Ever since my childhood, I have been, like many other people, driven by the questions of who I am and why things are as they are. To answer these questions, for me, any tool would do: natural sciences, fine arts, music, philosophy, meditation – or preferably all of them.
So I started out with studying physics, mathematics and biology. Because of my all-time favorite teachers, Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz and Rupert Riedl, I soon gravitated more and more towards biology.
But one day, Alfred Czerny – a very talented sculptor whose work I admired – gifted me with a rock of sandstone, a bit less than a meter in diameter, and, teasing my pride, he said: ‘If you can carve an egg from that, you probably can do anything.’ I couldn’t handle hammer and chisel, so I replaced it with an ax, carved the egg and smoothly polished it with glass paper. Czerny looked at the egg, and then at me, and said: ‘Take your egg and come!’ He took me and the stone egg to his former teacher who happened to be Fritz Wotruba, the internationally renowned sculptor, head of the sculpting department in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and leader of its most prestigious masterclass. Grumpy and squinting his eyes, the professor scrutinized the egg from every corner. Already turning away, he finally mumbled: ‘I shall expect you at the start of the semester in my class, no entrance examination necessary!’ and left. So the student of science became a student of the arts.
Wotruba was an extremely well-read and charismatic teacher who taught me what I had missed in the sciences. He always said, ‘Art probably is the soul of humanity’. But when after a year of big efforts I still couldn’t draw a human body to my satisfaction, I enrolled in medicine, parallel to sculpting, and studied anatomy in depth by dissecting and drawing every muscle, nerve and artery. I did this daily for two years, until it did the trick. Since then I didn’t need a model anymore.
One morning, on the way to the academy, a poster caught my eye which read: ‘We are founding a theater group and are looking for a director and a stage designer.’ That sounded interesting, so I applied and directed and designed my first theater. It was so much fun and such a success that I thought, ‘Why not just do that for the rest of my life?’ I went to Wotruba telling him about my plans, but he just shouted and ‘ordered’ me to finish my studies first – then I may go to hell! Meekly I went back to the class and finished my studies in sculpting, but never after worked in that field.
Fate wanted that the completion of my studies coincided with the installment of a new general manager at the Vienna State Opera. Having been an extra at the opera since my teens, I knew every opera by heart and when I heard they were looking for an assistant for the stage, I applied and won the job. Soon I advanced to stage director (‘Abendspielleiter’), working with stars like Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Franco Zeffirelli, Luciano Pavarotti and many others; a very exciting time, last but not least because I also became father of two wonderful children, first my son Domenico, and then my daughter Margherita. Life was fine. After a while though it dawned on me that at my workplace in the opera I had reached the ceiling. If I wanted to direct an opera or theater myself I would need to go to smaller houses. So, when I received the offer to direct and design a play in the city theater of Münster, I quit and went to Germany.
One thing led to another until I found myself in New York, the city of my dreams, directing and designing plays at various theaters including the world-renowned La Mama ETC, and eventually running my own stage, the One Night Stand Theater. Eight years later personal circumstances eventually caused me to sadly leave New York. But since I couldn’t imagine living in any Western city other than New York, I went to Asia, which turned my life upside down. It may not have been my happiest time, but for sure it was a time full of extreme experiences and learning that I never would have wanted to miss.
First stop: Thailand. Not so keen on life in Bangkok, what appealed to me was a little temple with no electriic lights which I found in the jungle of Kanchanaburi. The silence, darkness, wilderness, and also the ascetic monk’s life fascinated me. When the head monk asked me if I would like to paint the walls of his temple with Buddhist stories, I instantly agreed. Before, though, I asked him to grant me one year’s time to study traditional Thai painting, culture and language. I never planned to paint ‘Thai style’ but what I wanted was to deeply understand what Thai culture and sensibility possibly could be before making any brush stroke on these sacred walls. The monk agreed.
The following weekend I went to Cambodia, which still was afflicted by the civil war, to visit the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. By chance I was introduced to the former court painter of the King of Thailand. For some reasons the royal artist had to flee his home country for Cambodia. He gathered a few students for Thai art and lived under extremely simple circumstances in the outskirts of the ancient temple town. I told him my story and asked him if he possibly could teach me. After he let me draw a few spirals and snake lines with a tiny brush, made from hair of mouse ears, he agreed. I slept without a mattress on a wooden floor, took showers from a barrel, extensive meditation every day, ate scorpions and other insects, admired the full moon rising over Angkor’s temples with drunken soldiers guarding them, witnessed the teacher when he discovered a thousand-year-old Khmer relief in the shallow rocky river bed … A universe had opened up to me I never thought it would exist. More than a year I spent with these extraordinary people, made friends for life and returned to Thailand, to the little temple in the jungle with no electric lights, ready to ordain as a monk and start the work.
