By Cecilia Seppia – Vatican City
During the first tough months of the pandemic, confined to online schooling, the children of the Caserta area waited anxiously in front of their computer screens for the Horticultura hour, impatient to discover, together with teachers, the secrets and ancient techniques of agriculture. To help them on this journey of environmental education, each of them had received a magic box, an Orto Box, containing everything they needed to create and take care of a vegetable garden: spades, hoes, lenses that transform cell phones into microscopes, magnets, bags with three types of soil differing in permeability and therefore in cultivable products, seeds, fertilizers, composts, plus educational guidelines to follow the experiments. After a long time, today they are back to getting their hands dirty in the best possible way: together with their classmates, in the open air, in museum gardens, the first created in Italy thanks to a truly unique initiative.
Horticultura is the brainchild of Terra Felix and Legambiente Geofilos which, together with other partners, accepted an opportunity offered by the Foundation, "Con i Bambini" to combat educational poverty among children. So far, it has created educational museum gardens at cultural heritage sites: the Royal Palace of Caserta, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, the Archaeological Museum of Agro Atellano, the Museum of Ancient Capua and the Campano Amphitheater. The children’s project, however, grew out of an idea which germinated among the elderly of this southern Italian region. For some years now, in fact, at the Casale di Teverolaccio, a 17th century property located in Succivo, a group of elderly men and women tend to a social garden.  These frail “grandparents” are a great source of wisdom, as the Pope says, but they are too often considered useless, unproductive and therefore are left on the margins of society. When the children from schools in the Caserta area came to visit the Casale and they met these white-haired gardeners, says Horticultura’s communications manager, Ivan Esposito, “they were amazed by their work, asking questions about how to cultivate the land, how to sow seeds, how to prepare the soil, receiving practical lessons but also discovering stories with an old-time flavor that sounded like wonderful fairy tales to their ears. It was precisely the elderly who gave us the cue to expand this experience that today combines art and environment, beauty and wisdom, care and protection not only of our cultural heritage, for which there is already a certain solicitude, but of an asset, the environment, which is still wounded and despised.”
Hoes in hand, preparing the gardens at the cultural sites, there are obviously adult workers. The some 400 children from the four elementary schools involved (IC Calcara of Marcianise, IC Mazzocchi of Capua Vetere, the DD Orta of Atella and CD Pompei of Naples), were divided into classes, then returned with teachers to cultivate the gardens: from planting, to maintenance, to cleaning up until the harvest, following the seasonality of herbs, fruit and vegetables, eventually bringing home the ripe fruits of their endeavors with much satisfaction and joy. "When the soil has to rest or the produce is germinating,” adds Esposito, “we work instead on environmental education, on healthy eating; we perform a series of experiments in physics or botany so that the children understand, for example, the importance of chlorophyll photosynthesis or composting and make them as aware as possible of what they eat or how nature works around them." The intergenerational exchange in this project is considered, as it should always be, a paradigm of inestimable value. "A vegetable garden," explains Esposito, "needs constant maintenance and care, so the bulk of the work is done by our ‘grandparent gardeners.’ If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be a usable garden where the young ones could do their activities those 3 or 4 times a month when they are physically present. They teach the children everything. They are far from inactive pensioners; on the contrary, they’re motivated and generous – that kind of generosity that generates social innovation. For their part, with the same patience and love, the young ones introduce them to the world of information technology, to the use of apps for the care of a vegetable garden or for healthy eating, and this exchange, this encounter on many levels, is like the yeast that ferments bread".
