Environmental Field Work in the Italian Alps

Summer Session students will have a unique opportunity to explore first-hand the environmental challenges facing the Swiss and Italian Alps region. Ken Marquardt is President of the Canova Association which is located near the town of Domodossola. Ken reflects on his vision in this feature story.

The European Medieval Rural Stone House
Past Misery or Future Model?

Proceedings from the 2005 World Summit indicate that sustaining the planet requires the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic demands – the “three pillars” of sustainability. In recent years others have argued that these dimensions are not enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society and that the protection of “cultures” must be incorporated.  The work of our Canova Association, an Italy Center Summer Service Learning site, reflects these pillars and is making strides to resuscitate medieval villages once thought to be lost.

Our own nomadic lives set the backdrop for how we’ve evolved to take on this extraordinary cultural revival project – a labor of love.

Kali my wife, and I are originally for Arkansas and have been married for the past 42 years. We began our European life in 1973 at the age of 22 (I imagine today one might call it study abroad) and never looked back.  Due more to a cheap flight from Montreal for $192 than the Irish origins of Kali, we set off for Ireland and soon thereafter set up home in an ancient stone country house called Slievethoul. The place was surrounded by cairns, dolmens, barrens and castle ruins and it was there I contracted two inflictions that have followed me to this day: chilblains (i.e. frozen toes and fingers) and a feverish passion for ancient stone structures.

One evening in the Spring of ‘74 an Irish priest placed a small book into my hands written by Lanza del Vasto recounting his walking journey from Italy to India to see Ghandi.  I paged through it and the next morning we set off walking from the western-most point in Europe.

How many times across Ireland and throughout Europe we camped amidst the stone ruins of castles and farmhouses. Lying there at night we tried to imagine how many celebrations of joy and how many moments of anguish, how many births and deaths had these stone walls witnessed?  This was having a profound effect on our formulation of the concepts of  “home” and “house”, especially considering that the average lifespan of a new American house was about 35 years.

In those moments we felt blessed to have made the difficult choice to leave behind the comforts and the consumption of our American upbringing.   That was before the word “sustainable” and on this journey we began to realize how culturally important durability and craftsmanship was in the construction of shelter.

Our nomadic lives became sedentary in 1985 as we made our final descent from Simplon Pass into Domodossola on our walking adventure.  I still remember vividly seeing for the first time our soon to be home with a granite stone roof lying along a pristine rushing stream and saying “I could spend 2 lifetimes here”.

After eight months of 12 hour days we moved into the upstairs and continued to coax out the bats and barn swallows and stop the cat fights down below.  Except for two 90 year old precious stalwarts, “la Gin” and Giacoma, the 10 houses of Canova were abandoned and in ruins.  For months I worked alone, learning by doing with the helpful advice of local masons and peasants but then I hired a Calabrese master mason with whom a deep friendship and collaboration was born and which lasted through the entire restoration of the borgo (small village) of Canova.

In 2001 after bringing back to life a few old stone homes it was now time to get serious.  Seven friends founded the International Non Profit Organization “Associazione Canova / Canova Association”.  It’s not been a Jack in the Beanstalk story for which we are thankful but ten years of intense activity has established Canova as a recognized force dedicated to revitalizing European medieval rural stone architecture and all it offers to modern day life and culture.

In only a few decades the powerful magnet of the newly arrived industries in the Ossola Valley had gleaned the young work force off the ancient terraces and into the factories with promises of fashionable condominiums and an end to the misery of cold bedrooms and any hint of chimney smoke. The old stone house where generations had been born and raised had become a relic and more importantly a symbol of “miseria”, poverty …. the past.

Twenty+ years have slipped by now and Canova has become a jewel that doesn’t sparkle, it glows like fine amber, full of real people who love it.  It has become a model. Why?  Because those that have taken these houses on see themselves more as custodians or honored guests than owners.

This May 24-28, we will welcome Spring Hill Italy Center students to join us in our work as caretakers of this small slice of the Alps.