One thing that consistently amazed me while traveling in Italy was the overwhelming sense of history. Here in the New River Valley we have that sense of history, but it’s more on a geological time scale, not a human one. There are no remnants of ancient civilizations, for ours did not, at least in this part of the world, have the need or feel the drive to build giant fortresses, or erect symbols of their might to prove to the world that they did indeed exist. Instead, they relied on the land, the rivers and their environment to feed and clothe them. The New River Valley was, and still is, to some extent, an area rich in natural resources.
If one knows how, and has the nerve to try some new things, foraging is an excellent source of alternative foods this time of year. As spring drives its way into our lives, early this year, I’ve already noticed ramps and leaks springing up around our property. The rosemary has brightened. The turkeys are calling. The coyotes have finally stopped their relentless harassment of everything around them and seem to be partially content while giving birth to their kits and preparing for summer. The squirrels are playing squirrel games in the white oaks, which are promising yet another bountiful mast of acorns.
So, here we have the ever changing seasons and our soft green mountains. In Italy, there is the constant sense of past – but they are also proud of the present. I was amazed at the construction methods in some of the smaller towns as we travelled about, mostly by foot. Old school methods prevailed as they proudly renovated ancient structures much in the way their ancestors would have. Mortar was mixed by hand; materials were hauled up many stories by ropes and pulleys. Scaffolding frightened me to simply look at it.
I watched two workers spend an entire afternoon digging up the steps outside of an ancient structure that was being renovated. The carefully removed the ancient stones that made up the steps, then spliced in the water line from the municipal source that was being ran to the structure being renovated. They then tamped in a mix of clay and sand around the splice to make sure that it wouldn’t be damaged by the endless stream of foot traffic that would follow after their repair. There was no sense of the American urge to hurry, get it done, hook it up, call an inspector; while knowing full well that we will be tearing it down in ten years or less to build something else. No, there was never an inspector to be seen in the duration of their work.
During afternoon break, I wandered out to take a look at their work. Despite my many hats, I am at my core a geologist. I was curious as to the soil content and mortar that they had used, along with the unique clay fittings. I was on my hands and knees, rolling a ball of soil between my palms when I realized I was being watched. The workers were staring at me curiously, but with no animosity whatsoever, with Italian sandwiches the size of my head in their hands. I realized that I had interrupted their lunch break. They were unflappably friendly. We had an awkward conversation that consisted of mostly hand signals and a few broken words of English and Italian in which they explained to me that they mixed clay from the hills with rough sand from the beach in order to achieve proper compaction. I was speechless. It’s a half hour walk and nearly 1,000 feet in elevation to the beach. It’s another half hour walk, up countless steps, to their quarry for clay soil. There is no mechanized equipment to move the material, only buckets.
Such was the case all over Italy in the small towns that we visited. Tradition trumped convenience in every case. Where we as Americans would have built a trolley system and ripped out all the steps in order to facilitate our construction effort, the Italians without question navigated hundreds of steps every day in order to get the materials that they needed while keeping their impacts to a minimum. No wonder they can eat Italian sandwiches as big as my head while maintaining a physique comparable to any gym rat in America.
If not for my love of my own land and this property that I am devoted to, I could cheerfully live my life here in the small towns of the Amalfi Coast, learning to stack stones without mortar, catch anchovies with small nets, cook with simple ingredients and butcher locally raised beef in high heels and fake snakeskin pants. (Not really, but that is another story.)
That night, after everyone was asleep, I wandered out under the light of a Mediterranean moon to take a look at the results of their labor. The only proof that I had that any work had been done was the slight dampness of the mortar. I looked up into a sky full of the same celestial bodies who have been watching this corner of the world since the dawn of time. I grinned, saluted their work, drained my glass and went to bed.