One of my favourite themes is agricultural machines.
No, not as you imagine them, although I do have a sort of love affair with old Italian machinery too, especially tracked tractors.
What I am talking about is machines that were made out of the earth, of stone, areas sculpted to turn nature into a machine that farmed on its own.
I live and work in Central Italy currently, in an area that is still seeing the last days of peasant farming, our own farm is called La Difesa, an area that was set aside for the large communal animals, where they used to feed on acorns in the forest at the last days before real winter. Owning that place made think a lot about the nature of farming, about the place Man has in nature.
We are currently seeing a wholesale abandonment of an earlier way of life, their strategy of farming was different to ours, and La Difesa is a symbol of that, where men made areas out of the forest, where he built stone collection areas, channeling water into vineyards, mix of olives and oaks.
I see some of my neighbours pick boulders out of their fields, in order to grow wheat, but those boulders were cogs in an earlier machine, one made to enhance nature, to catch water, to farm on its own, now the water runs down their clay soil and washes the road, which we have to fix every year, but I do not blame them, I admire them. In La difesa, there is a whole other world, the old vineyard, which I used as a campsite for my volunteers, it has been dug up, lime stone floor has been laid as a catchment area, and a meter of soil piled on top of it, the sheer amount of work!, Stone walls work together with old channels to irrigate the land without any interference.
I have found out the hard way, because I love to landscape with a bulldozer, and sometimes Ill dig one of those old machines out, my machine against theirs, I do archaeology and permaculture from the back of a bulldoser, and as you can imagine sometimes it spells destruction.
The marginal areas and the open lands are really where the new war is being fought, Man has got some kind of maintained balance in farmlands, it is not necessarily healthy farming, or good for the soil, but in criticising it, I think many do not take into account that, the issue is not farming practices, it is a global supply chain, small scale farmers have almost no say in how they farm, they barely make ends meet, they should get a medal for the fact they still farm.
War happens in the marginal, and I see it in the sickness of the olive trees, the elms dying before they can mature, nature in the marginal is trying to repair itself, ash trees in Italy are mainly still healthy but who knows how long until ash die back will arrive here too? Ash is the first attempt of nature to reforest, and wild boars are magicians when it comes to making forests too.
Yet all is not well, new sickness comes out of the marginal areas these days, and the wild boars themselves are often sick. The problem is that Man has lost its place in countryside. Where once the old stone cogs would work to enhance the forest, farm with it, without the need to do heavy lifting, now the old machines are buried, stone walls that have fallen down, and nature itself is struggling, you can read it in the trees, or you can read it in the expressions of the old people that live in small villages in the mountains.
War is where nature and Man meet, when the identity we enforce over it falls away, Nature comes back, but it does not favour us, and who could blame it. After all we stopped favouring it, we no longer have time to build our complexes, to naturally breed landraces, to plant our trees in a certain way.
Peasent farming was not agriculture, it was a way of life, when you finished collecting you tomatoes, you will wander around to your apples and trim them, little manure for the olives, and secrets whispered to your wheat. Sure it is easy for us to romanticise it, because in truth it was a hard life, I can still imagine the family who sold me the farm, sleeping all in one room, 2 adults and 5 kids.
The marginal areas are the front line between Man and nature. The settling fathers, those “pioneers” who went over to turn America into an offshore farm, noted that when clearing the forest to plant wheat for the first time, a weird process would start, sickness would come out of the forest for at least 10 years, whole communities would die. Then as if nature gave way to domestication, everything would come down.
That is what is hard for all of us to see, because we only view countryside as farmlands, and although if you were a soil engineer or a specialist the problems would be screaming at you, most of us see it as healthy nature, but what is healthy in a way is that nature gives way to us, it says ‘ok, you can write over this area, you died for it, Ill let you’. It backs off and we farm quietly, maybe too quietly.
It took 3 years for the birds to come back to our oak tree, and now at times there is a party in the two oaks in our garden, where have they been before? Design plan for rural areas (in my mind at least) starts as a conversation with the group identity of small communities and nature, and for those of you that think that a life in nature is pure joy, I would say you have never really lived in a marginal rural area, where nature and man wash on each other like waves, where non can win over the other.
One day the mountain is stronger and the next man is. It drives people crazy, although there is a beauty in it.
It is a question we all face now, of how we would design the large open natural spaces, how we could develop the marginal as a protection belt. If I had a say in it, I would make it like La Difesa, a small belt of forest farming, which is not really farming anything, but keeping nature at bay. My favourite thing is landscape design, and I love doing it on my Old Italian Bulldoser, building up and digging the cogs of the contadino way of life. I clear and plant, yet I laugh at how the wild boars pull all my trees out. ‘Do not plant hazel’, who knew they had such a preference, but after they pulled out the hundred trees I planted for the third time, I gave up.
This is the land of the wild boar king I let him rule, when I let him be, he and his family seem to farm with me, they dig up my gardens but only around the plants, how considerate of them.
It is easy to be an idealist, to farm without farming, the hard thing is to see my neighbours struggling to farm the land, I try too help them, yesterday my neighbour borrowed my digger to go and cut a load of wood, I told him it is crazy to do so in the mud, but a pandemic and lockdown meant the little money they had coming in is gone a long while ago, I drove it home in the dark, the tracks all covered in mud. I love seeing how they cope, they should have been starving by now, as many of them did not really have an income even before, but life goes back to what it used to be before modern laws, it is cold and people go and cut wood and create a circular economy, somehow they survive.
There is this notion, of which I too used to participate, that the abandonment of this peasant farming way of life, can be fought off with a wave of new young people, coming from the cities, people wanting to try to take try their hand in real country living, they tell you, ‘I have come to live my dream’, I laugh, ‘You really have no idea, it is not living your dream, it is fighting to make a living in the face of abandonment’. I tell them ‘if you have the guts to fight for that dream and make a life to sustain it, maybe you will come through’.
I have come to side with the locals, tired of empty projects, a hard mountain people, maybe the mountain made me hard too.
Things will change because this is how it always was. I have changed things simply by repeating the same thing over and over, by creating a new identity in front of the mountain. But I do not love the dreams of people, as much as I love the whispers of the land, the rustling of the quiet, walking over broken down bones of the agricultural complexes of the ancients, there is a war in which I take no sides, my farm is a no war zone, La difesa is made of forest and of Man, it has no plan in modern life, and I would like to keep it that way.