She’s 26 and her profession seems to be taking sexy photos of herself and keeping track of thousands of likes. Everyone on the farm seems very impressed. She feels sorry for me and constantly invites me to hang out with her. I decline and go my desk to write. She also offers to set me up on some chat rooms where I can meet people. I decline and sit alone at the pool staring at a blank page in my notebook.
When I run out of words I wander through the garden munching on basil and verbena and roses. More lustrous than all the peaches and grapes and tomatoes is Piero (82), who planted and tends them, and his wife, Valentina (78), who harvests and preserves them for winter. They heft crates of fruit around, load up the wheelbarrow full of tomatoes for sauce, and work shoulder to shoulder plucking chickens, manuevering the new gas tank into place, and finding ingenious uses for the tractor and the flatbed when things really are too heavy for the two of them. Save for the standard afternoon rest in the heat of the day, they work from dawn to dusk. Every day is different… preserving olives, making tomato sauce, collecting nuts, processing chickens, harvesting apples.
They are picturesque and –I know– full of knowledge. Their heirs are not busy documenting this knowledge, nor learning how to reproduce the orchard, the fowl, or the vegetable garden. I surmise that they take it all –including the continued good health of Piero and Valentina– for granted. I chase them around with my camera, ridiculous questions, and never-fast-enough hands.
Finally I propose that in the Spring a friend and I could come back to the farm “to learn, to document, to help.” Having already shrugged off my many requests to participate in harvesting and processing, my generation finally explains: “Piero and Valentina don’t want help, and they don’t want to explain. For them it’s about freedom. They do what they want when they want to.”
Ms.26 can only understand my solitude as a tragic situation crying for a lively social remedy. And I, in turn, interpreted Piero and Valentina’s independence as a lack of respect from their heirs, and sought to remedy it with some properly elder-farmer-worshipping American muscle.
My constant offers to “help” are as obtuse and irrelevant (…condescending, myopic, invasive…) as Ms.26’s offers of companionship.
We travel believing that we experience difference, but what we see is only an estranged refraction of our own intransigent values.
And I almost missed the beautiful fact that I share something profound with this couple who have become so beloved to me: a preference for and pleasure in work, mostly in silence, calling out to coordinate with my trusted compañero.