October 29, 2021
MEN WHO KNOW HOW TO DO THINGS: The chain on my brand new Husqvarna 450 X-Torq chainsaw did not make it through its first use. For a few roaring seconds it moved surgically through a heavy branch of a recently felled fir tree while it spewed sawdust and chips into my Wellingtons and coated my legs in a fine powder redolent of hot sap and roasted cellulose.
But, then the cowling over the rotar that drives the chain came loose and I was suddenly — once again — set adrift in a cloud of noisy unknowing. Fortunately, Aldo, my son-in-law’s father, was standing by the wood pile, and he knew exactly where the kill-switch was.
It took three men — four if you count me (which we can’t) — to put it right.
Across the narrow road from Aldo’s boyhood home (his family has lived in these parts for generations) there is a flat topped retaining wall that holds up a hay field. This has been Aldo’s perennial work-bench since it was built and where, beads of flustered sweat bubbling on his bald pate, he made a first attempt to diagnose the broke-down saw.
A retired banker, 79 and counting, Aldo’s determined fingers fiddled with the saw’s mechanisms for the better part of an hour while I stood near in a state of profound and guilty ignorance of all things mechanical.
Tomasso sat high on his tractor chugging on an adjacent field he was harrowing for next week’s planting. As he rounded the corner nearest us, Aldo haled him. The tractor shuddered to silence and Tomasso, square and broad shouldered, stomped toward us like a bull squaring with a matador, chuckling at our city-boy incompetence.
Bits and pieces have broken off the chain, he said. Non funzione! And off he went to finish his work before an expected rainfall made all a mud. Aldo departed to the local agricoltura to buy a new chain while I stayed put to guard the disassembled parts.
Even with the new chain, the saw didn’t want to work. But, Mario, who is a neighbour in the village where I now live, was coming down the hill on his way to town, and, curious as to our goings on, he stopped to say hello and crank his neck. Lanky, serious and taciturn, he could not resist the call to take a look, or, once he’d laid eyes upon the took-apart machine, to get his just-washed hands dirty in the cause.
Chain’s too fat, said he. And so it was. Won’t run around the cutting bar, he said. Pronouncements made, Mario wiped his hands on a clump of grass and then went off to town. Aldo took his Cinque Cento to the agricoltura once more and exchanged the fat chain with one of lower gauge.
The problem solved, the wood pile soon came back under my uncertain, incompetent dominion, but, I put my head down and cut the heaped-up logs until they were sectioned small enough for splitting.
My hands are soft. The men I meet in this neighbourhood have big, muscled hands. I clock a loving memory of my step-father who grew apples in Ontario, a farmer, like my new neighbours, and therefore, like them, a wrestler of wind and weather, of rock and dirt and wood, of infernal machines and, for some, of balky animals, and too, for all of them, the microscopic forces of bugs, germs and viruses that will lay all to waste if not confronted with time and energy and hard-to-come-by money.
All my life I have envied and admired men who know how to do things, admired their knowledge, intelligence and do-or-die persistence. We live in a world whose vast, complicated and extraordinary infrastructures have been — and will be — largely made by them.
In their world is where I stack the wood I burn for comfort.
October 30, 2021
HURT WORDS: Others have been opining on the subject of “cancel” culture, but a narrow slice of that horrible phenomenon, the one that concerns the use of certain types of words and phrases. Here’s my two or three cents worth.
First, a confession: I have, in my life, uttered hurtful slurs at people. I think I may have used the words “nigger”, “faggot”, “Newfie”, “redskin”, “raghead”, “Chink”, “Jap”, “Hebe”, “Wop”, “bitch”, “retard”, “slut”, “whore” and a lot of others in the same benighted category. I did not just put these words into the mouths of characters in any of the books, plays or film scripts I’ve written, but spoke them aloud in the course of my own life, directing them at individuals on occasion, or at groups in the course of conversation with others.
