Sunday, February 09, 2014

Southern Italy is Sinking

We took the back road up to the hilltop village. Peeking behind the sets. The road was in poor shape, potholes and missing pieces of the highway. Something I have grown to expect in Southern Italy. Trash was everywhere. It was as if the people living in their houses went out into their back yard and threw everything into the gully. Water running off would transfer the toxins eventually into the water sources, the sea and ultimately the oceans. This was my first impression of Cirό.

Later that evening we had dinner at a little bar, one of the most memorable meals I had that year. I was traveling with a winemaker friend. Halfway through the meal, a 30-something fellow came up to the table to say hello. My companion was cordial and respectful. I looked at the fellow, thought I recognized him and said hello as well. When he had picked up his to-go meal and left, my friend asked me how I knew that fellow. “Wasn’t that Ruggeri from the winery?” It appeared he wasn’t. He was the son of the local capo, who controlled the local ‘ndrina. Inotherwords, Cirό was under the control of the ‘ndragheta.

I asked my friend how it was living within this net. He shrugged stoically and said his family tried to stay under the radar, do their work, and not bring any undue attention to themselves.

One benefit he mentioned. If you were a child or a woman, you were probably safer walking around Calabria than you would be in Milan. The code of ‘ndragheta called for a hands off approach to the abuse of children and women. After all, these were their sisters, their daughters, their mothers. This was sacred ground.

In the news lately, two stories. One about a young boy aged 3, who was gunned down while in the company of his grandfather, in Cosenza. There are reports that the grandfather might have been using the grandson as a shield of protection to keep his predators from taking action. Will we ever know? One thing is sure, the sacred code, whereby innocent children are hands off, that has been broken.

But what is one child, when the Mother, Earth, is being violated at an even grander scale?

The other story of the illegal garbage disposal near Naples by the Camorra, effectively polluting the water the farmers need, and which is an essential component of sustainable life. A wiretap reported in the New York Times “between a Camorra boss and another mobster. ‘We’re polluting our own house and our own land,’ the mobster said. ‘What are we going to drink?’ ‘You idiot,’ the boss replied. ‘We’ll drink mineral water.’”

My first thought upon reading this was, “What planet are they living on?” But I could say that about many people, politicians at the top of that list.

Where would the water come from?

My first trips to Italy, whenever I came into the south, the garbage that was just lying around, it jolted me. I grew up in California, was thoroughly made conscious that we live in a single system. All things are ultimately connected. But in Sicily, in Puglia, in Calabria, it was nothing to throw a bag out the window.

I thought after a generation or two that would change. My recent trip to Mt. Etna proved otherwise. After two days on the mountain top with Salvo Foti and company, where we seemed to be ensconced in a biosphere in homage to Gaia. When I descended I saw the other side. Piles of garbage, absurdly impassable amounts, littered the roads down to Catania. Etna wasn’t the only place. In Palermo, in the garden in front of the train station, it was spewed with the detritus, living and dead. A sad little dog looked at me with the most bittersweet eyes I can recall. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Shelley’s poem come true.

We hear a lot of talk about what is and isn’t and what should and what shouldn’t be natural. The baseline for me comes from Bucky Fuller, who said, “Anything Nature lets you do is natural.” It may not be the answer some of my friends want to hear, but there is a ring of truth to those words. We have been allowed, by free will, to enlarge the meaning of natural.

Is the garbage that fills every corner of the road down from Mt. Etna, is that what Fuller’s Nature intended? Is it natural but immoral? Is the “We’ll drink mineral water” response from the mobster ignorance? Greed? Or is it the new natural?

If we ever “get ourselves back to the garden” I wonder how we will ever grasp how that garden has been irrevocably altered. Maybe all of us who love wine in its natural state need to look at the larger picture. It goes beyond amphora and ambient yeasts.

Southern Italy was praised in antiquity for being a virtual Garden of Eden. Killing a baby, poisoning the water and heaping one’s trash out the back door, these actions are sinking Southern Italy. And can ultimately bring Spaceship Earth down.

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