Permaculture’s roots in Sicily: ancient and recent

10agrigento Kolymbetra Garden 3 illThe permaculture philosophy of dynamic preservation turns out to have ancient roots in Sicily. Last December Joline Blais surveyed a Permaculture site near Caccamo founded by noted Australian sustainability gurus Julia and Charles Yelton, as well as a reconstructed citrus garden originally cultivated by the ancient Greeks of Agrigento.

Along with the picturesque view of the Mediterranean, the Yeltons inherited a grove of 200-year-old olive trees and several stone buildings, which they have begun to transform back into productive gardens. Homesteading in Sicily offers the Yeltons an opportunity to compare their experience gained from designing permaculture sites in Australia, Cyprus, and the US with the sustainable lifeways of traditional Sicilian culture.

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The cultivation of olives provides an example of such ancient “cradle-to-cradle” economies. Once picked, olives could be used for cooking oil, lamps, or eating. Those destined for cooking oil were put through a series of elaborate presses, powered not by heat from fossil fuels but by sturdy Sicilian forearms (hence the term “cold-pressed” olive oil). Once it seemed every last goccettino was squeezed from the olives, the Sicilians used the leftover pulp as fire-starter, knowing it still retained minuscule amounts of flammable resin.

10sicily Caccamo Yeltons 3 illIn a legend that testifies to the importance the olive held for the ancients, citizens of the most important city of Hellenic civilization once held a contest among the gods to determine that town’s tutelary deity. Each of the Olympians brought forward a gift for humankind. When Poseidon produced the horse, the residents were about to declare him the winner–until Athena stepped forward and opened her hand to reveal a single olive in her palm. To this day, the town–Athens–bears her name.

10agrigento Kolymbetra Garden 12 illThe Yeltons previously conducted workshops in the permaculture gardens of Still Water’s LongGreenHouse, a sustainable living project just off the University of Maine campus. Plans are afoot for a student exchange between the Yelton’s Sicilian permaculture site and Orono’s sustainable programs such as LongGreenHouse and ESTIA.

10agrigento Temples 8 illBlais also surveyed the reconstructed Kolymbetra garden in the southern Sicilian town of Agrigento, whose orchards irrigated by antique Hellenic and Moorish cisterns offer visitors free fruit for the taking. Agrigento’s nearby Valley of the Temples is a stunning showcase of ancient Greek architecture, arguably better preserved than any site in Greece outside of the Acropolis. Its great stone telamones, or giant figures supporting the columns, are four times as tall as the tourists who come to gawk at them.

10agrigento Kolymbetra Garden 8 illAgrigento’s “valley” is a misnomer, as the complex of temples in various stages of ruin fills an expansive highland that overlooks the Mediterranean and African shores beyond. Nestled in a nearby riverbed is the site of the former Kolymbetra garden, which during the heyday of the Greek colonization of Sicily fed residents of Agrigento and visitors to its temples.

In contrast to the broken relics or wall texts describing scenes of former splendor displayed in most archeology museums, the reconstructed Kolymbetra is a working garden where visitors are encouraged to pick up lemons and oranges and take them home. Its ingenious arrangement of gravity-powered cisterns and conduits, designed by Arabs during their occupation of Sicily in the tenth century AD, is so efficient that a single gardener now services the nearly quarter-mile of sloping plots.

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