I have not used any of these words for a very long time, however. As I matured and developed I learned not to. I grew a greater conscience than I had as a kid or as a youth. The essential nature of my development, at least in this regard, was to really grasp the universal nature of the human animal, to realize that all people are more or less alike.
Alike in body; alike in our possession of the full array of human emotions; almost all of us alike in intelligence to the extent that there are not too many degrees of difference between the genius and the moron. Alike also in the fact that the generative forces that shape our appetites and desires are founded in the earliest years of our lives, or later by conscious change or by change forced on us by trauma.
This obvious universality means treating all with basic human dignity, which does not permit me to use words that, never mind their hurtful and inherently offensive nature, prove that I have not really fully embraced the unity of humanity, but that I divide it into sub-categories, all of which are lesser than the one I believe I am in.
I will, without hesitation, in the course of creating characters, put such words in their mouths if the context requires it. Any writer who doesn’t is not a writer worthy of our respect. The power of great art is that it taps this universality in the particularity of its creative structures. It is damnable difficult to do, which is why there is so much bad art.
But, if I hear another person utter such words spontaneously and unfiltered then I immediately put them in context — within the context of the moment, and if I can, within the context of their lives. If they spout in the public domain, I am instantly offended. I think less of them. They cannot be my friends. But, in the moment, unless an intervention is required as a matter of protecting someone else from real harm or the threat of harm I ignore them.
The minds of such people can not reached by legal prohibition. Therefore hate crime legislation, or any legislation that is directed at the internal process of the mind — at thought — is obnoxious legislation. Worse, I think it’s stupid. It forces malevolent thought into darker places, forces like-minded people to find one another and multiply their strength. I would strike hate crime legislation from the books.
Not that laws can’t help.
Where a benighted person, for instance, contaminates a place of employment, or any other institution, with such language — their speech constitutes action, and those who manage such places ought to eject them. Legislation that supports those efforts is morally valid because it is directed at acts not thoughts.
A public institution, such as a university — especially a university — should embrace difference of opinion, should allow full debate on any subject. But, it should be able to reject propaganda and propagandizing. Debate is debate and is predicated on argument, on reasoning, on forcing conflict into the open, on attracting people to ideas. A unilateral appeal to base emotions in the name of dividing “us” from “them” does not fall into that category.
There is no clear dividing line between right and wrong, just a fuzzy zone where conflict cannot be avoided. Social dynamics are such that in any given situation, people can arrive at their own conclusions about matters that come into their contemplation. They are free to ignore them or — within the bounds of the law — to confront those that trouble them, but without the heavy hand of an abstract “parent” whose strictures are prejudiced by the politics of the moment, or some cultural pre-disposition that itself is productive of division.
November 4, 2021
PERMISSION WITHHELD IS A PERMISSION GRANTED: The story-book landscape that spreads out in the long north-south valley below this house is fabulously beautiful in its abstraction. But, the Val di Cucco holds a fog of perennial disappointment. The Italians who live here mitigate its enervating powers by surrender and acceptance and by the usual pleasures of
Italian life. I am forced to learn their ways, otherwise I, an agitated, impatient Canadese, will be lost in that fog. The west-facing hills of the Appenines that overlook the valley are matted up to their middle range with olive groves, dozens and dozens of them. But, this year, much of the fruit will go unpicked, and therefore will not be transported to the frantoio to be pressed into the exquisite olive oil that is, in lesser and lesser quantity, produced here.
The old men and and women who own the groves have grown incapable of the work; the young have departed the area to find jobs and money they can’t find here, and because many — most — doubt the promised satisfactions that come from the hard labours of their forefathers and mothers. Nor, considering the material acquisitions that can be had by working for wages or salaries in other places, are the young convinced the sacrifices and difficulties of rural life are worth their efforts.
The farmers who own the bottom lands and the terre on the east facing slopes grow grains and hay. They face the same predicaments as their olive-growing neighbours. The small business owner’s in the nearby town, the same.
