January 29th- March 12th 2022
Bari- Gravina in Puglia - Casamassima - Matera - Sicily (Messina- Taormina- Catania- Noto- Syracuse - Etna- Cafalú- Palermo)
The 19 hour "Superfast" ferry across the Ionian Sea was long and arduous and unpleasant. We were too cheap to book a room, and they were too cheap to let us sleep in our cozy camper, so we basically just didn't sleep at all. Driving a camper onto a boat isn't the most relaxing experience, but we figured it out, Louis parked amongst the 18-wheelers and us parked amongst the very many other passengers sleeping and snoring on every possible surface.
We arrived off the boat bleary-eyed and without much of a plan beyond staying with my friend Enzo for a few days. We had hopes that things would fall into place as we went, and fortunately, they did. No-Plan plans tend to give me anxiety, but we were beginning to realize that some things are just impossible to plan and it's good sometimes to just see what happens...
Enzo is a friend of mine from the Camino de Santiago, and he did his part to show us all of Puglia in 2 jam-packed days. We ate Panzerotti and Orecchiette and Scagliozze and saw Bari and Polignano a Mare and Alberobello. It's not often you meet people that are as enthusiastic about their homes as he is.
Our first stop after Bari was was a permaculture farm we found through WWOOFing (World Wide organization for Organic Farming) called
"They'll be farmers soon enough– they just don't know it yet."
Ignazio said to us with a smirk, momentarily breaking off from his conversation with Enzo and another man to cahoot with us. We were sharing the first of many glasses of wine upon our arrival to Ta'Rossa, and Ignazio was discussing his project with the other two Italians. They were clearly not yet on the same page as the rest of us, regarding lifestyle choices and the future of humanity... Not yet, anyway.
Ignazio Schettini is an enthusiastic and energetic man behind the Ta' Rossa project. He's a farmer, a teacher, a networker, and is also responsible for the Italian translation of Bill Mollison’s Iconic, 576-paged PERMACULTURE manual. He studied agronomy at university then got his masters in marketing in London. He decided that our capital-driven systems were not sustainable for society, or for himself, and became enamored with the growing movement of permaculture. Wanting to study at the source, he went to Australia to learn with Geoff Lawton and *the* Bill Mollison. He returned to his family’s plot of land in Puglia to start his own transition project, and thus Ta'Rossa was born.
When he's not at Ta'Rossa, he teaches Agricultural Sciences at several local highschools with hopes of starting his own school in the next few years. He truly believes that soon enough, we will all be farmers out of necessity, and it’s his mission to remind everyone how to do that. He is unbelievably busy in a way that somehow seemed to give him energy rather than take it away.
Ta’ Rossa was not so much a community in the same way we’ve seen before, but rather a shared communal Urban Farm space 15 minutes outside of the city where people could rent out plots of land and grow their own food side-by-side. Rosa and Ignazio lived alone in their own camper on the property but in addition to running the communal garden, they host events like wild-plant-identification walks, camps for children, PDC courses, and were in the process of starting a CSA project for families who in the city wanted fresh veggies but didn’t have the means to grow themselves. Ignazio's dad Nico was also a frequent presence and a total hoot.
Rose and I clicked immediately as fellow expat-American women figuring it out abroad. She’s brilliant, charming, funny and remarkably knowledgeable about plants. She also studied around the world from the tropics to the alps, and holds a masters in food studies from the American University in Rome. She focuses on food systems that create biodiversity and climate resilience and I just loved her so much. Her enthusiasm for the flora around the property was contagious. from the wild asparagus and the plentiful almond trees, to the enormous Carob tree that was her favorite. We spent the week munching every plant we could get our hands on.
We were only supposed to stay two days at Ta'Rossa, but that quickly turned into seven as we helped them get ready for a big event the following Sunday. We also helped with olive-branch processing, separating the small twigs for mulching and the bigger branches for hot-water-heating. We took turns cooking, harvesting mostly food from the garden, sharing sips of “liquor-ish” that Ignazio made from bay-leaf flavored alcohol to walnut booze. Rose even taught me how to make limoncello, as we had more lemons than we knew what to do with.
