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.