9 Jun 2008
For Guido, who never heard of resilience
This post was prompted, a few months ago, by a return to a place in Italy where I lived between 1988 and 1990. I was returning for the funeral of a very dear friend of mine. I hadn’t been there in the intervening years, and much had changed. While I was there, I came across this photo, of an 18 year old me (left), and my friend Dan, standing in the farmyard of this extraordinary man, Guido Vannini (centre). Seeing the changes to the place I had known so well, and being reminded of Guido, prompted me to write the following;
I never actually knew a great deal about Guido, he never told me much about his life. I know he was born in 1910, and I know he died, aged 89, on the farm on which he was born and where he had lived his whole life. His farm was situated on the edge of a small village called Pomaia, in the hills of Tuscany, near the coast south of Pisa. I met Guido when I was 18. I had moved from the middle of Bristol to this village in these Italian hills, and very quickly came to know Guido.
He was a very small man, but strong as a horse. He had hands like shovels and the skin on his hands was like leather boots. I don’t know if he had ever been married (I suspect not), but he lived alone and ran his farm alone. He had a cow called Dora, a few chickens, a small tractor which never seemed to break down but which moved incredibly slowly, an old Vespre, olive and peach trees and grapes. When I arrived he made two kinds of wine, one the traditional red wine everybody else made, and another, which I never saw other people make, which was more like a sparkling cider. Guido’s olive oil was legendary. I went most down to see him very early most mornings to collect the milk from him, in the bucket, still steaming in the morning air, which I then took back and filtered through a muslin cloth.
A few times I helped him on the farm. I remember hanging off the back of his tractor, attempting to weed seedlings while he drove the tractor, shouting incomprehensible instructions at me, this man who had done this work since being a child amazed that someone could be as inept as I was at such a simple task. Another time I helped him to pick his peaches. One gorgeous late summer evening, a few of us set to his groaning trees, carefully handling the fruit so as not to damage them. I shall never forget the peach I found at the very top of the tree, the largest, juiciest, sweetest peach I have ever eaten, which almost exploded when I bit into it.
Perhaps most memorable was the time when Dora needed her hooves clipping. This process required a group of neighbouring farmers, all built like Guido, a few glasses of wine, myself and Dan (along really to make up numbers rather than to lend any significant amount of muscle), and a length of rope. The rope was tied between the cow’s legs in a particular configuration, and on Guido’s signal, pulled, whereupon the cow flipped onto its back and the designated hoof clipper could set to work. Keeping the cow sufficiently still required lots of muscle and pushing and pulling, and the most spectacular collection of foul Tuscan swearing I have ever heard. Eventually the cow’s dignity was restored, a couple more glasses of wine were had, and everyone went on their way.
Guido was an utterly charming man, who always assumed the best of people. Any conversation with him would always feature his tapping your arm frequently, to make sure you were still paying attention. Paying attention was a struggle, given that he spoke incredibly fast in a very strong Tuscan accent, one which meant that some words were entirely different from those used elsewhere in Italy. Our conversations, at least in the early days of my learning Italian, were decidedly one way, and involved me nodding a lot, and hoping he wouldn’t ask me an actual question. He couldn’t say “Rob”, preferring instead to call me “rrrobb-eh”.
Guido often talked about a woman called Lynetta, who none of us had met. Lynetta was a legend. She had come from London some years previous on a motorbike and stayed with him, helping on the farm, and Guido had become very fond of her. He often asked if we had heard anything from her, and one time, when I told him I was going to be visiting London, he told me to say hello to Lynetta, “just ask someone, everyone there will know her”. I think his trips beyond the village had been few during his life, and he certainly had no comprehension of a village the size of London.
I last saw Guido in 1993. He was 83, and was still running his farm on his own, although he had stopped making wine by then. His eyes still twinkled, and he still always had time for a long chat about cows, wine, mutual friends and Lynetta. Many years passed, I moved away, life took over, and I heard nothing about Guido until I heard in 1999 that he had passed away. What prompts my writing this is that I recently returned to the village, and went looking to see what had become of Guido’s house. What had happened to it was the same as had happened to many of the other houses I remember from my time in Pomaia. It was no longer a working farm. The animal sheds had been converted, a wall had been built across the entrance into the yard, so you couldn’t drive a cow in even if you wanted to (see right). The yard now featured ornamental plants in pots and an expensive looking car.
