It almost seems like cheating for Italians to declare Castelbuono an ecovillage. In this medieval town in the mountains of northern Sicily, the houses are already made of heat-exchanging stone and residents already walk everywhere through winding cobblestone streets. A donkey picks up recyclables and food compost headed for local farmers.
For the Castelbuonesi to advocate green living seems so effortless because their infrastructure is already optimized for local economies and ecologies. There are no Wal-marts or Hannafords; the produce is all local, all the time. They only have to backtrack their daily lives two or three decades to rediscover sustainable practices, whereas Americans have to rewind their collective history two or three generations (or in some cases, two or three centuries).
While doing fieldwork in Sicily, Joline Blais and I visited the Barreca family in Castelbuono, who shared with us the delights of local markets as well as the giant holly forest in the nearby mountains–the only one on the planet. Apart from the local flora and fauna (a dozen wild boars caught napping in the forest), the Barreca also showed us how Italian social networks work. At one point during our stay we needed to change apartments, and with the Christmas holiday approaching neither the local real estate agency nor Google had any options for us.
Not to worry, declared Santi Barreca, as he walked two doors down to find two neighbors sitting around a cuculina–a round brazier with a circular wooden rim that sits on the floor. As we quickly learned, cuculine do more than warming cold feet. Add some charcoal, open your door, and watch neighbors wander in and take a seat around the glowing embers: instant community.
In our case, the elderly women seated at this particular cuculina quickly sized up the situation and recommended a vacant apartment further up the hill (“my nephew’s brother-in-law wasn’t able to come home for the holidays…”). We had spent an hour trying to find on Google what this face-to-face Sicilian Internet was able to uncover in seconds.