Teverina Tales, Part I: Return of the Wolf
In Italian, there’s a common phrase, you hear it all around you all the time: In bocca lupo (actually in bocca al lupo). It means good luck, though I’ve never been sure why. Maybe it’s like theater people saying “break a leg” before a performance. Into the mouth of the wolf—may you not go there?
Something about the very word “wolf” evokes a frisson, an archaic and deep-seated memory of a time when wolves were truly to be feared. Marissa, one of the village ladies, claims to have seen a wolf in broad daylight up in the field behind Tony’s house. She won’t go there on her own again, you’d better believe it. Wolves, they tell me, have been re-introduced in these parts (but by whom? when?) to control the exploding population of wild boar. Ugo the shepherd claims to have lost several sheep to wolves.
Historians since Tacitus—in modern times think of Massimo Montanari, of Simon Schama–have written thoughtfully about the forest and how differently Mediterranean (Italian) cultures react to its darkness from those of Northern Europe. At its most reductive this is the kind of racial profiling that I detest but it has a certain truth to it, historically if not actually. For the sunlit Roman Mediterranean world, the untamed forest represented a place to be ruled over, to be civilized, literally brought within the compass of the civitas, the city. For the Germanic world the forest was the ancient mythic place of origin of the Volk and the darkness of German history can be read in forest myths from Siegfried to Hansel and Gretel.
It’s easy to see how a tree, like the dead chestnut at the end of my garden, on the edge of our woods, can become a forest creature, whether baleful or protective is up to the viewer’s imagination. This one, I think, has a slightly comical look, or perhaps a look of astonishment, as if to say, “Whoops, where do you think you’re going?”
Yesterday was Sunday and in keeping with the customs of the day I went over to pay a call on my neighbors, Arnaldo and Maura. Arnaldo has been bothered more than usually lately by the wild boar. Between their house and mine there is a small copse of mostly oak trees which also contains the Antolinis’ pollaio, the chicken run with its house to shelter the birds from cold and wet. The entire copse is closed inside a tall, sturdy wire fence and the boar, for reasons known only to themselves, have been trying to burrow under the fence to get inside.
This type of cinghiale, or wild boar, is not native to our Tuscan woodlands. It too was introduced decades ago to provide an attractive game for hunters. It’s said to be an Eastern European breed that produces two litters a year. As a consequence, the boar have proliferated. They are a tremendous nuisance, digging up lawns and fields indiscriminately in their search for roots and grubs. We like them in the olive orchards because they turn the soil and fertilize it. We hate them on the front lawn, which they can destroy in a single night. And we loathe them in the vegetable garden, which they can obliterate with very little effort. Consequently, most of us locally have reached the unhappy conclusion that we have to surround our properties with electric wire fences to keep the brigands out, an expensive operation that requires fairly constant monitoring and upkeep.
So Arnaldo has put up a scarecrow, a spaventapasseri (which really should be called a spaventacinghiali), to scare the boar away, and it is indeed a scary thing, its white plastic-bag arms fluttering in the breeze, the cap atop its head appearing to conceal a naked skull. I was startled the first time I came down the road and saw it. I’m still made uneasy when I pass by even though I know now what it is.
Speaking of scary things on my Sunday visit, they told me the story of what had happened just a few weeks back. Maura, who leaves early to open her stall in the local market, driving up our steep track at daybreak came across a roe deer, a capriolo, lying in the road, wounded, apparently dying if not already dead. She called Arnaldo who followed later as he took Sofia up to meet the school bus. The deer was still lying there and Arnaldo and Menco, another father also delivering children to the bus, examined it. Its mouth, he said, was full of blood but it was still alive, probably hit by a car, the two men agreed, though they could see what seemed to be puncture wounds on its chest.
“I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” Arnaldo told me, “so I went into town and bought some milk and brought it out to feed the beast.” He continued like that, he said, for a day or so but the deer, though it sipped at the milk, got weaker. “So I called the USL,” he said, “and they said subito. And they came right out and picked it up and took it to the centro di rianimazione.” All this is a little strange because the USL or Unità Sanitaria Locale, is the local health authority and the centro di rianimazione is the intensive care unit at the hospital. All of which institutions deal with Christians, as Mrs. Coppini at the bottega once told me, but not usually with animals.
In any case, the story doesn’t end there because the following day Arnaldo discovered a partially consumed leg of a deer quite close to where “his” deer had been found. Clearly not the same deer since Arnaldo’s had all four of its limbs securely attached. But from the way the flesh had been gnawed and torn he knew, with a shiver, that this was the work of wolves. And that explained what they had called puncture wounds on the original deer—punctures from the teeth of ravenous wolves. “Yes,” he went on, “they’ve introduced wolves to control the cinghiali.” And most likely a wolf band attacked the two deer and, alarmed by something, hauled most of one away with the intent to come back and finish off the other. Until Arnaldo’s bold intervention.
Wolves! The word brings a shiver of fear. Wolves in our mountains once again. Though I’m not sure a wolf is any match for a tough old wire-haired cinghiale with tusks that cut like knives, and I’m certain a thin electric wire is not sufficient to keep the wolf from the door.