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Timeless Lessons in Permaculture & Tree Crops From Tuscany, Sardinia & Corsica

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For the French Kingdom, chestnut was also “the food of laziness” because “a chestnut forest does not require any cultivation” (de Pommereul 1779, as cited in Pitte 1986:116). Chestnut was considered a weapon in itself because it provided food during wartime and constituted a refuge for rebels (de Marbeuf 1769); thus, uprooting the tree would weaken resistance against the new rulers.


It’s been more than a year since I wrote in this “blog” but this latest journey to Europe deserves to be shared…

My wife Erica and I traveled to this area, in part, to study and immerse in centuries-old intentional ecosystems including the famed chestnut forests of Corsica, along with sometimes millenia-old infrastructure through the region, and to experience:

  • What J Russel Smith wrote about in the famous Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. Was it true? Was there really a large mountainous region cloaked in massive chestnuts that supported a centuries-old culture and agriculture – that was all human-planted? 
  • Inland eastern Sardinia – especially the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra – one of the world’s five “Blue Zones” where people routinely live beyond 100 years-old. What’s a landscape, food system and culture like that support some of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world?
  • Some semblance of an in tact culture, land, infrastructure and food system – still somewhat possible in the quieter towns of Tuscany and the two islands we visited, albiet much less possible than it was even a generation ago.

What we found was surprising, affirming and confusing all at the same time. Such seems to be the rule of traveling – never as simple as the expectation, sometimes less, and often in subtle ways, sometimes so much more.

A snippet on Corsica (more further below)

“From 1548 throughout the 17th century, the Genoese Authority introduced the compulsory cultivation of chestnut. Shepherds slowly became chestnut growers and settled more permanently in mid-mountain villages, which altogether reorganized the food system, the socio-technical equipment, the island economy, and the whole socio-cultural system. Chestnut culture fully developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, providing flour for daily meals, fodder for animals, i.e., sheep, goats and pigs, and fresh fruits for trade. It supported booming population densities, the highest densities in Europe by the end of the 18th century, up to 140 inhabitants/km². By the end of the 19th century, local industries development, rural population hemorrhagic outflow toward urban centers, and the agony of mountain agriculture effected the collapse of chestnut culture. Around 1980, the history was again reversed. Local initiatives started to rehabilitate the decaying chestnut trees and re-established the chestnut economy within contemporary market dynamics…” From Revisiting the Resilience of Chestnut Forests in Corsica: from Social-Ecological Systems Theory to Political Ecology

Lessons from Tuscany

The dining room at Spannochia – note round chestnut joists supporting a masonry floor. 100-400 years old wooden structure supporting 2″ stone via tiny diameter pole (coppice) timber. Small pole wood being used at close spacings to perform same job as larger timbers do in North America.

We began the journey in Tuscany, staying at an acquaintenance’s castle, estate and winery which dates back to the 1200’s.  Today the place is known as Spannochia and hosts a well-known internship program . The place is pretty vast – more than a thousand acres of rolling Tuscan countryside with vineyards, olive groves, the old castle house, some beautiful gardens and their famed cinta senese – the classic traditional Tuscan pig – which they raise as their primary cash crop. They process these animals into prosciutto in a sophisticated series of aging rooms beneath the castle.  Strict regulations in Italy require significant technology in the form of temp controls and monitoring so they were forced to modernize this centuries old food storage approach to meet local codes.  This doesn’t seem to reduce the product quality by any means but makes processing less resilient, more dependent on parts and resources, more time-intensive and increases operating costs.

Cinta senese hams aging for months to over a year, moved from one room to another as the process is completed

The estate still makes its wine much as it has for centuries, using a hand crank press which has no problem producing hundreds of gallons each season.  2014 was notably the worst grape and olive year in memory in much of Italy, and this part of Tuscany was especially hard hit.  They recorded about the wettest coolest summer on record, resulting in a near olive crop failure and low quality grapes, many of which molded on the vine.  We were told that the 2014 Italian vintage, especially the Tuscan 2014 year, will be non existent – a blank spot in the record.  Unusual, in that grape crops – and yearly vintages – have been very reliable over the centuries. Every local we spoke with about it blamed the “screwy climate.”

