Tuscany is as beautiful as everyone says it is: a region heavily frequented by tourists, Italians and foreigners alike, for its wine and generally hideous landscape. Much more green and lush than Monteleone, it also rains a lot more. Also, Castagneto Carducci is 5 km from the beach, where we took the dogs for a few hours Sunday morning.
But I also have this fool to wake me up every morning at 6am (or really whenever he feels like it, he needs to work on his consistency, or maybe I should work on tolerating his inconsistency), my own personal alarm clock, infinitely better than any electronic one:
The town is named after Giosuè Carducci, a very famous poet, whose statue is in the city center, and whose quote I ran across:
which translates to, roughly, “Sweet country where I wore the fierce dress and heard such a disdainful song, I shall nevertheless see you again and my heart jumps in the meantime.” I suspect poetry is only translatable in emotion, not words. Indeed, I suspect if a poet is great, the poetry should be so subtle and profound as to make translation impossible — or conversely, as to make it seamless, because the emotion should transcend the language it is written in and encircle all human experience. But what do I know?
The area is less renowned for its olive oil (within Italy, but worldwide very much so) but certain Californian olive farmers began their cultivation by buying and importing the actual olive trees from Tuscany to the US. It sounds weird to import a tree, but it is very common, as there are many difficulties in the quest to produce good oil. Just to name a few: you need to be rich because you need to buy and maintain the land, and give the trees time to grow, and when they are full-grown, they may not produce olives when and how you want them to, and even if they do, these olives may not produce good oil, and then you must prune the trees, and then you decide which variety of olive you want to cultivate… and only if the climate of your particular region is right and if you can wait 15-20 years before you see any return on your investment… then you can produce olive oil, if you are very lucky… and planting a few hundred trees would be advisable, as some of them will probably die, as having many children was advisable a few centuries ago for the same reason!
At Le Catre, we do a little bit of everything: a bit of olive oil (just enough for ourselves), various fruits (figs, persimmons, pears, etc), spices (garlic, mint, parsley, oregano, etc), vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, etc). Conservation of energy is a big focus as well: There is no central heating/air system so we haul and chop wood down to a certain size to fit in the fireplace (and we only heat a few rooms, so we have to make sure to keep the right doors closed when the fire is going). This seems to be a common theme among the farms I visited, as a way to save money, but for every penny you save, you make up for it in solid, rigorous labor. We have solar panels, we collect rainwater in tanks to store up for the year-round water supply and for irrigation as well for the extremely dry summers in some parts of Italy; we use a washing machine, but no dryer, we always hang the clothes out on the line (I’ve been to 4 farms, and they all do this.)
We plant certain ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants to use them as compost later on. Nitrogen fixation is when N2 in the atmosphere is converted into ammonium (NH4) or nitrogen dioxide (NO2). N2 by itself is relatively inert (apparently), so nitrogen-fixing plants and animals free up nitrogen to combine with other elements, so it can then act as fertilizer, or be the building blocks for other amino acids. Many legumes (for example, we used fava beans) are great nitrogen-fixing plants.
(WWOOF: Willing Workers on Organic Farms, the organization that facilitates contact between the volunteers and the hosts, http://www.wwoof.it/en)
Bridget is our host, a Scottish woman (also head of WWOOF Italia for some years now) who moved to Tuscany 30 years ago, and fell in love with the place, as I am catching myself doing now. Where can I get this good wine for so cheap? Or succulent oil so plentiful and inexpensive? For fresh produce, organic is always better for two reasons: organic produce is always seasonal, and you know it has only been picked when it is ripe. (I have heard the standards for what passes as “organic” are taken more seriously in Europe than US, but I’m not sure.) I haven’t had a bad orange since I’ve been in Italy, and we eat them every day for dessert, which is an excellent way to finish a meal. In the main, there is no concept of seasonal produce for the American general public: we expect any of the fruits and vegetables to be available in the markets whenever and wherever we want them.
Bridget is very knowledgeable, without even trying: I’ve learned how to identify many herbs and spices in the wild, and fruit trees as well. Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and fennel are indigenous to Mediterranean shores, so we dry it for cooking and I love watching the bees at the flowers.
Once you realize that most foods that we now cultivate once started in the wild in whatever climate they were indigenous to, paying for food seems a bit strange; many farmers I work with have a barter system with other farmers. (Although in theory, money is just a medium of exchange, so it is more flexible than the barter system.)
Very few people know how to identify the wild plants that all modern cultivated plants are descended from, and fewer can identify even the ones that we have cultivated — all most of us know is what the end product looks like — that is, after the local market has sprayed it with pesticides and coloring. (I’ve had delicious oranges that were not even orange, and just because an apple is full of bruises doesn’t mean it can’t be scrumptious. Isn’t it strange that in the grocery store all the different types of fruits are so uniformly arranged and all the same size?) In organic produce, the size and look of every fruit varies widely. Advertising does not really intend to deceive, but merely to convince us to accept its point of view — conveniently forgetting that the two often coincide.
