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“Desire Will Save the World”: Can Artists, Scientists & Farmers Be Bedfellows?

“You never lose the north” a friend of mine once told me, in a difficult moment of our lives, and I realised that it meant not losing the orientation, the route linked to the North Star, from the millenary habits of navigation. But now… we all really are losing the north, we are losing the north pole, the course is uncertain and the sea is stormy. As the ice melts the waters rise. It is up to us to take each piece of the puzzle, to recompose the perfect image that is not there, the immaculate white, north and south of our mind.
– Franco Sacchetti (from Preghiera, “La marcia dei frigoriferi verso il Polo Nord”)

In March I attended a talk on Climate Change in central Vasto, a charming coastal town in South Italy that overlooks the Adriatic. Vasto is the birthplace of the influential Rossetti family and serves as an interesting Romantic link between Italy and the UK in literature and the Arts.

The gathering was inspired by the strikes and demonstrations taking place on the international wave of energy of Greta Thunberg’s Friday school boycott and outspoken activism. That week, in the farmhouse where I have been living and volunteering, I saw Greta Thunberg’s compelling face on our kitchen table most days. Her portrait was on the cover of the 1/7 March, 1296 issue of Internazionale, with the headline across her forehead: “Dite di amare i vostri figli più di ogni cosa invece gli state rubandando il futuro”, which can be translated as: You say you love your children more than anything but you are stealing their future.

As a way to offer an accessible forum on Climate Change to local people, and also to join events taking place all over the world, the group Vasto Orti Urbani (Vasto Urban Gardens) hosted the free event, Cambiamenti Climatici: Cause, Effetti e Strategi  (Climate change: Cause, Effect and Strategy) with artist, writer, architect and environmental activist Franco Sacchetti and agro-ecologist Dr. Remo Angelini, chaired by author and activist Stefano Taglioli.

The mobilisation of students raising their voice against the lack of urgent government initiatives to mitigate Climate Change, was seen as a welcomed and long-expected event by all. They rejected the idea that the Greta Thunberg-phenomenon was a kind of theatre directed by the media, or by any particular groups trying to manipulate public opinion out of hidden agendas. Concern for human life and biodiversity on our planet is real. Nevertheless, the capability of the media to create a symbol and spread a message in very little time is something double-edged; as the sensationalisation of the issue could also trap the movement, by making the spread of its message happen only in a very superficial way, not to mention the quick rise-and-fall nature of public attention.

Given that Climate Change is a problem that we no longer have plenty of time to react to, or can afford to be forgotten, the question of how to safeguard against superficiality and sensationalism is an important one. This includes finding ways to create inter-generational solidarity, building on the serious work of earlier and long-standing environmentalists and conservationists with freshness and indefatigable spirit.

On this point, the potential for writers and artists to impact the integrity of social attitudes towards the environment, at least to me, seemed obvious. Taglioli touched on this idea, quoting from Amitav Gosh, “Desire will save the world”. Franco Sacchetti, author of several graphic novels and children’s books that are written and illustrated specifically with ecological concerns, working closely with experts in ornithology and other scientific fields, said: ‘Artists have to work with scientists to make their statements arrive to the heart of people…that’s it.’

Here the discussion echoed many of the ideas expressed during the Magma 72 conference that took place earlier this year at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). For example, the reasons why half a century of scientific awareness of the impact of human activities on the biosphere has not lead to a systematic transition to renewable energies, nor to radical changes in food production, are loaded and multi-layered. One suggestion (at both events) attributes the dryness of approach and language by scientists as missing heart, desire and imagination. Whereby artists, through experimentation, fantasy, emotion and a more open-minded approach to reality, may provide one of the missing solutions. To hear these ideas again, this time in a very different setting and different language, was reassuring.

However, Dr. Angelini’s perspective on redressing Climate Change from an agro-ecological perspective had a certain pro-active practicality that made me listen intently. Not only is he part of a scientific community of dedicated research, he is a passionate, creative farmer who talks about cultivation from a standpoint of deep fondness for zoology and botany, something that can be missing from a generalised agricultural, food-production centric, approach.

Eileen’s Italian view

I thought about my own decision, intuitive rather than political, to live out and learn about alternative cultivation and building methods, developing my own stance on green issues and my creative practice. One of the most interesting conversations I had during the conference at CCI was with Daphne Astor, who described herself as ‘a conservationist growing and raising food to feed people while defending a small patch of England from a lot of strange ideas and behaviours’. In her experience of bringing together sustainable farming, poetry and arts (e.g. in residencies), based on a ethos of conservationism, she admitted that there were big areas where the dots did not connect often enough linking farming practices as a serious part of conservation work. She was certainly an important voice in the room. Why was talking about food and agricultural practices and politics somewhat ‘estranged’ from the sciences and the arts, particularly on the eco-activist front? Where have some of those biases come from?

