Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lessons from the Forest

I just arrived home last night after spending ten days on the mountain.  We worked morning to night hauling, cleaning and assessing our restoration project.  Over the coming weeks, I will share with you experiences that happened while I was there. 

Italy in the Middle Ages
Fragmented and Dangerous
In the meantime though, I thought it would be helpful to share some history of the village.  When most people think of a house in Italy, images of the rolling hills of Tuscany or the city streets of Rome come into their minds.   This is about as far from Veglio as could be possible.

Veglio, which translates to “awaken”,  sits in the Ossola Valley which feeds into one of the major areas of the Italian Alps, Valle Di Formazza.  This part of Northern Italy was originally settled by the Celts before the birth of Christ and was characterized by small bands of very tough, hardy people who were known to fight and protect their lands against invaders. 

The natural remote landscapes isolated them from the traditional Roman Empire.  In fact, there is a valley just behind Veglio that is called the “No One” Valley because when the tax collectors came to visit, the villagers would send a few scouts out to greet them.  When the Roman collectors would ask who lived there, the locals would respond “no one”. 

As far as we can tell, Veglio was established around 1200 AD for its unique position of a bench halfway up the mountainside that has probably 100 acres of arable land that is exposed well to the sun and protected from the wind.   It also is out of range of the marauding bands that flourished in the Middle Ages.  Many villages marked the riversides below and a cartpath connected southern Italy with Switzerland. 

Ponte Maglio in the Valley
However, Veglio was high above the river separated by thick forests and a band of granite cliffs.  The only access into the village was by either a series of stone steps cut into the hillside or a winding trail of switchbacks.  The way up was by foot or by donkey.  This actually was the case until 1961 when the village was abandoned.  Only after the abandonment and the building of a mine on the mountain above, was a gravel road established about fifteen years ago.

At its peak, there were probably twenty families living in Veglio.  Structures consisted of several housing units adjoined, plus stables and barns either under the houses or in separate buildings.  All of the buildings were built using various stone and rocks from the valley plus larch and chestnut from the forests. 

These stones range from a few pounds to well over 150 pounds.  The only way to transport was by human power, either individual stones on the back or carried in tandem like a barrel.  Local legend has it that the women carried most of the stone so the men could continue to work on building or tending to the animals.  

My uncle tells of his memory as a twelve year old of bringing a 60-pound pack of supplies up the nearly two hundred steps from the valley floor in about twenty minutes. 
A traditional "toilet"

In fact, the school that emerged only around 1800 was a mile and a half down the valley.  Children would walk down the path to school which normally only covered three or four years formally with some religious and secular education continued at home. 

Life continued remarkably the same for much of the active 900 years of its traditional existence from the late middle ages until the local municipality declared the village abandoned in 1961 due to its unwillingness to invest in the road necessary to provide what was then minimal services.

The essence of the village was one of cooperation towards the goal of subsistence.  If it existed in the late 1960’s in California, you would call them hippies living in a commune.  

There were two community bread ovens where the women gathered once a week to bake.  Laundry consisted of a long stone trough divided in three sections that still is in use.  Milk from the cowherds where brought to a creamery that converted the liquid into cheese that could be consumed and traded down the mountain.  Cheese and maybe some excess wine and apples were the only commodities that could be traded to acquire the few things that were needed from the outside.

Vegetables and fruits of all kinds were raised and can still be found today in the fields.  When the New World imports of potatoes and corn arrived from Columbus, these crops became very important for food crops. 

For the “health” of the village, grapes and apples abounded and grew in the hot but short summer sun.  These were primarily turned into wine, grappa and cider.  Most of this was consumed there.  In fact, my great grandfather expanded the house we are restoring to ensure that the family could store all the wine, cheese and other supplies needed for the long winter. 

Nebbiolo Grapes circa 2011
According to the reliable source of Uncle Davida, the Senestraro clan produced 7000 liters of wine each year for their consumption.  Doing the math on the 20 or so people who lived in the house at any given time, that is roughly one liter per person per day in wine.  We will explore the importance and use of wine in a future entry, but you get a sense of the priority placed on this crop.

Animals were an integral part of the cycle of village life.  Cows and sheep for milk, rabbits and pigs mostly for meat and chickens for eggs.  These were supplemented by deer from the local forest and the occasional donkey that grew tired of the walk up the hill. 

In the summer, the grazing animals were taken up the valley to higher pastures, but fall brought cooler temperatures and the return of the livestock.  During the winter, they lived in the first floor of the house or the adjacent barns.  This allowed them to be tended and also benefit from the warmth of the fireplaces and people.

Subsistence living was focused on the absolute optimal usage of everything that was found on the mountain. 

The concept of garbage did not exist and even today, the water from the ancient sink flows to the garden and foodwaste makes its way to the potato fields.  Whey from the cheese process fed the pigs, manure from the animals went to the garden and grew the hay that would make it back to the cycle.

Since the forests are fairly thin in this part of the lower Alps, wood is a precious commodity used for heating and cooking.  The forests were searched for downed limbs and the few trees that could be selected for cutting.
Young girl's dress we found...

It is remarkable to spend time with my cousins who were raised on this mindset of total usage.  This past week, I tried to throw some apple peels in the garbage and was nearly gang tackled.  At our barbeque in the summer, I noticed Mareka stacking up left over rib bones and chicken parts that were scraped off the plates.  When I asked why, she said she would separate them later with the larger pieces taken for the dogs. The smaller scraps and sharp bones would be left next to the forest to feed the foxes that kept the predator/prey balance in check.

These lessons of community and use of precious resources are intense and remind me of the losses that we have suffered in our “advanced” society that focuses on mindless consumption.

It also makes me think about the challenges endured by my family just to survive the winters and the work ethic required to build and maintain a family.  We found a dress in the house when we were cleaning.  It is probably 75 years old and close examination shows that it had been patched and repatched many times. 

Mareka is an expert seamstress and historian on the local garments.  She told the story that village wardrobes were quite simple.  Women would have two dresses.  A black one that would be their formal attire for their own wedding, church, funerals and festivals. Then, another one such as in the picture that would be worn each day and washed perhaps once a week. 

The trail to California
The immense contrast with our life in Orange County is often hard to reconcile but I know that Veglio is trying to teach me its important lessons.  The last few days I was in Italy, I decided to park my car at the bottom of the hill and hike up the path, through the forest and arriving at the village to work.

I stopped on the last day midway on the trail to think about my grandfather who would in 1921 put a pack on his back and hike down that trail to catch a train that lead to a boat that took him half way around the world.  

Could he ever have imagined how life in California would be?