Nature, Nurture and Civita / Natura, Coltivare e Civita

In the debate over which impresses more influence –Nature or nurture– I’ve historically believed that it’s more Nature, due to my own circumstances. After living through an emotionally bombastic childhood, I vowed not to permanently learn any of my father’s lessons, though one could hardly call them nurturing. For me, there was no alternative but to believe that I had been born with enough innate resources to leave behind such damaged programming.

Naturally, it’s taken nearly 20 years for me to get a grasp of what that means, though the cosmos delivered yet another test of that progressed resolve the day before I left for Civita when I received a fiery ultimatum from my father via email. I opted to table my decision for now, but I’ve considered occasionally during this trip how I will ultimately answer his challenge.

Today, I considered the fact that families, with their complicated network of relationships and hidden caverns pregnant with emotional cobwebs, are in many ways not so different in structure from Civita. From the outside, things may look peaceful, even inactive; underneath, there are ancient tears into the bedrock that will never be healed.

Jerry, Ron, and I investigated similar gouges in the stone caves underneath one of Felice and Marguarita’s properties, which held ancient olive oil pressing rooms and corners used for storing and aging meat. Fabrizio’s father, Felice, walked us through a room open to the valley on one side with emotive footsteps, as if he was on camera. There was something in his short balding stature, characterized by explicit yet furtive movements, that recalled the form and gait of Fabrizio — as well as the question of Nature and nurture.

Looking closer at Felice, I can now see all of him in Fabrizio’s face, stature, and the animation of his limbs. Both are older brothers. Both have a love of Civita and a tie to the land, especially Fabrizio with his gift for making olive oil and wine. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this he learned at his father’s knee –or at the stove of his grandmother, Vittoria– and how much of this was simply born into his bones, a mitochondrial legacy that he could not refuse?

Later, as we took a turn toward the tunnel, Jerry suggested that we stop by Antonio’s garden, which was when I learned how much of Civita that Antonio and Rossana actually own. We went though an old wooden gate secured only with a rusty bar, to find a new series of caves that I had never seen before, including one that appeared to lead right into the main bedrock beneath Civita.

I also discovered the reason that I see Antonio on the back road so often when I’m perched on my writing rock: he’s raising chickens in some of the shallower caves! [Told this, Tony sniffed, and said dryly, much to my amusement, “Well, of course he’s got chickens back there. He’s always had chickens.”]

After a hello to the hens, we stepped through the tunnel and down into the chestnut groves where we dodged large fuzzy seed pods that fell at regular intervals from the trees, as if propelled by an army of angry squirrels. On the way back up, we found old relics on the path –broken pottery, a piece of tufa connected with carved basalt, probably part of a doorway– and I wondered if any of those pieces had come from the houses or the ruins I’ve come to know, and who might have lived there that I’ll never meet.

Now that lines are beginning to be drawn –Domenica and Mario, Rossana and Antonio, Antonella and Elena– I’m becoming more aware of the many families that had their peak long before my arrival. I’m also sensing that we are at an intermission; the grown-up children are just beginning to have their babies, and it will be many years –10 to 20– before those children are old enough to reunite with any semblance of the same force that thrived in their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations.

Something similar is true of NIAUSI (from the viewpoint currently afforded me.) From Jerry, I hear of the high days of students pouring into Civita, Astra’s didactic dinners, project presentations in the palazzo, and secret explorations that involved crawling on one’s belly with candles into claustrophobic spaces to find caves lined with Etruscan tiles. While an occasional forbidden garden exploration might occur these days, I sense that the next wave of activity has yet to happen, and may be several years away. We, too, are in another adolescence (or perhaps a mid-life transition.)

Later, I brought Jerry and Ron to Massimo’s Bar to inquire about a man that they took a photo of in 2007. They’ve spent the past three days searching Bagnoregio for this guy, likely in his 80s, who drives a scooter with a windshield held together by duct tape. No one else could identify him, but I had a feeling that Massimo would know. Naturally, he took one look at the grinning, wrinkly man in the photo and rattled off his name and address. Over a Campari soda, I finally asked him, “Massimo, di dove sei? Bagnoregio?” He told me that his mother came from Civita –she lived in a home on Via Mercatello– and his father came from Bagnoregio, mere feet away. They once owned a pizzeria where all of the college students came, and now they own only the bar.

As we sat in Massimo’s chairs davanti al PT, I felt daunted — especially listening to Jerry’s colorful stories about how many different ways he has explored Civita and all of the people he has formed relationships with, some of whom are already dead. I wondered if I had come to Civita too late — I’ve missed knowing Astra and so many of the important Civitonici who are permanently gone; I’ve missed the restoration that’s happened over many years; I’ve missed being part of the student brigade who stormed Civita and ate pizza with Massimo’s family; and for those things I haven’t missed, I’m quite far behind so many others in their time and relationships here.

But then, I took a different view, and began to envision a network with tendrils stringing from these past memories [which must be recorded and safeguarded!] into a very dense tapestry that stretches into the future. One where people like Iole, Jonathan, Helen, and I return to Civita to see Elena and Alberto grow up, to see the food institute become a reality –accompanied by a NIAUSI cafe, of course– and a strong contingent of fellows, interns, and members who faithfully return in overlapping months, years, and specialities to help fortify Civita’s future and become part of this ancient family.

When I return to my original question, the more strongly I concur that it is Nature that ultimately governs. We can learn and unlearn a million nurtured things in a lifetime; and, in fact, how we nurture ourselves is an act of sheer will.

But Nature is a true divining force; if not, then how else can one explain the magnetic draw that those of us called here experience — as if our cells and our hearts know from whence they come, and when they’ve finally find their way home?

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