A sylvan saga

We have planted scores and scores of trees on our land.  When we bought the place, the first thing we did was to even up the periphery of scrub brush with a bulldozer, leaving a pristine and intimidating plateau of soil.  It was a  blank slate on which to write about my favorite subject.  Trees!

First we built a safe house for our tools, a tufo block potting shed.  It was our first attempt at a dry-stacked structure.  Mortar cannot be used to build without a permit, so dry sand is used to level out the heavy bricks, and there are many of these structures dotting the countryside.  Even after fifty years or more, many are still standing solidly.   Now we could begin the first really big improvement :   delineating the perimeter of the land with Arizona cypress.     We dug the holes taking turns with the hoe, a total of about 900 of these the first year.    As we had no irrigation water during the winter months,  I had to haul water in plastic drums from the nearest public fountain to keep the tiny trees alive as the weather heated up.  They are now, after twenty-five years, enormous and confident.

After these came others.  Orange and tangerine, loquat, plum, peach, cherry, persimmon,  filbert, some new olives to round out their numbers, and deciduous decorative trees as well as pines, eucalyptus and firs.  I lost count somewhere along the way, and even so I am always on the lookout for a place where I can insert a new tree without causing the place to become claustrophobic.  I love trees, and it shows, as the light inside our house fades and is blocked by foliage. Winter is our brightest season.

                  painting:   “Treeline”  oil on canvas, 2010

My younger son  has always been intrigued with weapons, cutting tools either home-made, bought, or imaginary.   These were used  to lunge and feint,  attacking  leafy foe and liberally carving up chips of bark.   He was impervious to my pleas to have mercy on the trees, and sword-slashes and nicks made by various blades would regularly appear at waist-level on their trunks.  Accumulations of buds and leaves might be seen in less-visible areas of the yard,  small ninja harvests.     The trees around the house have cuts dating from when he was as little as three, and the scars have deepened and become permanent features of the trunks of the living things which continue to bear them with grim and silent tolerance.  The bark swells and gathers itself in a hug around the wounds, and preserves the moment for future contemplation.    Thick and pouting,  abrupt to the touch, they  are the essential statement  of  “little boy,” written in braille.

Our house is now equipped with a wood-burning fireplace for heat.  We gave up using natural gas because it was so expensive, and now the house is rigged with what they call a “camino-caldaia” which pumps fireplace-heated water to all the radiators.  It is a job keeping it stoked, but it works wonderfully.  Our trees are providing a wealth of wood for the pile, as they lose limbs and have to be pruned.  It is my hope that I can replace the wood burned with new growth, and somehow be accountable for the smoke we produce by providing a forest of filtering leaves.

Trees are truly a renewable resource, as long as there is enough water to get them through their formative years.   It is incredible that a tree, when stressed, will shed its leaves not only to transpire less moisture, but to create a carpet to shade its own roots and conserve water.   The leaves provide an enormous surface area that traps humidity and drips it into the roots below.   Their roots will form a solid mat during the summer, and many times I have to hack flower pots free in the  Autumn because roots have discovered them and anchored them to the ground.  The story of our septic tank and roots is a chronicle of war, with many battles won and lost.

Each accidental lawnmower nick  to a root will create a new tree.  They are eternally hopeful.   There can never be too many trees, and the noisy concert  outside my window indicates that the birds agree.

painting:  “New Owner”   pastel on  paper, 2010

Critters (chapter two, speaking of pigs)

