It's good for a city girl to get her hands dirty. To kneel for hours in the grass, yanking out weeds with sore hands and a garden hoe. To come up with a handful of dirt and find that she's holding a writhing earthworm. To work all day in the merciless sun, singing old songs from summer camp to pass the time. In other words, it's good for a city girl to do some organic farming.
I am one of those New Yorkers that has always professed a community-oriented ethic, and a desire to move away from the consumerism and overindulgence of American culture and toward a simpler life. But the closest I had come to doing this in the past was joining the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, where I worked a three-hour shift once a month and felt a faint glimmer of earthiness as I cut blocks of cheese with a group of successful New York women (editors, website designers, teachers) who shared my shift. That and my brief stint chopping vegetables in the kitchen of a yoga center in the Berkshires in exchange for free yoga classes.
Earlier this year, I moved to Germany, and in many ways it was a relief to have some distance from American life. In Europe, some things really are simpler: most people buy groceries in outdoor markets or small stores, rather than giant supermarkets; there is a true respect for the art of growing, cooking, and eating food that has been largely lost in the States; there are still people who believe in the virtues of slowness and care as opposed to speed and efficiency. In the spirit of these differences, I decided to go one step further and spend some time volunteering on an organic farm in Italy.
It only took a couple seconds on Google ("volunteer farm italy") to discover an organization called WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which has chapters all over the world. WWOOF - like the culture it represents - is a very low-key organization. It provides willing workers with the contact information for organic farms so that we (the workers) can arrange short stays on the farms as volunteers. In exchange, we are provided with a place to stay and three meals a day. There are, it turns out, a huge number of people - most of them young and able-bodied - who use WWOOF as a way to travel the world, living for free and supporting a lifestyle they believe in at the same time. After a credit card charge of 25 Euros and a few clicks of the mouse, I became a WWOOF Italia member and got my own list of needy farms.
It may make the experience sound more glamorous if I tell you that the farm I ended up on was also a wine vineyard, and that the vineyard's proprietor is a 24-year-old Italian New Yorker who inherited his first vineyard (this is his second) from his father, a famous Italian artist. But the truth is that these facts, while fascinating in themselves, did little to mitigate the realities of my daily life on the farm. As I scooted on bruised knees between rows of grape vines, tugging with all my strength at stubborn weeds that had entwined themselves around the grapes and hounded by portly Italian women who yelled "basta!" at me when I spent too long on one vine, I only experienced the most abstract comfort from the thought that I was cultivating what would one day be a high quality Italian red wine.
The truth is that organic farming is not easy and it's not exactly fun. It is monotonous, painstakingly slow, and physically challenging, even for the young(ish) and able. The results of your labor are often not palpable, or are very far-off. And the living conditions are rustic, and not necessarily in a charming way. I was living in a lovely old farmhouse from the 1700's, but there was no heat and the hot water was temperamental. According to other more seasoned WWOOF volunteers, I was lucky to even have an indoor toilet.
So what's so great about the experience?
Listening to guttural Italian songs arising from the throats of women who have worked the farm for years and never seem to get tired. Coming in from the field to find a bowl of rigatoni with pesto sauce and fresh grated parmesan and a slice of homemade pizza waiting for you. Working so hard that eating is pure physical satisfaction: refueling the machine that is your body. In the afternoon, after work is done, taking a stroll to the little barn that houses the goats and the new litter of white fluffy puppies that was just born. Swinging on a wooden swing tied with rope to a grand old tree. Lying on your back on the edge of a stone fountain and looking up at the tips of swaying pine trees. Building a fire in the house at dusk and listening to a fellow volunteer strum his guitar. Collapsing into bed at night and sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
And if all this isn't enough to justify doing the difficult work, there is always the soil on your hands, and the secret knowledge that you're helping something grow.