She is one of the main people in charge of WWOOF Italia, so she has many stories to tell — from how the experience can subtly and drastically disturb people’s opinions, to the legal hurdles in getting and staying certified to be an organic farmer, or how having travelers in and out of the house all the time always reminds you and your family how ridiculous and dense the human race is — and really embodies the spirit of WWOOF (passion for organic agriculture, understands the importance of flexibility and adaptability for each host and wwoofer, and readily disabuses WWOOF of its romantic aspects). She refused a picture, but here is the only one I could find on the web:
I volunteered with Matt, an Australian; this was his first farm and I think he had a welcoming experience. It is a big change from your normal life: going into someone’s home, eating every meal with them, being forced to make new friends, learning way too much, and sometimes, having to play with their kids, or just getting really, really good at listening to people.
She keeps a heavily varied forest garden with a friend, with herbs, fruits, vegetables, and forestry (ash, chestnut, hazelnut, and many more). She mentioned that monocultures are unnatural, and unfortunately, nearly all modern agriculture (including most organic as well is carried out in monocultures. Row after row of only one or two of the same crop, because most companies specialize in only one crop, or a few crops in the same family. So a more organic and natural way is to try and mimic the wild: using only plants that are native to the area, and mixing the species and varieties up (trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, etc). Also, I imagine this is better for the insects and the bees as well, as they depend on many plants for health (and vice versa), just as we do.
But we also have ways to protect the crops without hurting the animals. For example, some put a CD on the fruit or olive trees that is used to stop the birds from eating the fruit. Apparently, the reflection from the CD, as it hangs and rotates from the tree, distracts and disturbs the birds enough to make them go to elsewhere.
There is also a clever trap that guards against the olive fruit fly. The flies harm the tree in two ways: in quantity, they remove a significant portion of the pulp which reduces the yield of the crop, or in quality, by causing much deterioration of the quality of the olive oil. I don’t know exactly how the trap itself works, but I think the basic idea is that the plant is saturated with a pheromone that attracts the male fruit fly (because they want to visit the tree where the female has laid her eggs), and then sterilizes the fly, and then lets it go, so the damage cannot be done.
She complains of the farmers nearby, who breed pheasants, solely to introduce them into the wild to hunt them down. The funny part is that these hunters get angry at local residents if they let their dogs “go astray” and roam the land (which is what dogs, and presumably we too, are supposed to be doing anyway), because the dogs sometimes manage to catch the pheasants before the insipid hunter gets a chance to craftily sneak in with his absurd costume and his contraptions. To what lengths do we sometimes go, with ears gullible and tongues loose, to control inputs and results! (Bridget was once scolded for her dogs, Brandy and Whiskey)
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it” – Kahlil Gibran
As amiable as they look, they only chase any animals for play, and don’t (usually) eat them.
Let’s all have a moment of silence for how ridiculous human beings can be, and usually, are: we want other humans to control their domesticated wolves, so these wolves don’t hunt the birds that we artificially introduced into the wild. It’s not the dog’s fault that they are better hunters than we are. Instinct is the higher form of intelligence, as well as its basis: that is what we have trouble admitting, no matter how many times we try to escape her bosom, her saddle.
The work is varied and interesting, but it should be disabused of the romantic notion. Many times, we do work that is unpleasant and difficult: cleaning the chicken coop, pruning and clearing various brambles and thorns that are overgrown and inconvenient (of course, we humans decide what those words mean…) because we want to replace them with plants we prefer, or sometimes having all the work you did yesterday undid by rain, snow, or heavy winds the next day. You try your best to work with nature, but it has no obligation to work with you.
Bridget has a story she likes to tell to ridicule our insatiable need to control nature. Some time ago, they installed a pond and put some fish into it. However, they were worried about the fish population growing too big, but a heron turned up at the pond and starting eating the fish. Then, they were worried about the heron eating up all of “their” fish that made the pond look so nice. But before long, a fox came and ate the heron. So even though this pond was introduced artificially, somehow nature intervened to set things aright. Doesn’t always happen this way, but it’s interesting to note: in spite of our worries, the world has wisdom we cannot predict — but the meteorologist needs to make money, no matter how hollow his hubris is.
Just making the decision to grow your own food has unforeseen difficulties, as Nature has its own agenda, which it hides from you constantly — not out of malice, but rather from indifference. The weather does what it wants, when it wants — and we had better be content about that. Complaints about weather or about time — for are not nature and time two of three gods, the third being chance? — are the most commonly ignored signs of our confidence run amok. Atheism means nothing in the face of these three: they will make you believe in them; the choice is emphatically not yours. Try to manage time: she will manage you; dismiss chance: she drops anvils on your goals; ignore nature: she kills you, and then gives an all-too-honest eulogy. At the hands of those who have no mercy, a little sycophancy and reverence are indispensable.