Years ago, when the wheat crop was too small to sell, we ended up with a small pile of unsalable  grain in front of our gate.  As night fell we found we had a visitor who was nibbling away at the pile.  I heard the dogs becoming agitated, barking furiously with that steady staccato rhythm which means, “Come and see, this is important!”  I got there just in time to see a black shape, the size of a calf, shambling off into the brush of the fosso.  I wondered how a calf might have found its way to our gate, but stranger things have happened.  The next morning I discovered deep prints in the soft soil of our apricot orchard that showed clearly that the animal had been a boar, and a huge one.  I was so impressed by the size of the prints that I mixed up some plaster and cast a mold of one of the prints, which I still keep as a memento.
These days, what was once a rare occurance has become commonplace.  We have boar!    And by this I don’t intend the usual feral pigs which have reverted from farm stock, but huge, unkempt and tusked porkers that have been in these woods forever.    Recently they have been augmented by the hunting associations which set free young boar during the  Spring into the woodsy areas.  The contadini* are not at all pleased with this development, as they often see their hard work destroyed by these rooting beasts during the night.  One evening I barely avoided hitting one one which galloped across the road in front of my car, slavering and wild-eyed in the moonlight.  It was as tall as the hood of my tallish SUV, and I am thankful we avoided impact as it would not have ended nicely for either of us.
                                    painting:  “Colline, Pomarico”  pastel on paper, 2011
When I go walking with my dogs, I often take pepper spray.  The woods are dense, and signs of the wild  boars’ nighttime activities are everywhere.  They can ruin a field of vegetables in a couple of hours, and will strip an olive tree of bark if it appeals to them to use it as a scratching post.  I once saw a Fiat 600—a smallish, but by no means microscopic automobile—-with a freshly-killed boar strapped onto the roof.  A hoof dangled over each window and its head lolled down over the windshield.  The tires on the car were flattened and it was stranded by the sheer weight of the creature.  Somebody had quite a barbeque that weekend.   I hope they invited lots of  friends.
On another occasion, I was summoned  again by frantic barking, and as I peered out toward the front gate I saw not one but five boar milling around.  My son and I immediately had the idea that feeding them dry dog food might be amusing. Never ones to let common sense interfere with our fun,  I gave him a bucket.  He climbed up onto our big iron gate and perched there, throwing out kibble as a king might have strewn gold coins.  Or was that pearls?  When the bucket was empty, we were faced with the fact that now they wouldn’t  go away!  From that day they would regularly return, of course, looking for more free food, and we could hardly get the car out of the gate for fear that they would come inside.   Luckily it was the golden age of  my  boys’ all-consuming interest in air rifles, so a couple of well-placed stinging shots in their nether parts  solved our self-created problem.  I’m afraid that particular group ended the Autumn season as spicy meatballs because we never saw them again.  I understand that I am  probably to blame  for having introduced them to the “nice” humans.  I can put my imaginary  “Hunter’s Friend” trophy on the mantelpiece next to the lump of coal that I earned from the scrofulous swine ranks for my dirty deed.
Sometimes  friends who hunt will bring us a cut of boar meat.  It is always a moment in culinary perplexity for me because the meat is very gamey and requires specific preparation which involves soaking in brine and such.  I did once manage to create a wonderful stufata di carne* with the meat, but I’m afraid it was a one-time endeavor.   I have to admit that most of it, after occupying a forgotten corner of my freezer for a couple of years,  has gone towards an excellent repast for the dogs.   But even though I’m not the most appreciative consumer of boar meat, I have a healthy respect for all things cinghiale* these days.   I can only hope they maintain enough respect for me to steer clear when I am out and about in the fields.
*contadini : small farmers
*stufata di carne :  meat stew
*cinghiale : wild boar

Another day, another pig

Some families choose to work the land and they resist gentrifying themselves by moving to  town.   Over time and generations, these rural families can grow quite large and form veritable small villages, or in contrast,  the attrition rate of family members can be almost total, and the remaining “country” nucleus may dwindle to one or two people.  In the years since I have been here, the preference for city living, once very strong,  has shifted, and more people are moving back to their  farmland plots.  The life of the contadino, once  considered a necessary evil, is now looking better and better.  Although these days it requires a larger investment in money than in time.

A family I know of— and I will justify my sources only by saying that they are in the grapevine and therefore as believable as any—was preparing for the winter by slaughtering a pig.  The process is intense, as you know, and only slightly more traumatic for the pig than for the perpetrators.  This small family consisted of mother father and son, the others having moved back to town. The pig had just been divided into two parts and hung for  further division into butcher-sized cuts, when an urgent phone call arrived.  There had been a death in the family, and in a neighboring town a wake and a funeral requested their presence.  It was very cold, and the parents packed the car and headed off, leaving the son to guard the house and prepare for eventualities of bad weather.

