Saturday, October 10, 2009

Jet Lag

Depressed and elated at 5:00 AM, I am the only thing prowling the countryside. I feel like I've swallowed a black hole, or taken bad acid. Travel is a hell-of-a-drug; it leads me to do strange things.

Under a shadow-casting moon, I can tell by their texture and heft that the bricks I'm stacking are terracotta, cooked earth, made from the clay around here. But I can't confirm what color they actually are.

Is silver a color? Is graphite? Is gray?

It is so quiet my ears ring, all cicadas and calliopes and high-tension wires. I agree with Shelley who insisted moonlight is the sound of bells, and Beethoven, who pulled silk threads of it from his piano keyboard. I'd like you to agree with me too, wherever you are.

Shouldn't “spider web” be a Crayola color?

The nights here are still silky warm, but I’m wearing heavy gloves in case of vipers. I am sweating and delirious with the need to harvest brick. There is a practical reason for this.

Just after dawn, the excavator is scheduled to scoop the 3-meter pit in which a cistern the size and shape of a small nuclear reactor will be interred. If I want to save any of the rubble here from the treads and claws of that clanky steel dinosaur, it has to be sorted and moved. Now!

That is what I am doing, harvesting stone and brick and mortar from the soil and debris dumped at the bottom of the vineyard when the remains of the derelict stone shack was demolished. There are iron hinges and shards of broken glass to be salvaged as well, artifacts attesting to generations of serfs, sharecroppers, and contadini who worked this land from times Etruscan until it was abandoned in the 1990's. Now its my turn.

Here I am, with half-a-century and three college degrees in my pocket. I am playing in the dirt and drinking moonlight so mellifluous it makes me want to weep. Please excuse me a moment.

OK. Better now.

There is this moment that comes after 4 or 5 days tripping on jet lag, when the existential fever breaks. Loved ones you haven't thought about in years enter the chamber of memory in what you no longer fear is perpetual twilight, and every moment of self-love you ever allowed yourself hits you like a a big, warm, accelerating snowball of comfort and relief. The gloom lifts and you think you might just be OK after all.

This is just the forgiving nature of the pituitary gland. Or the pineal gland. One of those amazing nuggets of tissue in the brain.

What awesome creatures we've evolved into! I agree with Richard Dawkins. I agree there has never been proven to be a god and, by definition, that there never can be. But I do have a religion of a sort, a reverance of the higher mind, of self-awareness and reflection. It is presided over by an internal believer in horizons, those places that by definition exist everywhere, yet can never be reached. For the time being, he is also an eternal optimist, alive and practicing in the very real part of the brain that we humans evolved beyond all other species. In a pulpit of bone domed by a ceiling of convoluted gray, he insists there is a higher authority, a sun from which the moon draws definition, because it can be proven to exist. Beyond that, he fills me with endless wonder. He endorses my decisions mostly. And chastens me when necessary. And tells me I really should be here listening to moonlight, a cult-of-one, for now at least.

Finally, around day 5, there comes a point of transcendent metabolic rebound. It reminds me of trekking down from Everest Base Camp. Around 15,000 feet, you reach a level where there is enough oxygen in your blood to think in complete sentences. All cylinders firing, all circuits connected, you are experiencing existence at a-mile-a-minute and you want to get some of it down. So you sit down and begin to write.

In the full light of day, once the cistern has been buried and starts to fill with that which gives it definition, I will do just that, I will continue this diablog. For now, there is still more brick to stack. And I hear a dinosaur coming.

The views expressed in the following program are my own

This is the view from the top of the property looking northwest toward Siena.

This is the view west toward the village of Montisi. Beyond it on the far ridge is Montalcino, where the famous Brunello di Montalcino is made.

This is one of our private views of the castle ruins of Montelifere, and the Crete Senesi beyond.

These are the autumn colors of the small wood beside the property under our olive grove.

Another view of Montisi.

Another private view of the castle from the bottom of the property.

A Google Earth overhead view of the property before we bought it.

And, finally, the way my wife Sally and I are beginning to look.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The Ambien wore off around 3:00 AM. Wide awake, and with my pineal gland still somewhere over the Atlantic, I decided I might as well get an early start tidying around the construction site. The excavator is coming to install the water cistern on Thursday, I hope, and there is lots of rock to stack.

It was shortly after dawn and I was picking up a cabbage-sized stone when the viper sleeping loosely beneath it gathered into itself like a strip of bacon hitting a hot griddle.

From the sloppy coil, it raised its triangular head.

Still clutching its comfort stone in my bare hands, I backed slowly away.

I knew exactly what it was because of the diamondback rattlers I’d seen in the Sierra Nevada foothills near my childhood home. And because I'd been warned by just about everyone. And because of the triangular head.

The European horned viper is the same venomous species Linneaus (founder of modern taxonomy) labeled Vipera ammodytes, and the same deadly reptile Abbe’ Felice Fontana (founder of modern toxicology) studied in 18th century Tuscany. This one was about 20 inches long. A juvenile, I guessed.

Here's what happened when a guy got his thumb bit by a juvenile.

I was glad the serpent was still cold and slow and not aggressive. And a juvenile.

Like a strand of spaghetti sliding off a plate, it slithered into the grass.

I set the stone down and went over to my tool bag. I pulled out my thickest pair of work gloves and put them on. I went back to work in different part of the yard.

No longer an Italian myth to me, this is one of the things I have found in Tuscany. Just 30 feet from my front door and 2 inches from my fingers. A viper.

Now I know there’s at least one on the property. Looking for another rock to sleep under. And growing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Things I Carried

Because I wake up in a different day when I fly from New York to Rome, the “tomorrow” of yesterday’s blog is really tomorrow today. But before I board the plane and wake up in another time and place, I must finish packing.

Besides a novel-in-progress, clothing, and a computer, here are some other useful things I’ve hauled in my carefully weighed suitcases on previous trips:

A machete

A scythe

A solar electric fence charger and battery

Yoga mats

A ten-pound sledgehammer

Every manner of carpenter’s tool

Jumper cables

5 lb. bags of iron sulfate and copper sulfate

Heirloom tomato seeds

A six-man tent

A crowbar

80 feet of garden hose

Every manner of gardening tool

A sculptor’s axe

Every manner of mechanic’s tool

A heavy-duty bench vice

A hydraulic jack

A refractometer (to measure ripeness of grapes)

A hunting bow and arrows

A giant bottle of generic Ibuprofen

A posthole digger

A mandolin (for chopping food)

A meat cleaver

Cement trowels

Today, I will continue cleaning out my basement storage area by taking:

A 200-foot spool of anchor rope and chain

A pair of hip waders

A box of hospital bed legs

Every manner of nail and screw

An $800 bolt of silk we bought in Thailand years ago.

And a luggage scale.

50 pounds max!