He was restless and wanted me to go up the valley to find wild asparagus and early shoots that made a special spring salad with dandelions, nettles and other plants I had never heard of before. Dandelions I associated with rabbit food, nettles with soup. Gianni explained that nettles were eaten in an omelette on the first Friday in March to ward off pneumonia and considered I had much to learn. Obediently I lowered my head as I walked, not so much in humble ignorance but to pick out the shy asparagus. Gianni was tipping leaves back with a stick to uncover plants and even snails. I was not interested in them, but he still persisted. I normally look all around at the countryside, to take everything in while he, like his Etruscan forebears, picks out food from underfoot. They probably toiled away in the little community Don Basileo described near San Giuliano, surviving through cultivation, selling wares to pilgrims and, above all, fruitfully co-existing with nature. Each feature – leaf, bud, flower, toadstool, fruit or nut, berry or bird – was a vivid stitch in the fabric of survival.
I wonder whether he reacts to spring as I do, stimulated by the gradual reawakening of the earth in infinite gradations of green, fresher and sharper against the wet sheen of newly-turned furrows? Bright green points were freckling the umbrella pine Gianni had planted in front of our house as a guardian spirit.
The sun was now quite hot and the valley hazy with the melting snow. I rested my mind and forgot tensions in the gentleness of the con tours and the changing shapes and hues as the mists moved and thinned into snippets of cloud unravelling across the plain. Gianni had found only a fistful of asparagus shoots. Too early in the year, but he was satisfied that, on the evidence, he was the first to gather them.
Our valley is sliding into modern times. Outwardly I rejoice at these gains; inwardly I fear it is the end of the terraced hillsides, the backdrop to Paul’s anthology of human survival in this valley. The broad beans Gianni looked forward to every year are not now cultivated under the olives. Many of the groves are abandoned and the terraces, clogged with weeds and dead branches, not even ploughed once a year. A generation ago brushwood, gathered by children and the elderly, promised warmth from the damp winter chill, a pot of hot broth bubbling over the hearth and crusty bread baked in the outside oven. Giulio, Mauro and Carlo are the last of countless generations to take a personal pride in vineyards, gnarled fruit trees and olive groves. So every year more terraces are abandoned; the couch grass, brambles, broom, oaks and chestnuts seed and take root and multiply unmolested. Elderly couples, both landowners and contadini, provide one another with eggs, vegetables and company. Their children, like Francesco who designed the Montesasso museum display, work elsewhere. He often invites us into the next valley where he grew up. His parents own part of the hillside above the onorevole Bintoni’s villa and the oil mill.
‘What about hillside farming?’ Dan asked him.
No crops are sown under the flickering silvery light. With nobody to shore up and trim the crumbling terraces, shoots are pushing out of the slits and dislodging stones in the retaining walls. No machine can repair such a wall.
‘The wooded crest of the valley is creeping down on us,’ Francesco replied. ‘The hillsides are returning to their pre-Etruscan state.’ I can hear him now.