We dragged our tired bodies aboard a bus big enough to transport the whole team from the international airport in Rome to our new farm home in Umbria. It was 12:30am. Restlessly falling in and out of sleep, I opened up my eyes and peered out the window, looking down at a misty cliff side. The only thing clear in the dark was the silhouette of the surrounding trees. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I looked out the small window in my room, that I got a real look at where I was. It was surreal, so picturesque; the windows were slightly misty and fog clouded the base of the trees. I breathed in and the clean fresh air made me feel so at ease. Flopping back down onto the mountain of blankets I had created for myself, I let out a little squeal of excitement. We were in Italy.
There are few obvious contrasts to life in Italy compared to life in Bali; things I was expecting, like actual seasons (finally having autumn after 4 years), a distinct lack of humidity, and, as someone who can’t eat chilli, being able to eat every aspect of a meal because there isn’t chilli in everything. In the morning, when I was able to see the farm in the light of day, the ancient feeling of the brick buildings, the soot-covered fireplaces, and the sense of home and family were ever present. It wasn’t just the huge, welcoming smiles of everyone living at the farm, but the general warmness of the environment we had entered. The more we explored the lush landscape, met new people who were joining our circus-type family for a couple weeks, and familiarised ourselves with the do’s and don’t’s of our new house, the more I felt at home, despite being so far from it.
Something that Sarita, one of the founders of Earthbound, had told us about our life in Monestevole was the “karmic duties” that we would be doing on rotation each morning for four hours for the next two weeks. We split up into four teams: Team Fire, Team Water, Team Air, and Team Earth, with 5-6 team members in each. The karmic duties allowed us to get our hands dirty, get in touch with the earth, and explore and learn from the locals about local traditions. We experienced first hand the humble, skilled, and demanding farm life, which, after being in completely different settings like Sumatran rainforests and ancient cities such as Athens, was very much welcomed.
My team, Team Earth, started out with the olive harvest, in which we would spend the morning (9am-1pm) racking the olives from the trees onto the nets laid on the grass, then collect them all into crates to be taken to the mill to be turned into olive oil. While fairly straight forward and simple, Valerio showed us that the racking of the olives did have some order to it; you need to grab the bottom of the branch and, with the rack, scrape along the branch to pop all the olives off. Once we had more or less gotten all the olives within reach, a couple of the guys working here would use these special machine sticks to get the ones at the top of the tree. To top this off, we were able to visit the olive oil mill and see the oil from the olives we picked being made, then we took little shots of it and ate it on toast. Now that’s something you don’t do every day.
Next on rotation was Kitchen Duty. I was honestly so excited for this. Italian cuisine is one of my favourites, and I was beyond joyed to be able to cook alongside a master of Italian food in an Italian kitchen in Italy. A dream, really. Daniela, goddess of the kitchen and holder of more recipes than you can think of, was in charge, and she put us to work. Despite feeling like a bit of nuisance at times, I did feel my cooking skills increasing, and I was actually learning to make some really delicious meals. We peeled potatoes, crushed bread into breadcrumbs, chopped lettuce, and grated carrots, keeping in mind to write down the ingredients and their amounts for the sustainability metric. Because lunch wasn’t until 1 and breakfast had already been done, the kitchen team only started at 11, so in the time before that we went around to all the other groups documenting the plans for the day and any exciting things that had happened – like when Miro sat on the electric fence.
With Filippo, the founder of TribeWanted, we had animal/maintenance duty. First thing’s first, get the compost and bring it to the pig’s den for their entrée. Gradually throughout the morning, we would tend to the horses, the goats, chickens, dogs, ducks, and geese, slowly but surely getting into the groove of how it all ran. From weeding garden beds in order to plant sage, thyme, and lavender, to planting trees to work towards offsetting our carbon footprint from all our travels, we continued to learn about our new environment through hands-on experience and education. By the time lunch rolled around, we felt exhausted but the rewarding feeling that came with doing good and sometimes difficult work satisfied and fulfilled us.
Last but not least, we had gardening and permaculture with Nicolo, in which we chopped wood for the rocket-stove fire and prepared the garden beds in the greenhouse. As soon as the anxious voice in the back of my mind telling me I would chop off a finger if I cut the wood cleared and I actually gave it a try, I felt so strong! In Bali we don’t have fire places and there really is no need for me to be chopping wood, so it felt really good to do. I think a couple of us got a little carried away; by the end of the morning we were having competitions of how far the pieces of bark would fly. But Nicolo was smiling, so it wasn’t dangerous as far as we were concerned. In the greenhouse we got out the racks and shovels, digging a shallow trench from one end to the other, then layering it with horse manure, which the lucky Kyla got to shovel. Having Nicolo as our mentor for the morning was such a bonus; we simultaneously were learning about permaculture, Italy, the environment, and a little about each of our lives at the same time, while also working hard and making garden beds that would eventually benefit the farm.
The sustainability metric, like what we were measuring in the kitchen, is made up of 6 aspects of sustainability that play into life on the farm. There is energy, food, water, waste, transport and construction, which are all measured each week. A summary of the first four are written on a board so we can see the numbers and be aware of our consumption. The numbers that are visible to us after we have come back from working with the animals, for example, really heightens our awareness of our consumption. Today I collected 10 eggs from the chicken coop but, according to the sustainability metrics from the past week, we have eaten 200 eggs, meaning we would have to collect around 25 per day to match what we consume – but only 1/4 of the eggs come from the farms chickens. Thinking about little things like this make me think about my own consumption back in Bali, where I don’t have my own chickens, so I either have to cut down on what I eat or watch where I source my food.
The rewarding feeling is one that has been ever-lasting throughout the stay. With permaculture, sustainability, cooking, and carpentry classes, the experience is really so unique and special. I am a senior right now at an eco-friendly school, so while I have been exposed to this type of learning, having the opportunity to gain an understanding of a different environment to the one in Bali is extremely beneficial and important as I go into the next stages of my life. Having a consciousness of what we consume, how we consume, and ,most importantly, how we can give back, is something that should be paramount in each of us as we are diving into a world that is becoming more sustainable, while at the same time going into an environmental crisis like one we’ve never seen before. The Karmic Duties, the relationships we have developed here with the people working and living on the farm, and the experience of living in a sustainable community, no matter how small, is an unforgettable experience and one I feel has already begun impacting our lives in little ways. Thank you, Monestevole, we have felt so at home, and I know I’m going to find it hard to say goodbye.
Written by Sofi Le Berre
Photos by Roxana McDonald