The son was in his early twenties, and a healthy example of what fresh air and abundant food can do for someone, even with relatives averaging under five and a half feet tall.  In other words, he was a large guy, “nu frigoriforuh,”*  as they say here.  It snowed that weekend , a rare occurrence in this valley even in full winter, and the parents were unable to return for two extra days.  Upon their reentry they were immediately mystified by the disappearance of all things pertaining to the slaughter, and  quite pleased that evidently the son had carried out the  necessary conservation and cleanup in their absence.  But they were met with furtive eyes and a baffling lack of smugness in reaction to their praise.

As it turned out, the cold weather had whetted his vigorous appetite.  The son, foreseeing that groceries probably were not to be forthcoming that weekend,  had started in on the pig, sampling various cuts and preparations.  One serving led to another, and over the course of 72 hours the two-hundred pound carcass grew progressively slimmer.  A moral might be that  you can make your own bacon instead of bringing it home, but that won’t necessarily make you any richer.  Not when you are dealing with temptation and a large appetite.  Over the weekend the young man had eaten the entire pig!

painting:  “The Importance of Dinner”  gouache and   pencil on paper, 2004

*(a refrigerator)

Time in layers

“Vallata in bianco e nero”  pencil on paper, 2005


We built our house on the edge of a gorge, or fosso, which hasn’t really changed its topology in thousands of years.  How do I know this?  The ground is strewn with bits and pieces of stone and ceramic,  everything from  tools to neolithic pottery to Greek black  and red figure fragments.  Concentrations of shards, roof tiles,  and blackened areas filled with river stones still speak clearly of the habitations which once filled the countryside.   At least until the advent of large tractors, which have reduced many of these sites to vague concentrations  of smaller and smaller fragments, yet they are  still identifiable.   Down in the gorge below, an area where tractors are absent, there are deep trails through the woods which have been used for a thousand years by goatherds with their flocks, as they still are today.

Research has shown that the countryside hereabouts, from north of Pisticci to the sea, was divided up into parcels of a couple of acres per family.  The town of Metapontum, founded in 800 BC, was the central hub for an extensive farming community, and the countryside was even more populated back then than it is now.  The area was known as Magna Graecia and it was the breadbasket for the Greeks five hundred years before Christ. Wheat was the most popular emblem on coins of the time.   They also used the extensive deciduous forests as a source of wood for their ships, and the barren hills still testify to overuse of this resource.

Before the Greeks there were indigenous  populations, and before them there were paleolithic peoples who left stone tools and fragments from their creation.  A friend who is an expert in the area tells me that some of the lithics that I have found are up to twenty thousand years old.   I have  a collection of them, and my favorite is  a large, six-pound round river stone with thumb-sized twin indentations on opposite sides,  used for cracking almonds or hazelnuts.  I love to think that it has been migrating around the surface of the same field for ten thousand years, waiting for the day I stumbled upon it and moved it to its new, only temporary, home on my mantelpiece.  I have a crude, potato-like elongated stone that was some kind of knife, and loads of  chips and tiny sharp bits of stone, probably rejects from the day of their creation,  as someone tried to learn the art of flintknapping around the fire.  Each new plowing refreshes the possible finds, like a new set of numbers at the lottery.  A rain will dissolve the clods of soil and leave smooth flints balanced on small pyramids  like offerings.   It is like a never-ending Easter egg hunt.  Very few people around my area have any interest whatsoever in collecting stones, so I have them to myself and I suffer very little guilt about my prehistoric kleptomania.


