October 4, 2021
THE GARDEN OF INNOCENCE: We often take the grandkids to a local park and run them like dogs. Get them hungry for dinner; tired for bed. As they play, I cast a sometimes alert, sometimes bored eye around the busy park, which, in the way of many public parks in Italy, as elsewhere, is populated by the busts of once famous men.
I am new here and am grateful to be a stranger in a strange land. I found my attachments to Canada were becoming ravelled into an anger that, given the country’s drift, could never unravel. Into a deepening sense of loss I could not shake and really could not bear. Into a calcifying cocoon of old-man habit signifying my desuetude. So, I put myself in exile, to roughen-up my existence one more time, to stir my blood, to make myself useful for awhile longer. So, these kids, you see.
They, by reason of their ages, and I, by reason of my regretful ignorance, are detached from the history of these commemorated lives and from those who, for whatever reason, set their bronze likenesses, now oxidized and bird-splattered, on these public plinths.
Of the bigger sweep of things, I am not so ignorant. History in these parts can be read in the layerings of one empire, one epoch, after another. One gets to see the continuity in their comings and goings. It’s not enough. I had to read, study, listen, puzzle things out for we are not born truly knowledgeable about anything. There’s work involved.
Eventually, I came to understand that the times we live in are of this continuum. Here, where I came from, and everywhere else.
But, the children? I let them play and play, until, pondering my worry as I stood in the dappled light beneath a near-barkless plane tree, I realized that almost all of us, but especially those a generation or two younger than I, are becoming completely detached from human history. The smartphone is a fragmenting grenade in everybody’s hand.
That there has been a history, we have no doubt, and most have been persuaded, without fully comprehending history’s breadth and scope and its automatic accumulation, that it holds some ultimate, discoverable Truth. But it does not. Not for all the trillions of seconds and fractions of seconds that have fallen into it, not for all the quadrillions of heartbeats that have ceased their pounding.
We hear people call on history, its lessons. Beware. Because, those who’ve got a cause will always make the past a junk heap out of which they can pull bits and pieces to cobble a cross, an intellectual artifact upon which both those who agree and disagree with them can be crucified, the martyred and the murderers nailed together on a hill of entitled anger.
Those who have no cause tumble in the moment-by-moment blitz of images, icons, ideograms, hieroglyphs, cuneiforms, trademarks, emoticons, and emojis, free – free at last – to be the emotional beings we humans most essentially are. Not a good thing. Not at all.
We tumble as thoughtlessly as children on a gleeful trampoline. Tumble and tumble until fatigue and hunger and thirst and the deep longing for love have their way. It’s then the playground evaporates into the bronzy past, then that reality’s one present and future Truth imposes itself. We will act in the same way as our forefathers and foremothers acted, sometimes shamefully, usually without knowing how or why.
October 6, 2021
What the poem said was this:
I am no song, can’t sing,
Not to the heart direct.
Can only speak in the dialect
Of the mind. With words.
Can catch a bird on a broken wing,
And the kiss of tongues.
The chirp and moan of them,
But, can’t make you dance,
Make you fly as can a song.
But, that bird? A fall from grace?
The rattle of life? Shots fired
Into bodies falling on the plain
Where armies shout? Got that,
And all that speaks and prays.
Blood? What of blood
And bone? What of eyes
In the darkness of her hood,
When meanings shift and
Nothing now is understood?
The letter home in which
The soldier cannot cry his grief
To the woman in the wood,
Whose eyes, those eyes,
Are shielded from the rain.
The bird’s pain? That she feels.
Knows that before it dies,
On the flutter of the forest floor,
It truly hurts. The tuneless
Note from him, a kind of death.
The poem knows not just
Boy and girl, the vagaries of love,
The juice of sex, the wail
Of youth. It says my words
Must scribble his dying breath.
