Wednesday, April 30, 2008


(Originally written April 18th)
I ran into Costantino yesterday. It’s a lovely feeling when you don’t see anyone for days on end and then when suddenly you stumble into him in the woods a grin splits his face from ear to ear because he’s happy to see you.

Costantino is my neighbour. When I say neighbour I mean someone whose house, if I start walking in a given direction, I will eventually bump into. He’s about a five minute walk away down through the woods. Costantino is his surname but everyone calls him that. His name is Cesare. Obviously his parents were great fans of the romans, Caesar Constantine is somewhat of a mouthful. He’s about 70 but looks a good bit older. He was born in the area and lived most of his youth in the house above ours and most of his middle and old age in the house below us. He used to keep two or three cows but can’t handle that anymore so he now has a couple of goats, chickens and rabbits.

Despite a gammy leg, he now walks with two sticks, he takes his goats out every day usually up to our house at the Vignassa. He’ll sit and chat, perched on a rock or leant against a tree and pontificate. He is the only person I have ever met that hates humanity more than me. Especially the medial profession. In fact Thursdays, when he has his hospital appointment for a weekly blood test, I tend to keep out of his way because he doesn’t shut up about it. In fact there are two or three subjects that once embarked on it is hard to shut him up about - land management, imbeciles with university degrees telling us what to do, the weather and plants. He has always lived as close to nature as anyone can. Self sufficient for most of his life, asking nothing of anybody. His main job, until he got taken on for a period by the council as a gardener was a scyther (don’t know the real term). They start of at the bottom of the hill and scythe their way up the mountain. And then rake the hay down again make bales by hand and then hump it all down on their backs or on mules. There is nobody in the area who has a patch on his scythe honing skills. Legendary. Two strokes of his magical whetstone and you have a razor. Three and you can do microsurgery. Doing that job for years you get the weather off to a tee and learn all the plants too as they cut round the beneficial herbs and plants.

His house like ours was built in the 1600s and an external balcony connects each room. Whilst we have knocked doors in between the rooms he has not. The only rooms he uses are the kitchen and bedroom, all the others are full of the unimaginable. A treasure trove of stuff spanning 70 years and more particularly old agricultural implements that I reckon nobody would know how to use anymore. Each room is a veritable treasure trove. Unless the weather is particularly cold he lives most of the year with the kitchen door open and has no heating in his bedroom. The kitchen, minute though it is, is where you are invited if you pop by to pay him a visit. You will probably get given an ‘amaro’, a bitter alcoholic apetizer drink, sort of like a man’s version of martini, almost unbelievable bitter and you are sat down and moaned at while his dog, Titty (unfortunate name for a male dog) lies at his feet. Titty is also particular. If you stroke him, he growls at you, the more you stroke the more he growls, growing to a snarl if you tickle him under the chin. But that is how he is, not at all aggressive. When costantino and I and Titty are sitting chatting, the dog is the most pro-human.
He uses a corner of our land on which he has his little veggie plot. In thanks (not that it would ever be necessary) he keeps the lower terraces clear by cutting the grass for his animals and grazing his goats there.