An explanation from Dr. Angelini is that it is relatively easy to make calculations about the quantities of fossil resources being extracted and released into the atmosphere, however, little data has been accumulated about the quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere by tilling fertile agricultural soil that was previously uncultivated. And so the damage caused is poorly registered as a contributor to climate emissions, even if there is already some awareness that certain practices such as spraying of pesticides like glyphosate has a detrimental effect on surrounding species and human heath.

According to Angelini’s rough estimates, he felt strongly optimistic about the potential of agricultural land to be used as a carbon sink designed to directly combat Climate Change. If managed differently: no-tilling, agro-ecological methods, replacing monocultures with polycultures, increasing agro-biodiversity, enriching the landscape with terraces, hedges and artificial lakes, there would be a drastic reduction in the emissions of the main gases [carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O)] responsible for the greenhouse effect. Furthermore, there are a number of legitimate, recent studies that support the idea that greener methods of cultivation are superior in the productivity and stability of food production. Meaning that it is possible to adopt agro-ecological methods without any compromise on “feeding the world”. Angelini’s bottom line: those who work in the food supply chain can make a strong contribution to reducing emissions.* In fact, if we are serious about addressing biodiversity loss as quickly as possible, farming can probably save the world.

Sand dam and terracing in SE Kenya. Photo by Polly Braden.

Rebecca Goss’ poem Legacy in Magma 72 quotes John Everett Partridge, Kersey Suffolk Farmer, ‘Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, farm as if you’re going to live forever.’ In the poem she describes the quiet merits of conscientious farming: These rich and secret places you have made./ All that stored dark in the lakes you dug. Whether Goss was referring to the full scientific implications of this tree-planting farmer’s work perhaps isn’t as relevant as the poignancy her poem gifts the reader.

Given these musings, I would add to Sacchetti’s statement, that along with scientists, artists have to work with farmers, where the desire to change the world can arrive to the bellies of the people. Whilst in Italy, I could probably assert – unchallenged – that food is a passion that brings people together. Furthermore, to lose sight of wholesome and sustainable food production may be to lose a handle on the survival of our species altogether.

To return to the question of how to safeguard against superficiality and sensationalism in our work against Climate Change, agricultural conservationism might be one of the most powerful ways to create inter-generational solidarity, and even bridge peoples on opposing ends of the political spectrum. And who can deny that aspects of the agrarian way of life have attracted poets over generations and across many cultural heritages due to some ethereal sense of sincerity, appreciating nature for both its beauty and its fruits.

* My thanks goes to Nicolas Panelli who took great lengths to interpret and translate the discussions of the conference for this article.

Avocet flock at the sea’s edge, Kent

Franco Sacchetti’s first novel “La marcia dei frigoriferi verso il Polo Nord” (The March of the Refrigerators to the North Pole) was published in 2009 on the burning issue of melting ice. He has collaborated in the Clean Clothes Campaign, (Eu)Ropa, and founded the Artealter association which facilitates the project Riabitare Il Futuro, an artistic investigation of rural spaces.  His recent publications include the graphic novels and children’s books: Fratini D’Italia (2016), All You Seed is Love (2017), Dove i rondoni vanno a dormire (2019), and his newest publication Nel Regno Dei Ragni in collaboration with two other writers will be out later this year. Franco Sacchetti is interested to connect with international artists, writers and publishers on the translations of his works, as well as collaborations on future projects.

Dr. Remo Angelini is an entomologist and farmer with expertise in agro-ecology. He is the co-founder of the platform Biodroid Community, designed to know, study, browse and connect nature. A website about his agro-ecological work is here.

Stefano Taglioli is a passionate and fervent naturalist, WWF guard and birdwatcher, who has always been in the forefront of local issues concerning the protection and conservation of flora and fauna. His most recent publication ‘Il Falco della Regina’ (The Queen’s Hawk) was published by L’Erudita Edizioni, Gruppo Perrone. Previous works include ‘Il Forestiero’ a short novel inspired by the stranding of sperm whales in Vasto, as well as short stories.

Nicolas Panelli is a painter, ceramicist and eco-builder that has extended his artistic practice into the biological cultivation of Fonte Trocchi, a WWOOF registered farm in the countryside in Abruzzo, Italy. Fonte Trocchi is interested to engage with people, thinkers and artists with a desire to initiate and develop environmental projects. Details about the farm and contact information can be found here.

Vasto Urbani Orto is interested in cultivating green spaces using eco-sustainable methods, and through urban gardens create an open and inter-generational sociality, regardless of sex, provenance, culture, age, skin colour, as well as bottom-up participation in local area management. The spread of open, shared green spaces, such as urban gardens, helps protect biodiversity and environmental and ecological conservation against pollution and territorial degradation. Anyone interested to follow developments can contact the group through the ‘Vasto Orti Urbani’ facebook page.

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