The hog operation was interesting – but not surprising.  Locals in this area, apparently not being used to electronet and the idea of moveable fencing were having a hard time adapting to the need for intensive rotational grazing. They got the intensive part down – but not the rotations. So we witnessed throughout our time in these three locations, damaging grazing where the tree roots of many trees were clearly 1-3′ higher than they used to be, now exposed as though uplifted out of the ground. Of course, it was the ground that had dissappeared around them.  Water management and access from a moving paddock seemed to be the crux of the matter, for the most part (after cultural resistance).

The classic belted hog of Tuscany, here grazing in a young oak stand, typical of the area

In Tuscany we encountered what would become a theme throughout the trip – the very old and the ultra modern working in unison. Note the chestnut coppiced house frame and centuries-old stone masonry foundation housing the most modern of high performance wood boilers on the market – a German Froling wood gasifier to heat space and hot water.  High quality all around.

As is common throughout Europe and surprising when one leaves the US, is land use intensity – a place supporting human culture for not just a couple hundred years, but for thousands, and with higher population density often must become more intensive and careful in its impact over time – if culture is to persist.

Tuscan forests were no exception and we witnessed a common technology employed there and in Sardinia as well, which I’ve never witness in the US – tractors mounted with PTO-driven band-saws.  They used the band saw for bucking after a chainsaw was only used to cut into longer lengths.  The rest of the operations were similar to the US except for the use of large logging equipment for the most part – dealing with MUCH smaller diameter wood than we are used to.  Given that coppicing doesn’t even exist in a significant commercial manner in North America this should’t be surprising. Coppicing in areas we visited was very very common.

Change the population-resource relationship, and the scale and technology used in the resource management changes – along with the culture.

The logging operations we passed saw human beings often conversing with one another, moving logs by hand, handling wood often without large machines. Smaller and not so many machines but lots of people.

Contrast this with a modern typical logging operation I walked by two days ago here in Vermont – only one man and about 300,000 dollars worth of heavy equipment – a feller buncher (excavator with giant saw on the front) to harvest trees and an excavator to make roads, move soil, generally change the place and trash it. This logger could harvest a massive amount of wood quickly – as long as the machines were running – but had no one to talk to and no built in mechanics (or lack thereof!) for doing the job carefully.

Suffice it to say, on the Vermont logging job every single tree the size of those being harvested in Italy were cast aside, left to rot and driven over by the machines – only the biggest ones were pulled out. What the Tuscan loggers were utilizing completely was 100% waste by the more mechanized operation in my neighborhood.

Spannochia landscape

The most impressing aspect of Tuscany for us was it’s highest hill country and amid these highlands we fell in love with the tiny ancient towns; their buildings and their springs.  We arrived to this little village late morning after sleeping in the woods near our car just above a spring northeast of Maremma.  As the sun began to peer into the narrow lanes we passed the local “garbage man” picking up the trash.

These places felt like museums and it took us hours of walking around and just being among them to realize, that no, these were simply villages where people lived – where people had lived for manygenerations. And the epic stone homes and small roads made of the same stone, all built for the ages, was not some attempt to impress or memorialize but simply the act of people living in a place for the long haul, using the resoures at hand and human labor to make their homes.  The result, of course, was more impressive than any monument or famous piece of architecture or craft that I’ve ever witnessed. It’s the craft of the common person, of the farmer.

I had read about what is likely one of the largest seaberry farms in the world for a few years so we organized part of the trip to swing by this operation – Oeko plant in southwestern Tuscany about 3 miles from the sea.  It was more impressive than I had imagined – much larger.  We were graciously offered a tour around the place – 300 acres of seaberry, 20 of olive and 20 of pomegranite. What an incredibly adaptive plant – Hippophae – happy amid our zone 4, -30F weather and thriving as well in this coastal Med. climate – of about zone 9ish.  Kurt Kunzi, the founder of the farm has bred these varities to suit this climate for many years.  His kids now run the operation which wholesales most of its product to companies like Ricola and many others, making medicines, oils, vinegars and more.  The seaberry balsamic vinegar is to die for.

Planting out new berries

It hadn’t occurred to us why Ricola was everywhere in Tuscany and Sardinia especially and with huge array of flavors from currant to sambucus (elder) to even seaberry… The population smoke like chimneys.  Ricola are the go-to throat remedy for this coughing smoking population of people.  Unfortunately, all the Ricola we found contained aspartame and was the sugar free vartiety.