One of the things I love about the life I lead is the fact that I don’t have to worry about what I wear. Not that I ever have but here I can wear whatever I want which always means the same things, cammo trousers, old t-shirt, fleece, preferably brown or green. I can’t stand being seen. Costantino in this though, is my idol. He has the most ragged selection of clothes imaginable, with a spectacular range of ill-darned holes. His wife died 20 years ago of cancer and so of course now he does everything himself. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that he slept in his clothes, though, unlike most farmers, he doesn’t smell. Just a faint warm musty evocative smell of goat. When he’s out grazing you’ll sometimes see his goats but not see him. He stands stock still in heavy cover and will wait just like the deer and boar, until you re right on top of him before he will say “well?” in a loud voice shortening my life by further minutes.
One of the things I love about him the most is that he has a rhyme for ‘everything’. Yesterday he had one for planting beans, if you don’t’ plant them when the ground is warm the little plants will still be born but will never grow and will look forlorn sort of thing. He has one for every conceivable meteorological condition, planting and harvesting time, moon type, everything. The dialects here change every mile or so and unfortunately all his rhymes are in the dialect from this immediate area which is difficult to understand and impossible to write. But the incredible thing is, as they were all passed down from generation to generation they are amazingly accurate. Accumulated knowledge. There’s one that speaks about clouds. If white clouds come from the west to the left of our mountain it will rain in the next valley, if they come from the right it’ll rain on the plains. It’s true. It’s a sort of environmental mnemonic specific to this area. His vast knowledge is very practical. For example he knows sod all about birds except ones that herald certain things. They touch him not, but he is exceedingly knowledgeable about plants. He knows them all. He may not know the names of them but he knows what to do with them and more to the point, where to find them. A good crop of tyme for your cabassa ( a type of basket you hump on your back) you’ll find it in the field behind the Vignassa. But if you want to make a liqueur you should pick the thyme in such and such a field because the earth is more barren and the scent is stronger. He is an amazing source of information and local knowledge.
As a result, his pet hate, ‘university educated imbeciles’, is touched upon with monotonous regularity. Unfortunately, or fortunately he’s usually right. We get all freshly degreed cleanwellies telling the locals who have lived their lives here how to manage their land, what trees to cut and when and especially how to mange the water. One stupid little girl with an evident zero practical experience level started telling him that it would be a good idea if he raked up the chestnut husks before the leaves fall so that he could use the leaves for bedding for the goats and there wouldn’t be any spikey bits in them, something they have been doing here for centuries. The look he gave her defied description. Thinking about it we really do have a procession of them. Half of them haven’t got a clue I admit but he won’t accept that practical knowledge comes with experience and that fresh out of uni they're still too wet behind the ears to have any. ‘Get you experience first’ he says ‘and then go and fine tune it at university’. I must say I tend to agree. It’s a pity the system would never allow that.
For centuries the locals have been drying their faggots by making a bridge over the stream and piling the years’ faggots on top. The circulation of air underneath caused by the movement of the water dries them out a treat and you can have huge stacks of faggots which don’t get in the way of anything. Once all the locals, together with the council used to get together twice a year to clean out the stream beds and cut back the vegetation. Then the council, for "health a safety" reasons, made a by-law preventing the locals from doing this themselves. However the council do not do it, having no money and haven’t done it for 20 years so the stream beds are cluttered and the woods overgrown. After the winds of 2000 and the 2002 rains when the village was flooded because the all the streams in the area broke their banks because of the cluttered beds, Costantino was told he had a day to remove all his faggots suspended over the stream because they were a danger to the village - the hundreds of fallen trees, which were the council’s responsibility to clear was not an issue, but a bunch of faggots was of course a great danger. He was in bed with a bad back that week but, to avoid a ridiculously high fine he went out, under a torrential rain to move his dry faggots off the bridge which has had faggots stacked on it since the 17th century at least, one at a time.
The spotty unigrads, we counted six of them, spent the week strolling about the area laying down the law to all and sundry, threatening fines and court cases without realising that nothing you could do downstream would make the slightest difference if you didn’t do anything about the clutter upstream. So much for university education the locals murmur. So now anyone with a clipboard and clean trousers and a clean jeep that comes to the area is immediately given as much false information as possible though remaining within the bounds of crediblity. One unfortunate lot, maps in hand, were asking directions to a spring to avoid getting their shiny boots dirty by actually following the stream. As it happens the spring was about 100 meters from their car. 'No no', said locals 'thas an old map you have there, see that peak up there...!?' They spent the morning cursing and swearing in the bush with the two or three goat grazing locals puffing on their ciggies and watching them, amused, from the fields below.
