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Brunnenburg Castle 2008

An International Block Course in the Italian Alps

Students shuffle into the kitchen at Brunnenburg Castle, hot and sticky from a morning weeding the vineyard. Some sport bandanas; others wear wide-brimmed hats. Most have dirt-smeared knees and sandals layered with grime. Nevertheless, the conversation is cheerful as students spoon helpings of the day’s lunch onto their plates. And what a meal it is: There’s pasta in a mushroom, eggplant and cream sauce, a heaping salad of lettuce and tomatoes, bread just out of the oven, and for dessert, cake topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

At Brunnenburg, home of GMC’s first-ever international block course, lunch is an event – both cultural and culinary. Said student Amanda Dunn: “Never, ever miss lunch. They are the most amazing meals you’ll ever have.”

In the spring of 2008, 13 students spent three months living, working and studying at Brunnenburg, a 13th century castle in Dorf Tirol, Italy. Now an international study center and agricultural museum operated by the family of poet Ezra Pound, Brunnenburg is located in an autonomous province in northern Italy, a place where Italian and German influences weave together to create a distinct culture.

GMC’s block course takes advantage of this heritage by integrating hands-on experience with classroom lessons on agriculture, food production and consumption, natural sciences and literature. Specific courses vary depending on the professor accompanying the trip. In 2010, Prof. Mitchell LesCarbeau (English) focuses on humanities.

In 2008, GMC Prof. John Van Hoesen (geology) taught two courses: One explored how climate fluctuations influence civilizations throughout history, while the other focused on the historical consumption of geologic resources and subsequent impacts on society. Students also took an agroarchaeology course with Siegfried de Rachewiltz, Ezra Pound’s grandson; a class on food, culture and land with Siegfried’s wife, Brigitte; and a class on the life and work of Ezra Pound with Mary de Rachewiltz, Pound’s daughter.

This interdisciplinary approach to education has been a GMC signature since block courses were introduced in 1998. And it’s a philosophy Pound himself advocated. He referred to it as Paideuma, the Greek word for ‘education.’ “It’s a sense that every important aspect of an education ultimately has to be interdisciplinary,” said Sizzo, Pound’s grandson and director of Schloss Tirol, a major museum. “It has to interact. It’s an ecological way of thinking.”

So students at Brunnenburg studied the region’s mountain farmer culture, but also spent long hours getting their hands dirty. They weeded the vineyard, hauled stone for new livestock pens, planted herbs, and many other tasks. They read about the region’s history, then cooked traditional Tirolean dishes with Brigitte in the castle’s kitchen.

Amanda, a GMC junior with a self-designed major in agriculture and marine biology, describes life at Brunnenburg as a mix of the practical and visionary. She’ll remember the meals, for sure, but she’s also expanded her worldview. “I have been able to take a lot from here that I’ll be able to apply at home if I ever do have a farm or continue studying agriculture,” she said.

The culture itself provided valuable lessons, notes Ben Zimmerman, a student from Northland College who studied at Brunnenburg through an EcoLeague exchange. In this Alpine region, resources are valued in ways instructive to Americans. He points to the preservation of small-scale farming, food “being sold on the streets and not just in supermarkets,” and practices that work with the region’s steep terrain to conserve land as some of the cultural experiences he’ll remember.

“[I’ve seen] a lot of things preserved that we are hoping for in our country,” he said. “We have the capacity to do this; we can bring this back.”

For Sizzo, an expert on the region’s folk traditions, students who make these discoveries bring the experience full circle. “The life of the soil and the life of the human body and mind come together in what we might call the Brunnenburg Paideuma,” he said. “At the end, we hope people feel they’ve gotten a better footing in their own lives simply for spending three months on a steep slope.”


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