Years ago I watched a lovely documentary about the life of farmers in Bhutan and the way that rice and sheep were grown to meet the full needs of their small isolated communities, and then about two years ago read Wendell Berry’s account of a visit to the Peruvian Andean subsistence farmers who used a subtle mixture of crop type (How many different potato varieties an you find in Peru? Lots, apparently), soil preservation (mostly small fields with rock fences) and animals to ensure an existence. The account (An agricultural journey in Peru) is found in The Gift of Good Land (1981, repr, 2009).
All of this came into my mind when last Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon at the sanctuary and place of pilgrimage of Madonna della Corona, high up above the Adige valley in Northern Italy above the village of Brentino. The sanctuary, which has existed since the middle ages, has been done up and rebuilt relatively recently so it is a sturdy though precarious looking structure built into the cliffs of Monte Baldo.
Madonna della Corona is a lot more accessible than either Bhutan or Peru, but there, stuck atop a 100m cliff was this beautiful garden mainly of lettuce varieties and tomatoes. It was just the most wonderful thing to find. The sanctuary itself is a gentle place, with strong written encouragemen silenzio, and where even the ubiquitous cafe-bar was peaceful. A group of older folk were coming down the hill, singing and praying through the stations of the cross that are carved into the hillside, and in the quiet sunshine, the lettuces grew.
More than all the other splendours of this place – the view, the sanctuary, the rich spiritual call on the lives of visitors – this garden spoke of the ordinariness and the everyday discipleship of those who lived here and who loved and cared for this place. It sustained the (vegetarian) needs of the community who live at the sanctuary and in some way added to the seasonal, regular patterns of life at such a place. All the Italian gardens I saw last week had that effect – the flowers and the landscaped beauties of Mantova were amazing (the rooftop Rococo garden at the Palazzo Ducale always worth a visit), but the homegrown, the productive and the agricultural were those that brought the most joy.