Posted on August 11th, 2011
Two men are lost in the desert. The first says to the second, “I have good news and I have bad news.” The second asks the first to start with the bad news.
“The bad news is, we only have sand to eat.”
“What’s the good news?”
“We have a lot of it.”
Goat dairy and cheesemake Capre Chindemi is also home to abundance, but it’s not sand. This farm in northern Italy regularly receives eager friends and interns to lend a hand. Located in the hamlet In L’Agher, an hour’s hike straight up the mountain from the village of Cinzago, one would believe that this place is completely lost to civilization – which isn’t far from the truth. The lack of roads makes self-sufficiency quite important, and yet, I met more people in two weeks there than I did in three months in Spain. And there were roads in Spain. The key to the high number of people at Capre Chindemi as opposed to other geographical areas is the nature of mountain people. One of the first things Matteo and Gaia Chindemi told me upon my arrival was that the friendships developed here are deep. While meeting friends in the city and the suburbs is relatively easy – hop on your bike or public transit or even into your car – only the dedicated climb mountains. So when helicopter-loads of food and equipment arrive on a Monday morning, a team of 10 co-op workers arrive for construction and three friends spend several days to unload and help with chores.
While friendship goes a long way, self-sufficiency is essential at In L’Agher. Because there is no state provided electricity at Capre Chindemi, Matteo and Gaia use a wall of batteries to light their buildings in the evenings. These batteries are periodically recharged with a generator, the fuel flown in via helicopter. Moreover, there is no gas to cook with or to heat their water, but the sun is shinning most days and the forests always need trimming. The family burns the wood they cut in the kitchen wood stove (all food is cooked over a flame) and the hot air passes through piping to their radiators and water tank. Solar hot water panels on their roof provide additional warmth. Sufficient hot water is indispensible in a cheesemake and of all the cheesemakes I’ve visited, I’ve been most impressed with Chindemi’s hot water. For a “lack” of amenities, this farm certainly makes use of the abundance of natural resources.
The self-sufficiency of this lifestyle may have been fueled initially by a rebellious attitude. Fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, the mountains were more populated than they are today. With little help to survive, the residents paid little attention to the city centers below: hubs of political turmoil where extremists of all breeds would eventually, hopefully, get lost in the obscure forest rather than arrive at the rugged peasants’ hearth. It is said that the beginnings of trails to the mountain hamlets above are nearly impossible to find for just this reason.
As we walked behind the browsing herd of Nera Verzasca, a hearty and rustic breed of black goat originally from the Verzasca valley in Switzerland, Matteo explained to me that the stone path we were stepping along was originally created to shepherd people, not livestock. During World War II, Italian Jews were smuggled along this path into Switzerland, a mere hour’s hike from In L’Agher. At the beginning of the trail from Cinzago rests a gravestone. Two fascist officers couldn’t wait for an explanation to their demand that a young man identify himself. With no particular affiliation, this man’s fatal misfortune was simply that he was mute. Meanwhile, close to the Swiss border, one ruined home, roofless yet identifiable by its thick, crumbling walls of stone, housed military personnel to monitor crossings. Fascist only by uniform and sitting alone through the long seasons in this lost mountain post, another officer – Matteo’s grandfather – let everyone cross into neutral territory. For every stone that makes up a mountain there is a story.
Gaia and Matteo don’t have television, they don’t have a neighborhood pub, and they don’t have much time to clean. Flatly, Matteo declares, “We are peasants, after all.” What they do have is an unwavering determination to create something, to do something good for the world in a small way, to change themselves before thinking about changing anything else. First generation farmers, they consider their work activism for the revitalization of Alpine environments – progressively abandoned for more forgiving valleys and rolling hills.
If you ever doubt your ability to do something, I ask you to think of Matteo and Gaia. You don’t need to have all the answers or all the advantages to succeed. One day at a time, they are building a world. And if they can do it, we all can.