[This is part I of a travelogue of a journey that connected everything: human and nature, culture and agriculture, individual and community, arts and science, reality and utopia.]
Needless to say, trains were on strike by the time I landed in Naples, which left me no choice other than taking the bus from the boot shaft to the heel area. Arriving in the south, trains were running again – likely because this part of Italy has got little to do with the rest of Italy. Everything looked and felt different, yet it was not Morocco or Greece. The place was called Salento, a special Italian spot of earth, which reveals its identity only slowly to the prejudiced visitors from the north. The train passed by the olives trees so closely, that I got the impression that the train and rails built their way through secular tribes in red sand just in front of my eyes. White cities on gentle hills flying by the window.
I was on my way to Free Home University (FHU), an organisation that had trouble revealing its identity, just like its birthplace Castiglione in Salento. A friend had invited me to take part in a program for artists. A program where artists would work in fields. In cooperation with farmers, they would return dignity to abandoned fields by administering to them, taking care of them, and planting fruit trees.
The project was a cooperation between multiple organisations. The artistic residential program FHU, the rural union Casa delle Agriculture ‘Tullia e Gino’ and the Canadian organisation Musagetes, which analyses the influences of artistic thinking on different projects in a scientific way. The cooperation of the three institutions made sense to me. I would explore the actual results of this clash between the different perspectives in the following days. It went much further than just planting fig trees, as everything merged in the roots of those trees.
The plan was to create a “Parco Commune”, a community park, and I asked myself: a park made by a community (us?) or made for a community (which one?). But it turned out that I was asking myself the wrong questions, not asking about the park first.
Francesco had picked me up from the station, and as we were driving along a small country road next to lush fields, I suddenly noticed a curious group of people working to the right and the left of the roadside. There were people from young to old, one guy in a trench coat, another one wearing overalls, and others with colourful cloths covering their hair. What they had in common were the gloves, and the peaceful but bustling working, buzzing around, seemingly without any agreements made in advance. We left the car and my nose immediately picked up the smell of fennel. The roadsides were full of wild herbs. I asked ‘Where is the park?’, and got as an answer the first powerful extension of my perception of the project. ‘Parco’, Luigi Coppola, the initiator of whole project, explained, is not easily translated into English. The term does not relate solely to an area but more to a space, a common ideal space, one in many spaces of thoughts. In this Parco one can meet and linger, mentally or physically, to develop ideas together, implement them and live them. But obviously it is also about the area, with the difference that this area is much more beautiful than an ordinary park. Because it is so useful.
Returning the dignity to abandoned land did not mean to make a wild park usable again. It meant to pay attention to certain spaces again, spaces that have fallen into oblivion, even though they surround us every day. Holding no importance to our lives apart from being a convenient rubbish dump – these spaces should get the attention they deserve. Our parco thus consisted of the four meter wide roadsides of a country road and measured about one kilometer. It also included 22 ha of additional area of this kind, that first had to be cleaned before being sowed by Guerilla-gardeners.
Everyone who entered the park, mentally or physically, asked him or herself the question: How do we want to live? This was the key question of the whole project. In the days to follow, this question would acquire a space of splendid beauty. We would plant and talk, letting the inexpressible rest between us.