But it should come differently. Meanwhile, a Chinese businessman had donated electricity to the temple. The former darkness was replaced now with harsh and fluorescent lights, and blasting loudspeakers were greeting tourists. I left.
Back in Bangkok I now dived into the ‘Ramakien’, the Thai version of the vast Indian mythological epic Ramayana, which I had already studied with my teacher in Cambodia. 100,000 verses of poetry about gods and demons, white and golden monkeys and the hero Rama, a fascinating illustration of the human mind, are painted in miniatures on walls, 400 meters long, surrounding the Grand Palace.
These paintings, originally dating from the 1700s, were whitewashed and repainted every 50 years. ‘Don’t hang on to anything’ was the training the artists had to undergo. The scope of this titanic work may have even dwarfed Michelangelo’s Sistina. Over the course of the following years, my fascination grew into an analysis comprising several volumes, 3,000 pages altogether, all of which got lost at once when the store clerk transferred the files into my new computer. If sabotage had played a role I probably will never know for sure. The Thais are very protective of their art and culture. But ‘Don’t hang on to anything’ I certainly was forced to learn.
Lost and depressed, all the demons of my past began to surface. To get a grip on them, I wrote another book, this time about my past and my relation with my parents. That brought clarity and power to continue.
During a dinner in Bangkok, someone offered me 26 hectares of wasteland in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in Thailand. The land had no documents and therefore a price tag that can only be called ‘symbolic’. Deeply concerned by the rampant destruction of the environment, I took the land with the goal to reforest it and to revive the creek that once flew around the hill. I learned whatever I could find about the ecology of tropical rainforests and consulted with many experts about methods of reforestation. Eventually, at the onset of the rainy season, I planted a couple of thousand seedlings on the deserted land. The trees grew well and when they started to look like a fledgling forest, disaster struck again. The sign ‘Please don’t hunt’ which I put up at the entry of my land was riddled with nine bullet holes. It should have warned me. But when I ignored it they said: ‘It took us so much effort to cut down those bloody trees and now that stupid foreigner wants to bring them all back again!’ and burned down the land with all my trees. Apart from training once again ‘Don’t hang on to anything!’, I learned that conservation doesn’t stop at planting trees…
But the thought of reforestation and ecological restoration never left me. Again, I submersed myself in studies, took courses in soil biology with Elaine Ingham, added permaculture with Jeff Lawton and, foremost, ecology and systems theory with Fritjof Capra. During this time, Thailand deteriorated environmentally and politically to an extent that I decided to move on. First to Bali (not my cup of tea) and then to Sri Lanka where I had some life-changing experiences when I got lost for 40 hours in the jungle of the sacred Singharaja Forest. I loved the country but still continued my odyssey to eventually conclude it in Costa Rica. When I arrived here I felt instantly that I really had arrived. Nature and biodiversity are stunning, a quarter of the country is under protection, recreational hunting is prohibited and there is no army. All that together, I reckoned, was as close to a worldly paradise as it could get.
My arrival in Costa Rica coincided with the opportunity to take another course in permacultural design and another one in teacher training, both with Scott Pittmann, the pinnacle of permaculture. Pittman definitely catalyzed my decision to finally manifest what I had learned and do whatever was within my reach. I acquired a piece of badly degraded land with the goal to revive the ailing soil, create a wildlife sanctuary and integrate myself as a positive member into the ecosystem at large. I wanted to find out what exactly the responsibility of us humans in the maintenance of the ecosystem is, and how much the line between human settlements and wilderness could be blurred – to the benefit of both.
Experts warned that it would take at least seven years to restore the soil and I would need chemical fertilizers at least until the trees are strong enough to survive on their own. But I refused the chemicals and used special plants and microorganisms instead. Within half of the predicted time the soil had been ressurrected.
Its biome is thriving now and scores of animals are returning by the days: a family of river otters is playing in our creek, greater grisons, the rarest mammal in Costa Rica, are stealing our chicken, the rare boat-billed herons built their nests and just started their second colony. Curassows, another species threatened by extinction, and green ibis, usually only seen on the Atlantic side, are all breeding here. And in our camera traps we find ocelots, tayras, pumas and jaguarundis … so, something definitely is working!
We are now reaching out beyond our borders, trying to spread the seed of our approach to restoration and reintegrating human settlements into natural ecosystems for the benefit of all. If you want to know more and follow our journey, please read our blog or explore our methods here.