The demise of old men of the soil such as Guido may be seen as inevitable, and perhaps it is. The world around him increasingly had no place for people such as Guido, managing a diverse small farm, working hard, intimately familiar with the soil, the seasons and the land he knew better than he knew most people. I think, however, the passing of Guido and his generation is something to mourn. He was a living, breathing manifestation of a resilient culture that has all but slipped through our fingers.
By resilient I mean able to withstand shock from the outside, having sufficient ability to be a producer as well as a consumer, being sufficiently skilled to be able to turn your hand to whatever life demands of you. The urgent need for rebuilding resilience, becomes more and more urgent every day. The soaring price of oil (we look almost certain to see $140 this week, quite possibly today), the credit crunch, the recession already underway, shine a bright light on the fact that we have spent the last 50 years ruthlessly dismantling the very thing we now need the most.
When I first arrived in the village, it still had much of its resilience. People helped each other out at harvest time. The wine and olive oil produced was mostly sold and consumed locally. Farmers such as Guido were able to turn their hand to any task, and were able to work hard. I think when we lose people like that, we lose more than just individuals, especially when what they have learnt over their lives isn’t passed on. You had a sense that were the rest of the world to cease sending anything to Pomaia, it would still be able to meet its basic needs. In short, it was resilient.
We have largely lost a collection of skills and a resourcefulness that once they are gone, are extremely difficult to recreate. For a village to move from having its fair share of Guidos, to having professionals who work in the nearby towns, second homes and retired people is a huge change in the economics of the place, and in its ability to deal creatively with the shocks that are coming.
As we live our increasingly frantic lifestyles, dashing around generally doing nothing of any great importance, working in jobs that are either astonishingly clever or desperately mundane, we have become distanced from the skills that are essential to more resilient cultures. I never saw Guido bored. His one technological device was his television set, that was about it. He was able to find stimulation in a simple job well done. I wish I had taken more time out to learn from him. It never felt important to me. I wish I had asked him to teach me how to make that sparkling wine. Perhaps the recipe, like so much else, passed away with him.
9 Jun 8:39am
I couldn’t agree more! I long for the old ways, perhaps I was born a century too early, but I truly believe the old ways were far more healthy, more productive, more community spirited and more ethical than anything we have today.
9 Jun 2:56pm
A lovely set of memories and having tasted Tuscany last year on a walking holiday, staying in a small village on the opposite hillside to Barga, I to saw the small type of farm Guido ran, and equally the new homes replacing them.
I too hunger for a more resilient time, helping each other in a proper community, I only hope we can steer ourselves safely to this new post peak oil lifestyle. I’m under no illusions that it will require hard work, but that in itself is a blessing, we are healthy and happy when our bodies work hard and are well fed on wholesome food, grown locally, and we are once again reunited with our true environment, the outside world.
9 Jun 4:03pm
The pictures bring back memories of the time I spent living in Italy.
I lived just outside of Rome, working in the very centre of the bustling and very disorganised Roman metropolis.
I used to see things on my trips around the countryside that I thought backward; I was surprised certain practises hadn’t yet died out as they had in Britian, confused that the people could be so ‘behind’ our ‘modern’ way of living.
Upon my return to good ol’ Blighty, I found myself concerned with the events of the environment and living conditions as they began to unfold. It had always been at the back of my mind and that is where it had stayed before now.
Now I read about and remember small scale agricultural practices in Italy with admiration, longing for the time when prices crash and I can finally afford my own house and put certain things into action.
Bring it on.
A Day At The Fair » Blog Archive » For Guido, who never heard of resilience.
9 Jun 5:02pm
[…] For Guido, who never heard of resilience. …need for rebuilding resilience, becomes more and more urgent every day. … For a village to move from having its fair share of Guidos, to… […]
9 Jun 5:58pm
Rob–your piece reminds me of my first visit to Sicely, in 1967. I was a rich kid from LA, welcomed with open arms by the village people who were fortunately too isolated to grasp how spoiled I was from my culture. I learned there how to bathe in two cups of water during a drought, how to appreciate the mending of my sandals by the local cobbler, and the stunning beauty of the harvest festival under the full moon in the dry grass of the pear orchard. Visiting student volunteers from Germany played their wooden recorders and everybody sang. I will never forget those lessons, that changed me profoundly and started my path towards Permaculture and sustainable lifestyles.
