Sunday, December 21, 2014


I'm on a farm in Sicily, right near the small town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, in the province of Ragusa. We are making the passeggiatawalking as evening falls, down a road that turns to gravel, then to soil, as it passes above a ravine, through hills of olive trees, stone walls, and abandoned stone houses. I thought Vermont had a lot of stone walls, until I came to Sicily. In some places, it seems there are more walls than the fields they divide. It's like they gave someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a shovel and a pick-axe and said “Heal thyself.” Or die trying.

There is a wildness to southern Italy, including Sicily—wildness in many forms. The way they drive, a certain lawlessness, fires burning everywhere, unbridled emotion, hands always in motion when making a point, like the flapping of wings.

But the best wildness here, I believe, is that inherent in the natural world. As we walk along this roadPaolo, Eva and megrowing on the hills and between the stones in the walls there is wild oregano, wild asparagus, wild fennel, wild thyme, even wild olive trees heavy with black olives that no one will harvest, the peasant homes long ago abandoned, roofs fallen, walls tumbling down. There's a wild pomegranate tree, too, but the birds have had the sense to harvest that one. Wild nature here just gives and gives.

Corbezzolo plant, from which we made marmalade.

Berries of Corbezzolo, close-up

Even the town's church bells I hear in the distance as we walk sound a little wild. It's not one simple tolling sound, but a variety of sizes and tones clanging haphazardly, but still beautifully.

Paolo and Eva talk as they walk, and I listen, stopping occasionally to examine plants more closely, or to try to capture with my camera that rosy, heart-stopping light that falls on these hills as the sun makes its descent.

It's good practice for me to listen. They are speaking as they normally would, not slowing down for the visitor from another land. I'm a silent observer today. I don't have to participate if I don't want to. I can just focus on the sounds, learning to separate words from phrases from paragraphs so it starts to make sense.

The conversation is essential. That is, it's about what is essential. And it's refreshing to my American ears. It's not about Paleo diets or carbs, mommy-wars, high tech devices, inept government (though, certainly everywhere there is a place for that conversation), or corporate malfeasance, or simplistic political labels, though there's a time and place for all those conversations, too.
Well, almost all (you can keep your diet advice, thanks. And mommies, how about you just start being nicer to each other?) Hmmmmm. . . seems I'm in a mood.

No, this conversation is: what will we plant? What will we eat? What can we sell once we grow it, and where? How will we make money?
Not, mind you, how will we grow our business beyond all reason, make obscene amounts of money and become Masters of the Universe and buy our second or third SUV.
It boils down to how do we live? How do we survive in this place, in this crisis. How will the land help us?

I'm not hearing first-world problems as we walk. Nothing about thread-count or which soccer camp will be best for Taylor's self-esteem, or which nursery school will most assuredly point Ethan toward the Ivy League.
It's about real-Life, with a capital L, stripped of the socially-mandated fairy tales.

I like this conversation I'm hearing. In an essential conversation, I can pick up essential vocabulary. I can talk about the things that matter to me, and shake my head and look apologetically confused when the bullshit comes up later on, because I haven't learned the Italian words for “butt implants” or “trending”.

Late afternoon light

I'm noticing the terroir of language lately. That is, how the land where we live shapes our language and the things we talk about, for good or ill. The other night, I had the privilege of sitting at the table after dinner and listening to my host, Paolo, read some of his poetry to me. He writes in both Italian and Sicilian. He reads both to me, though I don't speak Sicilian dialect, and he knows this. As it turns out, it doesn't matter.
He sits with his handwritten pages in front of him, his glasses pushed down the bridge of his nose, much like my own right now.

I listen, and the wildness of this place, of his life connected to his land, grows like a storm rolling in. He speaks of the wildness of the wind, the wildness of the rains, the wildness of love, the wildness of war, the wild desperation of poverty after the war.

When he switches to Sicilian, at first I go from understanding 80 to 90%, to understanding 5 to 10%. But I close my eyes and let poetry do what it does best . . . take us beyond the words and, through some inexplicable alchemy, turn sounds and rhythms into gold. With each phrase, sign posts go up, and the signs point to something ineffable, yet somehow felt and comprehended.

Many of the poems are sad. But there is within them a deep acceptance and even appreciation of this sadness; a deep knowing that this is the price of being alive and embracing wildness; and that the truly domesticated, tamed life is only half a life
If he will have rain, let it be torrents;
wind, let it be the Scirocco;
love, let it be untamed and intemperate;
and let rushing rivers wash him clean of all regret, all questioning of our wild nature.

I think of my own religion's teachings about finding the “middle way”. I think about how being the fulcrum on life's balance, its scale, doesn't stop the highs and lows all around. It gives a fascinating front row seat that remains steady, stable, no matter how much the wind blows. You can watch and listen from the fulcrum, and marvel at its power without being swept away.
I hope I get there some day . . .

The sound of sorrow in Sicilian and in Italian flits and flutters about me like a fragile, diaphanous-winged creature. I open my eyes and see that Paolo has gone someplace else as he speaks of the sea, of the passage of time, and of a missed opportunity for love.
I don't mean he's left the room. He's right there. Still reading.
But the words have come from someplace else. I can see this.
He's pulling the words down from something like his own, wild heaven.
He begins to move his hands as he reads, like a conductor before an orchestra. The words have not come from him, but rather through him.
They've emerged from his marrow, moved into bone and nerves and flesh, and the body must move, must feel its wild aliveness.
The body, itself, has become a poem as the wild words travel through it.

When he comes in for a landing, there is an audible exhale; that last, wild gust making its exit.
We are silent for a moment. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looks at me.
He smiles, a wild ember still there in his eyes.
I think that, without words, he knows I'm grateful.

I am not Sicilian. This is not my language.
But there is nothing here that I don't understand.

Grazie, Paolo.

Paolo, teaching me to prune the olive trees.

500-year-old carob tree, one of a pair.

Other one of the pair of 500-year-old carob trees.

Roughly 600-year-old oak.

600-year-old oak tree.

1500-year-old olive tree.
Heirloom pears.
View of Ronnavona from the house's balcony.

Want to see for yourself when you're in Sicily?

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