We Are Dreaming of a Time When the Land Might Give Thanks for the People

Reflections on time, culture, and the climate crisis from a biodynamic farm in northern Italy

Quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Spencer Scott received his PhD in Bioengineering from UC San Diego at the age of 26. Three years later on April Fools 2019, he quit his dream job at a cancer therapeutics company amidst increasing concern over the political and social inaction regarding the climate crisis. Shortly after he quit, he was accepted to a 10-day artist residency on a biodynamic farm in Italy. This essay was the result of his time there.

I. Norse concept of Wyrd: The Power of the Past Upon the Present

Hand me that tomato so I can invoke the history of our world. I stopped to take a picture in the kitchen. A baby slept in a stroller, her mother washed and sliced the tomatoes beside her while her father stirred the simmering vat, and her aunts and uncles churned about in their respective roles as grandpa unpacked jars, and grandma coerced the cooked tomatoes through a sieve and into sauce. Here time reveals itself in a way uncommon to my modern American eye. The past and future are splayed out plainly; their lines dancing in the kitchen, grandpa passes over grandchild, and grandchild over father - as a generational weaving in and out braids into existence a golden-red pot of tomato sauce: a trinity of time... past, present, future.

At the end of the meal, the plates are wiped clean as some function of Italian-ness. For the born and bred Italians, you could put their plates right back on the shelf, licked clean. The Italians by proxy, theirs need little more than a rinse, while the Americans... well the Americans contribute to the compost. Maybe we have our place too, but I imagine the difference is our disconnect from Time against their connection to origins, to process, to fate.

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Three generations of Grasselli’s turn this year’s tomato harvest into coveted tomato sauce at Cascina Lago Scuro.

To live on a farm like Lago Scuro is to know where your life comes from. Knowing the resources you consume, knowing how you contribute and give back to those resources. Kyle, a fellow resident and soil enthusiast from San Francisco, walked into my cave in the bed and breakfast kitchen. I invited him to stay and read - he said it was too dark, there are lights I said - it’s the middle of the day he replied there's no reason to use electricity.

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The “cave” in the guest kitchen I commandeered as my writing space.

Several days later, I was back in my cave reading about fracking from a geology professor, and in that moment the lightbulb glowing overhead grew heavy in the edges of my perception. I shot up and slapped off the light and on a spree tore my laptop charger from the wall. Natural light flooded over the porcelain urns, over the dried flowers, and candles - through the vines and trees and landed sufficient at my lap.

When we think of where energy comes from, we say “the wall…” We’ve all studied the origin of our energy at some point. We know it doesn’t just come from the wall, but that’s how it appears that’s how we see it. We have to climb down the fiery, splintering, luminescent thread behind the outlet, hand over hand we follow Wonder Woman’s lasso faster and faster through farmland, over rivers, by towns, to the coal or natural gas plant boiling water to spin a turbine to electrify a superfluous bulb. I lasso the power plant back with me to my quiet room so anytime I turn on the light I can imagine a tiny coal plant pumping away next to me, slowly filling up the room with its poison. This way I can visualize the light’s worth, the impact of my carelessness, my convenience.

But now we haven’t followed it fully back. Before the plant, the miners who dug it up, their dirty lungs, and poor prospects. The wealthy speculators, the myopic geologists who sold their souls to help them speculate.

Jeff Bezos’ rocket. The metaphor writes itself.

The coal itself, napping for millions of years, the journey it’s been on, the eons it’s seen, the eloquent dance of plants and microbes and beasts it used to be, the food that fed them, the earth that fostered them until they returned to it. Swaddled back by the ground, hugged tightly for millennia to be greedily shaken from its slumber by an enterprising new species and burned to light up an empty room, to keep an unused tub of water hot (just in case), to send symbols of billionaires’ penises to the upper atmosphere. All this swirling anger boils from within me because I can finally see origins. I feel deceived. Intentionally blinded by a culture with no respect for time, no conception of the presence of the past.

Later, when I interrogate Luca, the head at Lago Scuro, he informs me the farm is powered by a solar array so in retrospect my grandstanding at a micro-level seems rather comical, but the macroscopic truth remains.

Our limited perception of origins clouds even the best of us. When John Muir spearheaded America’s national wilderness protection programs, Muir’s idea of wilderness predicated no human involvement. His definition of wilderness was land without people, such that when he succeeded in getting the government to protect wilderness it resulted in the expulsion of indigenous people who had co-existed and co-evolved with those lands for hundreds to thousands of years. What he did not understand is that it’s possible for humans to have a positive if not vital influence on nature the way a cow’s first bite stimulates the grass to grow.

As Americans, our only concept of man’s relationship to nature is one of consumptive destruction. I wonder what that does to a person to believe our intrinsic nature is destructive. Our idea of preservation is complete withdrawal of human forces. Yet, we forget the principles of reciprocity. The land can thrive from our stewardship, and we from its sustenance.

With a deeper understanding of history and our role as stewards, “we are dreaming of a time when the land might give thanks for the people,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer so elegantly wrote in her phenomenal book Braiding Sweetgrass.

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Lago Scuro is a gathering place of creativity, community, and really, really good food.

II. Buddhist concept of Sati - Holding a Future Memory of the Present

The soil contains both our ancestors and our progeny.

While reading at Lago Scuro, I was introduced to the Iroquois’ visionary social law of Seventh Generation. It decreed that all leaders should take actions only after contemplating their likely effects on “the unborn of the future Nation... whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.” Seven generations from now, 150 years, how will my actions still reverberate through time? That is our task, our daily credo.

