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HARD OAK

It’s a dream. A house with a view. Grasses and treetops swirl in soft breezes. Everything winds and meanders. A stream slips downhill, sidling around rocks, flowing only when it wants to, before the summer heat. The approach path curls gracefully around bushes and saplings, as if bound to them by divine providence. A snake occasionally coils itself elegantly in the middle of the way. This is luxuriant Tuscan nature – wild, wafting and undisciplined. A house in the middle of nowhere, in a primeval world.

A large concave slope, round and harmonious in shape, opens up a broad vista from the house. It’s the heart of the property, representing the life and dreams which this house has embodied. Wild oats sway in the wind, once cultivated by hopeful farmers, now sprouting in wilful indolence. In the evening, a family of wild boars wends its way across the slope diagonally, treading some timeless path through the wilderness.  

The hard line of stone tells a different story. It’s a terrace. Where the rest of the landscape gracefully insinuates, this is straight and purposeful. It’s a vestige of impoverished men – fighting nature, not contemplating it. Of hardened spirits scraping at the land for a living, hacking stones out of the hillside and manhandling them into walls to hold back the flow of life-giving rainwater.  “Gli anni della miseria” – the years of poverty – that’s how the previous owners spoke of their childhood.

This brilliant, sensuous nature was for them a none-too-promising opportunity to free themselves from a wretched existence as tenant farmers in the valley. They dug stones out of the hillside, hewed them into shape, and built the house walls with mud in between, because there was no mortar. The crooked beams of the roof once grew as chestnuts in the nearby woods. Hard materials, hard tools, rough shapes, crude workmanship. That is what mankind has brought to this wild nature.

Man etched his mark on this eternal nature for little more than 100 years. The date 1890 is carved on the fireplace of the oldest part of the house, and by the 1960s, the peasants had abandoned it. “Un bel’ posto, con aria fresca,” but too hard. In 1974, they put crosses on a piece of paper at a notary’s, and the property passed to a family from far away, who bought it to live out a youthful dream. But within two decades, most of those outsiders, who had cleared ditches, laid water pipes, scythed away brush and brambles, cut, planted, polished and painted, were dead. The spiders, mice, lizards and the odd snake, who for several generations had been observing the incursion of humanity from a safe distance, edged back into the house, again indistinguishable in their instincts from the untamed wilderness.
      
So whose side is nature on? Is it an ideal, a beneficial force, a balm for the spirit? Or a powerful, chaotic force opposed to the aspirations of man? When I owned this property as a young man, it seemed that man could harness these glorious energies to form a harmonious whole. Then, I thought my own strength had the upper hand over the 300-year-old oak beneath the house, ragged at the edges and past its prime. Now, I know differently.  Man has come and gone, with nature emerging victorious at nearly every turn. The old tree will continue in rude, elderly health long after my death. It can cope with this rough nature. It’s a hard oak.


Writing comes more easily if you have something to say – Sholem Asch
 
Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself –
Franz Kafka

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