I told Kurt Kunzi’s daughter – “hey wicked nice mulch pile!”  She said “no no, that’s the prunings from last years seaberry harvest that we chipped.”  It would be mulch again, but that gives you a sense of scale.

The Italians call seaberry Olivello Spinosa or Spinoso – “little olive with spines.”

In this area of coastal Tuscany we saw some nice integration of grape and olive production – seemingly for wind protection near the coast and microclimate. Oddly, every other row would be tilled in many vineyards and I could not figure out why – assuming it might be pest related. This was common throughout the areas we traveled. They’d till it and leave it bare – never a cover – just open clay soil baking in the sun.

I knew olives were a cultural icon in Italy but didn’t quite realize that olive oil is actually a staple food – not a condiment. I downed about a pint or more a day and began to realize from chatting with one of our hosts that a very significant portion of one’s calories actually comes from this tree crop in these regions.

Where the olive grows, it should not be surprising. Incredible abundance from sometimes thin and oftentimes droughty soils. A true totem tree akin to the coconut, chestnut and apple. In fact, that’d be a short list right there of four all star power trees. For a long time I’ve said the most useful tree crops are perhaps the “triple c” – coconut, chestnut and cacao. I think olive would have to be up there. What else?

On our way back from coastal Tuscany we stopped at one of the dozens of springs we filled our vessels at, and hung out with these folks for a little bit. A typical scene in all the Tuscan hill towns – people walking to the developed spring in the center of town, filling up to drink the water flowing by gravity from the hills above.  So simple, yet so foreign to a cultural pattern we see in small town America.

As we made our way up from the coast we stopped in Sassetta an especially beautiful ridge top town in Tuscany.  Here’s the garbage truck. Gets about 50 miles a gallon on diesel.

Near Sassetta we walked around a much smaller village while the kids were walking to school as the sun rose…stopped and chatted with a very old woman who lived in this house and kept some beautiful plants.  This was a typical scene though. Not a museum, not some wealthy person making a beauty statement, just how she lived. How many people lived, even those with relatively low incomes in rural areas.  I couldn’t help but consider the dignity of it all – the places and their lifestyles and attitudes, compared with so much of rural America I have encountered. I pondered the words “care” and “legacy” often while walking around these towns.

Interestingly, the land use pattern in terms of village and city siting was the opposite of New England. Whereas we place population centers in valleys by rivers – determined in large part by the needs of industry – Tuscany (and much of the world) located them on hilltops, adjacent to cliffs, on sheer mountain tops even; security from raiders being a much larger organizing force.  Sassetta is one such town – smack on top of a cliff and near the top of a mountainous ridge.

Yet gravity feed water was always plentfiul in these tows. Springs developed, hand made in stone. How many villagers have filled their basins here?  For how many years – a thousand?  And for how many to come?  I wonder when we’ll even get around to establishing this kind of infrastructure in on the continent we obviously still seem so new to.

The most typical masting tree we encountered in Tuscany seen here, an oak – not sure what kind:

In our last day in Tuscany we camped in the woods above a well known biodynamic winery and spent part of the next day at their incredible spa… “Working” – had to research wellness center designs for one of my clients endeavoring to do the same. This place was all geothermal powered and features some nice design, especially the indoor-outdoor spaces.

Before leaving Tuscany we sat down to an especially nice meal at this biodynamic winery’s eatery.  I like pasta but figured, “how good can paste be? After all, it’s just pasta.”

Not so.  Pasta in Tuscany can be about the most amazing thing imagineable on the tongue. Doesn’t hurt when it has wild boar in it too.  And it helped show me what it means to have an in tact food culture; what’s actually possible when the ingredients of a cuisine are grown in a place for hundreds upon hundreds of years, adapting to the soils, to the people, and vice versa and the cuisine itself emerging from those interactions of sunshine, soil, water.  Made me realize that it will be centuries before we perfect a cuisine where I call home. Humbling but also tantalizing.  Quality cultural aspects worth passing down don’t just develop overnight or in one lifetime. But we can begin.

Lessons from Sardinia

From Tuscany we caught a ferry from Livorno for 10 hours in rough seas to the Northeastern corner of Sardinia.  We had some time to wait for a bus at the airport, which felt a bit different than any other airport i have been too:

And the espesso, as always, was superb.

