The fortress-like Botanical Gardens fools the impatient by appearing closed at all times, with spiky cacti on top like archers guarding a castle keep. But Libby told me about the secret entrance on the other side of the Santo Spirito church (perpetual adoration of the Eucharist inside). You walk halfway down the brick scalette (leading down farther to the fountain pool where our favorite Greek restaurant serves diners in the open air). In that halfway place I found the wrought-iron gate in a hole in the wall that lets you peek into the secret garden, and the gate pushed open for me.
Suddenly, the blaring sun is mottled and sweetened by a tribe of trees, each tagged with its Latin name. Flower beds (aiuole) in this garden (orto) have themes. Here are plants that stimulate or depress the peripheral nervous system (parasimpatico). Here are plants that work on the musculoskeltal system (antirhumatics, rubifacients, smilax).
Nature knows it all. The Botanical Gardens is one of the ways Italians attend to that truth. Slowly walking the pathways between these flowerbeds, in a respite of solitude (after three frantic days of editing 14 of our course’s 40 multimedia stories), I felt as if I was in for a tune-up, up on the lift. These plants must be working their healing magic on my peripheral nervous system.
So much help is right there in the natural world, if we only attend to it on its own terms. Water, for instance. The Colorado wildfires, online, remind us of Dante’s Inferno. Bob, who has been out West for environmental stories, says it comes back to Americans not attending to natural limits. There’s only so much water in the world, he says. Yes, but look, say I: Look at flushing toilets. Bob insists on regulations; I’d rather harness the monster of the market by making inefficiency cost a lot more. Here, you don’t flush so much, you can semi-flush, and every toilet has a brush for scrubbing if needed. (Bob’s so quick, having the natural metabolism of a good reporter. . .Slowing down under the shade of the Botanical Gardens, I ponder the dilemma of journalism: If reporters weren’t so damn quick about everything, they might be more nuanced in their conclusions – but speed is what makes good reporters learn so much from so many sources. Is this post too jumpy. I was a reporter once.)
And the sun, for another instance. Photovoltaic solar panels are spreading over fields all over sunny Italy, replacing (I suppose) the fields of sunflowers. But thoughtful Italians don’t like them in the fields. On top of buildings, yes, but not in the fields, says Luigi Moretti, president of the Benelli shotgun factory. This gentleman is telling me this after our tour of the immaculate, highly automated plant where all the Benelli shotguns in the world are made, right outside old Urbino. He cuts a most elegant figure, in his hand-stitched suit, silk Hermes necktie and Oxford-cloth shirt with “LM” tastefully monogrammed well below the pocket. I’m wondering if this is just the position of industrial bigwigs – to restrain solar power. But Roberto Podgornik tells me the same thing: solar panels on rooftops, yes, but not in the fields. It spoils the beauty, he says.
Roberto Podgornik holds up a sheet for a beehive frame.
Roberto is as far from an industrial bigwig as you can get. He and his family run a farm that over the past 25 years has grown into a nearly self-sufficient utopia of traditional organic farming methods, no pesticides allowed. This is the Farm of the Singers, La Fattoria dei Cantori, that was the subject of our daughter Sarah’s multimedia project last year. We finally visited and saw this embodiment of the philosophy of Gandhi and Maria Montessori combined. They sing. They bind books. They work hard. They seem pretty happy. (Montessori, by the way, is from this region.) In a rustic classroom with pre-industrial strains of wheat in sheafs overhead, Roberto showed us his explanation (clear as crystal, even in broken translation) of all the ways that industrial farming has diminished the nutritional value and taste of bread, for time-saving convenience of consumer and producer alike. Yes, it’s a tradeoff – Roberto and family were up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare the bread that was ready by noon for markets in Urbino. But Roberto is rustically scientific, discovering old-fashioned solutions to modern problems. For instance, through experimentation, he found that he could protect his queen bee from the parasite that is implicated in the world-wide colony collapse syndrome not with pesticide, but with a carefully timed two-week imprisonment. While other beekeepers are experiencing loses of 40 to 60 percent of their hive, he lost none of his bees over the past year. You can read about this in Emily Harmon’s story, which won the “Raffy Award” last night for best story – http://2012.inurbino.net/bee-keepers/.
Another example of the Italians looking to the natural world for beauty, guidance and even scientific knowledge is Padre Alessandro Serpieri. Turns out, this 19th century Ben Franklin of Urbino ran the free religious school housed in the palatial building where we have held most classes. My student Stephany Holguin, a JMU graduate, wrote about an effort to revive an appreciation of Father Serpieri. http://2012.inurbino.net/father-serpieri/
Our frequent twilight feasts on the rooftop of our dorm command a panorama of rolling gold and green farmland, mountains and (when the air and tide are right) the distant Adriatic. This past Monday, that Renaissance landscape became transformed into something almost mystical as the sky, richly brushed in high clouds, turned pinkish and bluish and weird. Expensive cameras went into hyperdrive, photojournalists and amateurs among us shooting in all directions, a final shootout. To the west, beyond Serpieri’s little weather observatory and the restored steeple of the Church of St. Francis, the darker sky developed an even more dramatic theme. A cloud over the Adriatic was pulsing with heat lightning. This theophany was amazing enough the first few times it made the dark cloud glow every second. But it kept going like that for about an hour. We lost track of time in our wonder. Michael Gold brought out his alto saxophone for the first time. Dennis was flat on the floor to get the shot nobody else could get as Michael played the kind of jazz we’ve missed for all this time in Italy, and the half moon came spiraling down to ring the bell tower at whatever time it was.
Early tomorrow, we’re off to Rome.