We live at the end of a longish gravel road, so coming or going we pass parcels of land belonging to various families; small garden plots, lines of olives, wheat, and oranges.   Often the owner is out working his plot and so we salute each other as we pass.  If for some reason it is a day of errands, we may pass by the same person a number of times in a day, yet never would we dream of failing to repeat the gesture each time.  This ranges from stopping to chat,  a wave, a beep on the car horn, or the characteristic  poker-faced upward nod of the chin.   The gentleman who  pruned our olive trees, who has since passed on, would  station himself regularly  near  the road, observing every passage. We dreaded seeing the palm of his hand which meant, “Stop!  A word with you.”  A “word” being an intricate tale of horticultural intrigue, accusations of obscure doings on the part of  those sharing a boundary, or just a chat about the weather.  We called him the dogana, or customs agent, and we would breath  a sigh of relief on the days when he was absent.  I might even have gone so far as to hunt furiously for something under my seat or fake an urgent cell phone call to avoid having to stop.  I miss him, sometimes.

Another man, older and a little strange in his ways, never failed to confer  his greeting even if involved in activities better observed in privacy.  One morning, glimpsing the top of a bald head above the wheat stubble, I prepared to greet him as I passed.  It was only as I came upon him that I realized that he was answering the urgent call of nature, pants around his ankles in the trampled hay.  Hardly had the realization kicked in and I, in shock, turned my concentrated attention back to the road, then I realized he was cheerfully waving and yelling out an enthusiastic “Buon Giorno!”   As I,  as we,  passed.

A different morning, as I drove past this same man’s plot between the olives, I heard my name.  As I proceeded I saw  in my rear view mirror that someone was gesticulating frantically from the upper branches of the tree, calling me back with the characteristic wide downward arc of his arm.  Lord, I thought, he has accidentally kicked his ladder down and needs help to climb out of the tree.  So I threw the car in reverse and backed quickly to place myself  under the tree to see and hear him better.  He continued to wave his arms at me and yell, until I managed to make out clearly that he was saying, “Sandra!  Hurry, move out from under the tree, the branch I am cutting is about to fall!!”  Thinking to myself, “We live in the same place but in different logical universes,” I agreed and went on my way, thanking him for calling me back to warn me.

At the beginning of our road, years back, a retired carabiniere commander bought a large parcel of land and planted an extensive orange orchard.  His trees were just getting started, robust and dark green with growth, when one night someone went in and systematically cut each one off, leaving  a foot of forlorn trunk.   Someone with which he had interacted in the past apparently had nurtured a grudge.  But rather than succumbing  to discouragement, he  regrafted a better stock onto the trunks and today they are wonderful example of the lemonade one can make with lemons, or oranges.  His greeting is always  unassuming.  We appreciate the fact that he is the only person we have seen  who will repair a pothole on the public tract of road, even though this action might benefit others as well as himself.  Most folks around here would never dream of making a reparation which others might  enjoy vicariously.

A good cristiano  (which means god-fearing person, of any religion)  always greets another that he knows,  even if the number of greetings to the same person in a morning verges on the farcical.  I am not so fond, when navigating my way through a big American city from supermarket to mall to sidewalk, of adapting my behavior to avoid creating  ripples in the flow of everyone’s anonymity.   Eyes downcast and small device in hand, an electronic crutch to lean on when pressed too close together, everyone tries to avoid unnecessary  contact with one’s fellow humans. Here, the greeting is vital.  You know when someone has been seriously offended because they will “togliere il saluto”  which means” take away their greeting.”  When this happens, and it does sometimes, everyone notices the vaccuum created in the comforting, and human,  flow of things.

painting:  “La Strada per Montescaglioso”  pastel on paper, 2001

Olive oil is expensive for a reason

I have read many accounts over the years by people who have moved to Italy in order to live out their dream; a simpler life filled with good food, kind neighbors, good wine, and a more relaxed rhythm.  Ah yes, the dream.  Some of these accounts give the idea that having olive trees and making your own oil fits snugly into the category of “simple things,” but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.  One rather successful writer told of undertaking–and completing– the pruning of her trees over a weekend.  Very poetic.    Maybe she did her pruning with a chainsaw and cut her trees off at the base, because that would have been the only way she could have completed the task in so little time.