Sardinia was far more massive, spread out and harder to get around than we had anticipated, so we quickly realized that we had to focus our time on a small coastal area in the east and in a couple of inland zones where the centenarian population was most concentrated.  The place was incredibly mountainous and roads slow, and everywhere one went you had to be prepared to stop for the locals crossing the road. Never a shepherd in site. I don’t know how they figure out who’s animals are who’s at slaughter time.

We made our way to the coast and had a spectacular few days exploring the flora fauna and food of a small town and it’s mountainous coast nearby, including some amazing coastal cliffs (the largest in the Med apparently) and some cool caves.

Everywhere, we found rosemary in it’s native habitat. And when you see a plant in its evolved-from place, you really know it. No tending, no care, no soil, and yet it thrives.  Wants to be in this place. Lives solely, it seems, on the sea breeze (Rose mar – y), and the limestone rock. I think we’l try to feed our rosemary some salty water and limestone fragments.  Wish the 75 degree sea breeze was easier to come by around here.

And everywhere some beautiful water:

From the eastern coasts, we made our way up into the interior. Crazy roads wound up and around mountain passed then down into hidden valleys. We took some turns instinctually (well, i did at least, Erica said I was lost) and came across some beautiful stuff up in a really out of the way valley, such as a cork forest:

And then wound down into a remote little town with one of the more badass hardware stores I’ve ever seen. A village of maybe 1,000 people and they sold various high quality tree crops and woods tools including real splitting axes, billhooks, olive harvesting poles, scythes, hand sickles.

The idea of seeing high quality handtools in a hardware store was almost lost on me, didn’t even seem possible any more. Yet, here in a place with obvously less disposable income than where I live, the hardware stores had high quality tools you could pass down to your kids, hand made stuff.  That hasn’t existed where I live in local hardware stores for maybe 15-20 years, maybe longer.  What gives?  Quality over quantity? How was this happening?

And some well made kitchen equipment, like this, all stainless for processing home fruit:

As in Tuscany and later in Corsica, tiny diesel cars were everywhere.  This one, surprisingly, is even a Ford. Never seen this in the US – too bad it’s illegal here.

And what represented the kind of more sensible technology, scale and utilitariaism we consistently found in Europe – a tiny car getting 60+ mpg with a burly trailer hitch:

I didn’t realize until getting home that my Jetta TDI wagon is actually a pretty roomy large passenger car.  And a full sized pickup truck? Vehicles that size over there are hauling small excavators around if you actually manage to see them, or doing very heavy work. SUVS – except by some wealthy folks in Tuscany and Corsica who drove Land Rovers were basically non existent. In Sardinia I don’ think we saw a single SUV in a week.

Interestingly, the very idea of conserving a resource seemed almost common over there – how crazy. Such as seen in this real estate ad for an apartment – all sales of real estate except for raw land included an efficiency rating of the building you were thinking of buying. Look at the bottom right – this one was rated E -not that efficient. Shows the expected cost of electricity and heating for the unit.  Like an MPG rating for homes. This was in Tuscany (Sienna):

The typical car was tiny by our standards and the best part was they even gave those same cars to the cops (Tuscany):

Imagine an American Cop being issued one of these. They’d be incredulous. Probably go postal and start shooting the nearest black guy.

And another crazy idea that seemed to be pervasive over there: the concept that the cheapest most affordable cars would also be the highest efficiency.  I mean, why not make people pay like 30,000 bucks to get a car that gets 50 MPG, so you have to drive a computer like a Prius. Instead, they actually have cars that are 15,000 bucks that get 65 MPG like this Suzuki:

And of course there was the diversity of real working diesel vehicles that are made to last, couldn’t find a Chevy or Ford on the road, just bombproof pickups like this:

And this, note the bed:

Lessons from Corsica


Arriving in the southern port of Bonifacio, (above), we made our way inland.  Stopping at the first bakery we saw, we were affirmed – “yes, the french do bread so good” While the wine and pasta and veggies reached a greater state of perfection in Tuscany, the bakeries were no comparison. The French, being great friends of butter and all things baked, have really mastered the art of the pastry.  We lived on baked goods, espresso, wine, cheese and charcuterie (all from the island) for the remainer of the trip.

Some pretty endless selections of apertifs made on the island. Corsica makes “local food” like a joke in most places – like something we shouldn’t have to try so hard for (but do) not just what is, what’s always been. What’s tastiest.

