Ode to the eucalyptus

It is summer again; a particularly rough one this year.  No rain, and then no rain, and heat that is epic and relentless.  Poplars, plane trees, loquats and willows and  almonds;   all are losing their leaves to the wind and scorching sun, and the smoke from the fires that are never far away adds a red filter to the landscape.  But trees are intelligent, and by throwing their leaves to the ground  they conserve their diminishing reserves by transpiring less moisture to the air, and at the same time create their own mulch as dropped leaves carpet their personal patch of soil.  It is sad to see, and their humans can be seen on watering days dragging rubber hoses around like ships’ anchors, sweating and swearing in consternation at the lack of moderation that nature sometimes exhibits.

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And yet there is a tree here in Italy (where it was introduced and thrived just as it has in any  temperate climate where ships and currents  have brought its seeds the world over) which seems to luxuriate in this weather.   Not drought, not floods, not cold (not too cold!) not even fire or the ax can deter them from occupying their position as conquering barbarian horticultural horde.  They persist, gritting their woody teeth and snickering at their vegetable cousins’  frail designer foliage.

With this in mind, I would like to post my favorite description of Eucalyptus trees, written by a fabulous author who traveled in this area over a hundred years ago.  He was a character, and I highly recommend my favorite book by him, “Old Calabria.”   His name was Norman Douglas and he was an undisciplined, embibing  Scottish wanderer with pedophile tendencies, a world traveler with no fear, and a tough old coot who could really write.

From “Old Calabria,” *  the author describes his distaste for these trees as he makes his way from the station of Policoro up toward Rossano Calabro, localities which are about fifteen miles from our house:

“You walk…from the station along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago.”  (circa 1875)  “Detesting, as I do, the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts have disfigured the entire Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria.  Soon enough they will learn that instead of preventing the disease,  it actually fosters it, by harboring clouds of mosquitoes under its scraggy so-called foliage.  These abominations may look better on their native heath:  I sincerely hope they do.  Judging by the “Dead Heart of Australia”–a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover– I should say that a varnished hop-pole would be an artistic godsend out there.

But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy.  A single eucalyptus will ruin the fairest landscape.  No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through those everlastingly withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chattering of ghosts.  Its oil is called “medicinal” only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue–objectionable, above all things, in its perverse, anti-human habits.  What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves–as if these were not narrow enough already!–towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade and maximum of discomfort to mankind?

But I confess that this avenue of Policoro  almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans.  Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil)  their foliage is here thickly tufted; it glows like burnished bronze in the sunshine, like enameled scales of green and gold.  These eucalypti are unique in Italy.  Gazing upon them, my heart softened and I almost forgave the gums their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect of precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing short of a scandal on this side of the globe…”eucalyptus summer 2017

 

  •  Norman Douglas.  Old Calabria, forward by Jon Manchip White, 1993 edition, The Marlboro Press, original publication 1915.  page 95-96
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Garbage (this grass is not greener)

 

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Bella l’Italia!   Shiny square pavement stones in antique piazzas, ornate iron balconies, yellow plastic buckets; street market with colorful produce, green plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets, yellow plastic buckets; strollers out for the passeggiata, cool evening breeze, blue plastic buckets, green plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets; shop windows glowing (yellow plastic bucket, gray plastic bucket, blue plastic bucket) with interesting merchandise;  people at the cafe drinking (blue plastic, yellow plastic, green plastic, gray plastic) Campari and having appetizers; narrow (gray plastic bucket)streets  (yellow plastic bucket) lined  (blue plastic bucket) with….yellow plastic buckets, blue plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets…what is that horrible smell?.. green plastic buckets, another row of  plastic buckets and more plastic buckets after those.  A conga line of plastic  covering every few feet of sidewalk;  a colorful and crowded PVC parking lot.

 

Hoorah, we have solved the garbage problem!   Here in Bernalda the local movers and shakers have decided, thanks to some obscure European directive and an excess of optimistic organizing zeal, (and remember that Hell itself has Italians as the organizers, while its  chefs are all British)  that modern society’s embarrassing effluvium must be sorted.   Ah!  What green thoughts!   Let us by all means sort.   Let us follow the Progressive operational thought pattern  which places all emphasis on hopes,  dreams, and injudicious optimism, and none on final outcome.   It is the thought that counts!

