Cultivating Distance / Cultivazione Distanza

Near and far, two chairs shaded by the canopy of an old oak tree. Swarms of black flies, determined and cankered, infect our peace as Gaia, Maria and I arrive at the Garden of Unicorns. Ito Akita, lord of the gate, licks his welcome and compliments our taste, bumping us with a gentle tickle from his broom-brush coat.

Luca, Luca, bearded, warm and slight, blooms in our presence, turning open as his tour begins. He pours espresso, dark like a secret –or his laugh– and rich like it, too. Wet grass and weeds moisten my feet to the ankles, contrasted with the dry dust of the piazza where scrapes are unforgiving and ankles twisted in an instant.

We are drawn across the manicured lawn by the hollow wooden sound of water spilling from a bamboo pipe into the pond. Perhaps we’re in Japan as we discover a shaded watery nook where plump orange-red koi flock and hunt the lagoon fishes, waiting for Luca to greet them with warm caresses on their cold-blooded gills.

Hot and swampy like a Mississippi afternoon, sweat rivulets born at my temples glide down the angles of my cheeks to meet at my throat, pooling at the notch before disappearing all the way down to my toes, bisecting me. We cannot escape the flies and gnats, bees and mosquitoes — they shower us like waves of rice in a never-ending receiving line.

Unnatural plants grow together here, foreign bedfellows sharing an unlikely bower: magnolias and citrus, Mediterranean flowers brilliant in color, strangling clematis and morning glory, swamp plants with fan leaves as large as a cape next to spiny African succulents, and a tree from India fruited with future prayer beads.

Pregnant, full and lush, Luca leads us through his restrained Eden in white jeans and hair, tipped gray at the frame of his gently wrinkled face. He brings a cigarette to his smiling lips, but his jungle’s fragrance is too potent for us to smell anything but earth, loam, nectar, flowers, weeds, moss, and the perspiration of a million insects who burrow, pollinate, fly, carry, move, and chew through his kingdom.

In a picture frame of leaves, I understand the concept of distance as Civita looms across the valley, bleached with haze. Her sun-baked stone bell tower has no voice here. A prelude to my coming absence on the road to Venezia. Bearing thanks and praise, we lavish Luca with our best words before steering home, two mothers and their foreign daughter in the back seat.

Stepping towards home through the piazza, a familiar disgust rises at a tourist wearing only a black bra, a pyramid of tanned fat rolls one atop of each other, five high. “Ciao, cara,” says Nilde to me in passing, ignoring the spectacle. Josè, out for a walk, is pleased at my description of Luca’s giardino: Bello, tranquillo and molto meraviglioso. “Ciao, ciao; ci vediamo!” she calls.

Yes, I’m home.

What I thought was wild in Civita is tamed with the knowledge of this manicured jungle, coursing with animal will to escape Luca’s boundaries — concentric circles of order and chaos. Near and far, inside and outside, dust and mud, plump tomatoes and clutching vines; the only thing in common is a palimpsest of carefully restored stones where men live.

A house in the valley and a house on the hill. When my eyes search for the garden from the top my aerie, the idea of it seems farther away still.

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