Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves

An American Naturalist in Italy

Gary Paul Nabhan

Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves.

“I could not believe my eyes when Ginger and I first dipped down into the Etruscan valleys. They were thick with summer crops laid our in long rows, the same crops that I had seen in most Native American farming villages from the Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico through the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. There they were, my old neighbors: maize, tobacco, and sunflowers in the fields; beans, amaranths, and squash in the gardens. As we walked along the weedy edges of field after field filled with thousands of transplants from the New World, I felt like I had arrived at a family reunion, a house filled with relatives, some of whom I loved and some of whom I accepted or tolerated only because they were my kin.

Here, a third of the way around the world from my birthplace, I had not expected to be overwhelmed by such familiars as I had grown up with in Indiana and have grown myself in Arizona. I could feel the same sweltering heat rising from the crop canopies, and I shielded my eyes from the same insipid greens that glanced sunlight back into the broad sky. Throughout the day following our night in Anghiari, as we walked to Cittą do Castello, we never lost sight of fields of American crops and flowering weeds. We walked ten miles on the edges of fields and hedgerows, the likes of which we would have avoided like the plague if we had been going for a hike back home.”

The paragraphs above come from the pen of Gary Paul Nabhan, in his work, Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves – An American Naturalist in Italy. It's a beautifully-written chronicle of his two-hundred-mile walk from Florence to Assisi, a personal pilgrimage to honor Saint Francis, and to learn about the land of that saint.

Nabhan continues:

“It was then that I remembered those words of Saint Francis that had originally propelled me on this path: 'All which you used to avoid will bring you great sweetness and exceeding joy.' I had once avoided cultured, hybridized landscapes, seeking the wild and the native only in their purest forms. Here, I was not likely to find native Europe, no more than Native America, but I might encounter something altogether beyond my expectations. Here was the paradox that Lawrence described so well: 'It is queer that a country so perfectly cultivated as Tuscany, where half the produce of five acres of land will have to support ten human mouths, still has so much room for the wildflowers and the nightingale.'

We would follow whatever tracks we found running through these soils, no matter how long they had been worked. I could not have guessed that beneath the neat, glossy sheen of modern hybrid crops, I would notice the distended underbelly of peasant culture, a culture that barely survived on rustic breads laced with hallucinatory herbs. Until I saw the hunger and disease that shaped the hopes and dreams of the historic Italian peasants, I had no sense of the compost out of which Saint Francis had sprouted seven centuries ago.”

In the epilogue to his book, Nabhan writes:

“After Ginger and I left Assisi to return to America, I kept hoping that the realizations which emerged over the pilgrimage could somehow be applied to my everyday life. If it was even possible for two weeks of my life to set the course for all the rest, I was unsure of just how these days of dancing down an unfamiliar trail had redirected my entire trajectory. Yet those vivid moments of juxtaposing wildness with culture, the Mediterranean with the American, and tradition with spontaneous expression became the nursery that stocked the next two years of my life. The seeds that germinated on Italian soil have now been rooted into the earth of my daily life to a depth that I could not have imagined as our pilgrimage ended.”

As Nabhan ended his apprenticeship with the Franciscan priests and lay brothers, he began one with the plants, the lizards, the birds, the mammals, and the moths and butterflies of his desert home in Tucson. He has continued to focus on the rarest of the rare, those neglected species and cultures that society seems not to be aware of or to care about. This small journal of his pilgrimage in the steps of Saint Francis is at once thought-provoking, eye-opening, and lyrical. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.