We have been issued buckets.   Each household will have a green one, a yellow one, a blue one, a gray one, a brown one.   One for glass and metal which must be clean (washing out the dogfood cans is one of my favorite tasks, and do not forget to remove the paper label!) or it will never be picked up.   One for clean plastic.   (I said clean, so get out the soapy water again to wash out that juice bottle!)   If the plastic is deemed unclean, it will never be picked up.  One for paper, and yes, dare I say it must be clean paper, no used paper here.  No oil spots, no soap residue, no pizza stains.   The bucket will be shaken, and if the music isn’t right it will not be emptied.  It will be opened for inspection, and if failed, it will not be collected.   One for organic detritus, which accounts for the smell factor.   And lastly, one for “indifferentiated” items.  This describes all other refuse which is either stained, greasy, of mixed materials, or otherwise not identified items (I will let your immagination run wild here, but remember babies don’t wear diapers for fashion).

We have all been hired for a new job!   It takes a chunk out of the day, sorting through the garbage in order to place it in the appropriate cannisters.   And here is the most diabolically clever  part of the plan:  Each cannister is to be picked up on a different day!   So if, like us, you live at the end of a long country road, there is the obligation to carry UP the correct bucket for that day, and carry BACK  yesterday’s color to fill again.   Of course, while the wait ensues for the “waste managers” to arrive you will need yet another bucket as a temporary receptacle.  This system is particularly noxious when the summer temperatures are high and the organic refuse becomes a petri dish producing alarming odors. *   Where there are wild dogs and hogs and cats…some extra clean-up will also be required by the homeowner.

Need I add that the “waste managers” are not punctual?

If we understand our own human natures,  might the outcome  (in a country where garbage collection has been problematical even back when it involved tossing a full plastic bag into a dumpster) be predictable?   Yes.   The roads, the back streets, the countryside is filling with garbage.   People are lazy, people do  not have the time, some people are jerks, people have lives which don’t allow for hours a week to sort through malodorous collections of  s**t.   The irony is that while a brand new dump (it helps if there is a sign which declares dumping illegal) can generate spontaneously  in a flash, the New System does not allow the “Waste Managers” to pick up any garbage that is not pre-sorted!  It is a Goal! for the rats.

If a bag or cannister is deemed unworthy because of an ominous tinkling on “Paper Day” then imagine what a new roadside amalgamation’s destiny will be?   Yes.   To grow, to decay, to spontaneously (or not) combust,   to join hands eventually with another pile and create a hellish landscape for the enjoyment of locals and tourists alike.   La Bella Vita indeed.   So far I have seen general amnesia on the part of manufacturers, who continue to package otherwise insignificant items in multiple wrappings; aluminum packets around tin cans in “economical” bundles enclosed in cardboard…which somehow (since we have convinced ourselves that “Now we can just recycle it!”)  have multiplied and diversified.   I remember when bottles were reused and a big bag of aluminum or steel could be traded for cash.  This arrangement also magically contributed to roadside cleanliness and the development of a work ethic in youngsters.  But I digress into logic…

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Italy is a country that thrives on its tourism.   Of course I have thought this through, as have others,  and we have our ideas, any of which would be superior to this new  “solution.”  I am amazed, disillusioned, and embarrassed.   I try not to think about the first impression that streets lined with ugly plastic bins and piles of garbage in between has on tourism.  Or it could be that tourists here, having heard about Naples and its garbage debacle for years, just take it in stride.   Do they expect things to be this way?   This is more depressing than imagining their reactions as shocked and appalled!

I could go on, but I have some toothpaste tubes to dismantle and my cannellini cans should have been soaking long enough now to remove the labels before I wash them out with soap…and I forgot to burn the pizza boxes in our fireplace.  And today is “green.”**

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*Of course, living in the country with dogs, chickens, and a compost pile, this isn’t our particular problem. But most live in apartments and houses in town.

