Physically permanent and socially continuous, the city betrays the experience of life as passing and uncertain. Lewis Mumford finds the source of the city’s permanence and continuity in the establishment of the village. Village life gave its inhabitants a sense of stability. From soil to seed to harvest, farming requires permanence and an interest in reproduction. For Mumford, the neolithic agricultural revolution was also, if not predated by, a sexual revolution where the nurturing role of women comes to the fore and men’s aggressive nature recedes.
The village, in the midst of its garden plots and fields, formed a new kind of settlement: a permanent association of families and neighbors, of birds and animals, of houses and storage pits and barns, all rooted in the ancestral soil, in which each generation formed the compost for the next.
At the idyllic center of urban history is the primordial village. With its harmonious symbiosis in human and animal relationships. With its grounded provision to human structures – those agrarian homes, storage pits, and barns. Even waste is valued enough to transfer from generation to generation.
Yet, how many of these villages without even the threat of war were erased by famine, floods, or disease? Or crops plundered by pests and wild animals? Hardly permanent. Barely continuous. In our neighborhoods and in the country we might see the ancient village, its social form transmitted, its physical form enduring. The transmitted pattern received and recognized, but upon what grounds understood?
The ground was the first surface of erasable inscription. The surface upon which to work out, to plow out, to store, to bury, to find the self in – the first personal medium of erasable inscription. The village becomes a figure written in the soil, an erasable word etched in manure and clay. Adam’s cursed medium. Not so much cursed for its erasability but for its thorns and thistles.
Figuring human relations against the prickliness of memory through the ages is the picture presence of the village. It represents the protest: of the possibility of a life by intentional association, of negotiated protocols, and of a shared burden under the cursed medium.
It is easy to criticize Mumford’s picturesque village. How could domestication ever be negotiated equitably? How could it be right from the start? How could it be good at all?
It is something, because it is still recognizable amid the sprawl, the towers, the pavement, and all the dirt. Still seen. Through the overgrown brush of the medium we recognize its outline.
Without this communal identification and mothering, the young become demoralized: indeed, their very power to become fully human may vanish, along with neolithic man’s first obligation – the cherishing and nurturing of life.
Still working to improve the cursed medium for a better glimpse of the fullness of and the wanting for our togetherness.