It took me a long time and a good deal of sweat to understand it — just how much our Earth is a sanctuary for our souls. And this awareness evolved only thanks to Signora Giuseppa. Having worked the land for more than seventy years, Giuseppa quietly and wisely guided me towards this realization while we walked around her fields or campetto. Through her simple and daily vigil of being with, caring for, and depending upon the Earth, she initiated me into the profound experience of gardening and growing what one eats. For it is through this deeply experiential reality that we are best able to integrate the sacredness of the Earth with our own humanity.
Signora Giuseppa is a round but sturdy widow whose hands are small, yet broad and strong. Whenever she stands before you, her feet are firmly planted and her eyes steady upon you. She is eighty-two years old and one of the few people I have ever met that is really present to all that is around her. Every afternoon you can find her tending her two-acre campetto in the Italian countryside north of Rome. Since she was five years old, she has lived all her life (literally) off the fruits of her labor. From olive oil to fava beans to wine grapes and, of course, tomatoes, her harvest is as varied as it is delicious.
Whenever I visit, she chatters away in her Italian dialect as she heads out to feed her chickens with a bucket of soggy bread and milled corn in hand and an assortment of half-wild cats underfoot. She knows I don’t always understand, but what she seems to find more important is our time together. It is always a pleasure to visit her and see what she is sowing, planting, harvesting, gathering, drying, and feeding her chickens.
Only educated to the third grade (and only thanks to Mussolini insisting that all Italian children learn to read and write), Giuseppa has managed to integrate life’s lessons. For some time now, I have declared her farm “The University of Gardening” and she la professoressa. Whenever I say this in front of the many visitors and relatives that often drop by, Giuseppa beams proudly and quickly adds, “I was never much educated, but I do have some esperienza.”
It wasn’t until I too had this esperienza of hoeing, planting, composting, weeding, watering, and finally reaping the harvest of my own garden did I come to understand how holy the Earth really is. My education evolved mostly from my following Giuseppa around her campetto and simply watching. She used to tease me by telling everyone that I liked to come by and steal her secrets. Yet, while she showed me how far apart to plant tomatoes, when to harvest the garlic, and how to recognize a cauliflower that wouldn’t produce fruit, Giuseppa was also teaching me how to relate to the land, how to observe, care, tend, and support its needs, how to appreciate its bounty, receive its gifts, and surrender that which doesn’t survive.
Oh sure, I had been ecologically aware for years—bicycling to work, recycling my plastics, picking up tossed garbage left along the roadside, hanging up wash instead of using a dryer, and buying a fuel-efficient car. All these small conscious acts of conservation are vital to the planet’s ultimate survival. But until one actually works the Earth, one cannot appreciate the lessons it holds, nor how fundamentally attached we are to it, nor how much working on the land can actually help us to become fully human. As Gandhi once said, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
Note: This story was written while I was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the first part of a three part series to be continued next time…