**By “green” I mean the color of the bucket.

 

 

Una guida per chi guida*

I ran upon this article, which is a guide for Italian drivers  visiting the U.S.A.     I find it says more about our differences than many things  I have seen.   You can see the original at  http://www.vivinewyork.com/consigli-di-viaggio/guidare-negli-stati-uniti-regole-e-curiosita.html

“Un grande paese si riconosce soprattutto dalla civiltà delle persone che lo abitano e nelle strade USA ho avuto modo di apprezzare quanto sia importante un popolo che rispetta le regole.”

(A great country is recognized above all by the civility of the people who live there, and in the streets of the USA I have had the chance to appreciate how important a populace which respects the rules can be.)

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“No Roads Here”                              Oil on canvas

Here is a partial rundown of the article, paraphrased in italics, with my comments, of course:

Forget all the moral infractions that are committed regularly in Italy. Here are some things you will never see in the US:
Cutting and zig-zagging through traffic to get past everyone
Cars cutting into the line at a traffic light
Using the horn intensively
Super-high speeds on the highway or worse, in town
Disrespect or total dismissal of the STOP sign

More rules of the road which are different in the States:

You must actually stop at the STOP sign. You cannot just slow a little as we do in Italy.
It is permitted to turn right on red in many cases. (I turned right on red in Italy for about 20 years until I realized it was not allowed, never did anybody even look at me sideways…)
American police are quite rigid, (and you cannot expect to talk them out of a ticket.)
You are required to wear your seatbelt. Well, yes,  you are.
You can use your cellphone while driving, even without an earpiece. (This is funny, considering that Italy was one of the first places to prohibit driving and talking on the cellphone;  just imagine one hand to hold the phone, and one hand to gesticulate, which leaves you driving with some other appendage. I have always said that most men drive with that other appendage anyway!)
You cannot pass a schoolbus which is stopped, and you cannot drive with open containers of alcohol in the car, even if you are not drinking.

Here are some other curious facts about the USA:

Traffic lights may be at the center of the intersection, or on the other side. (I have always been astounded that the first in line at an Italian intersection often cannot see the light because it is almost always invisible and behind or above the line of sight.)
Another sign of great civility is the 4-way STOP. Instead of giving the person on the right precedence, it is the person who arrives first who has it. In Italy something of this nature would have the inevitable consequence of immediate chaos.  Idem.
Carpool lanes are to be used only by cars with more than one passenger, in order to free up space: (In Italy I believe this was attempted in the Napoli area and led to a huge increase in the sale of inflatable half-dummies. Or maybe I am thinking of the seatbelt law, which led to the sale of T-shirts with the belt design stamped diagonally across the front…)
Beware of road blocks caused by people driving with cruise control who refuse to speed up in the passing lane. (Hear hear!!)
Beware of slamming on the brake with your left foot, thinking that the brake in the automatic transmission is the clutch.  The resulting screeching halt will be perilous indeed! (My husband once brought us to a head-banging stop on the highway trying to “change gears to slow down” for an accident ahead.)
In case you are stopped by the police, slow down, pull over, and keep your hands on the wheel. Fines are paid by mail and never on site (so don’t offer any money to the officer to forget the infraction, one presumes!)
The cost of gasoline is quite low which explains why there are so many huge automobiles on the roads. (I would say so, my last fill-up in Italy cost me 140 Euros, about 188 dollars.)

Here are a few they forgot to add, possibly the most important ones:

Warning signs often actually correspond to road conditions.  Not as in Italy, where warnings are so greatly exaggerated that no one pays the slightest attention to them.  It is a practical demonstration of why someone Crying Wolf can eventually get you killed, because once in a great while  the warning sign is accurate!

Traffic flow in the US is mostly an “Each Man For Himself” proposition.  Not as in Italy where the entire formation will work as one organism, flowing organically together in poetic motion, while seemingly in chaos.  Watch out for US drivers who, as long as they believe they are not at fault, will totally ignore other drivers.  I prefer the Italian way.

Helmets in some states are not required on motorcycles, but are required on bicycles, (and recently have been proposed for soccer as well!!)  Go figure.

White lines and yellow lines are actually intended to be heeded.  (Not as in Italy where straddling the line is expected of most drivers, especially when passing another vehicle.  After all, if I pass you I need to rub it in, no?   So I will be moving over into your lane at about the level of your front door latch.)