Establishing a tree which will produce fruit for many years is more than an art:  it is a long and detailed process which requires a depth of knowledge that most people simply cannot hope to absorb if they come to the study later in life.  When we bought our land it already had a number of older trees on it, and we have planted new ones to augment the harvest.  Ours have been helped along through their formative years by a couple of older men who,  each a maestro of pruning in his own right, have had very different views on correct methodology.  Some pruners keep their trees chopped back and tortured into bony shapes, others leave more small branches, both in the search for the vital equilibrium between strength of tree and amount of fruit production.  I still don’t know which of our crotchety gentlemen can claim superior results.   All I can say is that I thought I could learn myself, and I am humbled in my acceptance that, other than cosmetic touch-ups, it simply is not to be.

A healthy  olive tree, left to its own devices, will turn into a black hole of foliage, sucking the light out of its own surroundings.  Pruning it into shape is for its own good, even if the tree may not be easily convinced.    Knowing where to make the master cut, which has to be done every few years,  is an art in itself.   The sopacavadd*, which establishes the maximum height  attainable by a tree, lops off the main branches which strive skyward.  If this isn’t done, it becomes almost impossible to pick the olives with even the tallest ladder.  These shoots will also encourage the rest of the tree to hold back on production.   After the cuts are made, the  profile of the tree becomes something akin to a giant rheumatic and knuckly spider, crouching over its downward-hanging greenery, but entirely devoid of leaves at the top.   It will need a year to recover, but it will bear more fruit.  It takes an expert  up to an entire  long day to do the pruning of one mature tree correctly.  The rest of the branches will be carefully thinned to leave only those which hang downward, which makes raking the fruit from the branches much easier.  The olives fall  into a large piece of netting which is placed around the base of the tree in November for the harvest.  The use of  the new, and in my opinion  horrible,  vibrating harvesters still accounts for only about twenty percent of labor.  Most are still gathered by  friends and family on ladders spending day after day, raking down the fruit and loading it into plastic crates,  packing those  into cars,  ferrying them to the  frantoio. Every town has one.  It is worth a visit to this large and active  pressing mill during harvest season–it is a hopping place, and your crates will be labeled and stacked carefully to avoid any ambiguity.  One’s oil is a very personal, and jealously guarded, commodity.

I always thought, “How wonderful to harvest my own olives and make my own oil!”    until I saw how labor-intensive the process was.  Now we offer the pleasure of the actual harvesting to friends and acquaintances who are willing, and we split the oil fifty-fifty with them.  It seems like the perfect arrangement: they don’t pay for the oil, and I am free to paint.  We normally give away at least half of the oil we produce, even after splitting the initial yield.

Most trees have a heavy harvest every two years, and a light to negligible production in off- years.  There is a cursory pruning around harvest time, but the main one takes place in early Spring,  and results in piles of greenery that is utilized on March 19,  for the Festa of San Giuseppe.   These cuttings are dragged  by the tractorful into town and piled in huge towers to be kindled into raging fires at sunset.  It is a delightfully smoky solution to getting rid of the cuttings,  and simultaneously  placating the pyromaniacal urges in all of us.  These falo are accompanied by the traditional dish of pasta e ceci, (pasta with chickpeas) served free to all  out of giant cauldrons, and zeppole, which are fried or baked bignet  filled with pastry creme and topped with a bitter cherry, or amarena.  It is a rite of passage from Winter into Spring.  I always hope for wind on March 19, because otherwise a pall of smoke can hang over the town for hours.

Olive  trees are resistant to almost every vicissitude of  climate, and even fire will not easily kill them.  They grit their teeth and stand as all of their growth toward the light of heaven is hacked away  and they become  skeletal shadows  of their former selves.  They have a capacity for suckering–sprouting hundreds of small shoots from the base– and it can be incredibly time-consuming to keep these trimmed back if you have a lot of trees.   Every pruning cut anywhere on the tree will lead to a number of new shoots which in a year will have grown thick enough to require the big guns:   heavy loppers or a hatchet.  I can almost hear the trees snickering as I flail away with my tools in the hopes of creating a picture-perfect landscape.  They have been here many more years than me, and they will be here long after I am gone.   An olive tree has all the time in the world;  the ulivo  bides.

drawing:  “Ulivo 2 (Tree of Souls)”  pencil and gold leaf on paper  2009

*(dialect, Italian: sopracavallo)