Monday, August 11, 2014

Learning to think like an Alpini

I have always been a coastal guy.  Born in San Francisco, raised on the California North Coast and calling Orange County my home.  Perfect weather, laid back, the livin’ is easy.  But the older I get the more I feel the call of the mountains and the challenges and intrigue that they hold. 

This summer, we had the chance to spend more time in the mountains than in the past.  To listen and learn from those who have made a life where others have found it too difficult.  One afternoon, we decided to hike up to a lake about 6,000 feet up in a place called Agaro which is in the Val Devero in Northern Italy. 
The welcoming committee

Originally a small but bustling village settled by Germans(known as Walsers) 500 years ago looking for a more independent life, its nature had been changed when a hydroelectric dam was built in the 1930’s.

The ensuing lake left a rim of terraced pastures and ten or so mountain huts that were available for the taking.  Some industrious farmers knew of the history of the Walsers who learned to manage the ecosystem of small pastures that were rich with grasses and wildflowers in the Spring and Summer.  Elaborate systems of paths and pulleys had been built to move the cows and hay around each field and level so that each patch of nutrient could be captured. 

We came upon an older man and his wife who had been spending their summers here for the past 50 years.  Aldo, as we soon learned, was a master cheese maker who brings his cows up the 15 miles from  
the valley to spend the summers.

Class in session with Aldo
The cows did not just graze, but were hand milked twice a day.  And with that milk, cheese was made painstakingly by hand without the aid of electricity or running water.  But with the wisdom of many ages, the old hut carved into the mountain to keep cool, with just a little stream running in a channel in the floor for cooling. 

"Mrs Aldo" can be seen in the house entry
Today, cheese like this is prized and sells for as much as $50/pound in the finest shops around the world because you can taste the flowers and the new grasses along with the pure water that nourishes the cows. 

This doesn't happen in Chicago
People like Aldo know that each blade of grass, each flower, each summer moment is a valuable resource to be captured and used.  And that this cycle of the season, far from pressures of the digital world, holds a grace and richness that cannot be found in the industrial world.

Aldo has trouble walking now and cannot make the full 15 mile walk with the cows. That task is left to his wife who not only brings the cows but supplies that are needed for the summer.  Aldo catches a ride in an old Fiat and walks the last mile in.  A partnership that has stood the test of time.

I hope that this way is not lost forever with the passing of the generations.  Incredible lessons that we need as we seek to manage a world with less water, scarce land and the need for healthier food.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sometimes boulders, sometimes pebbles

One of the things that I am learning as I get older is to think longer and wider.  When I was young, it was all about what I could achieve with my own hands or my own brain or through trying to control a specific outcome. 

But something happens along the way when we realize that not only can’t we truly control much in this life, but the only lasting impact comes from the exchange of ideas.  The germination of these ideas and the nurturing of them in our relationships with our children, our friends and the people we are fortunate enough to mentor and serve in our work.

It has often been described as dropping the pebble into the pond and then seeing the ripples of water as they make their way out.  Both Linda and I are at a point in life where we are dropping more pebbles than hauling boulders.  Linda with her passion towards health and wellness, me in my mentoring of young entrepreneurs and also in our sustainable farming work in the US and of course in Veglio. 

And while we constantly struggle when the outcomes are not immediate or do not look exactly as we envisioned, it is rewarding to see the positive impacts around us.

So it is with our Italian work as well.  When we first started nearly seven years ago, there were really no signs of development in our little village.  More ruins that were collapsing,  a water system in dire need of repair and no one interested in living there other than a few people who were looking to hide out for a few weeks out of the year.  In our own family, there were many more doubts than words of support.

But then with each ton of stone that we cleared and each wall that was resurrected, we started brainstorming.  How could we clear another piece of land and make it available to a young farmer?  Wouldn’t it be great if the old church was repaired and opened up to use?  We better clean up the old bread oven and make sure it can be used.   And then more land, and another building that could be an art studio or an architect’s office or a restaurant.

So here’s to the little ripples that are working their way to shore.  The old church has been cleaned up and a new altarpiece is under construction.  Our oratorio which is some 500 years old hosted a holy concert this past Friday April 25th.  This day is to honor St Mark, the patron saint of our little church and similar celebrations have been occurring throughout Italy for centuries

Leonardo's Dream
We are excited to have two new neighbors.  A wonderful German family of eight who are growing a garden, raising chickens and cows and also contributing with their music and woodworking.  And Renzo and Bruno from Milan who have been looking for an ancient stone house to restore and call their own.  

Renzo is an architect and a teacher who has bought the little blue house that sits about the bread oven. Work is already underway and they are looking forward to hosting many of their friends from the city who will bring new perspectives as well.