Roadside conferences for smoking, snacking, and urinating are not allowed in the US.  There are actually designated areas for these activities along most state and interstate highways!  Remember that while in Italy you can stop anywhere, (after all there are two lanes for traffic on most roads, which leaves one lane empty) to chat or smoke or conference, this is severely prohibited in the US.   People will likely protest loudly or threaten you in the US  for stopping your vehicle in the middle of any road for no apparent reason.

Prostitutes are much more difficult to locate in the US, if this is a potential problem for you.    ( You will not see them sitting on buckets by the side of the roads or standing under red fabric swatches, smoking or playing cards as they eye drivers intensely, hoping for a customer.  You will not have to explain to your kids, in the US, what these  dark-skinned “ladies” are doing  congregating at the edges of town.    Interesting to note, in a country which seems to be somewhat bigoted towards blacks and gays, that  the first choice in prostitutes are black women and transvestites.  Ah, but this is for another post…)

In America throwing your garbage out the windows of your car is highly frowned-upon.  Roadsides do not reveal, in the autumn after catching fire, a foot-deep treasure trove of plastic and glass.  There are even places where highways are maintained by private individuals!   (This is a fantastic and unbelievable concept to most Italians, I know.  I have often suggested that this, if a plaque could be put up to designate the parties responsible for the clean-up, might actually work in Italy.  Deaf ears.)

And finally, if you must relieve your bladder, or your bowels, it is highly recommended that you stop at a gas station, roadside park, or restaurant to do it.  You will rarely see a vehicle’s driver casually relieving himself, family jewels in hand and in full sight to passing traffic.   You probably will not have to use a flashlight when, after dark, you stop to change drivers and are in danger of stepping in a fresh sidewalk muffin.    After all, there are some things that you have to give up when traveling to a foreign country!

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“Behind Every Man”                                                                                                                                                pencil on paper

*”A guide for drivers”

Il Cantastoria (part two)

Every few  months or so I am awoken at dawn by huge booming cannons  and barking dogs which signal that today is special;  a day of  celebration.  There are festivals based on Saints, commemorations,  historical remembrances, and even  strikes.  A day not designated exceptional is a sad day indeed.   When my father visited me he always said, “So today is a holiday?  It must be Tuesday!”

The basic form of celebrations has remained the same, although certain activities seem to have disappeared forever now.  One of these was the “Palo della Cuccagna“* which gave the young bloods of the town a chance to show off their climbing prowess.  A telephone-like pole was erected in the piazza with a bounty of cheeses, prosciutto, salami and such, tied  to a bicycle wheel perched at the top.  As if a smooth, 40-foot  telephone pole might not be insurmountable enough, it was then greased with lard.    Squads of four young men, jockeying impatiently  for the challenge,  armed themselves with a circular  strip of fabric to wrap around themselves and the pole.  They would scale it in sequence, each man on the bottom climbing up and over the next three.  Slipping down the pole and each other,  bruises and bumps and uncontrollable laughter would ensue.   The first squad to reach the top  would triumph and take home the prize.   Hilarity for all was insured.

"Off Her Pedestal"mixed media, 30 x 22 inches
“Off Her Pedestal”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

A traditional parade through the town center will take place during the festa.  Fixtures in this parade, in the phalanx of the powerful, are the mayor, the town council, and the clergy.   Having grown up with the Miss American pageants on TV, I always find it amusing when I see them all sporting wide banners from shoulder to hip, even though I know that this was the origin of the regalia  used in those spectacles.  Each V.I.P.  is quite proud to wear his banner, and I expect to eventually see, in these days of hyperbole, more and more of these in each parade.  Will there be a second and third brigade of silk sashes stating “schoolteacher,”  “baker,”  “or “dedicated housewife?”  I imagine a bannered “group of Shame,”  with “pedophile” or “litterer” scrawled on the sashes…

Picture Romeo and Juliet and their famous balcony.   It used to be that there were small musical bands which could be hired by an “innamorato“** to woo his beloved.  (One assumes that  women were not traditionally the protagonists here but one could be wrong!)  If the wedding date had been established, the young man would enlist the help of this band to serenade his future wife from the street below her balcony.  It was a joyous occasion  for the “vicini“*** when they heard a quavering voice in crescendo  out in the street, and I imagine the bride-to-be and her family endured the event with a mix of emotional embarrassment and merriment as he sang his song to her.   Too bad they didn’t have movie cameras to make videos back then; these scenes could have been the highlight of the wedding  film!