Vets is another favourite of Costantino. He is not very lucky with his goats. Bloody vets he says. He said, as do most other farmers, that their animals were all healthy before the absurd veterinary laws came into force. They took care of them themselves in harmony with nature and the natural rhythms. After all their lives depended on it. If you mistreated your animals you went hungry. I can well believe it too I mean they didn’t eat feed then, they were just sent out to pasture. Now there’s so little communal pastureland left, and what there is is so monothematic that they have to incorporate feed into the diet to give the critters a balanced diet. This means they need cash and the goats get their daily does of herbicides and pesticides. Anyway when Costantino needs a hand with birthing he calls me or does it on his own and only if there are problems does he call the vet. One of the rules about goats is that you don’t stick your hand in them because they rarely survive. The usual trick is to do a cesarian but this is now illegal. They all did it, cut, stitched and tended and the survival rate was according to the local doctor, excellent. Now with the new laws obviously only the vet is allowed to do cesarians and as of course the vets charge too much money the farmers refuse to let them do them so the vets end up sticking their paws in the goats, the only viable alternative, which usually leads to the death of the mother after an agonizingly long time. Then often the wee’uns die too. So the farmers are not very happy about that either. At one time everybody did everything, from making shoes to building their houses. Now, so they reckon, most people need a degree to tie their shoe laces. It’s no use arguing though and I keep dead quiet that my wife has a degree in environmental sciences and with a specialisation in forestry to boot. But then she too tends to agree with Costantino. It’s hard not to. All his arguments make perfect sense in a world without red tape and where collaboration between ‘them’ and the peasants was once the norm . It must be difficult when you have been doing things a certain way all your life and then suddenly you are the ignorant one and the namby pamby laws take away your life style and modify your existence to the point that you cannot survive unless you break the law.
But back to happier things. His house. It truly is amazing. Not the house as such more the contents. I’d love to get in there and rummage but however friendly, he is suspicious of people wanting to pry and up goes the wall. I’ve glimpsed tools there which must go back centuries. It’s all full of doors and passages leading off here and there full of tools and strange objects from bygone days when everything was done by hand. During the war he was in charge of mules and has pack saddles and bridles and stuff. And it’s all over the place. Every nook and cranny has some form of animal life in it as well and sometimes from the mule track you see him bending down waving his arms about, which looks most odd unless you know that he is either crooning to or telling off some rabbit or duck.
Of course he slaughters his own animals but he does it with utmost respect and delicacy but practicality too. When he bumps off his goats he’s sad for days after. They’re his family.
One thing that never ceases to impress me is he does everything a little at a time. Haymaking for example, now he can’t walk much and is unsteady on his feet, he does a patch at a time. Then he has all the techniques of course for storage, the specific little dance he does on his hay pile to flatten it which he taught me, a hod of manure at a time up to the field where he’ll plant his tatties, a wall is down, and up it goes, a stone at a time maybe just ten a day and one foot in front of another, about one every two seconds and he climbs montains. It’s quite stunning what an infirm old man can do a bit at a time. Everything he does is linked to everything else. That’s why he is so angry at society. It’s buggered all the connective tissue. Put it this way, he doesn’t have a rubbish bin, He makes his own bread, has his eggs and rabbits and fruit and veg and milk and a couple of kids a year plus his herbs. Herbs for everything. He drinks spring water and herbal teas and when he does buy something he reuses everything. He’s got 2 plates, that I’ve seen, a couple of pots and pans and couple of forks and spoons, millions of knives a photo of his wife two chairs and a table, a rake and that’s his kitchen.
Once a year, now he is getting on a bit (he had a very hard but happy life he says) I carry his manure up to the fields with my crawler and another farmer rakes his leaves and cuts most of his hay. In return we get the odd rabbit or bit of kid or some veggies. It’s all about collaboration. With that we all live better for it so if I’m driving by in the car or come up on him while I’m strolling about I always stop for a while to chat, even if I'm in a hurry.
If we move house leaving him behind will be one of the most upsetting things.
When he goes (mind you the stubborn git could last another 30 years yet) a whole lifetime of knowledge will go with him. More important knowledge than you can get from reading or study. It’s a practical knowledge. Archetypal hands-on knowledge of the seasons and the movements and currents of nature. There has never been any great imparting of knowledge from him to me unfortunately just miniscule things which go to make up a picture of a balanced life that was hard but logical. I once tried to ask him about the chestnuts trees on our land. He told me all the names and the differences between the chestnuts, colour, size location, how to collect them, which ones could be left on the ground for a day or two and which couldn’t but his descriptions of the colours and shapes and smells used words in dialect which I don’t understand and he doesn’t know in Italian and are terms that will die with him and be lost for ever as will the rhymes and anecdotes,his weather lore and tales of life before they built the road up here. I’ve tried to quiz him and write things down but he’s probably right when he says that the world has changed beyond all reasoning and the balance and harmony with nature that was the biggest feature in his life will never return so he can’t see the sense in passing it on to me and he gets suspicious if I insist. I am, and in his eyes always will be, well intentioned but totally incapable.

A couple of fun french guests yeaterday gave me a recipe for a sort of fortified wine.
5 litres of red wine, 40 green walnuts fresh off the tree, 1 litre of alcohol, 1 kg sugar. Leave for 40 days, filter and drink. As soon as our walnuts are out i'm going to try it.

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