But in how many ways do we ignore nature? We mismanage our bodies, and we take drugs to correct, instead of looking to diet and habits first. We sit down all day, and wonder why back problems are so widespread. We spend so much time “indoors”, in our offices, our houses, our cars, that getting a breath of fresh air is almost like an event. “Being outdoors”, “going on a hike”  or whatever other reasons we find to be outside, are seen as excursions, when they should be the norm. All air should be fresh — we shouldn’t have to go and “get it”. And some people don’t even exercise outdoors — even when the weather is “nice!” — because some exercise only when they go to the gym.
The first step in the direction of being civilized — spending more and more time indoors — is a step backwards for our health. I feel incomplete if I don’t get at least 2 hours each day among the trees, even if I just walk and stare in complete idleness. In whatever ways primitive humans were barbaric and uncivilized — to say nothing of how specious and flimsy the words and connotations themselves are — they had one thing right which was exceptionally genius and quite simple: they spent the majority of their time outside. They did not “go outside”.
But what is civilization, really, but wanting to reach the limits of our potential, to know and discover all that we can? How precious and undervalued is such a wisdom that places bounds even to knowledge!  All facts are not created equal; neither are any two paths which arrive at the same fact.
I try to describe all outdoors work, even the unpleasant work as ‘intimate’, because there is an undeniable energy and emotion when working in the air, that the plants offer as a gift. The work is intimate if we receive the gift; harsh if we reject it, harsh if we have no feeling for nature, if we see the plants, spiders, and insects as something in our way. There is an undeniable and divine pleasure in watching insects, just as there is in watching people. Whenever we deal with other living things, vulnerability and insecurity is at play with our emotions, irrepressibly jazzy and giddy, so there is much intimacy at stake. Why not relish that intimacy? Why not become it?
So as you might imagine, all this work takes an incredible amount of work and planning. The path towards self-sufficiency (or really just trying to work with nature as far as is humanly possible) — meaning to plan for and provide one’s own food, energy, and water, as far as one can — is quite difficult, and if you ever get there, and that’s a big if, can you maintain it? The idea of being self-sufficient easily seduces many who want to live ethically with the environment but are simply tired of compromising with a world who could care less about preserving and respecting the environment of which it consists. Self-sufficiency is a way of opting out, living ‘off-grid’ so to speak, and any time you choose to forego the benefits of mainstream society — because you are appalled to discover the unintended consequences of these benefits and conveniences that are so highly extolled by others or simply because you despise the path of least resistance — countless concerns pop up.
But many never think of opting out of the benefits (whether these are conveniences or superfluities depends on how far one inquires into the depths) of society because they are afraid of the alternative. Civilization only makes sense within the narrow confines of our literature and culture. If you ever leave the civilized world, and really attempt to test the origins of your habits and traditions, a very puzzling and stultifying can of worms appears before you. It will beckon and flirt with you to come play, and only someone doltish and reckless enough to ask too many whys, hows and what ifs is overjoyed to flirt back.
Even when we go for excursions in the woods, the nature trail is carefully marked for us, always there to care for and guide us. There is nothing natural about the way we live, even when we go out ‘into nature’: some of us can only have sex in a bed. And others brag about all the risqué places they have had sex in — as if they had liberated themselves from this prosecutor called society! And what do all other ‘wild’ animals do? They have sex ‘outside’, in the open air, without even the slightest desire for privacy: mamma mia, how daring and rebellious the insects are!
We are forever confusing wants with needs, and many wants become needs because our eyes are greedy, our noses sniff pots without respect, our ears drop eaves without discretion, because we want what our friends or our peers have, because we want to elevate ourselves — in dress, intellect, or verbiage — beyond the average person, because we are lonely — and one way to soften the pangs of solitude, if only temporarily, is to constantly acquire new things or experiences that we believe are necessary to make us better, smarter, richer — and do all of this, faster. Productivity! “But at what cost?”, says no one ever.
But, on a related note, I think whatever work any of us find worth doing, we have to love the process, and not be so enamored with the result. Of course, we want to final product to be excellent, but if it isn’t, we have to be satisfied with what is, not with what could be or should have been. We always hear, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”, but why is it true? Because the destination is a mere point, a fleeting moment — indeed, the goal is as Carl Sagan once described the planet Earth, “a pale, blue dot” — but the journey takes up all the time. And time is what life is. The views on the way to the mountaintop are just as much as, if not more than, important than the coveted summit: that is what everyone forgets. Travelers are the worst here: they check off cities after only a few days, the camera gradually replaces their neglected eyesight, they neglect learning the language because they only see the blinding difficulty of the goal (conversation, fluency) and overlook the inherent joy and silliness in failing and learning another interpretation of life.