wedding guys 1

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“Waiting on the Cake”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

Every town has its religious processions, pagan and Catholic, quirky or boringly traditional.  These processions are still around, although they happen less often now.   Every few months people will gather for the purpose of escorting some important relic or statue of a local saint, getting it “out for air” and at the same time reminding the people where their loyalties should lie.  I will never forget my first experience with a procession, when, living along the main street, I heard a growing low buzz of human voices murmuring something, (a prayer?)  over and over again, a shuffling swarm of  sedated bees.   People living along the route where the slowly trudging crowd will pass should prepare.  Owners of houses will hang their nicest bed coverings from the railings, or adorn their clotheslines with ornate fabrics to honor the occasion. Some families possess a complicated  banner with the local  saint and symbols embroidered in traditional colors which makes its  appearance often and proudly.   Behold (and beware!)  the balcony which is festooned with a line of grungy underwear instead of a nice bedspread, thus shirking its unwritten civic duty…

*”The Pole of Plenty”

** enamored one

***neighbors

An Easter recipe

It has been a while since I wrote anything about cooking, so I thought I would honor my wonderful mother-in-law by relating one of her favorites.  Her repertoire was not huge, but the things she made were invariably excellent.  This dish is a crowd-pleaser, and it really makes a splash as it is presented because it is so eye-catching.

I will call it the Alianelli Meat and Frittata Roll.

Bernalda View, oil on canvas

Using very thinly sliced beef or pork, lay out the slices on a large piece of plastic wrap and pound them into one very large and flat slice.  A meat tenderizing mallet will work well for this.  Make sure that your flat shape, when rolled up, will fit in one of your large pans.    You can make two short ones instead of one  big one, and they will fit better.  Keep in mind that the slices should not have a diameter wider than two to three inches, or they will fall apart as you cut them.  Salt and pepper the meat, and dot it generously with butter.  Set aside.

Create a number of quickly-made thin frittate, which are beaten egg mixed with a generous addition of freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano.   “Generous” means about one part cheese to two parts egg.   Make enough to entirely cover the meat.  Be careful  because these are very thin, they are easily torn, but they will be rolled up in the meat so it really isn’t so important that they be perfect.

At this point you can add very thinly-sliced prosciutto cotto or crudo, depending on your taste, laying it on top of the frittata.  Again, cover the entire large “slice” of meat.

Now carefully roll the whole thing up very tightly, using the plastic wrap to help you, and hey, don’t roll the plastic up in the meat roll!   Fold in the ends.  Get out your cooking twine to bind it together so that during cooking it will behave.  Using twine is another chapter, but I trust you will be able to handle it!   Fry the roll in generous olive oil in which you have briefly added a couple of garlic cloves, removed before they brown.  When the roll is thoroughly browned, and you are fairly sure it will have cooked through inside, add a cup or so of white wine to the pan to create a tasty reduction to spoon over the slices.

Remove the roll, let it cool down, and carefully remove the twine.  With your sharpest knife begin slicing it into half-inch slices.  They are almost psychedelic in their swirling bright yellow and dark brown spirals!  Lay them out on a platter and spoon the sauce over.  These can be zapped in the microwave right before serving to reheat them, or held in a warm oven.

Buon appetito, and Buona Pasqua!

"Food Bandits" mixed media on paper

Underneath

Traces of the past and clues to the present are hidden just below the top layer of the soil.  The surface yields clues to recent events as well, and because of this, I am always looking for more, eyes to the ground.  I might have been a tracker, and I know if someone, or something, has passed by recently.  Wet trails in the dewy grass,  small paw prints,  a pile of warm feathers left by a fox.  A darker patch of soil.  Trash and treasure are  both hidden,  but  near, waiting for discovery.

One spring, as I marked out rows in the garden, my heavy hoe kept bouncing back up at me instead of sinking in the soil.  Strange.   I spied a pinkish smoothness, and hooked my hoe under it to pull it out.  A root?  It was a scary thing to find underground, and my thoughts sidled spider-like  toward all things Mafia.   It was about three feet long and rubbery, fresh.  The dogs were suddenly attentive as the cow’s trachea came into the light of day.  How did it get there?   A canine trophy, carefully buried, to be enjoyed later.