Just as immigrants to North America and elsewhere in the “new world” find opportunity that native-born people can not see, those of us who arrive in Italy from afar see the potential and promise that exists in such places as this valley. We can imagine a huge and energetic abundance that would push back the rippled vapours of disappointment.
But, whereas the North American immigrant also found the open avenues by which they could make their way, in Italy the way is cluttered and obstructed. There are fussy laws that, well-meaning as they are, frustrate innovation and ingenuity at every turn. They are administered by well-meaning bureaucrats who are mired in slow, mind-boggling inefficiencies that stifle and often kill the impulses that move entrepreneurs.
Almost every thing that happens here entirely depends upon the permits and permissions that must be wrested from this nepotistic, intractable, convention-laden, indifferent — sometimes cruel — bureaucracy. And, therefore, much of what might happen to foster the kinds of activity that would throw up good money in its wake — that would keep the kids from fleeing their birthplace — does not happen.
The result is, that in large measure, the people here — well, those who remain — are given permission to surrender to and accept their fatalistic lot. The formidable energies of these people — because they have that as individuals and even as families — is directed toward self-advancement and self-protection. Not much of that energy is left over for collective action for the collective good. There is too strong a sense that it would be a mistaken use of one’s life force.
Me? I will help with the olive harvest, which for our family, begins this week. I will do so while awaiting the arrival of the crew that will undertake the renovations of our new home now that the permits have been granted, months and months later than any reasonable person would — or should — have expected. The woman at city hall who had to sign-off on the work didn’t open the file until a week and a half ago.
November 6, 2021
META METAVERSE: We spent the day yesterday with our daughter and our grandchildren at the top of a large, round, forest-covered hill near the city of Perugia here in Umbria. This is the 45 hectare domain of the Citta della Domenica, Sunday City.
After the heavy rain of the previous day, the forest floor was damp and there were puddles to avoid on some of the lateral pathways, easily avoided by adults, but splashable for children suddenly deaf to the cried-out pleas of their otherwise gabbing parents trailing happily behind.
Originally opened in 1963, it was then a newly concocted, fresh-built place, a doubtless wonderland for the people of those times. For very young children, it has remained so for many years, in fact, up to this very day.
The very young do not see that its exhibits and underlying structures have become shabby and dilapidated, that the teens and youths who work there are dispirited and disengaged. The children love steering the side-wise drifting rubber motor boats that ply its tiny lake; are thrilled to drive a battered go-kart twice around the fractured surfaces of its curvy track.
They bounce their nervous parents on a sweating swinging bridge; they run with glee upon Fort Apache’s catwalk and keep a momentary watch for painted Indians in the plastic teepee village laid out below .
They shudder and scatter when a lazy bison snorts above its feed trough; and when they pass the fenced-in, dreary camel hiding in its stall they pinch their little stink-offended noses. Moments later, suddenly unbrave on the park’s meandering path, they’ll cling to their parents’ knees as they flat-foot it through an open-ended cave wherein an unseen dragon rages at their timorous intrusions.
In the Land of Fables every child whose wandered there will go suddenly wide-eyed in sad Geppetto’s workshop when Pinocchio jerks alive and begins to play a hand of cards with a sneering wooden wolf. Across the way they’ll peer through a tiny house’s dirty windows where in the gloom another wolf, bespectacled and sharp-toothed, readies himself to leap upon a little basket-carrying girl whose face is hidden in her cloak’s red hood.
And on it goes. Beside the zoo, a near full-sized rocket ship. Roaming free, red-tailed deer rummage for discarded human scraps while children call-out “Bambi!”. The pointy snouts of goats come through the wired fences of their surround and lick the salty hands of human kids. A reindeer lifts its tail and poos to elicit shrieks and giggles. A dinosaur drinks from a rippled pond.
