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Poisoned Land (Earth Primer #10)

(Photo by Giacomo Sartori)

I had grown accustomed to earthy alpine soils, with their scent of moss and sap. Then, without warning, I suddenly found myself dealing with the soils of a valley lined with the disciplined rows of apple orchards covering every wedge of the wavy hillsides, even the steepest slices, as far as the eye could see. The growers evidently had zero tolerance for sloping or uneven terrain: before lining up their rows of dwarf trees, they’d shave down the slopes with heavy machinery, leaving them perfectly flat. They clearly wanted them to keep up with the times, to fit in with the geometrically shaped concrete warehouses used for sorting and conserving the produce, and with the futuristic malls of the more flourishing cities.

With such measures, they managed to ravage forever lands that had taken shape over fifteen thousand years; the handsome features and noble vigor of those lands would never return. They either hadn’t realized this or never gave it a thought. To clear the way for tractors, they also flattened the space between the rows of these latest-model trees, removing the transversal incline, shaping it into a smooth path. There too they had buried the best layers of soil, sealing the tomb with the putt-putt-putt of heavy machinery.

For their short-term goals, it was fine like this: the new and even more productive apple trees were no taller than a person and their roots no bigger than the width of a hand. To simplify pruning and harvests, researchers and nurseries succeeded in transforming the traditional mighty trees into scrawny little shrubs, bent over under the excessive weight of fruit without a blemish, pumped up with water and chemical nutrients. They weren’t thinking about their children and the children of their children, who might one day need—abundance never lasts forever—some good soil to live off by growing wheat or potatoes. For me such a lack of thought and care was an affliction.

Yet there too I dug my usual holes: our method remains the same, no matter how archaic it may seem in this era of deep-probing sensors, miniaturized photocameras, and digitalized intelligence. The ordered succession of natural soil layers—something close to the encrypted language of nature—was there no longer. This mass of earth had been turned over poorly, several times; it had been ravished and defiled. It never smelled right; there was a stench of over-fermentation and chemical products, of filthy, stagnant pools. Often pieces of plastic emerged from the pile, or bits of iron, and sometimes even large, tar-covered fragments, their provenance unknown.

Due to pesticide treatments, the grassy cover and treetops had become a polished marble surface, without a crack; there wasn’t even a whisper of wings beating, not a single creak or crackle. For days and days. As I took my core samples I tried to touch as little as possible, trying not to breathe that air saturated with the smell of chemicals. I longed for the earth of my mountains, their lofty purity, but I went through the motions, the customary gestures that my hands and brain make almost without thinking. The land had been very badly treated, and still it did its duty, giving life to those dwarf apple trees overburdened with fruit, like skinny slaves crushed by a pile of uniform, turgid, heavy wares. I told myself that perhaps my work would make people see that more attention was needed to make things better.

From what I’d heard, the study had been commissioned by the farming association simply to help with marketing: no one intended to use it to save water or stop the pollution of the acquifer; no one believed it had any use at all. They were completely satisfied with the systems they’d put in place. For them, soil was simply a resource—exploitable surface area, which unfortunately was limited, and the market value was substantial. Nothing was taken into consideration if it didn’t affect that year’s balance sheet.

Their slick publicity campaigns for the apples showed sunny alpine summits and pure mountain springs; even the packaging shined with unspoiled woods and fields. For sake of appearances, a soil study made sense—if you say soil, you think of ecology, of bygone eras. And anyway, they managed to get local banks to pay the costs of the investigation, through funds these institutions are required to reinvest in cultural projects. Still, I kept telling myself, some farmer or specialist would certainly appreciate what I was doing; they’d be inspired to pay some attention to the soil.

In the most cutting-edge fields, these disciplined rows of stunted trees had sloped, hail-proof netting fixed to the impressive cement columns that supported them. With the overpowering odor of sun-drenched plastic and pharmaceuticals, it felt like you were in a greenhouse, or even a factory. Not exactly apples picked by rosy-cheeked maidens in some high-altitude, alpine paradise: that was just advertising.

Despite considerable resistance, I succeeded in getting the Regional Institute for Agricultural Research to agree to measure the residual pesticides in those tortured fields—still green with grass and admired by tourists in transit towards alpine resorts. And so, I put together an elaborate study to verify the differences in the various soil types and various zones, and I told myself that this too could perhaps be useful in some way. I took my samples, and then the company’s large, very well-equipped lab carried out in-depth analyses. Despite my repeated and insistent requests, however, I never managed to see the results. I assume that very high levels of pesticide were found, and they may not have trusted in my discretion.

What is amazing is that, even in those deadly caverns, life would still manage to reawaken. A few small soil-dwelling critters reappeared, slowed down somewhat, and a few seemingly stunned spiders. It wouldn’t be long before another dose of deadly poison would spray down on them, but they didn’t give up—they did their best to stand tall. Maybe they knew that life is stronger than men, and it will continue after we’re gone. They persisted.

Later I told myself that they were identical to my hopes for them, which also never die. After all, I too was persisting. And thus somehow, without even realizing it, I began to love those lands, mangled as they are by ignorance and disrespect, those lands poisoned as they are by the presumption that we humans can discipline nature.

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 #9)


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