Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cooperation in Country Life

Collaborazione, cooperazione....comuni

grape harvest - vendemmia

Farming communities in Chianti's past were tightly-knit family groups, usually living in the same parish. These families lived through the Second World War hiding and protecting their friends, neighbours and relatives (and on occasion fugitive strangers), which further cemented bonds they already had through work and family. 

Dario Guarducci

A good example was a local, one Dario Guarducci, who refused to serve in the Fascist army and, with the help and protection of friends at Le Stinche below Cennatoio (these are the names of historic farms lying on the hillside opposite Le Ripe) sheltered in small caves from the "penalty of death by shooting in the chest" until the end of the war. Partisans also sheltered in a locally famous cave on Le Ripe's land, supplied and aided by Lucarelli villagers, some of whom (see Iolanda from the post on the Bar Ristoro) still live to tell the tale.

Until his death, Dario Guarducci was beloved by all, especially by Dario Cecchini, Panzano's famous butcher, who happily gave him fresh meat to feed his dogs for years. Guarducci's funeral spelt the end of this bond, and Cecchini wept uncontrollably.

Whole families participated in the threshing of the wheat, the grape harvest, the olive harvest and many other seasonal tasks. With the end of the system of mezzadria (see post on The Itinerants and related comments), factory jobs, mechanization, and an improved standard of living, the old ties loosened.

sheep shearing together near Volterra, 1990s

Still, cooperation and acts of kindness are the cornerstones of the actions of people in this area. We have American friends living near Panzano for almost fifteen years who consider themselves fortunate to have experienced such generosity. Here are just a few examples they have given us:

Ten years ago while out walking, one of our friends broke her leg; her two neighbours trekked over every day from Panzano with dinner.  To let them in the house, our friend dropped the key down from the first floor, ate a five-star dinner, chatted until dusk until the neighbours, flashlights in hand, returned home. This went on for a week. This was more than cooperation - it was a golden gift of friendship thàt can never be forgotten.

During the olive harvest of 2001, a former farmer from Poderuzzo fell from a ladder while our friends were harvesting. Initially, they saw nothing, but when they heard the ambulance on their road, they ran over to help. As the poor man was being moved inside the ambulance, the neighbours arrived, panic stricken. They thought that one of our friends had fallen and had raced over to give any help needed.  

These same extraordinary neighbours, entirely out of their own generosity, erected two sheds, one for wood and the other for the tractor,  felling some hornbeam from which the bark was peeled. Again, one of them split wood for our friends, having spent the day freezing while tying vines in his vineyard: no way they could stop him. The stories go on...

Our friends' neighbour is gravely ill but has an irresistible desire to participate in everything, including tasks in the field. His two closest neighbors have helped with the pruning of his olive trees and gathering wood.  They were afraid that he would injure himself in a fall.

The threshing of the wheat that takes place yearly at the end of July at Renzo Marinai's farm at Cecione is a great example of neighbours and community continuing to pitch in together. Everyone in the area participates in the harvest, stacks the bundles, and threshes the grain with a 1920s thresher, driven until recently by a steam engine. At the end of the day, Renzo and his wife throw a huge party for the workers with Dario Cecchini cooking and young volunteers from Panzano serving the food. Like the old times.

wheat harvest at Cecione, Chianti

In the past the farming communities relied on mutual help like this to survive. Labour was shared, celebrations were also shared, the community reaffirmed. People looked out for one another and would visit each other of a Saturday evening, to play cards, tell stories and to pray and sing songs together around the fire.

There is a marvellous anecdote in the book Death in the Mountains by Lisa Clifford, which describes how, one severe winter, the protagonist's family was snowed under. Relatively well supplied with food and firewood to last until the thaw, they realised that no smoke was issuing from their elderly neighbours' chimney. There was no way they could reach their neighbours' house through the deep snow but, concerned for their safety, the protagonist found an ingenious solution, sliding the doors of his house from a bedroom window onto the thick snow, he gradually made his way over to his neighbours - and saved their lives.

wheat harvest - note sickles

An interesting institutionalised phenomenon of this spirit of collaboration was the cooperative movement in Italy which has been strongest in Tuscany. Backed by the Communist Party, the Coop opened up its business to the many: shoppers became members and shareholders, participating in the association, receiving their annual shares or rebates. 

Nowadays that old spirit has been largely lost: the Coop is one of the largest supermarket chains in Italy with the lion's share of the market, ahead of foreign giants like Carrefour. It's still particularly prevalent in Tuscany where in some areas it's a virtual monopoly. Yet its continued strength and popularity here derive from this long history of social collaboration. And to its credit, the Coop has begun to promote regional and traditional produce as well as products untainted by connection with the Mafia and other socially relevant trade enterprises such as Fair Trade. A vestige of the old cooperative spirit survives. Below are the brand names and links to two of the initiatives with which the Coop collaborates.

 Fair Trade

logo of 'mafia-free' products
fair trade logo

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