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Vocation (Earth Primer #6)

(Crete Senesi. Photo by Gunther Tschuch, 2008)

(Earth Primer #5)

I don’t know why I ended up with soil as my specialization. I could tell myself it was a matter of chance, since that rendezvous seems to have happened on its own, not as an act of will: I did nothing to bring myself in its direction. Within the ideological framework of my family members (from which, despite appearances, I still hadn’t entirely freed myself), it was definitely the most well-worn path, the least appealing, least appreciated. What really attracted me was writing, but I never believed I had the intellectual gifts needed. If I think about it now, though, soil science seems the most suitable niche I could possibly have found, the only thing I could ever devote myself to. Much more often than we imagine, perhaps, chance brings us where we need to go. What we call chance, that is.

The year I began at the university, the agricultural school in Florence was torn to shreds by an incoming explosion of students. As the tide of protests and political whimsy rapidly ebbed, terrorism was reaching its paroxysm, and, in its wake, a cruel curtain lowered, leaving few good prospects. Certainly, in the eyes of many of us, agriculture carried the scent of freedom rather than establishment, of communion with nature, a world away from the sinister culture that was once again finding its feet. Back in those days there was a lot of talk about the struggle of South American peasants, and our fascination with Cuba hadn’t yet been corrupted. Many small groups of young people with rustic, libertarian dreams had gone to live in the country, usually in the old farmhouses left by tenant farmers, who had moved to the city.

No doubt these sentimental glimmers held sway for me as well, in a time where course offerings were still few and not particularly attractive. I can think of no other reasons that would explain the unconscious attraction at the genesis of my chosen path. The rural universe—which I had hardly visited during my childhood—was the only world capable of seducing me, giving me some measure of compensation for the frustration of not managing to dedicate myself to literature. During those years, as it happened, industrialized systems were taking over the Italian countryside, the exact opposite of such bucolic fantasies: the final traces of a thousand-year-old peasant world were being swept away, vanishing forever.

However it happened, during that first year ten times more students enrolled than the dusty halls on Via Cascine could hold—it was a rapidly deteriorating mess. Among the crowds drifting without direction, I’d see shrewd beatniks next to farmers in their Sunday best; many came from the South, but what they really shared seemed to be their preoccupation with finding something to eat and a place to stay. Their studies, it seemed, were an afterthought. In contrast, after the humilations of prep school in my lifeless little town, I needed to prove to myself that I was good for something. I threw myself into it to the point of exhaustion, ranging well beyond the regular curriculum, initiating the frenzied sort of persistence that became a personal characteristic. By the beginning of the second year, four out of five frosh had been led to the slaughter, and the arrogant Florentines, with their lordly, lofty gazes—some actually were from the nobility—were forced into exile and the repossession of their estates. Nonetheless, there were still too many students.

And so, among other problems, it was really difficult to find a supervisor for your research project. Several editors on the masthead of the magazine where I worked had managed to land one of the two openly leftist professors—critics of the agrochemical industry and open to dreams of environmental justice. So that’s how, with the help of another student (who got into his good graces by sharing stories of his sex life with two girls), I managed to end up with the same advisor. And, as it happened, this prof studied and taught courses in soil science.

I didn’t even have much of idea what dirt was made of, since I’d never had a course that covered it, and I wasn’t attracted by the subject at all. I was, though, curious about that professor, with his swashbuckler’s beard and his constant trips to tropical countries. From what one heard, in a small town in Africa, while he was with some unspecified sort of woman, he’d even gotten stabbed in the stomach. Though perhaps I’m wrong, and soil as a subject itself attracted me, even if I wasn’t aware of it. After all, in my own way I had found out something about it; when my parents moved out of the city, I stumbled across this subject in the way you do when something is totally unexpected. Except that, in my mind, it was still the distillation of the peasant, backwoods country I’d grown up in, besides being the exact opposite of what my family embodied.

My empirical study, unfortunately, wouldn’t require any field work. I rarely if ever saw that professor who I’d hoped would teach me something, since he was always in the tropics, busy with his stabbings and other scientific adventures. He’d left me to myself. And so, to collect soil samples that I needed to test, another, more deskbound teacher accompanied me to a land formed of vast, clear waves, full of the smell of sun-drenched straw and dried clay. It had been ages—not since my father took me into the high mountains—since I’d stumbled across something so strong, murmuring of human habitation but also the power of nature.

