This past January through April, I had the fortune of taking part in the WWOOF program. WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a volunteer work exchange supported in 40-something countries around the world. I “WWOOFed” in Sicily. My grandparents came to America from the southern Italian island in the early 1900’s. My father and his brothers are first generation Americans. The sicilian culture was always very prominent in my life as I was growing up. We had the big family dinners almost every Sunday at my grandparents house in Long Island. I was exposed to the stories of what being an immigrant was and everything that came along with that, the struggle to conform to a new culture, while holding on to the one that you can be so very proud of. I had never been to Sicily like my father and some of my cousins had gone to visit. I had always yearned to go and see the country, and after developing a desire to learn more about, and experience agriculture, the WWOOF program seemed a perfect means of travel.
After two weeks of traveling with two friends from college, we parted ways, as they were off to study abroad for a semester in Prague. I, alone, made my way from norther Italy down to Sicily. Until this moment, I had only ever seen pictures and TV shows about the country, but I had no idea of what I was going to experience. The farm I stayed at was situated in a mountain valley southeast of Palermo, above the town of Alta-Villa Milicia.
The landscape was pastoral. Surrounded by mountains to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, valley and hills to the east and south. The countryside was spotted with olive trees and wild herbs. You could hear the bells dangling from the necks of cows and sheep throughout the valley, along with the rushing water in the river from the winter rains on the mountains above. As it was the rainy season there, it wasn’t beautiful sunshine everyday, but when it did shine, it was jaw dropping.
The landscape wasn’t one that was hustling and bustling everyday with activity, but instead filled with the mellow chatter of farmers tinkering on projects or herding their cows to new pastures. The feeling the landscape gave was calming, and tranquil, you could sense the freshness and warmth with every breath, and every interaction between other people, and even the animals. A lot of the emotion there came from the interaction of humans with the landscape. Though my trip had a very cultural focus that was appreciated more through interacting with sicilian people and learning their dialect, I felt something powerful from the landscape. It was the same land that generations, beyond the ones I am even aware of, lived their lives, working on the land in very modest fashion. It was the slow tinkering of the famers there that reminded me of my grandparents, and a lot of what sicilian culture really is. To me, its an obsession with everyday life. Its an immense passion for living each day as fulfilling and beautiful as possible. That interaction with the surrounding landscape is what seemed to tie an entire culture together.
Henri Frédéric Amiel’s quote, “Any landscape is a condition of the spirit,” was something that rang true for me. I immediately felt at home there as soon as I woke up to the bright sicilian sunrise in that old stone farmhouse. By the end of my stay there, I had an immense respect for every step I took on the earth there, knowing that there was a bit of tradition to it. Working on the land there was something I shared with the people, albeit only for two months, but it was how we all defined ourselves, as men of the country.