We met so many people through that event, like Francesco who was starting his own permaculture project called El Trullo de Rei, and a couple named Pietro and Tiziana who live in Pietro's family's mansion in Casamassima. We visited them on our way out, as they are interested in starting a project on the property based on permaculture and organic principles, too. There was so much energy around Ta'Rossa, and it was obvious how special the environment was for people with similar interests to connect with one another.
Through this vast network of Rose and Ignazio's, we found a couple that runs a joint project of seed-saving, permaculture, and natural building called la Casa di Canapa in Sicily. I'd wanted to show Ben Sicily anyway, and Eva and Aaron were willing to host us for a while, so off we went southward towards yet another ferry. After a brief stop in the magical cave-churches of Matera (what a dream!) we were on our way to wait out the last few gasps of "winter" on the island.
La Casa di Canapa- Sicily
Eva and Aaron live comfortably in their sunny house outside of Messina. It is still a work in progress, but they frequently welcome curious visitors who have seen them on the national news program or heard about them through social media. Eva was 7.5 months pregnant when we got there and I think they were grateful for a few extra pairs of hands to finish up some projects before the new baby arrived.
I made this short film about them during our time there.
We processed more olive branches. T’was the season, I suppose, and we spent many hours doing the exact same work we did at Ta’Rossa. C’est la vie! We also got plenty of time to chat with them and understand more about their lives and their motivations. Eva is a seed-saving expert, and Aaron is a natural-building expert. Their house is built entirely with permaculture principles, out of natural materials, and with systems in place like rain water collection and filtration, passive solar window placement, solar panels, edible plants, biodiversity, and compost toilets.
Aaron is actually Venezuelan/Italian and spent most of his life between South America and Europe. He is yet another story of someone who used to work in the grind until he couldn’t anymore, and found his happiness within the world of using his hands to do what "just makes sense". This was something he explored extensively in Venezuela before he had to flee the political situation there and start anew in Italy.
Eva was passionate about the necessity of seed-saving for maintaining resilient plants that can withstand upcoming climate challenges. She believes strongly in local varieties that are specialized to certain soils and certain local climates. The entire house was built around the idea of having a massive, naturally-cooled seed bank, partially underground with natural air circulation.
In addition to the olive processing, we helped them plaster their new outdoor compost toilet and helped build some stone paths and walls on the property. Pretty grueling work, but Aaron reminded us, “with any luck, these will still be here 500 years from now!” The roman roads are indeed still around and are indeed simply made of stone!
At the end of our time there, we joined them for a natural building course which took place at a different blossoming community at the base of Mount Etna called Settevoci. Here we met several enthusiastic and interesting people, and learned how to make cobb walls. It’s truly astounding how many natural materials the island of Sicily provides, from volcanic ash to natural pumice stone to sea grass balls which are perfect for insulation (they look like arancini but you can't eat them.) Each of these help in creating structures that won’t begin to corrode within 15 years.
We were disappointed with the amount of garbage all over the roads and landscape in all of Southern Italy, but under it all was enormous beauty and biodiversity. We saw a Dali exhibit inside an ancient cave chuch, we visited the snowy peak of Mount Etna, went bowling and ate our weight in arancini and blood oranges. We even managed to find an incredible Mardi Gras Party (the first party in two years, since the fateful Mardi Gras 2020 right before Covid.)
We stayed this entire time inside the camper, which was cozy despite the cold largely thanks to our electric blanket. After one week at Ta’Rossa with Ignazio and Rose, two weeks in Casa di Canapa with Eva and Aaron, two weeks exploring on our own the island of Sicily in all its *biodiverse* glory, and one weekend of a natural-building course, we hopped on another ferry to Naples to continue our journey northward, with winter mostly behind us and spring just on the horizon.