October 10, 2021
THE FATE OF THE CHICKEN: Most of it was consumed during our Thanksgiving lunch here in Umbria. Not the American Thanksgiving, but the Canadian one. All of us at table – including our youngest daughter’s Italian husband and my wife, Joan, born in Boston a hundred or so years ago – are Canadian citizens. Using forks, we have staked our flag in this far-away land.
Once seated, our hostess called upon each of us to offer an expression of gratitude. I confess to being a person who usually has to be asked to do so, despite the many people in my life who should hear, more often than they do, how grateful I am to know them and be loved by them.
I managed to mutter a few words to all those at table, embarrassed by my emotion, which, instead of being allowed to flow, I held back, as usual, causing them to squeak and sputter in my throat. As my emotion subsided and Joan, my wife at arms, declared her emotions with the clarity of bells, I thought about the one person who was not with us, my other daughter, wishing that she had been with us, making merry as only she can.
Our meal began with the appetizers, of course, thinly sliced salami infused with fennel; speck, (a German variation on prosciutto), artichoke hearts that had been jarred in oleo, and pickled, gumball-sized onions that were spooned out of the balsamic vinegar where they had lived their post-garden days. There were home-grown, sun-dried tomatoes and a sharp goat cheese from Sardinia, crumbly in the mouth, and slices of crusty bread that one could slather with a knife full of white truffel spread.
And then the main dish, all its elements gorgeously arrayed in one large bowl. It was ported from the oven to the table, hot and redolent with smells that stirred the soul and called forth the mighty cravings that should have been squelched by the appetizers, but wasn’t.
The exceptionally observant among you will wonder if the bird had pecked around its previous home on three legs. No. We had to supplement the whole chicken with the leg and thigh of another, both indelicately plated together as though caught in the throes of naked passion.
You will note also the slightly curry-coloured tone of the flesh. These were free-range birds not the kind of white-fleshed chickens born and bred in massive ill-lit barns and fed fast-growth foods. These free-range scratchers take on the colour of whatever plant and bug life their cluck-rummaging discovers under foot. They have a slightly gamey flavour as a result, which adds piquancy and a deeper, more complex flavour to the meat.
Our birds, the whole one stuffed with oven-baked bread stirred together with carrot, celery, tumeric and other aromatic herbs, were nested in recently dug potatoes cut to bite sized pieces, all roasted with the chicken. They brown at their edges from a splash of olive oil squeezed out of olives grown on the local slopes, and are speckled with a good dusting of rosemary, pepper and salt. Mushrooms sliced and diced, and a couple of finely chopped small onions, grown in the orto were tossed in with the taters. A smile of stuffed mushrooms caps made the plate even more amiable.
A very good Brunello red was set upon the table, and those who drink alcoholic beverages had one or two or three glasses of it, while those of us who don’t, sipped mountain water from a nearby spring, bottled and then charged with a gas that made it sparkle and bubble in our goblets.
The children fled the long table as fast as they could and went to the couch to watch cartoons while the adults gabbed. Gabbed about what? Family stuff, that which makes you laugh and that which makes you cry, or worry or wonder, and wish that you could be around for at least a hundred more dinners with these very people, but also with the one daughter who wasn’t there at at least the next ninety-nine.
October 16, 2021
GOING COLD: The door to the dungeon was open so we bent double (tall people that we are) and entered its cold, echoing gloom. We were in Montone, Umbria, one of the region’s most impeccable and evocative hill top towns.
The dungeon – the prigione – was to the side of a medieval stairway that takes one ever higher up the outside castle walls into a sunlit, wind-gusted piazza where one can absorb – and surrender – to the shock of the stunning landscape laid-out under an azure sky in the town’s surround. In mid-October, even on a thrillingly bright day like the one we enjoyed, one is likely to have the place for one’s self and one’s happy wife and smiling daughter in whose chattering slip stream you are pulled along.
