(A series of personal observations recorded as Italy takes action against the spread of Covid-19, first published April 14, 2020)
It’s been a few days since I took to the hills and so this morning I go, prepared with gloves, shears and a large bag to collect some nettles for drying and some for a soup. I’m drawn into the details: all the things growing from between the rocks that line the path, or escaping into crevices with the flourish of of a tail. Most everything growing or escaping is green, which is a good thing. I am aware that soon the black snakes will come out in the open to mate and the brown and grey vipers have probably already begun to leave their hibernation.
Moving past the dry open rocky part of the hill I enter the woods.
There are more things blooming or about to bloom than there were just a few days ago. I’m curious about the things I don’t recognize. Some of them are from a plant family familiar enough that I don’t mind crushing a leaf, smelling, getting a sense of it. Something is budding that I will come back and check on soon because I think it might be comfrey. I wonder what else besides the plants I already know are useful, edible or medicinal.
There’s a place where two paths converge and this is where I start to find my nettles.
Before the earthquake in 1980, there would be a seasonal torrent that ran down the main path, cutting through this point of convergence to cascade down towards the town, cutting under and through the streets when it was strong enough. It doesn’t do that anymore, but the nettles and other moisture-loving plants still line the path, as if remembering that it would be moist here. The nettle is “highly variable” according to an old plant guide I have. Today I notice that it seems truer than ever. From patches just footsteps from each other I collect wide green leaves on yellow-green stalks, dark green leaves on purple stalks, curled dark greyish green leaves, narrow leaves tinged with rose-violet, and small ruffled leaves. Near some grow cleavers; near others grow chickweed.
For my soup I collect the most tender tops and new shoots of nettles plus these others as well (for balance), some dandelion leaves and a few young fronds of wild fennel.
Coming down again, I am noticing the dryness. The path is dusty. To the left and right are abandoned olive groves. There are two kinds of asphodels blooming between the trees: a waist-high or taller pink and white beauty, and a slightly shorter yellow one. I spot a couple stalks of asparagus shooting up from a mound of the bristly foliage. I can’t help myself. I leave my backpack and bag full of nettles and climb over the loosely piled rock wall to get them. There are five! On one plant! A huge victory that of course whets my appetite and I’m lured further down the hillside, then back up across the path and up past a small stone and terracotta shrine. There are narrow pathways cut up and down and across the grove and one stalk of asparagus here, another there. Every stalk promises another. I move up towards a shack that’s listing to one side. I can see that it’s been left as if someone, in the middle of one season or another fully intended to return and has left a couple old shirts hanging on nails in the wall, the chairs arranged facing outwards, tools propped in the corner. The state of the olive grove makes it clear that it’s been quite some time since it's been tended. I turn to go and I can see the whole valley before me, the farthest mountain still capped in snow.
Making my way back towards my pack I find a few more stalks of asparagus, just enough for a frittata. I am nearly back on the street when I smell the rain. It will be a brief and gentle shower.
I added this blog as a way to share some thoughts and experiences around the impact of Covid-19 on my life here in Southern Italy. These posts have been a near-daily practice during this time and are largely unedited, most having been first posted on Facebook. They are of course in order with the most recent entry on the first page. I invite you to explore previous posts or even start from the beginning.