I found a five-cent coin, dated 1885,  in my vegetable  garden.  It was  badly corroded and hardly legible.   The Lira was originally divided into cents, with one hundred of these comprising one Lira.   At the twilight of the currency, fifty-thousand Lire might  fill  half your car’s gas tank.    I thought of the poor farmer who lost it;   it must have been disheartening, so long ago.

A tractor pulling a large  plow scraped up some terracotta tiles;  roof tiles, larger and flatter than the curved kind used in recent centuries.   I know from my experience with excavations that where there are roof tiles,  there are often tombs.    In fact, Greek tombs were commonly made from  these.     The countryside where we live was divided into neat plots of land in 500 B.C., and people often buried their dead close to home if they weren’t grand enough, or near enough, to be included in the organized necropoles closer to the ancient town center.  Up the hill from this  area there is a large area of  rich  dark soil, and an extensive  jumble of broken pot shards.  It represents the farmhouse that belonged to the occupants of this parcel of land, and so it would follow that family burials would not be far away.   Around  the broken tomb  I found a beautiful and simply-painted lebes gamikos, as well as pieces, broken long ago, of other ceramic objects.    The pot is not nearly as old as my lithics are,  some of which  date back as far as twenty thousand years,  but it had been lying in its forgotten grave for five hundred years by the time Christ was born.  It is a sad fact that  the advent of mechanical farming has led to a swift and relentless  fragmentation of all antiquities which lie  in the uppermost layers of soil.  A large plow can reach as deep as five feet and damage or obliterate all it comes in contact with.  And there are also bulldozers, and a thing which is called a ripper, which describes its effect poetically.

River stones lie beside the roads, this having been the site of swiftly-moving water  millions of years previously.  All of the stones are rounded and smooth, but once in a while I will find one which has the shape of a cork from a wine bottle, larger at one end and narrowing in a pinched arc toward the other.  I imagine how it was shaped, trapped in an eddy of the stream, turning dizzily, rubbing continuously against its brethren which surround it on all sides.   Ground to a distinctive shape over years, these stones are an illustration of persistence, and movement, and transformation over time.

One Spring day as I was hacking out crab grass, I moved my wedding ring onto my smallest  finger, the better to grasp the handle of my hoe.   As I was throwing the weeds away I accidentally tossed my ring away as well.  Hours of searching produced no results, and within the week my husband and I went and picked out another one for me to wear.  Years later, again pulling weeds, I found it again, shining in the newly-turned earth.  Now I have two, should I ever need a spare.

This is the dwelling place of giant toads, some as big as broiler chickens.  They are reserved and single-minded, as they search for insects in damp places, and often hide in corners of the yard where weeds have grown tall.  We are careful when mowing the grass not to tip the machine up and lower it onto these weedy islands, as two have come to a tragic end in this manner.  One day I found a dead toad, poor soul, and I buried it in  a secret corner of the compost pile.  A year later I  gathered its bones and bleached them white.  I keep them for use in my art, and fondly  remember their original owner.

Following the sheep paths which criss-cross the edge of our  fosso,  there are bits and pieces of ceramics and glass, rusted iron agglomerations and bones.  You must watch your step close to the edge because you can fall twenty feet to the stream bed below if you are careless.  Along this edge I spied a small crusted object, a glint of blue and yellow paint.  Pocketed, carried home and washed, I found  I had two joined pieces of a century-old puzzle,  pieces from a vase which had been broken a hundred years ago.  Mended carefully with strips of lead, these were threaded through small holes in both sides of the break,  metal laces in a ceramic shoe.   It must have been a favorite, and the loss of it must have seemed unacceptable to its owner, such a long time ago.

My shelves have space, openings available to display new finds.   I often wonder what random bits of our lives,  hundreds of years hence, will be carried home and treasured by our descendants in their wanderings.

“untitled,”    wood, paper, bone, shell, Mylar, beeswax, oil, brass   11 x 7 x 2 inches,  2009

(above)  “Sotto San Costantino Albanese,”  oil on canvas,  14 x 14 inches, 2004

Critters, chapter three: Buster.

