Marta Bonaccini has given us an exclusive sneak peek into her latest book that tells the story of the Italian tradition of La Transumanza, or migratory herding, as seen through the eyes of one of its protagonists, Bruno del Lago.
Long ago, during the snowy winter months of the Apennine mountains, with their harsh climate and barren land, farmers were forced to migrate elsewhere in search of work and indispensable monetary gain. So for this reason, every year the citizens of the region, especially males, would leave for the Maremma region in Tuscany. For many, their work on these journeys went unseen. However, with dedication and hard work, not only were these farmers able to support their families but they also helped contribute to the so-called beautification of these treacherous, swampy, run-down areas.
HARD WORK AND TOIL
Flashback to the end of September. “Tomorrow the flocks up on the Alpe massif take off and in a month’s time, it’s our turn”, my father said to me. “This year you’re going to come too.” A sense of pride and excitement came over me. My dad finally thought I was old enough to participate in the journey and I would get to discover the faraway land I’ve always heard my family speak of ever since I was a child. I was twelve years old and I would finally be joining my father in Maremma to help provide for our family. By now, the yield from our farm with its mountain terrain and harsh winters was dangerously low. We were many in my family; there was my dad and uncle, each with their respective wives and families and my grandparents and the handful of grain, two potatoes and small bit of beans that were harvested were not nearly enough.
Just a few days after All Saints’ Day, on a grey November morning, along with other men from Badia we set foot on our journey. We walked all the way to Sansepolcro, where we would embark on a series on trains that took us to Maremma. With me I brought a bag with an axe, some Pecorino cheese, a few sausages, a piece of bread, a pair of pants, sweaters, socks and woollen long johns. “But Mom, I’m not going hiking”, I objected as my mother packed everything for me. And my father would respond, “it’s humid there; the wind comes in from the sea…”
After what seemed to be a truly interminable trip, we finally arrived to the area we had been assigned to deforest. It was a desolate place nothing but forest and shrub. The first thing we had to do was set up camp, which was a sort of tent made with nothing but a couple of branches and twigs. On the inside we placed some more twigs and leaves on a some strategically-placed branches. These would be our beds and prevented us from directly touching the ground.
The following morning, we started work in the thick forest. Deep in the woods we would disappear from one another’s sight with only a glimpse of the clear skies above to guide us. Armed with our axes, pics and other tools we would clear the forest meter after meter, branch after branch. We continued in this fashion meter after meter, all day long, keeping silent most of the time save for a mutter or the odd curse word. In that thicket of forest, the only sounds you could decipher were the swinging of the axe and the scuffling crack of falling branches. I became overwhelmed with a strong feeling of solitude; it was as if we were each, in fact, alone having to fend for ourselves with our own strength needed to fight fatigue, obstacles and the frigid cold. Ah, the cold. Even though I was used to being outside in the cold mountain air, rummaging about the damp forest in the snow, I could feel the cold hitting me here. I would warm my icy hands by blowing on them or rubbing them on my rough and rugged clothes. When I would manage to get away with it, I would steal a pack of matches from my father’s jacket and light one after another, being sure not to stay too close to the branches and swigs, to warm my hands up. I don’t know how I made it. I was exasperated and desperate even if I never admitted it. Not to mention, that especially in the beginning I missed my mother.
Since then, I have been back to Maremma every year, with the toil and cold that awaited me. On certain days the winds from the sea blew in with such force that they’d bend the oak trees, and pines as if to rip them straight out of the ground. It would whistle violently through the shrubs and lash at my skin. Its dampness would weigh me down.
On I went, year after year, exploring all the regions from the Agro Pontino to the Maremme Grossetane, clearing forest and other rough terrain including remote flat lands and swampy mosquito-ridden areas. Luckily none of us caught malaria but the elders in our group had told the story of countless young mountaineers who had lost their lives to the illness. Those stories were incredibly sad. How was it fair to lose your life when you’re out there working just to survive?
We would work in teams and each team was assigned its very own cook who we would call “Meo”. Unfortunately without access to clean water, the “Meo” had to take the water from wells that was usually full of tiny gnats. In the evenings we would have soup, or rather water boiled with some wild herbs, a drop of oil and sometimes if we were lucky, an egg. The youngest of the group would usually go fetch water using a wooden bucket slung over his shoulders. I still remember one of these “acquatacci”, or water fetchers. His name was Luca and he had just left when the sun began to set. On his way back he could no longer find his way. He just went round and round in circles, but to no avail. He never found the tent and wound up sleeping under the light of the moon.
