One of the most important things we've learned since moving to this isolated village in the middle of the Italian countryside is a sense of community. You cannot, in fact, live in a place like this (a village with no shops or services, one dodgy road out that in bad weather is often blocked by land slides or snow, and where power and telephone lines frequently go out) unless you have some support from family, friends, neighbors. We have no family nearby, and we wouldn't have lasted a season without our neighbors and local friends. "Self-sufficiency" is something of a fallacy of city folks: in the country, as we've seen, people live by solidarity, relying on each other on different levels. Each year that goes by, this simple truth - that we are intended to thrive with and through reciprocal relations - becomes more and more clear to me.
Last week, as gardening season approached, I faced the fact that the organic fertilizer I'd been buying from the garden center wasn't doing the job. My garden didn't have a great season last summer, and though some problems were due to freak natural events, a good garden begins with rich soil: I had to find manure. And to find manure I first had to find a person who kept barn animals. Forget the garden center – I had to turn to our community.
I'd heard that a woman who lives in the nearest coastal town to us had a horse she was training. A horse seemed a good producer of manure: the bigger the herbivore, I reasoned, the more the manure. I knew this woman, vaguely: for years we'd seen each other walking around town, and had walked right past each other without exchanging a word. So one day I stopped her, and we talked.
I spent the next day at her stable, wearing old boots and jeans, standing high up on a huge heap of horse poop (yes, it's all true, big herbivores make lots of it!), shoveling manure into a wheelbarrow and rolling it to the car. And it was one of the most enjoyable days I'd had for a long time – not because of the much-needed fertilizer for my garden, or the beautiful rural setting, but because I'd found a new friend.