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

Tutti frutti

It might be a common wish to have a fruit tree orchard, a grove of earthly pleasures on warm afternoons, a taster’s paradise of juices and perfume…the dream is attractive. A few years ago I had the pleasure to translate for a few hours for Francis Ford Coppola, (and he didn’t need me, he did quite well with his remembered dialect) walking around the grounds of his future hotel here in Bernalda. As he strolled the gardens, he expressed his desire to graze on fruit as he walked about, plucking from the collection of fruit trees he hoped to cultivate there. I hated to tell him that the high walls and shady pine trees already there would effectively prohibit that plan from realization. Fruit trees need sun, and wind, and bees, and a life which is not confined by high urban walls. ” Casale alle 7:30″, pastel on paper

One of my favorite imaginary places is a cloister, home to an indolent harem, fountains amid fruit trees, dappled shady areas and not a single thing that has to be done immediately. The reality of trying to have fruit trees is different, however. I planted a lot of fruit trees over the years, and some are still with us while others have become fireplace fodder, providing heat much more successfully than they provided fruit.

When I was growing up in Texas my mother, being a good farm girl who survived the Great Depression, told us about the importance of fruit in her early life.  She grew up in an era when having an orange for Christmas was anticipated for months. She tells us about how, off to college and working to pay her tuition,  her greatest treat was to have a gift box of apples under her bed. She would try to limit herself to one a day, but rarely was able to keep her  resolve. As a parsimonious adult, she often bought the bargain fruit, the littler ones, the ones in a big bag for a fixed price. I can remember wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to eat an orange, with its sour taste and leathery sections and seeds, an exercise in how to spit out hard stringy pieces of fruit into a napkin. Grapes were tasteless, pears were often woody with a hint of mold, and apples had been rolling around in the bin long enough to have lost their turgidity,  their stems mummified. Bananas were just disappointing, purchased yellow and eaten brown. I may be exaggerating, but this is how I remember fruit as a child.

So the local Italian fruit, bought in season, or picked in person from trees and vines, was a revelation to me. It has been a lesson in time-appropriate consumption;   buying things as they become available, and counting on the fact that if they are available they are probably at their peak of quality. Our trees have been cantankerous about producing, luring us into euphoria the first year of production, showering us with buckets of flavorful fruit at the outset, only to hold back each successive year until only one or two lonely and bird-sampled and ant-infested pieces were offered. We gave up on peaches quickly; way too hard to get them to produce, and they often needed chemical treatments just to survive onslaughts of fungus, mold and insects. And birds. Better to buy them, and get only the good ones. My granny always said, “Use the best first, and that way you always have the best!” And sometimes, only sometimes, the best fruit is at the store.

Figs! Never have I been so impressed by the generosity of a tree, a tree which requires no fertilizer, hardly any water, and only a cursory trimming by any wannabe arborist every two years or so. You can cut off the growing end of a branch, stick it horizontally in the soil with only the tip bent up and out, and in a couple of years you will have a tree. If I had another lifetime to learn, I would concentrate on my grafting skills, maniacally creating multi-varieties onto the hardy root system of a single tree. Grafting is similar to pulling off a sting operation; the tree and the foreign twigs must be fooled into overlooking their differences and creating a single living creature from the parts. We think we have triumphed, but who can tell what the trees know?

Apricots grow well here, and they fit in well with our “no-treatments” ideology… (meaning “too much trouble”). You haven’t really tasted an apricot until you have nibbled it directly from the tree on a hot June day. It doesn’t get cold enough for cherries right here, although over the hill the trees produce prolifically. Plums grow and produce care-free, as do persimmons and loquats and all things citrus. The oranges which hang on our trees until May are the sweetest and most mouth-friendly I have ever encountered. Nothing else comes close. Many times I will stay on the tractor an extra hour because oranges are at face level as I work around the trees, and who could resist? The steering wheel is often sticky.

Maybe when you think of Italy, prickly pear cactus might not come to mind. But there are entire hillsides covered with mounds of them, a “fluffy” version with meaty paddles which are full of juice, hardly a sticker to be found. In the autumn the plants are covered with huge red fruits which, having grown up in the Texas hill country, astound me by their friendliness. They are nothing akin to the hard little tongue-grenades that cows eat in Texas. But I will make an admission: We buy Sicilian prickly pear fruit by the case at the supermarket, and rarely go out to gather them ourselves. The fruits (ficchi d’india) which come from Sicily are superior even to our own. They are about the size of bartlett pears, day-glo magenta to blackest purple. There is a word in dialect which has always intrigued me, nun-dru-zzu-le’-she, which describes the effect of eating many of these together with lots of grapes. Apparently the seeds of both fruits fit together in such a way that all intestinal motility will grind to a halt. I would say that if the language has created a specific word for the condition, then the warnings ought to be respected!

Grapes are in a category all their own. You need considerable expertise to have vines, and so far multiple distractions haven’t allowed me to delve into wine-making. But I remember back when our group from the University of Texas was doing survey work, walking the territory five abreast, eyes to the ground looking for sites, filling our bags with fragments of the past. A terracotta shard, collections of stones, darkened earth all testify to the rich history of this area. It was a daily Easter egg hunt with bonuses:  fruit!  We couldn’t wait to walk the areas covered by grape vines, trudging along under them in the dappled shade and stuffing ourselves with grapes picked from huge hanging agglomerations of the most astoundingly ambrosial grapes any of us had ever tasted. Again, I cannot begin to describe the flavor and how it eclipses any kind of grape, anywhere. “Uva Italia,” long may you reign. I apologize to the farmers who unknowingly contributed, even if it was only .00001 percent of the total harvest. They should know they made an indirect contribution in the name of science!                                                                                          “Another Summer Salad”  oil on board

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