At home now, in the early morning, I feel the chill in the room. The cast iron radiators are all hot and shedding heat, but we are heavily sweatered anyway, always besocked inside our slippers, which, because the typical flooring here is ceramic tile, we wear without fail. We get a decided pleasure standing near the gas range when we make our morning coffee because the warmth that comes off the burners and the sizzling coffee maker reaches the heart bone.
The poor souls who were committed to medieval dungeons had but rags to wear, a bug infested pile of straw to lay upon and, it is likely, no more than a thin, cold gruel to tease their human hunger and to sustain, for a time, the unfortunate, for them, will to live. The stones and mortar of which these castles were constructed hold the cold like lucky beggars clutch a coin, so there must have been much groaning and more than a little crying in the bitter and maddening darkness of a prisoner’s nights and days.
I am miserable when I’m cold. Always have been. But, the cold that I have endured throughout my life is laughably warm compared – not to the pitiable prisoner, but even to that which my parents in their younger days, and all the generations that preceded them endured. Anyone who lives above the 30th parallel north or below the 30th south has at least 6 months of every year to deal with it: fall, winter, spring, and we all do in our customary ways.
You go to some places in Italy even today, there are huge areas denuded of the immense forests that were once there. Some of the wood was taken for building, but far more was taken for burning, humankind’s first and, at one time, foremost fuel.
In Europe and North America, generation upon generation of those who lived in thousands of villages and towns or on tens of thousands of farms stoked their open hearth fires, and later also their stoves, with wood. Where wood was not available, coal and charcoal or peat were and are used. Whatever the fuel, the fires only kept the living room and the kitchen warm. The rest of the rooms of the house – if there were any other rooms – were frigid for at least some months of the year.
People wore layers of clothing inside and made thick comforters for their beds. Many wore night caps. Some used bed pans, a hinge-topped copper dish with a long handle in which hot coals could be shovelled from the fireplace, to warm the bedsheets before they or their children turned in for the night.
It is difficult for us to imagine, those of us who take the winter-warmth of our homes (and work places) for granted, that our ancestors, up until, say, the 1950s, did not. Normal is normal and people were not bedevilled by unrealizable expectations. Inside winter-warmth was regarded by the multitudes as something that could only be purchased with money. A warm house was the province of the wealthy.
The chill that I feel in this hill side home I now live in is normal here. I’m getting used to it. I think it may be good thing to live at a lower temperature than I did in Canada. Warm myself with activity; layer-up. I must, I think, shuck-off some of the expectations I’ve had growing up in an aberrant state of affluence, especially now.
The multitudinous plights of the world are sapping the foundations upon which my life was built, so simple, but meaningful change seems an appropriate response. Fear of the future is a dungeon in which I do not care to live.
October 19, 2021
DOING STUFF: Here in Umbria, local farmers are spending long hours aboard their plough-pulling tractors. They are motoring up and down their fields turning the soil with a systematic precision. As they go, the green of grasses and weeds spontaneously risen since the last crop was harvested is giving way to the rich brown of upturned dirt. Some day soon these farmers will disc these fields to break down the ploughed-up clods and even-out the terrain. Shortly after they will seed them for next year’s crop of wheat, barley, spelt or hay. Some will plant corn. These men have no time to peddle their opinions on Facebook or Twitter.
The doings of farmers impress the hell out me, just as the doings of my step-father did when he was farming apples in Ontario and my brothers and I were conscripted to do our parts as the seasons cycled. Always a dull moment. But, at picking time, when I took a bite of a crisp, off-the-tree Macintosh or Northern Spy my tongue instantly repaid all our efforts in the form of multiplying satisfactions. Ripe fruit in the hand, into which one could sink one’s teeth.
Lately, I’ve been pruning the verges of our small field, which will lay fallow again this year. What grows on it – grasses, wild flowers, burdock and a miscellany of other weeds – are restoring the ground to health, and I am happy that they are. Happy to leave it be.
