All photos in the article: author’s archive
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
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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
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
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
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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.
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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
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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.
Emi doda przypis