SURF AND TURF – A Peasant

10 Jul 2003

The Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity came into being in 2000 to spotlight activities of research, production, marketing, popularization and documentation which benefit biodiversity in the agro-industrial field. From researchers to farmers, from distributors to teachers, from trade associations to entrepreneurs—all those who help check the impoverishment of the vegetable and animal heritage which helps form a country’s gastronomic culture and conserve the global ecological balance are ideal candidates for the Slow Food Award. We thought it would be interesting to discover the modes and mores of the ‘ancestors’ of our present-day defenders of biodiversity. Hence this occasional new series of historical testimonies.

Later in the day I came upon a figure scarcely less impressive. Beyond the new quarter of the town, on the ragged edge of its wide, half-peopled streets, lies a tract of olive orchards and of seed-land; there, alone amid great bare fields, a countryman was ploughing. The wooden plough, as regards its form, might have been thousands of years old; it was drawn by a little donkey, and traced in the soil—the generous southern soil—the merest scratch of a furrow. I could not but approach the man and exchange words with him; his rude but gentle face, his gnarled hands, his rough and scanty vesture, moved me to a deep respect, and when his speech fell upon my ear, it was as though I listened to one of the ancestors of our kind. Stopping in his work, he answered my inquiries with careful civility; certain phrases escaped me, but on the whole he made himself quite intelligible, and was glad, I could see, when my words proved that I understood him. I drew apart, and watched him again. Never have I seen man so utterly patient, so primævally deliberate. The donkey’s method of ploughing was to pull for one minute, and then rest for two; it excited in the ploughman not the least surprise or resentment. Though he held a long stick in his hand, he never made use of it; at each stoppage he contemplated the ass, and then gave utterance to a long “Ah-h-h!’ in a note of the most affectionate remonstrance. They were not driver and beast, but comrades in labour. It reposed the mind to look upon them.

Walking onward in the same direction, one approaches a great wall, with gateway sentry- guarded; it is the new Arsenal, the pride of Taranto, and the source of its prosperity. On special as well as on general grounds, I have a grudge against this mass of ugly masonry. I had learnt that at a certain spot, Fontanella, by the shore of the Little Sea, were observable great ancient heaps of murex shells—the murex precious for its purple, that of Tarentum yielding in glory only to the purple of Tyre. I hoped to see these shells, perhaps to carry one away. But Fontanella had vanished, swallowed up, with all remnants of antiquity, by the graceless Arsenal. It matters to no one save the few fantastics who hold a memory of the ancient world dearer than any mechanic triumph of to-day. If only one could believe that the Arsenal signified substantial good to Italy! Too plainly it means nothing but the exhaustion of her people in the service of a base ideal.

The confines of this new town being so vague, much trouble is given to that noble institution, the dazio. Scattered far and wide in a dusty wilderness, stand the little huts of the officers, vigilant on every road or by-way to wring the wretched soldi from toilsome hands. As became their service, I found these gentry anything but amiable; they had commonly an air of ennui, and regarded a stranger with surly suspicion.

When I was back again among the high new houses, my eye, wandering in search of any smallest point of interest, fell on a fresh-painted inscription:

“ALLA MAGNA GRÆCIA. STABILIMENTO IDROELETTROPATICO.”

It was well meant. At the sign of “Magna Græcia” one is willing to accept “hydroelectropathic” as a late echo of Hellenic speech.

George Robert Gissing (1857-1903) was born in Manchester. He began his literary career with occasional journalism and traveled round the Mediterranean visiting ; Naples, Rome, and Athens; In 1897 he revisited Italy with H. G. Wells, and recorded some of his impressions in ‘By the Ionian Sea’ (1901), from which the extract above is taken. His most famous work is the novel ‘New Grub Street’ (1891).

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