This is the time for merrymaking. The harvest is gathered in and storms are already massing on the horizon. Not long ago early morning voices would be calling across the valley to find out who would be helping with the bundling, stacking and, if time and weather permitted, the thrashing. The ancient harvester that belonged to a local workers’ co-operative was shared by the hillside dwellers and anxiously awaited. It is after the Virgin Mary’s feast of the Assumption on 15 August that serious harvesting and storms begin.
Three decades ago we were invited to help with the harvest by a farmer on a remote hillside behind the Tuscan hilltop town of Cortona. It was their turn to use to ancient machine and all were gathered to help, anxiously glancing at the sky. Cloudless. A gentle sigh of relief. The sun was rising and work had to begin. Bundles of wheat were already stacked and men were gathering to fork bundles into the mouth of the noisy machine. I was handed a fork and joined the line by the stacks to heave a sheaf along to the next person in the row. Silently, slowly, rhythmically the work swung through hour after hour, only interrupted by a swig of water, until about eleven when it was becoming seriously hot. They had chosen a hillside terrace where there was plenty of shade, but as the sun rose there was not nearly enough of it. Time throbbed through one’s body as it rose still higher and we continued to swing the sheaves along into the carts until midday. Brows wiped, sighs of relief, and we were shown to a narrow terrace on the steep hillside where trestle tables had been set up. Women appeared from the nearest farmhouse carrying pots of steaming pasta. Hot food into sweating bodies, but it was tasty and we were ravenous. Then back to the toil of centuries. Few words and much heaving. That was the last time I saw oxen pulling carts. I wanted to draw my hand over their sleek, light brown coats while they busily flapped ears and tail to keep the flies off, their huge luminous eyes looking expressionless into space, a picture of resignation. We animals are fed and mud is groomed off our skin, so we wait and pull and wait again, swishing our tails and blinking our eyes.
Work resumed in anxious haste. We were behind schedule. The creaking machine was due at the next farm late that afternoon. Shadows lengthened but just, only just, we finished and the machine was ushered away by the next farmer in the queue.
Some years ago I was taken on an archaeological tour of the hillside behind me by a couple who were born here and had lived on the hillside all their lives. Renate and Maria were both illiterate. They had gone to school for a couple of years but had forgotten how to read. They could fumble around a few numbers, enough to manage the market and the little change they had. They spoke dialect mingled with the Italian they had learnt at school. In times past – nobody had any idea when – stones had been gathered off the hillsides and piled up into massive walls to hold all the earth that could be scraped or heaved into the hollows created. So the terraces were formed to provide farming land above the marshy Val di Chiana. It had been drained by the Etruscans before the Christian era and by the Romans later, but after about 400 A.D. when the Roman empire was disintegrating, the dwindling population of Tuscany retreated from the swamps to the hillsides. What landscape there is in the background of Renaissance paintings gives some idea of the countryside but little of its farming, the unnoticed background to people living in the 14th and 15th centuries. When I first came to Tuscany, little seemed to have changed from the country scenes depicted in Siena town hall. On a rare open hillside field, I remember once seeing an ox literally dragging a load of hay down a hillside on a cart with wooden skis instead of wheels. That must have been quite common further back in history when a wheelwright would have been a prized and expensive artisan.
Nobody now cultivates the narrow fields under the olives that have thrived since biblical times on well-drained hillsides. It is cheaper and quicker to buy one’s fruit and vegetables in the Co-op or, better still, in the rough and ready local farm shop. It was there I saw Bruno yesterday and he agreed to meet and tell me about his memories of the valley. He was the person who, years ago, sold us a ruin and some land. He is nearly 100 years old.