Monday, 21 September 2009

Joining the harvest

by Francesca, at FuoriBorgo


Hello, I’m Francesca, one of the new writers here at the co-op. I write from a tiny rural village in northern Italy, perched on a green hilltop a few winding, steep, narrow kilometers inland from the Mediterranean. My husband and I moved our young bi-cultural and bi-lingual family here ten years ago (I’m Italian, and my husband is US American). I blog about our life as a family of five over at FuoriBorgo.

We moved here from the city with a vague plan to spend a couple of our children’s early years in nature, and an even vaguer plan to start a biodynamic vegetable garden. Ten years later we’re still here: our three children are growing up as country kids, and our garden fills on one of the narrow terraces built centuries ago by the local farmers, striving to raise a living on these steep-sided valleys. The descendants of these farmers are one of the main reasons we’ve stayed: our neighbors and the other villagers, most of whom are elderly farmers, who welcomed us open-heartedly, and who taught us something we'd never considered when we came here on our quest for nature: the unique value of community life.

vineyard lane

We started getting to know our neighbors on the day we moved in, when a thin, elderly, weather-beaten man with thick snow-white hair and big strong hands drove up on a small tractor, and offered to haul our belongings up to the house. He drove up to our house and back for the rest of the day, while the young movers we’d hired sat in the shade of a large fig tree eating its fruits and praising the “paradise” we’d found, which they'd cursed as a “place from hell” when they’d first seen how steep the pathway was that led to the front door.

To thank our neighbor, we bought him some nice wine from Piemonte: we hadn’t realized that the basement of the ancient stone house we were renting was his winecellar, where he had several thousand liters of wine he’d made the previous year. From day one we tried to bring him and his family gifts to thank them for their boundless generosity: they gave us fruit and vegetables from their fields, helped us fix our car or our phone line, advised us on gardening, lent us their tools, and were always there to lend a hand. But somehow our gifts never felt quite appropriate.

vine tendril

Gradually we learned that, in an ancient rural community, you don’t really thank your neighbors with presents. People here lead a thrifty and frugal life, with few needs and little waste; what little they need they grow, build, hand make, or repurpose. They spend their days working in the fields and in the woods, with few days off, at the same pace as the unrelentless and unpredictable rhythm of nature. The best way to thank your neighbors, we learned, is to offer to help when they need it, just as our neighbor did on the day we moved in.

lumassina grapes

We began to sense this during our first vendemmia, the grape harvest, which falls at this time of year. The economy of our village is mainly based on growing wine grapes, and long rows of vines lace the terraced side of our valley. Tending them is a year-round job: we see our neighbors out among the vines in all weather, pruning, weeding, manuring, tying up tendrils, and so on. The vendemmia closes this agricultural cycle, and brings together many people - relatives, friends, people from neighboring villages - who work side by side for several days of reciprocal help – not for wages – and then move on to the next person’s vineyard. The vendemmia embodies the values of rural, communal life.

The day before the vendemmia starts, stacks of colorful plastic crates appear at the edge of the vineyards. We know by now that we need to be out at 8 o’clock the following morning, with our own pruning shears, and will soon be snipping grapes amid the crowd of people of all ages, but mostly elderly, who gather to help with the harvest. Vendemmia is a festive job, and feels more like a social gathering with work in nature rather than just plain work. The chatter of the harvesters can be heard all along the valley.

dolcetto grapes

At the end of the day, when everyone’s hands and clothes are sticky and stained with grape juice and the shears are nearly glued shut with it, we linger wearily around the now full crates, sharing one last story together. For the next few days, the pungent, sourish smell of fermenting grape juice drifts up from the cellar, and scents our house.

It took Tom and me several vendemmie to recognize the widespread network of reciprocity that sustains our village. This constant exchange of mutual, manual assistance creates a strong sense of community, and in the end, makes life possible here in a small, isolated village populated mainly by the elderly. When we city folk finally understood this, we also saw that the most important lesson our children could learn by living the country life wasn’t so much how to climb a tree or grow a tomato or track a boar through the forest, but how to repay people with the gift of your own time, effort and attention – not with a simple, store-bought gift, however valuable.