Rownowaga 1 uk-70-75

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Rownowaga 1 uk-70-75

  1. 1. Devis Bonanni All photos in the article: author’s archive Agricultural Methods and Farmers’ Little Manias ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 70 13-10-30 14:41
  2. 2. S ince time immemorial, one who considers himself a farmer pictures himself behind the wheel of a tractor. In other words, ever since tractors came into existence, generations of farmers do a double take at farming machinery fairs. Horsepower is a measure of the ploughman’s masculinity. Tractors manufactured today have horsepower of over three hundred so you could plough the whole world with them. The tractor is an indispensable tool in the farmer’s career. It was one for me, too – at first. I knew a time would come for me to sit on a tractor and enjoy the smell of burning diesel coming out of the exhaust pipe. Modern vehicles, with leather seats and sound-proof cabins that make you think of a spaceship – those in which you feel that even the roughest terrain seems flat like a billiards table – did not appeal to me. In our village I saw a woodcutter driving his Same at a trot, without a cabin even in the middle of winter, unheeding frost that would come late in the afternoon. His only shelter was his thick beard and flannel shirt. ‘My tractor will be one like that’, I thought. Old school. Rusty. Loads of ironware, wornout rubber gear knobs, the Diesel engine so slow you can count its revolutions. ‘They are out of production’, says an old breeder. Sometimes in winter you are tempted to curse God when you are trying to start it in the morning, but once you have done it, you do not need to stop till the end of your life. Today it is sheer electronics, you don’t savvy it, and when something’s wrong, they have to plug it to the computer to set it right. A tractor without a cabin, to feel the cold air stinging your face, and the smell of the first soil ploughed in the spring. Ah, yes, soil – how much land do you need to have to justify buying your first tractor? Having acquired half a hectare, I bent over backwards to get a power cultivator. It is half a tractor but enough for me. Two wheels. An engine. Four hundred and fifty cubic centimetres and twelve horsepower, as it is advertised at the vehicle exchange. The place where I went to pick it up on Sunday morning was so steep that even trees seemed to find it difficult to grow straight. Why they needed the power cultivator remains a mystery to me. ‘I’ll get myself a power crawler, at least I’ll be able to pick up wood’, the seller assured me. ‘So I thought’, I said, ‘with all these verticals…’. Having returned to the base, I needed a good half hour to start it. I repeat what I wrote above: you can go crazy when you want to start a tractor like that but then you can leave it on for the rest of your life. Two wheels and an engine. And a cutting tool, of course. The rotating wheel grinds soil so finely that it looks like sea sand. Logically, if a bricklayer often has a finger missing, a farmer should soon lose a toe, since these blades rotate so close to the farmer’s shoes. Luckily, my toes are still in place, at least for now. Other accessories: a scythe for haymaking and a small plough. To start it, you need to wind the cord round a metal disc and pull with all your strength. If you do it too weakly, the cord will only wind half length and return. If you do not let go soon enough, it will break your spine. If you have pulled rightly, the engine will cough and then snuffles will come out of the exhaust pipe. In such cases the engine seems to sigh. It is silent for a very long time, and then it coughs again and again. And then it clunks triumphantly. Such an incredible clunk! Shot followed by shot, and you pull the accelerator cable to hear the roar of the whole four hundred and fifty cubic centimetres. On the metal plaque it is written ‘Lombardini engines’. Twelve horsepower. You put it in gear and drive off. A moment’s uncertainty and the cutter plunges into the soil. It raises such a dust-cloud that you would never be spotted in it but for the noise vibrating in the air. Your feet are strewn with moist soil because you’re driving a two-wheeler, negotiating your way across a pristine field. It was a season of great satisfaction. You did all your farm work using fifteen litres. The ironware, which, I am sure, will live longer than me, used half a litre per hour. Someone should write a book on old-time engines and machines. You could say that inventors put their soul into them, and that is why they can live longer than us. I was lent a reaping machine for one summer. One of those models that made rural Italy’s history. Try mentioning it to an old cowherd and you will see how moved he will be, against his nature. Those were the reaping