Today’s journey is a tiny fractal image of a larger one I took from 1989–1995.
Yesterday, I spent the day in a meeting in a tiny office in Rome. Our subject was the revision of the bylaws of Greenpeace Italy. I was there seventeen years ago when we wrote the first set of bylaws, and Sidney Holt, Maurillio Cipparone, Pietro Dohrn, and David McTaggart set off to get an impeccably dressed Notary to put as many wax seals and official stamps as possible on the piece of paper. We had no clue what it actually took to officially register a non-profit organization like Greenpeace under the Italian legal system. The real process would take ten years. But in the meantime, that piece of paper, on account of having had many wax seals and official stamps applied by an impeccably dressed Notary, allowed us to rent an office at Manlio Gelsomini 28, set up a bank account, raise funds, and all the rest. In Italy, itÂ´s all about presentation. Had the Notary not been impeccably dressed, weÂ´d have been booted out in a week.
I worked in Rome for three years. David McTaggart was the chairman of Greenpeace International at the time. I was his assistant/speech writer/technical support/factotum. I was also his interpreter, both in Italian and his native, but sometimes incomprehensibly idiosyncratic, English. We worked in a separate room in the back of the office, and DavidÂ´s no-nonsense style kept most of the Italian volunteers and staff at a respectful, sometimes fearful distance. He had, shall we say, a temper.
One day, one of the Italian volunteers, the Leonine Domitilla, simply wandered into that inner sanctum and started strolling around, picking things up off of desks, doing a self-confident perusal, like a cat inspecting a new room.
Domi turned out to be the type of person Greenpeace was built on in those days: passionate, high-energy, a fast learner and capable across a range of skills. She established a reputation for fearlessness in her political work, where sheÂ´d kitten her way to the attention of bored and aging white male delegates at various international fora, then bring out the big claws if they mumbled or tried to wriggle out of doing the right thing. She went on to become Executive Director of Greenpeace Italy.
Today, IÂ´m going to spend a morning picking olives with her in Paciano on the farm she inherited from David McTaggart when he died in 2000.
The farm was a bit of an accident. In the early days of the 1990s, McTaggart was contemplating retirement and looking for a house in the Italian countryside. He quizzed every Italian in the office with a dinner-party game in which he asked them if they could live anywhere in the world, where it would be. HeÂ´d then shoot down every choice they made. HeÂ´d probably lived in or spent significant time in a couple dozen countries in his life, so he generally knew whereof he spoke. But his combative dinner conversational style, in which he good naturedly asked your opinion and then tried to bully you around to his own didnÂ´t set well with everyone.
His real information objective was to ask the natives if they could live anywhere in Italy, where it would be. He investigated beach houses in Sabaudia, Mountain houses in the Abruzzi. But a lot of answers clustered around Tuscany/Umbria. He appointed Domi his official house hunting companion. They roamed the countryside on weekends looking for places, and, inevitably, fell into a relationship which would eventually produce George, DavidÂ´s only son.
When David found his house, it was a roofless wreck nestled away on a dirt road amid the rolling hills of Umbria. Just what he was looking for. Unfortunately, it sat on a wreck of an olive farm which the owner wouldnÂ´t separate from the house. David knew nothing about olives. He didnÂ´t even like olives. But that was the deal if he wanted the house. He took it.
In 1991 David retired as active chair of Greenpeace International. He was granted an honorary position with some advisory functions, and budget for an assistant. He offered me a job combining that role, help with his own foundation work, help supervising the reconstruction of the other property on his land, and the administration of the olive farm. I took it.
And this was the train that Martha and I rode from Rome to Paciano with our two cats and our belongings, to begin what would be a three year stint among the olive groves. The olive harvest was always the turning point of the year, the time when all the yearÂ´s work literally bore fruit, when all of us would drop whatever we were doing to get up at dawn, work until sunset, for three weeks straight without a break. Until my sons were born, it was the only excuse I had as an adult to climb trees.