My cell phone rudely wakes me before the first light of dawn. I rise from bed and put on the dirt-caked shorts and pungent shirt I wore yesterday and the day before. In the kitchen, a few of the early risers greet me with wan smiles as they huddle over cold cereal and steaming espresso. The lack of sleep has killed my appetite, but with seven hours of work ahead of me, I force down a small piece of buttered toast and a cup of coffee.
I came to Castello di Spannocchia, a WWOOF farm, attracted by the idyllic charm of the Tuscan countryside, thinking that some hard physical labor in campagna may help ease my mind from the idle and pernicious thoughts that plagued me at my desk job in Rome. Also, living in Rome had cost me dearly, while the farm offered me a free bed and food in exchange for my labor.
Spannocchia is a sprawling estate in the Tuscan countryside with vineyards, orchards, olive trees, sheep, pigs and vegetable gardens. The farm is entirely organic and, in the spirit of the Slow Food movement, consumes what it produces.
Today, I am assigned to the vineyard to remove the second growth that saps nutrients from the grapes. I feel my way along the rows, pulling aside the entangled vines and analyzing their growth patterns. This being my third day here, I am slowly beginning to understand how the vines grow and wind themselves around each other. This intimacy with the vines makes spotting and snipping second growths much easier. Each vine is unique, but they all grow in the same way.
As the sun begins to heat the back of my neck, I take a break. The vineyard intern, Craig, and I pluck sweet plums and chat. He fell out of work during the writer’s strike and is now biding his time before he goes back to New York to write. Despite the solitude, he enjoys working in the vineyard, praising it as a “meditative space.” I came here to escape my thoughts, but they grow with greater vitality in these dry and dusty rows of vines.
The sun overhead is furiously hot when we leave the vineyard in the early afternoon. We have the rest of the day free. After lunch, we have a small get-together at the pool. Someone cut up some fresh sweet watermelon from the garden, and Riccio, on guitar, teaches us a traditional Tuscan dance with a skipping step.
The midday sun chases us indoors and we all rest before dinner. Dinner is my favorite part of the evening. Tonight we’re having meatballs made from cinghiale caught on the property with pomodori ripieni and verdure fresche. There is nearly limitless wine, the fruits of vineyard laborers from years past. I chat with an expatriated British couple living in Tuscany to escape the political situation of the Thatcher years.
After dinner, I sit outside of the interns’ house with my journal and write down my meandering thoughts. The orto intern, Marco, the most solitary of the group, is strumming a tune on the guitar. For Marco, the farm offers a “transcendental experience.” “I’m more aware of my body in a holistic way, away from the city,” he told me. The sense of isolation can be oppressive. The interns ask me about world news, as though I were a substitute for the newspaper they never receive.
For Marco, Tuscany is the “perfect place to write;” there is “a certain magic” about the isolated countryside and the abundance of nature. The midnight heavens are sprinkled with countless stars I have never seen before; the moment and the place seem well-suited to Marco’s pensive disposition and my unsettled mood. I am at peace.