machines! Petrol ignition, and then diesel, which is how fuel oil was once called in the place where I come from. To start one, you had to pull the cord thirty times. Each time it would snuffle, and then die immediately. And you wondered if the engine would ever start. Then a shot – and the next one, and the next – set the blades in rotation. Cough by cough, and off you go making hay in June heat. Those vibrations made your bones ache on days on end. Uneven terrain, contrary to laws of physics, on almost vertical slopes. You had to have strong arms, but arms like that do not exist anymore, just like old-time machines. You left the tractor on in the field, for fear it would not start again, and ran to grab some food. Those were machines with souls, to be cherished and loved. To furrow a field made up of grassy clods that do not have the slightest intention to yield, you need a plough. A tractor driver from a neighbouring village came, with over a hundred horsepower, and ‘opened’ the soil with a heavy blade. The rest was my job. I drove up and down over giant clods, which autoportret 3 [42] 2013 | 71 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 71 13-10-30 14:41
  3. 3. bounced me up as they pleased. I was a thin branch following a mad snuffling power cultivator trying to pick up clods and spit them out behind in a river of soil. Shot by shot, the grassy coat turned into a flat surface of lovely soil under April sun. The field, finally under control and ready to sow, exuded peace and tranquility. I went up a hill over the field, sat down and enjoyed the view from there. At that time - since forever - the Women of Carnia poked their pitchforks into the soil. You can see those women in fields next to any village, stooped over naked, powerful land. They deserve a monument. Out of those patches of land, which they loved more than their husbands, they scraped enough food to feed generations of Italians when their men were abroad looking for good fortune. Whenever they came back, the desire was so strong that nine months later there was another mouth to feed. Then the Women of Carnia widened the potato field a bit more and sowed a few dozen more rows of sweetcorn. Today the Women of Carnia are old. They are widows of husbands who did not bear old age as well as they have. And so on any April day you can see the spectacle of those old women around villages. They are stooped so low not to be closer to their beloved land but because their spines got bent during a lifetime of toil. They are all septa- or octagenarians. Headscarves and aprons with a snuff-box in the pocket – the only concession for the sake of addiction. Legs clad in worn-out shoes that have seen many springs. Pitchforks in hands. I have never understood why the hoe became an icon of the rural world. In my homeland we use pitchforks. Those for haymaking, similar to Neptune’s tripod but with one prong more and with thicker and stronger iron. Pressing the wooden handle, you poke it into the soil and turn it, shaking and hitting with prongs to break it. In Carnia we do not dig with the spade, but hit with the pitchfork. If properly done, this movement requires the strength of a child. The lever on the handle enables you to turn soil by pressing with only one finger. With the help of your knee, you can turn soil without straining your spine. It is a perpetual movement, which the Women of Carnia have mastered better than anything else. Then there are also weeds in fields. Following each digging cycle, the experienced arm will pull out tufts which, if left behind, might plague the plantations. But even weeds understood long ago that they are no match for those timeless women, so they only gaze from a distance. That is why mountain fields look like the gardens of Paradise with rich and abundant crops. Beans follow potatoes, potatoes follow beans. Always the same seeds, carefully stored. Always the same ritual, based on a seemingly primitive technology, which is so efficient. That is how the Women of Carnia do it. One of them is Auntie Aura but she is rather cosmopolitan. She has been to England (she says it in English) looking for good fortune. In the first season that I used the power cultivator she stood at the edge of the field, admiring the dirty river flowing from under the cutter onto my feet. Unlike her peers, she has always been fascinated by modernity. So, when the signs of aging started to ail her, she asked me to test this wonder machine in her field. I ploughed her plot of less than one hundred metres three or four times, miraculously turning over surface soil to a depth of thirty centimetres. The whole village was impressed and I started to work other plots. Old women, spared their perpetual toil, blessed and praised me. What an engine! A miracle making demon! In mid-June I went to Auntie’s again. She