But let us not skip quickly over a simpler insight: “Whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.” We don’t talk about our unborn like potatoes in the states. The dead go underground, but the babies to-be?

I never thought about the concept that both the past and the future indistinguishably blend beneath the ground. The material to physically create our future generations is grown from the soil, in a very visceral way I now have the eyes to see the alchemy - the swirling stew of molecules that coalesce beneath our feet - past and future intermingling - a bit of that lettuce, several atoms of that tomato, a few raindrops, whole rivers of melted alpine snow; I see them funneling as time presses forward in fast motion, funneling, swirling into the mouths of the parents as atom by atom the next generation is stitched together by a tapestry of stories.

Every future generation will inherit our stories. They will be woven by them. How we treat the land will be reflected in their eyes. Their freckles, collected from the hens’ roost. Their soft skin, the health of our orchards. Their minds, the network of our collective actions.

Our choices are laden heavy with the creation of the future but they are also imbued with purpose from the same source. To the future we owe our direction, to the past our knowledge, and to the present our mindfulness of each.

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Scenes from Lago Scuro, a place heavy with the past but invigorated by the forward-thinking residents.

III. Ghanaian concept of Sankofa: Moving Forward While Looking Back

While on the farm, I was also struck by the Ghanaian idea of Sankofa, depicted by a backward-looking bird. It serves as a reminder to move forward but to keep the past in view. Maybe for our purposes we need a two-headed bird, one looking to the past to understand our origins and another to be mindful of the seventh generation to-be. We look to our teachers, past and future, to help us unite all facets of time into our process.

From the past we are equipped with accumulated knowledge, respect for process, and consideration of place. From the future we garner humility of scope, meaning of action, and direction of movement. We carry these totems together, future with past, intermingled, as they exist in the soil and air, and we build our lives to reflect their complementary sanctity.

We do not have to harken back to a more pastoral or parochial life to realign ourselves within nature. We have to mindfully move forward with our lessons of the past and consideration of the future.

There’s a simple example I love from famed environmental designer William McDonough. He explains, many people think to be sustainable is to deny ourselves the things we love in life and adopt an ascetic life of censorship. For example: long, hot showers. Common wisdom understands these indulgences to be wasteful, and in order to be good environmental citizens we must give them up. “This is folly,” William McDonough would chide. You assume the way things exist now is the only way. Imagine instead if the water in one’s house is filtered, recirculated, and solar-heated? The problem, sometimes, is not in our needs, but in our imagination, in our education. Wasteful people created the world we live in today, our task is to reimagine it from the ground up guided by our lessons from Time.

Years ago, lost on the internet, I found a list of people who are credited with saving the largest number of human lives. At the tip top, laureled with the honor of ‘saving’ over a billion lives are Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch for their invention that allowed synthetic fertilizer to be created from nitrogen in the air and hydrogen from fossil fuels.

It’s a very westernized viewpoint to call them heroes for injecting us with the temporary ability to feed more humans while burning a limited supply of ancient material into a greenhouse to cook ourselves in. From another perspective, it seems like maybe they just gave us more rope to hang ourselves from.

Fabio Griselli and his son Luca, who now runs the farm and kitchen often while holding one of his three children.

As geologist Marcia Bjornerud puts it, “to some extent, the scientists and engineers behind these achievements can’t be blamed; if one is trained to think of natural systems in highly simplified ways…and one has no experience with how perturbations to these systems may play out over time, then the undesirable consequences of these interventions will come as a surprise.”

We can no longer afford the excuse of myopia. We can no longer intentionally blind ourselves from the lessons of the past or our responsibility to the future.

When I applied to be here for this artist residency, I hoped the farm would help me connect to a story. I was searching for a way to describe all the things missing from our modern life - to explain why depression, and suicide, and addiction are all on the rise. I hypothesized, the same poison that was ruining our planet was running through our veins as well.

I wasn’t expecting for the thing that was missing to be Time itself.

There are no children rollerblading around my house in San Francisco as there are here in Lago Scuro, there are no rollerblading children in my neighborhood for that matter. We don’t really see many children in general. I suppose it’s easier that way. To not have to look them in the eye.

Native American Elders have a theory for us white Americans. “The problem with these new people,” they say, “is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”

We haven’t figured out how to live in a place as if we were staying. That’s why it’s jarring to see children in our city, it shames us for not considering how we’ll leave the place when our companies IPO and we move on to the next cash cow.

We’re stranded in a time capsule that tries its best to shut out the lessons of the past and the gaze of the distant future. We are lonely on an island of Now.

Here on this farm. In this kitchen. Generations are able to stand closely together because they know it as their place, they are staying, they are connected to its outcome as they are connected to its origins. There is no escaping grandpa Fabio’s teachings or the innocence of the baby in the stroller. Here at Lago Scuro, the past and future conspire to enshroud this farm in a constant process of Reciprocity.

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A taste of life at Lago Scuro. Photographs by Brandon Polack.

As he continues to stir the simmering vat of golden-red tomatoes, I ask Luca about his general philosophy for the farm, he fires back simply in his characteristic raspy baritone, “Everything helps everything else.”

Huge thanks to Robin Wall Kimmerer, Marcia Bjornerud, Roderick Nash, Wendell Berry, and EO Wilson for inspiring much of this work.

You can stay updated on Spencer’s writing via his Instagram @spencer.r.scott or his developing website www.101.eco.

Quit my job in cancer research to focus on the climate crisis. PhD in Bioengineering, fledgling in regenerative farming. (Seeking Writing Agent)

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