I think it is safe to say that past me would be pretty confused by current me’s life. When I left university I did what everyone did: moved to London, got a job and started to climb the career ladder. And I thought that’s where I’d stay. I never imagined that at 31 I would be spending my days makeup-less, surrounded by Italian men and, more often than not, covered in mud. But I do, because I currently live and work up a mountain in Umbria at Tribewanted Monestevole, a sustainable farm and community.
It’s not quite as hippy as it sounds, although my friends are all pretty convinced I live in a commune. As one said, when I tried to explain otherwise: “But you recycle your own pee Fiona.” Well yes, we do. We have what is called a "living black and grey water filtration system". All our sink, shower and toilet water goes into it, and the roots of the plants “eat” the bacteria, so we can use the water again in our gardens. We also have solar panels that produce about 50% of our electricity, and a biomass and wood-burning stove for heating and hot water. We have pigs, chickens, ducks, a couple of goats, and horses, and try to produce as much of our own food as possible. The idea is that guests come for short or longer stays, and learn about living sustainably by getting involved in farm life.
I first came to Monestevole back in November, as a guest on a month-long immersion programme. While I was here they were interviewing candidates for two volunteer positions this year and, halfway through my stay, I put my hat in the ring. I remember at the time Filippo, the owner and founder, saying to me that if I loved it now, when it was damp and cold, I would really love it come spring and summer. And he was right.
My role is to get the guests involved in the activities on the farm. From planting and harvesting vegetables to feeding the animals; from constructing a cob wall (made of mud and straw) to making homemade tagliatelle; from building a bonfire to making tomato preserves; all things I had no idea how to do until I got here.
As a volunteer, I get my meals and board (my own room onsite, and a bathroom I share with one other volunteer) in exchange for my help. For the last year and a half I’ve worked as a freelance copywriter, and I've continued to do it on the side; just enough to pay for the odd nice weekend away somewhere. I don’t earn a lot but my only standing order is Netflix, and it’s not like there are many shops around here for me to spend money in.
My favourite moments from this year have been when it’s seemed like a guest has really got something out of their experience with us. We recently had a group of teenagers here from a US-based not-for-profit which gives students who would not otherwise be able to travel, the opportunity to do so. Most of them were from inner cities and had never really been around animals or in a place as remote as this. One afternoon I took them down to a nearby reservoir. The majority had never been wild swimming before, and they all stood hesitantly on the side while I got in. Twenty minutes later, however, they were all sat in the shallows, plastering themselves in mud. We had an email a few days later from one student saying what an impact her time here had had on her, and how she was now far more conscious about where her food came from and how much plastic she was consuming. I cried a little when I read the email.
It hasn’t, however, all been easy. I’m the only member of staff who doesn’t speak fluent Italian, and have felt very isolated because of it. It’s hard to be in a room where everyone is laughing and not know what the joke is, and I’ve had to develop a thicker skin.
Living as sustainably as possible also comes with its own set of challenges. For example, my room is not part of the main house and in the colder months I need to collect wood and light a stove every day in order to have a hot shower the next. Having to put time and energy into something that you’re used to having at the flick of a switch quickly becomes something of a chore, but it does make you much more appreciative of hot water.
I’m often asked (usually by one of my aunts) when I plan to return to “real” life. And my answer is always: “This is my real life.” Having said that, I am keen to spend more time in the UK next year, and the farm is changing as well.
I think this year will always stay with me. I feel like so many of us spend our lives chasing after and consuming things because we’re told that if we do, we’ll be happy. But we’re not. This year has shown me just how much joy and pleasure there is to be found in the simple things, such as eating a fig straight from the tree, seeing a seed you planted grow into an aubergine you can eat, and going for a hike first thing in the morning when the air is still fresh. And none of them costs us or – more importantly – the Earth, anything.