Thank you for your eloquent writing!
9 Jun 6:00pm
Thanks for this beautiful story Rob. I was born and raised in Mexico. In the old times the “campesinos” used to live in their “pueblos” very much the same way as you describe for Guido’s life. Yes, they were poor, and also very happy and healthy. Their way of living was not only resilient, but sustainable, without using those terms.
Indeed we need to go back and relearn those simpler ways of living in small communities. Too bad that the Guidos of the world are not here anymore to teach us.
9 Jun 8:03pm
I was really moved by your description of the farmer you knew all those years ago in Italy. Several years ago my girlfriend and I bought a small old village house on Crete after I had worked here one summer (and previous summers on Kefallonia) on a sea turtle project. This is not a holiday home but is a place to make a permanent move to. I write now from our house (we got broadband internet last year!) and, although it doesn’t have a garden, we are looking for a small piece of land in the village to grow some vegetables to supplement the herbs and chillies we are growing on the balcony. Of course, we also get olive oil, eggs and oranges from our neighbours!
Talking of our neighbours, that is what moved me so much about your piece. They are a lovely elderly couple (and their oranges have been pronounced by our family as the best tasting ever) and still live much as I imagine they always have. Up until last year they still had their own donkey. My Greek, unfortunately, is wholly inadequate at the moment to be able to hold a deep conversation with them but I would dearly love to because I know there would be so many things to learn from them.
Since we came to the village we have discovered transition towns and “peak everything” and are now thinking long-term to build a resilient future here somehow. Of course, travelling to and from our family in the UK and Germany is a big consideration and not especially resilient — I have tried the train and ferry which took three days and cost three times as much as a flight, but I would take this option every time if I could afford it (there may not be much difference in the prices soon anyway).
I went on a transition training course last year and it would be great to meet others interested in a transition initiative here on Crete (we live in the south of the island). I think there is a lot of resilience still retained here as most people seem to engage in some form of home production, usually olives, but also chickens, vegetables, and bee-keeping, but things are bound to get wobbly as the tourism comes under pressure, of course, not to mention the water situation as things get hotter.
Keep up the good work.
10 Jun 7:24pm
i also found this piece v. moving.
‘As we live our increasingly frantic lifestyles, dashing around generally doing nothing of any great importance, working in jobs that are either astonishingly clever or desperately mundane, we have become distanced from the skills that are essential to more resilient cultures’.
…as much as I and other people i know try to break out of this way of living, I have found that it is actually impossible (even considering the small things that we (or I) can do). i feel ‘chained’ to way of living that is not conducive to the health of the environment or individuals. this deeply saddens and frustrates me for many reasons, including those rob has mentioned. Perhaps, the only positive take on this, is that we can sow some of the seeds for future generations to create the things we all seem to want.
11 Jun 9:34pm
When I was 35 I was fortunate enough to move back to Italy, that was in 1992 and now live in an ancient Tuscan hill town, Campiglia Marittima which is a long bike ride from Pomaia. Though I don’t have Giuseppe to teach me, I’ve found other willing folks that are ready to share they’re generations worth of knowledge about simple living and have learned to tend olive trees which is my passion. But Italy has really moved away from that bedrock of country tradition that people like Guido carried with them, in the years since I moved back here this place has really changed and not much of it for the better. It’s a wonderful place to live, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be anywhere else believe me. But I fear that the transition from the consumer lifestyle that is so prevalent now in Italy is going to be quite rough. People don’t seem to see the storm that is bearing down or if they do, they can’t accept the change it’s going to bring with it. I too hope I’m ready, it’s going to take a tremendous capacity of adaptation and willingness to buckle down and cope.
As a committed and serious cyclist I find myself thinking on rides that soon, all these cars that are buzzing by my left shoulder will soon be standing still, useless and obsolete. There’s a small amount of satisfaction in that thought. It’s all the rest of the scenario that leaves me pondering though. Coraggio, life goes forward!
16 Jun 10:28pm
Great post Rob 🙂
There can be no doubt that reskilling is needed and desirable.
Can we do it quick enough?
Or will we need to simultaneously work out how to mass produce the change we wish to see? (e.g. like they are trying to do at Factor E Farm