Most of these are from perennial crops

After stocking up on provisions – (everything above was at a typical supermarket in a town of about 3,000 people) – we headed to the warmest coastal zone we could sniff out. Being very late in the swiming season in the Med, we managed to find, just barely, a warm enough southwest facing series of beaches, where swimming was comfortable (water warm but air cool) and you could dry off behind rocks out of the wind and even find some hours for soaking up the sun in the middle of the day.

Asian persimmon grown especially on sardinia were as good as they look

And the freedom on these beaches was more thorough than those I’ve been to in the US. They know how to soak up the sun there fully.

Though we could have stayed much longer, we left the coast and headed into central Corse – a place of surprisingly huge mountains, where you start to realize why it’s called a “mountian in the sea.”

We made our way from south to north to Corte and from there to Castagniccia – the land of chestnut culture – to see if the famed chestnuts of Corsica were real or not. Stopping in Corte we ate same great chestnut food like these pastries:

And climbed some mountains:

Surprisingly we found cows and all sorts of stone buildings hours up a steep trail onto a ridge.

On our way down we passed some mountain homesteads typical of high corsican valleys… chestnut groves, cows, some small gardens. Everything terraced.

We left Corte and headed east and north into the heart of the chestnut region…Castagniccia:

Now we approached the town where Paulo Paoli lived  – the most important Corsican patriot for which an active independence movement still seethes. The town looks out at the highest mountain in Castag. where we later collected seed.

Upon entering Paoli’s ancestral mountain town we came across a massive chestnut. It was some kind of memorial tree but we couldn’t interpret the sign. Under the scrutinizing looks of a nearby elderly man in his apartment window, we collected some seed which was laying in the gutter and being run over by cars. They were the largest chestnut seeds I’d ever seen.

As we left Paoli’s town we came around a curve and got a view into the heart of Castagniccia – an area once home to tens of thousands of people making a living from rooted in the yield of the chestnut forests their forefathers had planted. Towns clung to ridges and slopes in all directions spread apart at 20-100% grades, with 1500-2500′ of vertical relief from river bottom to mountain ridge. The chestnuts, we would realize later, occupied the middle range of the mountain slopes most significantly.

We headed further into the chestnut region and soon began to see the forests unfold.  As we crested a ridge just past Paoli’s home town, we dropped down onto the east sea-facing side of the highest mountain in Castagniccia and were amid the chestnut forests entirely.

In all directions now was a chestnut woodland, a tree every 100 feet or less, increasingly massive.  We pulled over and began collecting seed and walking into the woodland.

Then we encountered a massive 10′ diameter grandaddy:

And the groves that went on and on.

Apparently, most if not all of these larger trees are grafted and, thus, planted:

J. Russell Smith was not telling a tale

I didn’t think he was, but I’ve had my hopes build up enough in life only to have them destroyed, to be wary of what he wrote. A friend of mine, when I told him where we are going, said “yeah, you think that stuff was all true? You think you’ll actually find that legacy?”

I said, “I hope so.” And “I don’t see why not.”  But truly, I had my doubts.

Now as we walked among the chestnut giants I breathed a sigh of relief. This much we know is possible.  It’s been done before.  The castagnetu (chestnut food system) is real. It’s a cultural possibility for all of us that can plant and tend to tree crops and graze their understory.  It’s not perfect anywhere perhaps – although it’s among the most ingenious cultural strategies ever devised, proving that humanity can sustainably make a living on hilly and mountainous land without despoiling it or themselves.

But the castagnetu is now mostly abandoned as people here like the world over have sought jobs in the cities, but it’s there as an option for us, there for all of us to see – at least for another few decades or so. No more trees are being planted it seems and the shepherds have left, the tree planters have left.  There are still many flocks roaming the woods, but with little management. And without the rotations enegendered by shepherds (there’s no fencing and probably hasn’t ever been much) the forest is “overgrazed” (“grazed poorly” would be a better term). Thus tree regeneration is minimal, soils are being lost (at least a bit), disease is pressuring the trees and there’s no replanting of the groves.

We passed multiple packs of pigs in the first mile, all sweeping up the nuts.

Some of the many dying chestnuts were visible from this one knoll – looking across a slope that used to be covered in chestnut – now becoming brushy:

As we crested a small hill an old dirt road led off the south toward a knoll which beckoned with seemingly a huge view.  We took the road and there we encountered a very old church. It looked like it hadn’t been attended to in long time. But the bell still rang.

Originally published on Whole Systems Design.

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