By Helen Zuman
In late February, I flew to Scotland, with my husband, to learn from my ancestors. I knew that if I went far back enough I’d find humans who’d evolved along with their land, and relied on a tight tribal weave for their thrival. What, I wondered, could these ghosts teach me about tending our Beacon homestead?
Partway through the eleven-day trip—comprising a longer stay on the sacred Isle of Iona (off Scotland’s west coast, in the Inner Hebrides) and a shorter one in the Borders town of Earlston (whence my great-great-great grandfather, Robert Carter, emigrated to the States, in 1831)—I realized I’d been expecting my ancestors’ guidance to manifest as layout advice, or decorating tips: Where would they have placed the kitchen sink? For interior cladding, what material would they have picked? Even though, of course, any forbear ancient enough to have let the land shape her would have had little to say about alternatives to drywall, or the intricacies of indoor plumbing.
No, my ancestors didn’t care to kibitz about domestic details—they preferred, instead, to school me on more primal things.
Like war. And blood. And kindred.
Before visiting Scotland, I’d heard the word clan; I’d known that the Highlands, for example, harbored a vibrant fabric of MacThises and MacThats. I hadn’t heard the word kindred—which sounds, to me, like clan’s less wholesome cousin.
In my mind, clan evokes tartans, bagpipes and raucous games of horseshoes, whereas kindred summons oaths, forts, and warriors swinging claymores, in service of a fierce tangle of family ties. And, indeed, it seemed that every book I cracked about Scottish history featured round after round of alliance, invasion, reprisal, retreat: some king or chieftain, pretender or prince, was always rallying his brethren to some fresh play for honor, power, ground, revenge.
You may think these patterns outmoded; you may thank your lucky constellations that you live in a more “civilized” time. Perhaps you believe, along with Stephen Pinker, that the better angels of our nature have finally won out.
But what if the sum total of violence hasn’t fallen—what if it’s just changed form?
Nowadays—for example—the US government exercises its monopoly on brutality by chartering corporations, subsidizing petro-everything, issuing fiat money, and levying an income tax to fund a standing army. Results include ecocide and anomie at home, and rampant homicide—in the name of “national security” and “global democracy”—overseas. And we can’t opt out: sure, we have a volunteer military—but no one evades the draft of the extractive economy.
In “lawless” Scotland, on the other hand, any potentate plotting an attack had to sell his plan to the various kindreds, by showing them how they’d benefit. And, if his proposition proved rotten, he could expect to lose support. So it was hard for any one house to gain total control, or drag an entire population into anti-survival behavior. This is the upside of local, artisanal warfare.
I’m not suggesting that a clique of Beaconites raise an army to conquer Fishkill, or Glenham, or Newburgh (although I do favor replacing the federal monolith with a mess of bioregions—how about a polyculture of tiny legislatures, each comprising a tiny Senate and a tiny House?); I am wondering how it might be to commit fully, with ferocious loyalty, to those I’ve inherited or adopted as kin. To agree to be needed by an extended family, and need them, in return.
Before Robert Carter left the Scottish Borders for New York, he worked, alongside his father and older brother, as a weaver (he also taught school and, briefly, herded sheep). Wandering the streets of his hometown, in the rain, on the afternoon of my last full day in his homeland, I sensed a great absence: the thrum of people making things had yielded, it seemed, to the echo of empty sidewalks, the drone of motor vehicles plying the nearby highway. Later, having taken refuge in the dormant dining room of the Red Lion Hotel, in the hollowed-out town center, I nursed the worst cup of coffee ever and—journal open, pen in hand—listened for instructions from the spirits of my kin.
Here’s what I heard: Install a loom, in your home, so we can make things by hand again. So we can use our hands to guide yours.
Duly noted, ghosts: Once our house is complete, I’ll set up a loom in my studio, across from my desk, and invite y’all over for a weaving bee.
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.