When war time approached, our work in Maremma came to a halt. When it was all over it was a disaster. My house was nearly destroyed, the little livestock we had, plundered by the Germans. We needed new everything and our only resources, our only means for survival, was to go back to Maremma. The destruction of the war was endless and we were forced to go by foot, and if and when we were lucky, with any means of transportation we found along the way.
We thought we would have gone back again as lumberjacks, but what with work being scarce, the locals beat us to it, forcing us to work as coal burners a considerably more difficult job. It was dirty work, leaving you surround by smoke all day long. No local willingly took on this job but we had no other choice. We worked tirelessly and incessantly, sometimes even 24 hours a day without ever stopping save for a small one-hour break at midnight for a snack of bread, cheese, a glass of wine or two and off we went back to work. We worked like machines. We were once we able to make seventeen charcoal pits in one night!
To make charcoal we needed to find a “piazza”, or a space that was protected from the wind where we could put together several piles of brushwood. We would then burn them and continue feeding the fire with small branches and leaves. We went on and on like this burning what we collected and adding more, non-stop. Once the wood would catch fire, we would cover it with earth. Every once in a while, we would move the embers around with a wooden pitchfork which would let the wood breathe a little, encouraging carbonisation. The result was smaller pieces of charcoal that were more lightweight, easier-to-light and less expensive than coal.
The company would sell our charcoal for heating in towns and cities and the bosses grew to appreciate us mountain-dwellers. We were hard workers who went about their jobs without ever eyeing the clock and when evening would fall, if the moon was bright enough to light our way, we’d work right through the night. Holidays didn’t exist for us, except for Christmas. On Sundays we would stop work at noon and in the afternoons we’d go off to a nearby tavern to socialize with others. Sometimes they would even invite us to their homes, but these sorts of afternoons were a rare occurrence. For in the winter, it would get dark very quickly, leaving us nothing but the time to eat, rinse off, and change clothes. If rain would fall, we would stay in our tents and fall asleep by the fireside. Of course, it was dangerous to sleep with the fire lit but with all that smoke that would fill the tent, our slumber was never too deep. In fact, we were so sleep deprived that I still recall one of the men inventing a poem, a sort of ode to our insomnia.
However, it wasn’t just men to go on these journeys. Some women and children would come along too. The first groups of them to join us would help us with the many tasks that were required to carry out the work required by the company. For example, they would flatten the piles of earth clumped together by the passing plows or dig small passageways in the earth for the water to drain out. They would cut the hay and gather into bushels, or reap the grain, along with another little tasks.
I still remember this one young girl who had come along to harvest olives with her parents. Though she worked, she was still quite young and was eager to socialize and have fun. She would always go to the parties that were hosted in nearby farmsteads but she only had two dresses: one for work and another one to change into after work. After wearing the same dress three times in a row she had grown embarrassed and so she bought some clothing dye to change it colours. She did this several times all to dance a little jig with a different dress every time.
Boys on the other hand, were tasked with chasing the birds away from the fields that had just been sowed. The farm owner would hand them each a stick that they would have to bang over and over again on a small drum. Boom! Boom! Boom! Back and forth through the field, up and down, all day long. It was a tiring job even if the kids had seemingly boundless energy. They would eat whatever their mothers or fathers fed them: polenta, soup, stale bread perhaps moistened with a little water if there was any, a small piece of cheese, a bit of herring or a sardine.
I’m not embarrassed to say it was a hard life for us all. We would stay over there every year from November to Easter without ever returning to home, and we would often stay without news from our families for months. What hard work!
Now, if you travel to Maremma in Tuscany, you no longer see brush and undergrowth. You see beautiful sprawling fields, perfectly planted farms, or ploughed plains. A sense of pride comes over me when I think of this. My work has given people the chance of living a better life, it turned that region into the beautiful one it is today. We mountain-dwellers deserve a little credit wouldn’t you say? We helped turn those rundown forests into fertile land that is the envy of many who wish to live there. When this thought crosses my mind, I forget all the toil…