Our farming work is just beginning to take shape. Arianna and Sofia planted a biodynamic garden this Spring and are working on a course that can be taught to others throughout the region.  Beyond organic and taking full advantage of the rich ecosystem that is found in these mixed forests of chestnuts and larch.

Some of you may remember my brother Ken’s little accident off the stairs of a little house a few doors down.  Leonardo, a young Ossolano from a farming family, has decided to buy it and turn it one day into an osteria. 

Early Spring 2014 Festa
The whole area is also becoming a favorite picnic spot for young and old alike.  Fresh air, the mountains, music, food, laughter and ideas.  A fertile environment for certain to gather and debate and dream.

We will keep dropping those pebbles, despite the fact that sometimes they do not reach the shore and sometime the rain comes and floods our efforts for a little while. 

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
therefore, we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Doing the Right Few THings

It happened again.  My return to Orange County culture lag.  Everytime we return from time in Italy, I see the sharp contrast in the rural, connected to the land communities there and the, well…OCness of here. 

The trigger for me yesterday was getting my truck washed and watching a clearly “modified” woman put on her make up while staring into a mirror tucked away in her Louis Vuitton bag.  Meanwhile, her dog sat obediently in its $400 stroller that would soon be tucked away in the hatch of that new Land Rover.

The Neighbors!
Just a week earlier, we were loading hay into a truck that would feed the three cows whose bells could be heard moving around the stable that sits underneath the kitchen of a lovely German family.   One minute discussing the merits of cows vs. goats in the production of the winter’s milk and cheese and the next minute listening to two ladies talk about which dog nutritionist is best.

These re-entries are becoming increasingly difficult because I am seriously questioning which side of the equation is normal.   My passion is in living a life more connected to the land.  One in which the food that nourishes us comes from local, clean sources and not trucked in from 3,000 miles away.  I believe what started as a fashionable thing to do at Whole Foods Market is now becoming more evident as an essential element in building healthy communities.

Our Windows Milled from the Local Wood
So perhaps bear with me for a few minutes while I share our vision for the real purpose of Veglio and how it may hopefully fit into our life back in California.   Our village is a collection of maybe 50 houses that are surrounded by one hundred acres of terraced fields that were used for vineyards, grains, hay and vegetables.  Beyond the fields are another few hundred acres of chestnut, larch and birch forests.

From these forests, were harvested all the wood for fuel as well as selecting cutting of the hardwoods for furniture and construction.  In the late Spring, some of the livestock was taken up a path that leads 2,500 feet up to the top of the little mountain on which we sit.  There, they would graze in the rich grasses and wildflowers until early signs of Fall. 

The Swiss actually have a saying that “Winter Cheese is Boring Cheese” which speaks to the fact of the richness of the milk from the cows that eat the fresh grass and plants in the Summer.  Interesting that just now, we are recognizing this same thing here in the US with huge financial premiums for grass fed milk and cheese.  Science today tells us that the nutrients from this milk greatly exceeds the milk from grain fed animals. 

Today, there are still a handful of people in the Ossola Valley in which Veglio sits that understand how to work these lands in the natural way.  That you cut trees in the winter while the foliage is off.  A waning moon for furniture wood and a waxing moon for firewood. 

Andrea's Artistry
In our construction techniques, we are using natural lime mortar not concrete since the stones may be reused in 400 years.  It also is does not have the toxins that occur in the modern cements.

In the gardens, nutrients are received from the presents left behind by the sheep and cows that live in the stables connected to the houses.  The heat from the houses provide warmth and in return the animals provide fuel for the Spring gardens.

The homes themselves sit up from the valley floor with exposure to the afternoon sun.  Lower humidity, less disease prone and the capturing of the warmth that is held in the stones for a very long time.

Historically, this was a largely enclosed ecosystem that provided a healthy environment.  And while I recognize that “modernization” has changed many things, I do believe that there are lessons that must be taken from places like this. Lessons that can return us to a healthier, more connected place.

Our goal is to expand these lessons from a few people to many more. First, through creating an environment where a handful of young people can establish small family farms in the village.  Then, sell this organic product in the local areas and then down to Lago Maggiore which is a large tourist area. 
The Local Alps at 9,000+ feet

From there, we hope to create both regional and international educational programs where techniques can be taught and the integration into modern life can be studied. 

Latin Translation: Do Just a Few Things, but Well.
There is also talk from people who want to open up a small Osteria and a brewpub which could use the local produce.  People will be able to stay in a few homes and cottages that are being restored.  Short excursions for Alpine hikes or trips to the Lakes are just 20 minutes away.

We don’t know exactly how this all unfolds but we have the outline of a plan and hope that others will share our interests.  In the meantime, we will be getting the garden ready in California and trying to figure out who is going to take care of our “soon to arrive chickens” when we are gone this Summer.   Maybe the lady in the Land Rover.