What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me
By Mana Vermeulen-McLeod
The sound of an explosion wakes me up. Half asleep, yet smiling, I remember being told the night before that it would not be guns shooting off, but fireworks. This region of Central Mexico is getting ready for a big fiesta and they want everyone to know about it!
I’m here for a week at Huehuecoyotl Ecovillage (which means “old, old coyote”), in the Mexican state of Morales. I traveled from my own community, Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina in the US, to attend the “International Gather-in” of Gaia University, a non-residential university program. The International Gather-in has attracted Gaia U students, advisors, graduates, and regional organizers from ten countries from South America, North America, and Europe.
I’ve just finished the first year of a graduate diploma in Integrative Ecosocial Design, with a focus on permaculture design principles. In the presentation I give during the week at Huehue I describe design tools I have used during the year: Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U” (a method of organizational learning) and Ken Wilber’s Four-Quadrant model (a theory describing systematic integration of knowledge). Over the last year I documented my action learning path of becoming a new member at Earthaven, and started research on what it takes to maintain a healthy, thriving ecovillage.
So I traveled from a 15-year-old rural ecovillage with 320 acres and 45 members (mostly English speakers), to a 27-year-old rural ecovillage with 7.5 acres and 20 members (all bilingual in Spanish and English, and some who speak up to 5 additional languages). I was curious to see what a smaller, more established, and more international ecovillage looks like and how it functions. A couple of things stand out.
First, while traveling through Mexico before I arrived, I was struck by all the bright colors. Houses, large and small, had walls and windows of purple, pink, green, or yellow. And most houses in the countryside look unfinished, with metal rebar sticking of the buildings. In my mind this usually means poverty. I soon learned from a Brazilian Gaia U student that “unfinished” houses in Latin America are actually a sign of hope — hope that there will be prosperity in the future and thus more rooms to add onto the house. This idea helps me relax about the unfinished building projects back at Earthaven!
Unlike Earthaven, at Huehuecoyotl the physical infrastructure and buildings are finished. The place looks and feels solidly established.
Huehue is also a lot more colorful and artistic. The influence of Mexican culture is reflected in the exuberant artwork in and around all the buildings. The focus has always been on arts and performance at Huehuecoyotl. Its founders, The Illuminated Elephants Traveling Gypsy Theater, performed all over Mexico and Europe for years before they settled here. Their love of art and beauty is obvious in their gorgeous Community Center with its amazing murals of indigenous Mexican themes. Earthaven’s focus has always been on ecological sustainability and relatively little on art for art’s sake, though many of our buildings are beautiful too. Our meeting space, the Council Hall, is a passive solar, off-grid, timber-framed structure with walls of straw bale, straw clay, and cob.
At Huehuecoyotl most homes have walls of adobe and clay and fired-clay red tile roofs, construction materials that have been used for centuries in this region. At Earthaven many of our homes are built of regional natural materials as well, including clay from the land and lumber from trees felled onsite. Only some of the 14 homes here at Huehue are passive solar, and only one is off the grid. And when the grid electricity fails, which happens sometimes in this rural part of Mexico, Huehuecoyotl’s residents tend to congregate in the off-grid house for its Internet access. All homes at Earthaven are passive-solar and off the grid, generating power with solar panels on individual homesites and with a micro-hydro system in the village center. Both ecovillages use composting toilets and both have organic community gardens, though many have their own home gardens too. Both ecovillages have built their own onsite water systems. At Huehue water is collected from a nearby waterfall that cascades down steep rocks and is stored in a large water tank. Earthaven’s water comes from multiple springs owned and managed by each neighborhood, two wells, and roof-water catchment on individual homes, and is stored in various water tanks around the property.
I am lucky to meet Huehue residents when our group is invited to the home of Toña Osher, an artist and videographer, where we enjoy a homegrown-chocolate-making party. What an amazing concept to have cocoa trees growing right in your yard! I feel just a tad jealous because all I have growing at my place at Earthaven are daffodils. At the party, first we roast and peel the cocoa beans, then grind them up into a powder and add cane sugar. This is mixed and heated up to become this amazing hot-chocolate drink. The party goes positively off the charts by the time we drink every last bit of the hot chocolate and start picking up guitars and drums. We jam together for hours and make a deep connection.
This leads me to another difference. Huehuecoyotl’s economy is more based on educational center activities than Earthaven’s. As an alternative educational center, Huehue offers regular courses in ecovillage design, via GEN’s Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) program; consensus training; permaculture; native studies; and visionary leadership. So some residents here sell their art to visitors, and others earn income by providing lodging or working as cooks or instructors in the courses and gatherings. Other Huehue members travel offsite briefly; for example, some of the videographers I met film weddings and other festivities in the surrounding towns for local families. Still others earn money by traveling far distances — sometimes out of the country, and sometimes for months at a time — and many have dual residencies in Europe, Mexico, and the US. Huehue members Kathy Sartor and Giovanni Ciarlo, for example, live in the US half the year, performing and leading educational programs in schools with their band, Sirius Coyote. Bea Briggs offers consensus and facilitation trainings internationally through her organization, IIFAC. Ria Bjerre lives in Denmark part of the year teaching Danish to foreign visitors and leads tours to ancient sites in Mexico the rest of the time. All these folks have creatively experimented in various ways to make a living in a rural ecovillage far from conventional jobs.Will Earthaven Become a “Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu”?)
Visiting Huehuecoyotl has had quite an effect. It gives me the strength and hope to carry on building, creating, and celebrating in my own beautiful North Carolina.
And when I get back I’m painting my house bright colors!
Mana Vermeulen-McLeod works as a carpenter in her ecovillage, Earthaven in North Carolina. She just earned a graduate diploma with Gaia University in Integrative Ecosocial Design/Ecovillage Living.
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