In short, better to appreciate the process and fail at the result, than to despise the process, but actually meet one’s goal.
Or, dare to neglect the false dichotomy between process and result, as well as the one between you and me.
This may seem like a stretch, but working in the fields, especially when the work seems overly repetitive and mundane, makes me feel like a slave. (Although I know it is very, very different because I am volunteering at different farms as an eco-tourist, and I can leave at any time on a flight “back home”, and I have money, and I am not beholden to my master…), but bear with me. I mean that, doing unpaid physical labor (even though I have always gotten much better intangible gifts in return), can be pleasant, but also dull and aching and — “boring”. But then I think of those old, gospel spirituals, “amazing grace”, “take me to the water”, “near the cross”, or “i’ll fly away” and start humming or singing, and I think I am so lucky to take part in such a rich culture and to have grown up listening and breathing to such beautiful songs…. And somehow I feel some unfathomable, voluptuous solidarity with my brothers and sisters who once invented those very songs under much harsher conditions than I face today — and I can only feel a tiny fraction of what they felt; yet I can feel it. And Du Bois was right to call them ‘sorrow songs’, because somehow sad songs overcome their cause;
“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?” – Du Bois, Chapter 15, “The Sorrow Songs”
For all the serious lovers of peanut butter, I recommend making it the old-fashioned way, as we did: shelling and grinding up the peanuts, and adding salt to taste. But, the peanuts don’t make enough oil by themselves (at least the ones here in Italy don’t), so, in typical Italian fashion, we make up for the deficiency by using olive oil. It tastes great, and add some of the homegrown jams (we had peach, orange or raspberry to choose from; we didn’t get to make the jams during my time there sadly) that Bridget makes, it’s absurd how something so healthy can taste so good. And shelling the nuts can be very intimate and meditative, and we say whatever comes to mind, with no form or fashion to our meanderings.
As for the rest of the food, I’m so accustomed to the quality and quantity of the olive oil, wine, the seasonal and fresh fruit, that I’m spoiled now, I’ve come to expect it: having high standards is the ubiquitous cause for disappointment. It no longer feels touristy or novel, because we eat it every day. But two things at least have changed drastically: at home I never consumed coffee or cheese — now I eat so many different types of cheese every day and have un caffè doppio, sometimes con latte, in morning and afternoon. So, I have adapted, which means I can also hold full conversations in Italian — with a lot of patience.
Bridget complains that I eat too slow — but also that I eat too much. But I think I eat more because I eat slow; I chew my food well so I don’t get full as quick. But you have to eat slow to appreciate and love your food. Food is an experience, and all experiences worth anything need patience and time. Chew slowly for food; breathe slowly for air; savor slowly for love. (It’s funny because I used to eat very quickly, but when you grow up with three brothers, the sword and shield never go down) — But loving slowly is a rare art, not because we don’t know how, but rather because we find it difficult to try — for love wants so badly to be feverish, intoxicating, devilish, like a whirlwind.
To end on a positive note: for lunch one day, we had ‘rigatoni alla puttanesca’, or translated, “whore’s pasta”. It’s unclear where the name came from: some say Neapolitan (Napoli) prostitutes cooked it in between clients, or because so many random things go into the pasta, and there are at least a dozen other suggestions. At any rate, it has lived up to its name, in that so many claim to know the story behind the name. For us, it was tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, and pancetta, which is Italian bacon, made of pork belly cured with salt.
 interesting anecdote on the word ‘hike’, from here
[On a Sierra Club Outing, author Albert Palmer tells of a conversation he had with John Muir on the trail. He asked Muir, “someone told me you did not approve of the word “hike”. ‘Is that so?’ His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied]:
“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
 (Nietzsche, Dawn, Section 429)
“Why do we fear and hate the possible return to barbarism? Because it would make people unhappier than they are? Ah, no! In all ages barbarians were happier: let’s not deceive ourselves! – Instead, our drive for knowledge is too strong for us to be able still to value happiness without knowledge or the happiness provided by a strong, deeply rooted delusion; we find it painful even to imagine such a state! The restlessness of discovery and ascertainment has become just as appealing and indispensable to us as an unrequited love is to the lover, a love he would never trade at any price for a state of apathy; indeed, perhaps we too are unhappy lovers! Knowledge has been transformed into a passion in us that does not shrink from any sacrifice and, at bottom, fears nothing but its own extinction; we honestly believe that under the pressure and suffering of this passion the whole of humanity itself to be more sublime and more consoled than previously, when it had not yet overcome its envy of the cruder pleasure and contentment that result from barbarism. Perhaps humanity will even be destroyed by this passion for knowledge! — Even this thought holds no sway over us!”