A rooster struts and clucks while his harem pecks for grain in the damp confines of their little pen. A peacock spreads his feathers. The giant heads of Anaconda snakes hide in the giant, wayside rocks where they surely wriggle, ready to pounce upon a careless child.
And none of the adult adjectives that I conjure to convey the sorry state of The Sunday City or my sadness that our current economies do not permit the rehab of this place have the remotest possibility of cutting through the dense and vivid imagination of children set free within its hugeness.
The place is in their dirty hands, its amazing forest paths are underfoot, a comforting wind rustles in the trees, the rocks and fence rails are real, the birds and the animals breathe the air and the childrens’ deepest fears are glimpsed because to them they are so magically close at hand, but their near-by parents are there to chase away the danger. Fables live in an ever-present moment; all history is now, and unfadable memories are made at every turn at every minute so that in the far-off future they will ring nostalgia’s bell.
In Sunday City there is not a single, digital contraption, no corporate constructed algorithm, to pull any child into its ever-expanding, inescapable, and grasping underworld. Give thanks.
November 15, 2021
A PRESSING TIME: My son-in-law, Claudio, used a saucepan to drizzle a spoon-full of the family’s newly-pressed olive oil onto the grilled bread centered on everyone’s plate. His exhausted father, Aldo, peeled a large clove of garlic and scraped it across the oiled bread, then dusted his bruschetta with a crunchy salt. The rest of us did the same and then, with the harmony of a choir, the gathered family broke this bread and smiled and sighed.
Sore from work, our shoulders relaxed and fell, then wired their released energy to our hungry forks, which fell upon the antipasti — the salami, prosciutto and cheese — with a Sunday gusto. A ruby red vintage from nearby Montefalco was poured into thirsty tumblers.
A toast to all at table — fathers, mothers, wives, husband’s, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, and to the little ones, who, from their sofa seats, tried to shush us so they could watch cartoons in child silence. Good luck to them, for hoots followed the clink of glasses and then much talk.
The primi next, a tagliatelle with a diced-up cotto ham and vegetable ragu. More wine for everyone but me, the non-drinker at the table, but I was stupid happy anyway.
Like the women, I did some hand-picking, but not much. Most of the time, like Aldo and Claudio, I lofted a motorized “whacker” and skimmed the branches of the olive trees, one by one, row by row for a week to knock the fruit off their stems into the hill-tilted nets below. The harvest is not a fight, but in truth, no braggy boxer in any city ring could hold up his arms and carry such a weight for nearly as long as the olive harvest requires of the tough-as-knotted-wood farmers here about.
On the weekend harvest days, the children came to play in this man-crafted forest, sun above it’s silvery canopy, breezes rippling through the trees to carry away their delighting noises along with the oscillating smacks of our machinery.
At olive-harvest time in Umbria, the quiet, steady, hot work of summer gives way to the bustle and buzz of farmers moving through the chill autumn air to and from their hillside groves with all the gear needed for the picking, and, then, as the olives are gathered, with all the crates that hold the fruit for delivery to the presser.
In the cantina below the house, four stainless-steel containers hold a treasure of about 160 liters of the new, thick, fragrant, pungent and peppery oil that made our meal. The market price for all of it, were it to be sold where I used to live in Canada, would be about $5000. Only that.
The actual cost to each and every farmer and his family of growing olives on these Umbrian slopes and of making oil from them far exceeds the money to be earned. Every drop of the final product, if calculated according to the ordinary rules of commerce, is money down a slippery drain.
The olive growers are not fools, however. They know the costs in money, time and energy. But they carry a larger ledger than those gripped in accountants’ hands. They work to be anointed by the stuff that comes of the grueling work. For the diivine pleasure. For the spiritual reward. By the gold in the iridescent liquid that falls on their daily bread. By the multiple appetites of the family, satisfied.
Scribbles from Italy is a series of articles from Vian Andrews in which he reflects on his experiences of life in his new home in the Umbrian countryside.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.