"Mens sana in corpore sano" can be read in a paragraph of Juvenal’s Satires: a Latin phrase handed down through the centuries that says a lot about how the first element of well-being and ecological balance is man himself in his completeness, to whom God, through nature and the environment, has given everything necessary for his well-being, nourishing the body and mind. "Our project,” continues Esposito, “echoes many important points recalled by Pope Francis in Laudato si’. For example, chapter 6 of the Encyclical is dedicated to ecological education, to the need to maintain the harmony that starts from inner growth. And this is the perspective with which we find ourselves working with children: to transmit to them the sense of responsibility towards our Common Home, the pleasure of cooperating with others, and the idea of maintaining psychophysical well-being. In fact, Horticultura also works on the themes of healthy eating and we know that many eating disorders have psychological and relational roots. Consumerism, among other things, leads to a misguided approach to food and ends up leading young people to turn to food to satiate their loneliness, their lack of self-acceptance and their suffering.  In chapter 6 of Laudato si’, the Pontiff also dwells on the value and importance of beauty, which in our project is embodied in art, in archaeological and cultural heritage, an integral part of our environment, which through the gardens are even more appreciated: many young people come to work in the gardens and then visit the museum sites and are enraptured.
But in this area, now sadly known as the Terra dei Fuochi, there is another serious problem: that of the eco-mafias, those mafia-like criminal organizations which conduct illegal activities that damage the environment, not only in terms of pollution or through the trafficking and illegal disposal of waste, but also through large-scale illegal building projects, forest fires and criminal activities in the agro-food market: a set of multi-million dollar environmental crimes which obviously impoverish the territory and its citizens. Despite this, the "positive fertilizer" of Horticultura, manages to set roots here. "Between the provinces of Naples and Caserta, from the ’90s onwards,” continues Esposito, “the trafficking of waste of all kinds and the illegal disposal of refuse buried in the countryside, have released many toxic substances into the environment which are harmful to humans, causing material damage and widespread health problems, affecting even children. The eco-mafias have the same consumerist mentality, because they reduce nature and people to objects, things that are their property. Therefore, it seemed to us that the necessary way in which to promote change was through the recovery of beauty, proper cultivation, organic food, being attentive to biodiversity, and even more importantly, providing an environmental education that can form and awaken eco-awareness in our territory, so rich yet so full of pockets of degradation.”
In order to recondition these places and remove them from the power grip of the mafias and return them to the community, the project has already achieved an excellent result in the Royal Park surrounding the Royal Palace of Caserta, precisely in the Liparoti district, built in 1769 to accommodate the sailors of Lipari. By the end of the year, the former village will be transformed into an experimental welcome area, for the first time offering workspaces and educational activities: "helping children to rediscover farming and a connection to the land also means helping the whole community to rediscover itself and its most authentic vocation,” says Esposito, “and from here, we can conceptualize together models of development that are better than those carried out so far, based mostly on land consumption and real estate speculation, for years the main source of profit for organized crime. What we are doing therefore, is forging a change of course, an ecological conversion, which begins with the smallest ones but aims to involve everyone. The 1500 square meter area of Liparoti was littered with waste and material of various kinds and engulfed by vegetation; there were shacks and illegal structures, made of sheet metal and recycled objects of all kinds. Fences, tool sheds, chicken coops. After reclaiming the entire area from weeds, brushwood and brambles, construction rubble, metal, plastic and asbestos were found. Horticultura offered an opportunity to immediately take advantage of the cleared and restored area, dedicating it to something beautiful and useful.”
Transporting the Horticultura project around the streets and to the town squares of the territories involved is the Ortobus, a low environmental impact electric van, decorated with colorful stickers of fruits and vegetables.  At each stop, it reveals its treasures, laying out interactive games for children aged 6 to 10 years, developing the typical Horticultura themes: healthy eating, agriculture, food traditions, working especially to combat educational poverty. "Many children,” says Esposito, “today are convinced that the things we eat grow on the shelves of the supermarket and the human being is relegated to the dimension of buyer, consumer, and this means that we adults have not been able so far to convey to them our true bond with nature, with the environment. For young people, we are not interconnected at all, but they must understand that this link is there and it is very strong: we exist by virtue of the environment. Particularly here, where organized crime has invested in offending the environment by encouraging a culture and an economy of death, we want to act as a counterbalance through beauty and redevelopment. The Ortobus is already attracting a lot of support and encouragement and there are many children from other schools who are going to archaeological sites to visit the museum gardens, many teachers who want to replicate the gardening experience in their institutions, given its educational versatility: after all, the garden is nothing more than a large outdoor classroom where you can teach science live, understand and connect to the earth and also get closer to art and history."
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