told me dreadful news, ‘I’ve never had so much soft soil as this year but neither have I had so many weeds overgrowing my beans’. Tumbleweed was everywhere, I saw it with my own eyes. Her neighbours’ fields were infested with amaranth. A disaster. I thought those old women must be cursing me, who had once been their one-day hero. I sat down, trying to put two and two together. The same thing happened to sweetcorn fields ploughed with the cultivator a month before. In one night they were overgrown with hundreds of castilleja coccinea, a weed resembling ground-creeping ivy which wraps itself around young seedlings. Alarmed, I called Alvisi. I was considering turning everything over and sowing the whole field again. ‘Calm down’, he said, ‘I’m on my way’. He arrived in the afternoon, and walked round the autoportret 3 [42] 2013 | 72 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 72 13-10-30 14:41
  4. 4. field, pausing from time to time to think. Finally, he announced, ‘We’ll save each and every seedling and we’ll back up other weeds’. At first it seemed absurd to me. We worked hard, bending our backs or knees not to strain either of them. When we finished, it was dark but young sweetcorn shoots were safe, at least for now. What happened in my aunt’s field, same as in ours? While breaking soil, the cutter in the power cultivator set free the seeds in clods of soil which a pitchfork would not break. As I wrote, the result is a sea of soil so fine that it looks like sand. Thousands of seeds were opened and activated while the soil was broken. Also, in our field hundreds of castilleja roots were cut, each into several pieces, so they could multiply freely. It was the first time that I started to doubt if mechanics was really a nostrum for the farmer’s toil. The image of me sitting in the tractor seat began to teeter. Ever since people have lived on this planet, they have been trying to put the universe in order. That is why we build straight walls, rather than uneven ones; we take care of our homes; we have invented mathematics to apprehend the complexity of things. That is why a farmer wants a flat, glistening stretch of land where he can draw farming geometries that bring peace to his soul. External order patches his internal chaos. Weeds are the major obstacle to achieve it. One day we deluded ourselves that we could win this fight with tractors and chemistry. The 1950s. They were called the green revolution, as if it could conceal the deceit that would be revealed anyway. Farming is an infinitely complex activity. In a cornfield there is not only sweetcorn – there is the whole Nature. There are hundreds of species of plants, insects, bacteria, and even a few small rodents. There are big stones protecting anthills, there is gravel which drains water deep down. There is life and death, there are things growing and things withering – in other words, decomposing. Today the farmer knows nothing about his own land. He sits on his tractor and never gets off to take a close look at what is happening a metre and a half below his bottom. He looks from afar and it seems to him he is free from his ancestors’ toil. He looks from afar and deludes himself that he controls everything from the height of the steering cabin. In the co-op he is told to farm his land with that machine, fertilise it with that product, sow enhanced seeds, de-weed it with that substance, and eventually harvest. And then you will be told how much your work is worth. autoportret 3 [42] 2013 | 73 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 73 13-10-30 14:41
  5. 5. Nature’s complexity is brought down to five or six standard procedures. When faced with the disaster of spreading castilleja, following the same crooked logic, I told Alvisi to turn everything over and re-sow the field. I was looking without seeing. That year we had to intervene three times to save sweetcorn seedlings from the deadly embrace of creeping ivy. Patient. Bent over land. Slow. Trustful. During the second intervention I understood that the idea we clutched at was not completely senseless. Castilleja, whose spread had been slowed down by our activities, receded. It was replaced by other weeds but they were less harmful for sweetcorn. Each alimentary plant has its enemy. Sweetcorn is the most resilient but you cannot expect miracles. Sow thistle was spreading, and there were a few islands of stinging nettles. These plants can be used in salads, soups or as toppings for tasty rice. I saw a growth of clover, a soilimproving plant that has always been used in crop rotation. In October we had a modest crop from that patch of land: three or four sacks of sweetcorn. But we also had new awareness. What would have happened if we had followed my advice to turn everything over and re-sow the field? Castilleja would have multiplied from