Being a lazy sod, I prune with an atavistic efficiency to avoid doing more work than is necessary because my old body can only do so much on any given day. I sympathize with the decades-old holm oaks that stand grandly along the edges of the property, and so I clear-out the opportunistic mischief makers – blackberry, hemlock, ivy and a so-far-unidentified deciduous tree – that sense these oaks’ aging vulnerability and will kill them if they can.
Once done, I will take a large rake to level the tilled plot of our orto. It has to be done before I can do the planting. Next year this vegetable garden will, if the weeds that will also grow there are kept down by regular hoeing, deliver garlic, tomatoes, carrots, fava beans, onions and a variety of lettuces to our table. I can taste them now, before I’ve picked up the rake.
Then there’s the misplaced wood pile where the cut-up remnants of four large trees that the previous owner cut down are heaped-up in the middle of the so-called lawn at the back of the house. I want it shifted to the other side of the shed over yonder. Yep. I used the word yonder.
Here’s the thing: if I want to move this pile of wood, I’ve got to move the pile of wood. I’ll do it arm load by arm load, or wheel barrow load by wheel barrow load even if it takes me five or six days walking the rut that will be carved by doing the work. I want the back garden to be a place where the grandkids can safely play. I want to find pleasure there.
It matters not a whit to me whether my work is at the writing desk, or in the orchard or on the field. I will do what I must do to fulfill my objectives, maybe a bit cranky, frustrated and angry along the way as the gods meddle in my chores, but fabulously happy to do the doing.
The object of all work should be the fulfillment of high purpose, purpose that makes the tedium, difficulties and cost of one’s labours, not just worth it, but meaningful in the deepest and richest sense of the word. That’s the point.
October 19, 2021
WINDS THAT BLOW: We went to bed with a strong, gusting wind pushing against the house, one of the few that are clustered in this village on this hillside. Our window and door shutters fended the fulness of its force, but there were, nevertheless, whistles in the louvres and glass panes rattling in their wooden frames, menace in the wind’s noise and constancy.
In the dead of night one’s shrinking bladder insisted on a quick trip to the loo – a dance on cold feet across tiled floor in the dark. One’s awakened mind heard the sound of the wind again, even stiffer than it was when we extinguished our bedside lamps.
It burrowed headlong through the ascending rows of olive trees and above the upper limits of the olive groves into the thick, chaotic forest that carpets the middle zones of these hills. If one were to find one’s self at the treeless top of these ranges, one would have to huddle in a stony crevice to make it through or madly brave the wind face-on at a 45 degree tilt while dog-howling the gods.
In the morning light, bright and sharp, clouds moved at speed over the valley, and the trees, still in leaf, shimmered in the residual breezes the night’s big winds left in their wake. But, there was no blow-down, no broken branches scattered around. So, little disturbance in the landscape, that one thinks one has come out of a wild dream, imagined all.
But, no. The trees on the Appenine slopes have adapted to the vagaries of the weather here. They stand their ground, deep of root, stout of trunk, possessed of branches specially architected by time itself so their individual and collective selves can live here and thrive through all seasons.
Those of us who have lived a few decades, and who have, perforce, experienced our share of triumph and tribulation might find in these trees an apt metaphor for our own adaptations. We are singular souls in our multitude. Most people are like most people, true, but in this ever-aging crowd, we have, or will someday, encounter a few humans who have evolved a spiritual toughness that is inextricable with a corresponding wisdom.
These men and women may be objects of our admiration, and maybe even envy. Of course they are. But, one suspects they may be weary of their strength, for they are asked, on account of it, to bear more than most. And one thinks, despite their great accomplishment in life, they might be possessed of a wry and wistful sadness too, because they comprehend with utter clarity, that they, like all of us and all the trees on all the hills around us, are mortal too.
The winds will carry all away, but one finds, as one stands one’s ground over many years and survives all that life can throw at us, that ultimately there is a nourishing beauty in even that.
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.