I finished the latest round of revision of my novel on Sunday, a nearly 4 month, highly focused, intense process of work with a British editor who made me re-consider many aspects of the craft of fiction writing; a process which included killing off several interior passages that I was quite fond of in a wow-look-what-I-wrote kind of way. Nine times out of ten she was spot on and about halfway through the revision I began to see/understand how her edits and comments revealed both the narrative and its psychology in a more telling, as opposed to showing, way and quickened its pace to the kind of immediacy necessary for a can’t-put-it-down read.
When I finished I wept. I wept for the characters and I wept from the endeavor. And then I scooped a generous amount of vanilla gelato into a mug, lightly sprinkled it with salt and topped it off with locally made crumbled chocolate. How nice, I thought, that tomorrow is Monday and I can just laze around. Wrong.
Monday turned out to be the first of a few days of weaning 20 lambs from their mothers and the first day of milking the ewes. The agonizing sound of separated lambs and ewes had the effect that listening to an orchestra tune up for 8 hours non-stop might have, in that their sonorous bleating was completely devoid of harmony, not to mention suffused with anguish.
We were rescued, as is so often the case, by our dear friend Gianni, who offered to take us on one of his adventures the next day. Joy of joys. We left the house about 9:30 and decided to head up into the mountains toward Amiata, about an hour south of here.
Of the many things we love about Tuscany, one is the enormous range of terrain, from rolling hills and valleys (our terrain) to vineyards and the ubiquitous fields of sunflowers, to rocky foothills somewhat reminiscent of Provence and on up into chestnut tree country and tiny, tourist-free villages. And on, up, up into the forested mountains, the air as fresh as crisp autumn, the light darting and flitting through the firs and pines. Enormous moss-covered boulders (oh, how I wish I could have some of those for the garden!) guarded the mouths of caves and grottos. A scattering of swiss-chalet style vacations homes, already closed up for the season and iron poles, painted in stripes, lined the winding road; an indication of the winter snows to come.
By the time we reached the peak we had our jackets on and Gianni not speaking English, we were fully immersed in Italian; enough to understand that he was looking for a very special woodsman. And so it was that we suddenly pulled off the road and, following Gianni’s pointed finger, saw 3 beasts of burden loaded with recently felled logs; the beasts standing next to a huge pile of wood, standing in the dappled light waiting for their master. A whistle and a yodel and here comes the woodsman. We watched as he gently coaxed the animals to place their forelegs on the logs at the base of the pile and then with one tug on a rope, the logs fell from each side of the saddle, the animal deftly stepping back to avoid injury to its hooves and ankles.
So, the animals: bred from male mules and female horses; a gender specific combination of brawn and brain.
The man: 42, a basso profondo operatic voice; a medium-height, compact body.
A curved knife worn like a tail, and a combination of intelligence and spirituality, the evidence of which – in this digitally described, consumer driven world – replenished all hope.
This man had made a conscious decision to find a way to earn from nature without being beholden to anyone. He and his beasts can reach into the highest part of the mountain’s forest where no machine can go. His relationship to the land and his animals is profound and at the end of the day he puts the money in his pocket. I tell you, I’d like to spend a day with him.
When he finished telling us his story we watched as he roped the animals together and then man and beasts as one, disappeared into the mystery.
What on earth can you do to follow that? Well, it helps if you’re with Gianni because you might find yourself within 8 minutes in what appeared to be a ghost village, walking in the door of a non-descript building and into one of the finest restaurants we’ve yet experienced. It being Monday and lunchtime, the place was deserted but for the maître d’ and the chef who appeared to have been waiting for we 3 musketeers.
We’re talking serious kitchen here. Right up there with the finest in Manhattan. Gianni asked the chef to make us a light lunch from whatever he wanted. We could have stopped with the oil and bread plate, it was that superior. But we soldiered on through the melt-in-the-mouth raviolini, the steamed veggies and a soft-boiled egg cooked to within a second of perfection, all nestling inside a cestina of cheese-laced pastry. It may sound mundane to follow that with a mille-foglie and 2 little chocolate tortes accompanied by frutta di bosca, but really we 3 were rendered speechless. A perfect mange-au-trois.
To say we came home the back way is insufficient. Our friend knows every white road in Tuscany and took one after another through the summer-bleached hills, an adagio of a journey reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero, which came, at one point, to a sudden halt. Gianni, whose ability to see what others can’t is equal to Joel’s, told us to roll-up our windows and then, putting the truck in reverse, backed up some 15 feet to a small metal sign swarming, if you’ll pardon the pun, with bees, evidently having mistake the rectangular sign for a hive.
And how best to end such a day than to visit Sanantana, the monastery whose interior was chosen to make one of the most rapturous scenes in film: The English Patient; Juliette Binoche, hoisted with candlelight, swinging from fresco to fresco.
A day of beauty, of enlightenment, of rapture and laughter. A day of love. What finer reward for months of revision at the desk. And is it any wonder that it was followed by a night of dreaming in Italian.