Sometimes things happen in different places, for different reasons, and move  inexorably along an invisible line toward an unexpected conclusion.   We had this experience, with a horse, and a dog, and two open gates, far distant from each other.

Buster was our first Maremma sheepdog, a large, sweet-smelling snowball of an animal,  who was  maturing,  healthily,  towards his retirement.  He was an excellent guard dog, most of the time, but if there were female pheromones in the air he could climb an eight foot fence as if he were Spiderman.   Always attentive to any changes in his surroundings, we counted on him to alert us to arrivals, especially those people, animals,  or automobiles that were not included in his repertoire of acceptable objects.   We were his flock.

My son attended an elementary school far from here, on the opposite side of town.  It was the same building to which my husband had trudged every day as a child.   There is a distinct possibility that  some of the desks  were the same ones he  sat behind on those  days when the classroom windows mocked the children with  their tempting views of grass and sunshine.   At the back of this school building, there was a fenced area on the edge of the valley below.  Even now, the fenced area is used to keep livestock; sheep, goats, the occasional cow.   On this day, a horse.

A moment of distraction, a latch not properly closed, and this horse found it was suddenly free.  But freedom in town has a different countenance than  freedom in the country, and the streets are in constant movement.  Cars, people, bicycles, motorbikes, and above all asphalt and noise conspired to alarm the horse to the point of panic, and it began to run through the streets.  It galloped away from the school, around the road which rings the town, and on towards imaginary pastures, despite the best efforts of some to slow it down.

Two kilometers, four, six, and the horse continued its gallop until it came to the long gravel road leading eventually to our house.   Our yard is fenced, and we have a large gate which normally keeps the dogs in and intruders out.  This day,  because we had been  doing yardwork, it was standing slightly open.  I heard frantic barking, and inside the house I felt a pounding rhythmical vibration.  At the window there was  an incredible sight, a large horse furiously throwing up divots of earth as it raced around and around the house in circles.    Buster was close on its heels and the animal was becoming more agitated, spooked  by his attempts to nip its lower legs as it ran.   It continued to circle madly, ignorant of the open gate by which it entered, and which  would allow it to tear off down the road, away from the dog.

I used to be a horse owner, so I know a little bit about how to behave around them.  But a panicked horse is anything but rational, and it is dangerous.    Not having the means to calm it, I opted for guiding it out the gate by creating a diversion.  I ran to grab a hoe, a towel, anything to wave in the air and cause the horse to change trajectory.  Suddenly I heard a crack, the unmistakable sound of  a bat hitting a baseball hard enough to send it hurtling out of the park.   But this was not going to be a home run for the team.  I turned, dodging as the horse ran straight toward me and the open gate, to see Buster sitting, dazed, pawing energetically at his muzzle.  Blood poured from his mouth.   It was one of those moments when disbelief gives way to knowledge that things have changed, and for the worse.

As the horse pounded out of the gate and back up the road,  I prepared myself for what I would see.  The horse had kicked Buster with such force directly in the teeth that his entire boney upper jaw,  teeth included, had been detached from the front of his mouth. It was still attached by the muscles and some of the gum, but it was no longer a viable part of him.  The vet was called, antibiotics and pain relievers were administered, the injured area was removed, and we waited.  At the time our small town vet, who was occupied primarily with livestock,  made housecalls only.  He did not have any walk-in facilities, so we had to do without major operations on our animals.  Buster had been neutered in our own garage on a picnic table, with the aid of some kitchen utensils and a massive dose of horse tranquilizer.

After a time, poor Buster healed.  He required softer food, and his fighting days were over, but he got along comfortably enough.  I keep one of his enormous canine teeth as a memento of that day.  He has long since passed away and moved on to that other place where good dogs dwell.   We never had any contact from the owner of the horse, assuming that an unhappy accident is no grounds for exacting any payment or apology.   Another horse has never arrived here unexpectedly, thundering down our road with evil intent.  But I often think of Buster when casual circumstances  seem to align, improbably, and give rise to a  momentous event.

“At Pasture”, oil on wooden block,  4 x 6 x 2 inches, 2011

(above)  “Rusty Gate. oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2010