It has been a week of bitterly cold north winds often turning to gales, the trees lashing back and forth, many small branches torn and scattered. Dry, brown, chestnut leaves billow around the terrace this way and that eventually settling in every nook and cranny. There is an open passage at the side of my house which contains the washing machine and storage shelves and the length of it is thick with leaves piled up to my knees.
Even though it is so cold, Giovanni, Marco’s father, has often been here working in the garden. He is quite small, carries little weight and shuffles slowly, his speech distorted by an aneurism some years ago. He always talks to me though I understand very little of what he says so I smile and nod a lot. His face is weathered, small eyes narrowed by years of sun and wind, a woollen cap pulled well down over his forehead. Ancient dungarees bag round his knees and stout leather boots are laced up to the ankles.
Quite a few trees have been felled or cut back so there have been piles of branches to deal with. Working slowly with a bill hook and a knife he cuts them to size and gathers them into a bundle, tying it with heavy twine and using a slip knot. Then the bundles are stacked here and there round the garden and along paths in the forest and will stay out for a year to season. Bundles from previous years have been gathered into a lean to at the back of a barn and light our fires, the boiler and the bread oven. Nothing is wasted, every twig worth saving is sorted and the rest burnt to leave the land clean. When Marco was opening a bundle for me one day the slip knot stuck and he took his knife to it. Giovanni was distressed, no, no, reaching out to untie it carefully, but to his frustration Marco brushed him away.
I’ve always felt at home in Italy, with the people, their culture, the landscape and the climate. At sixty I was ready to retire from work, but not from life, so I came to Tuscany and began again, the Italian way – Liz Taylor
I think of how life must have been in these hills, in this house, which has 1793 carved into one of it’s corner stones, when winter bit deep like this. Just log fires, chestnuts as the staple diet, a mule if you were lucky to carry you miles down steep mountain tracks to a village. A lifetime spent patiently preparing for years to come, looking after the forest, laying down wood to season, carving terraces out of steep hillsides to grow food, making almost everything you needed from what was around you, caring for Mother Nature so that she would provide for you. Giovanni’s frugal nature comes from generations who have survived in ways we can barely imagine now.
Marco, too, is drawn to the old ways, albeit he has a foot in both the present and the past. Life on the land in a small holding is now almost at an end as a means of making a living, as in so many other countries. So he works shifts in a factory, two days on then one off, the hours constantly changing but allowing him daylight time to be up here. Chestnut forests throughout Tuscany are suffering from disease so he is managing the thirty acres on the hillside above the house, grafting new, healthy strains onto young trees each spring. He makes chestnut flour as it has always been made and has just won first prize for this region. He keeps ninety bee hives in about five different locations and produces around forty tons of honey. Sheep graze and clean the forest floor. On the terraces below the house vegetables are grown, the onions and potatoes have just gone in. He chides Simonetta for spending time on tending flowers, they can’t be eaten, the land is there to provide what is needed to sustain life, not decoration.
Alongside this is the present day. My house is usually a short term holiday rental, I was lucky to negotiate eighteen months. There is a beautiful infinity pool on the terrace above, Marco cooks pizzas in the bread oven for guests, there are all the modern conveniences one would expect, albeit simple. This is another means of being able to live the life here that he and Simonetta want.
Then there is the next generation. Giorgio is fifteen and recently left school at his own request. So now he is up here with his father, sawing logs, helping with the building work on the barn and quite a tidy plasterer already, doing anything that is asked of him. But his parents are under no illusions, Giorgio lacks passion for what he is doing, it is a means to an end, a weekly wage. Taller than his father already, a stripling with a faraway look in his dreamy blue eyes and braces on his teeth his passion is for the dog he chose from a rescue centre recently who bounds around the garden with him, and for his scramble bike that he revs and races along the path and up and down the track. He came home a few weeks ago with his thick, blond hair cut and gelled into a peak on top of his head and his eyebrows shaped into stripes. If his father goes out for materials he is quick to nip inside for half an hour on his Game Boy, a young man of his time, of course.
Giorgio’s younger sister, Genevra, is slight and dark like her father with shining eyes and that wonderful capacity to become absorbed into her own world, running, laughing, talking to herself, stopping to examine a flower in the grass, unaware of all else around her, immersed in a wonderful childhood. Who knows what the future will hold for these two, like almost everywhere else young Italians have embraced television, the internet and aspirations.
It has made me reflect on the changes within my own life. I grew up in much the same way, a country child, always outdoors and running wild, bare feet on the earth, entirely at home with nature. As I grew older I became absorbed in business, working twelve hour days without seeing the sun. I lost my way. Distanced from the earth, the seasons became something to contend with if the heat or cold impeded my plans. I embraced a culture of increasing sophistication where anything goes for speed and convenience and new is always better. With hindsight it did not make me happy.
Now my days start with simple necessities. Take a bundle of sticks for kindling, leave the string neatly rolled into a ball on the window sill for Giovanni. Clean out the fire, lay a fresh one, fill the log baskets, light the stove in the kitchen if I am in for the day. Stepping outside the air is sharp, fresh and invigorating, the view across the valley stunning, the sky never the same twice. I am excited by a pathway full of pine cones to gather for the fire. Spring and summer lie ahead and I can hardly wait to get started. Marco has given me three terraces to plant as I wish and Giovanni will cut lengths of chestnut for me for the peas and beans. I feel profoundly grateful to have found my way back and to have the best of both worlds, old and new.
more articles by Liz Taylor can be found on her blog – A new life in Tuscany
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