On our way back, the deskbound, taciturn teacher stopped to dig out and take home a plant (I seem to remember it was a strawberry tree), thus unveiling what had interested him in our trip. But anyway, I’d gotten a whiff of that setting, with clay hills as far as you could see, telling the story of an ongoing struggle between humans and what they considered an enemy ripe for conquest. And as a token of love at first sight, I took back to the city a sack full of that soil, so similar to cement, with which I intended to execute my useless and boring experiments.

Shortly after getting my degree, I came back to those austere, dazzling hillsides for a small job the university had saddled me with, and I had my chance to get to know that clay intimately. For entire days I traversed it on foot, with my gear and my manual auger, threading my way through the thin brush dividing up the endless wheat fields that had devoured like voracious sharks all the surface area that wasn’t too steep—all the available space, even the dry, wrinkled ravines. To expand to the limits, they’d often dug uphill into untouched clay; they uncovered unfamiliar, strangely bluish pigments. At any rate, they trusted entirely in chemical fertilizers; land was only utilizable surface area, dead, unintelligent matter.

The small houses of the tenant farmers were all built along the highpoints of the crests and small hillsides; it was the only practical solution atop those clays which would tear apart walls and foundations. They had all been abandoned long ago; they looked like small islands of wilderness, with their entourage of tousled flora. The roofs had often caved in, tall trees had staked their claims in various rooms and sometimes showed themselves at the windows, as if they wanted to demonstrate how they had taken possession of the homes. Many rooms still had their terracotta floors and kitchen fireplaces black with smoke, still with the bitter smell of oaken logs.

Only objects with no value remained: cheap, rusty tools, cloudy glass bottles, a few dishes and utensils. Such finds recalled those I’d seen in the northern countryside I knew; I’d always been struck by the weight of misery they carried, the cruel neglect they attested to, shrouded by an even more violent form of indifference. Moreover, something suggested to me that here the struggle for survival—before they had fled—had been much more severe.

More than that earth itself, of which I understood very little, the sun-drenched countryside conquered me—that odor of dried mud, straw, and rockrose, the tyranny of sky and wind. The soil full of clay, though, was ubiquitous; it formed the dehydrated skin of those infinite ondulations, condemned to cultivate grains with no respite or change of fate. In summer the enormous sharp clods cut by powerful plows were tempered by the scorching sun—a sea of rough blocks of cement set adrift.

I came back through those hills many years later, after having worked in places with other colors: the fields were much like before, with their bluish stretches uphill and light gray in the valleys, the rough clodding belched out by powerful plows. The ruins of farmhouses, however, had undergone metamorphoses and become luxurious villas, with English lawns and swimming pools, small luxury hotels. As if some fairy had cast a spell. The traces of peasant culture as I’d known it had been swept away definitively.

The rich foreigners had arrived: on the rubble of peasant culture, they had transplanted the splendor of international capitalism. Now all that counted was their pleasures and amusement, the needs of their eyes, avid for controlled exoticism. The beautiful clay hillsides—massacred by industrialized agriculture, yet still surviving, still resplendent, now almost conscious of their beauty—stood watching, waiting to see what would come next.

The following summer I frequented similar landscapes in the southernmost part of the country, still carrying my metal auger and gray canvas sack of tools. From a geological point of view, these were the same clay hills, but their humps were even more desolate, even more exhausted, worn down by dehydration. You understood that there the human struggle had been even more cruel, more implacable. Even enormous agricultural machines seemed to have trouble subduing that countryside, with its power and austerity. For a while they had won here as well, but the price had been still higher.

Now, however, I was at ease, in accord with the earth. Now I could feel it breathing, I understood that, beneath its etherized appearance, it was simply waiting. I knew that in the long run it would win, that human arrogance would lead to their defeat. I didn’t know it yet, but by that time earth had taken hold of me, and it wouldn’t ever let me go.


GIACOMO SARTORI is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by JIM HICKS

(Earth Primer #7)


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