, plays an equally vital role in an awesomely intricate drama, unfolding on a grand scale.

I didn’t know much about the movement’s etheric underpinnings when I arrived at Camphill Copake, on a Sunday evening, for a three-day pre-conference immersion in village life. I didn’t need to. I experienced its effects all the same.

That is, I felt—rather than read or heard about—the common commitment to process over product, person over idea, maintaining right relationship over getting things done.

In the Healing Plant Garden, for example, where I spent a few hours a day, all three days, I noted efforts to arrange for people to work together—without the din of power tools—so conversation could blossom. We took regular breaks for water, snacks, and shade. A number of the Villagers (residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities) on the crew made a point of introducing themselves, and asking my name and where I was from. I felt truly welcome. 

At meals, I felt the same way. When my host discovered, about fifteen minutes before lunchtime, that my dietary restrictions (no gluten, dairy, or meat) prohibited me from eating the spaghetti with meat sauce on offer, she got on the phone with a neighbor (who has similar restrictions) and procured me a delicious alternate dish.

Of course, I did encounter the odd tangle. One morning, observing that the young man directing the flower harvest seemed extremely grumpy, I shied away from asking him to clarify which blossoms to pick. This caused me a moment’s consternation. But, quickly enough, I realized that I could make the call myself, drawing on my own inner teacher, and my own right way.

Three-plus days after my arrival at Camphill Copake, the conference kicked off. And, from the start, I could feel the spirit of the place working its magic on my interactions with fellow conferees. I found it unusually easy to make eye contact, to say hello, to sit down for dinner next to someone I’d just met, rather than choose an empty table and hope someone would show up to keep me company.

This time, I left with a full heart.

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). Get in touch via email (madgelma@hotmail.com); read more—and listen to Undercurrents, her podcast—at helenzuman.com.