Monday, April 13, 2009

Community and Place

“[T]o a great extent we are a de-placed people for whom our immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation, or sacred inspiration.”
— David Orr


William Vitek (1996) discusses “community and the virtue of necessity” in an article he wrote by the same name, from the anthology Rooted in the Land: essays on community and place. His assertion that “necessity leads inevitably to virtue for the individual and well-being for the community” makes a lot of sense when you consider the oftentimes selfish nature of humans. It serves as a reminder that, without necessity, we tend to live without regard for others or the Earth— until faced with some sort of catastrophe or day of reckoning.

I have been at Spannocchia now for five weeks and feel remarkably settled into life here. I enjoy waking up early, knowing that the animals are hungry and waiting for me. I enjoy spending my days outside, and really, many days I am outside for 12 hours. On the days when we only work in the morning and have class in the afternoons I feel restless, anxious to put my boots back on and get outdoors again. I have been working with one of the horses here, so after I finish evening chores [or class] I run down to the stable until it’s time for dinner. What a change from my life at home, and oh, how much I am going to miss it when I leave.


I have also had time to feel established in the community here, with the volunteers and interns and staff. Everyone here has a role in the daily functioning of the farm and villa, and I interact with the results of their labor each time I use the hot water, eat dinner, drink wine, or walk among the rows of olive trees. As Vitek explains, “[i]t seems that human beings, because of our limitations and necessities, seek out one another and engage in cooperative behavior. With time and the right conditions, practices and customs arise that celebrate this heretofore instrumental gathering. Stories are told, memories are formed and revered, a community is defined.” I am living in a true community, where someone cuts trees down and stacks the wood, someone gathers the wood, someone builds the fire each morning and stokes it during the day, and I get to take a hot shower after a long day of tending the pigs that those people will eventually eat. Of course, I am only here for three months, but in that short time my contributions to the farm are necessary, and I am very aware of that fact. There are infinite amounts of things to be aware of here— Vitek cautions us to “feel the motion of our moving planet and see the ground beneath our feet for what it is.” I think that is what this experience is truly about.

I read another article concerning the idea of place, this one written by David Orr (1992) and titled “Place and Pedagogy.” First off, I had to look up “pedagogy” in the dictionary: “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.” Got it. Let me preface this by saying that immediately after reading it, I told the education director Broni that the article should be somehow incorporated into the intern curriculum here. I thought it summed up perfectly many of the things I have been thinking about here, and much of what is important about this place. Orr begins by discussing Thoreau’s reason for going to live by a nondescript pond in the middle of nowhere. Why am I here at Spannocchia? Thoreau went, “‘to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,’ . . . to live ‘deliberately’ . . . [not] the far-off and the exotic, but the ordinary, ‘the essential facts of life.’ . . . In the process he revealed something of the potential lying untapped in the commonplace, on our own places, in ourselves, and the relation between all three.”

Orr then talks about someone to whom he refers only as Whitehead— I assume he is talking about Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), a philosopher and mathematician. Yes, I had to look that up in the dictionary too. Anyway, Orr includes a quote from this Whitehead character: “The learned world . . . is tame because it has never been scared by the facts.” Have I been scared by the facts since arriving at Spannocchia? Probably. I’ve eaten burista sausage, which is basically all the spare parts of pigs [guts, skin, head, etc.] left after butchering takes place, stewed, then mixed with blood and placed in cheesecloth in order to drain some of the gelatinous goop from it. Last night for Pasqua [Easter] dinner, I ate lamb’s brain. A few weeks ago I saw a sow eat part of a dead piglet. This morning, the oldest sheep on the farm was dead by one of the guest houses, and I will no doubt help dispose of it in “the Pit” tomorrow. These are the facts of life on a farm. I am also covered in scrapes and scratches, bruises of varying sizes [one of the horses bit me the other day and the bruise is about as big as an apple], and I severely pinched my index finger while cleaning out a water trough and can barely use it to type this. My hands are rough, blistered and blood-blistered, calloused. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with “charlie horses” in my legs, and I already have tan lines from my overalls. Am I a weather-beaten farmer? Hardly. This is what five weeks of work will do to a body unaccustomed to physical labor. I love it.

Orr continues: “Aside from its merits as literature or philosophy, Walden is an antidote to the idea that education is a passive, indoor activity occurring between the ages of six to twenty-one . . . For Thoreau, Walden was more than his location. It was a laboratory for observation and experimentation; a library of data about geology, history, flora, and fauna; a source of inspiration and renewal; and a testing ground for the man.” He might as well be talking about Spannocchia, it too a place rooted in place and history and soil. Does my life in East Lansing “encourage much sense of rootedness, responsibility, and belonging”? I take three-minute showers here— and not every day or even every other day, generally— turning off the water almost as soon as I turn it on. The well that supplies water for all of Spannocchia could run dry at any time, and has, as recently as last year. I certainly don’t want to be responsible, or even partly responsible, for all of Spannocchia running dry.

Orr argues that, most of all, the issue is not the role of place in education, but instead is “our relationship to our own places. What is the proper balance between mobility and rootedness? Indeed, are rootedness and immobility synonymous? How long does it take for one to learn enough about a place to become an inhabitant and not merely a resident?” Those are questions I am exploring on a daily basis here, but I don’t think I will be able to answer them here. I know that my time here is limited, and no matter how comfortable and settled I am in this place, it is not my own. The true test of my time here will be what happens when I go home, and what I do when I get there.

New pictures here and here.

Also, I finally uploaded a few videos to youtube! It may take a while for them to show up. I'll try to embed them to this page, but if that doesn't work, click this link.


1 comment:

Gregory R. Oberle said...

One benefit of place here, in Grand Rapids at least, comes four times a week. The Farmer's market almost has a regular nine to five post, only a mile away. I will miss Allen street, and yet this seems an opportunity to try and know something new again. I hope you'll come see it when you do come home to take the next test.