a hundred to ten thousand, grateful for our ignorance. What grows in that field today? Come and see. There is not a twig of creeping ivy. With our help, clover is gradually replacing it, regaining advantage over other weeds. At that time, I was already familiar with Japanese farmer philosopher Fukuoka and his method called ‘natural farming’. It made interesting reading, but before I could truly appreciate it I had to bang my hard head against a thin stalk of creeping ivy. Masanobu Fukuoka proposes a farming method based on copying the natural model and on working ‘with’, rather than ‘against’. Fukuoka had not ploughed his rice and barley fields for over twenty five years. He uses biological defense instead of pesticides and chemical de-weeders. He lets spiders thrive on his estate so they keep other harmful insects under control. He backs up continuous clover coverage as a means to scare away other weeds, to protect land from being washed away and to improve soil. On this base he grows rice in the summer season and barley in autumn and winter. He sows clay-covered seeds, scattering them directly onto the ground; he does not make holes or furrows. Fukuoka claims that in Nature seeds fall onto the ground and germinate. There are no seeds on earth which could not grow in such conditions. His rice seeds do germinate: he sows them onto a barley field in autumn; next spring, when barley is harvested, rice will have the space and time to grow. The same refers to barley. The Japanese farmer used to be a microbiologist and worked in a lab but, having noticed that the aim of modern science is to subdue Nature to human greed, he came back to his family estate, to his land. The method of clay-covered seeds has been used in places destroyed by fires and in semi-arid areas. In both cases plant life was successfully restored and vast areas were saved. And yet, above all, Fukuoka proposes a philosophical approach to Nature. If land cultivation is to change, the man who cultivates it must change, as well. One spring morning a neighbour of mine who owns a meadow nearby – a young man whose old man left him a small potato field and forced him to farm it – decided that he could autoportret 3 [42] 2013 | 74 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 74 13-10-30 14:41
  6. 6. not stand slaving on Sundays while he could enjoy the cool shade of the local. A friend of his came over in his tractor and thrust the mechanical cutter into the ground. I was looking at it from a distance and shaking my head. I was laughing. Not at them – at us. At us, fools that we are. I had already been through it. I did not interrupt them; they would not have listened anyway. In ten minutes’ time the field turned into a finely cut smooth surface. A fortnight later, the moment that the first potatoes started to germinate, they had competition – a horde of purple plants. Those plants grew overnight only in that one field. There was not a purple plant in sight anywhere but in that field. The young man cursed the old man and the land but still did not see. Ever since the following season the field has been abandoned. The soil is exhausted, tired of potatoes and of people. The mysterious purple plant does not represent Nature’s violence aimed to punish the young man but a sheer need to regain balance. The plant was probably the only one able to grow in such distressed soil and its development was the first step towards recovering ecological balance. When we plough a field, what we actually do is wound grass. Why should Nature not try to heal the wound? This is a simple reason why the farmer will always have to deal with weeds. Here and there clover grows, and we promise ourselves that one day its white flowers will spread all over the place, together with flowers of other leguminous plants improving the soil. We plant two or more species in the same area. We do our best to vary crops in space and time. We are looking for our own way because this is what farming is about: not a mathematical formula but a dialogue between the man and his land. And we bring to this dialogue all our anxieties, fears and hopes. Translated from Italian into Polish by Emiliano Ranocchi English translation by Anna MirosławskaOlszewska I still make mistakes today. In agriculture making mistakes is a rule. Although I have learned a lot, I have not learnt everything. Sometimes my ignorance surprises me. I am perfectly aware that a certain activity is counterproductive, and yet I keep on doing it. Stereotypes refuse to die. In the Black Sheep fields1 we are trying to learn from our mistakes. We have set up flowerbeds which we have not tilled for several seasons, and they are still soft enough to make furrows by hand. 1 ROWNOWAGA_1_UK_cs4-3.indd 75 Emi doda przypis 13-10-30 14:41

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