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April 7, 2010

Springtime is in full bloom in Castiglion Fiorentino. With the benefit of nice weather, it’s now easier and more enjoyable to explore outside the city walls. After finding a map of the valley in our legacy supplies, and a tourist guide for the town with a beautiful picture of one of the creeks with a waterfall, I decided to go for a hike. Starting from Piazza Garibaldi, I headed along Via Madonna del Bagno toward the northeast. In a stark contrast with the dense development down the other side of the hill toward the train station, the northern side of town gets rural quickly. Within fifteen minutes of walking I was in an area that looks like the kind of sparse rural suburbs so common in Missouri. The only difference being the olive groves in the front lawns.

Fresh olives in your front yard?

The crest of the first leg of the foothills provided beautiful views of Castiglion. The view of the town from this direction, still contained mainly within its walls with clusters of houses marking the villages along the road, looks like what it must have long ago. Cities are beautiful things in the landscape as long as they’re contained.

A beautiful gem of a city.

Coming down into the creek valley brought me to what was my original destination, the village of Senaia. The Rio Senaia was the creek cited in the picture of the waterfall, but the terrain around the village didn’t match the steep slope of the picture. I realized I should have taken the road that goes along the higher route from Piazza Garibaldi to reach the waterfall, up where the steepest parts of the hills start. The consolation prize was the interesting little cluster of buildings that comprised the village, all sharing a wall somewhere. I would have stayed to do some drawings, but every dog in the area smelled an American and decided to sound the alarm. Out of embarrassment for the noise, I left.

All the loud dogs live here.

With Senaia behind me, I found myself in olive groves and very few houses. Most of the buildings I could see were substantial stone sheds, and the one house near the road was gutted in the process of a renovation. I knew there was a little chapel of some kind called “Madonna del Bagno” up ahead, as there had been signs at every crossroad telling me. As I crested the hill, I came to understand “little” was a misunderstanding.

The church fits the space of the creek valley perfectly.

It’s surprising to find such a substantial church out in the countryside, but it makes sense looking at the map, since it is within walking distance of all the villages and farms nearby. There were picnic tables all around the building, so I found one around back and sat and wrote in my journal and sketched. The sound of the birds and the wind in the tall pine next to my table were the only sounds. It was the first time I’d heard sounds of home all around me. I had finally found Nature.

I contemplated why it felt so profound to feel the lack of civilization. For the past three months, I have lived in a medieval hill town, very dense compared to its physical area, and mostly paved. I have been seeing nothing but one city of cultural icons after another, with even the mountain lake of Como in the Alps seeming to have been long ago turned into an amusement park. The presence of humanity is stronger in Europe than anywhere else in the world. European civilization has been working on subjecting the landscape to its will for over two thousand years. It is no wonder that feeling a sense of wilderness struck me so hard.

Much of the landscape in America seems to be headed in the direction of Europe’s. The density and development patterns of our vast rural suburbs that stretch for miles around every major city and across most of the Midwest closely matches the “new” development all along the valley outside the old city walls of Castiglion. It is terrifying to imagine the entire European population living at the same density most Americans do – there would be little wilderness anywhere on the continent. Viewing the town from the far end of the valley, most of the sprawl was blocked from view, leaving the original villages along the road the only buildings visible outside the walls. I was glimpsing what the town – and Europe – must have looked like long ago. Dense cities, when contained like Castiglion once was by its walls, create beautiful objects in the landscape. It makes me wonder if we can ever return to a pattern of development like that again.

After contemplating how secondary Nature is in Europe, and how overwhelmed by the constant press of humanity it has made me feel at times, I decided to calculate my own personal footprint on this rapidly shrinking planet. I used:


While my carbon footprint comes out to 12 tons a year, about half the American average, I’m still living at a level that would require 2.4 Earths if everyone lived the same as me. A chilling thought when I think of how much I love places like Colorado for their seemingly untouchable landscape – a landscape I’m viewing on each vacation at what environmental cost? How much better am I to be privileged to travel and live the lifestyle I do while most of the world lives with so little? Is there any way to bridge the gap and save civilization from itself?

Miles and miles of nothing but pasture in southern Colorado.

I think the pattern of life here in Italy begins to provide some answers. The church I sat and enjoyed some moments of solitude outside of is a good example of those patterns. While a parking lot in front seemed to be a recent addition, I’m sure most of the church’s members walk to mass every Sunday, with so many clusters of homes in the villages, fifteen minutes away by foot. The fact that on the way there I passed an elderly woman with her graying son out for a Saturday morning stroll reinforces this fact. Even the picnic tables and public park around the church hint at the overall pattern. Life here is very local. People focus on their local community, shopping from people they know down the street, and doing everything they can to improve the spaces around them for themselves and others. This is the way life should be lived, free of cars and the inter-regional lives Americans are forced to live.

Is the wild expanse of the American landscape doomed? I hope not.

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