Monday, July 15, 2013

Unsung Local Heroes I

Paolo the Woodsman


log splitting demonstration

stacked logs: this pile is three logs deep

"A force of nature" is how he has described himself. And, modesty apart, we tend to agree. Paolo has been an important part of Le Ripe since 2006 when we first met him, perched on the roof of our barn which was to become the Fienile cottage. He and the master builder Pasquale were responsible for restoring the buildings at Le Ripe over two years. Over that time we came to appreciate Paolo's great energy, enthusiasm for hard work and knowledge of his world. 

Paolo was born nearby in the tiny fraction of Radda at Santa Maria Novella (a 10th century church which merits its own post). His father was a farmer and the family's early days were tough. Paolo remembers living in a casa colonica or farmhouse with no heating but the fireplace, and no insulation but straw under the roof. His mother would take him to the fields when he was a baby and leave him to play in a large basket as she worked. Yet, thanks to his parents' industry, Paolo says they never went hungry. 

As a young man he had plenty of good will and energy and tried out several jobs before becoming a builder's labourer, although I would classify him as a skilled labourer since Paolo knows how to dress stone, to scour beams to avoid woodworm, to lay walls in stone, to use a variety of machinery and equipment, to patiently clean bricks of their old mortar and a variety of other tasks, besides all the fetching and carrying, cement-mixing and laying of bricks.

the sort of thing Paolo has taught us to do, clearing the oakwood to encourage healthy growth

Then we gradually discovered that Paolo is a genius at lighting a fire in any circumstances; cuts grass with a strimmer so skilfully that he can preserve a single orchid in a field of wildgrass; fells a tree single-handed and saws, chops and splits the resulting wood in record time; manages the 1000 olive trees in his care which includes pruning and harvesting; is knowledgeable about local fauna and will not disturb a wren's nest until the fledglings are gone. He is not a hunter nor a destroyer, he is a builder, a woodsman and a born teacher. And above all a good husband and father to two children.

Following Paolo's suggeston, an area of blackthorn and brambles is cleared to look like a park, or the field it once was, while leaving the precious trees their space

It is evident to us after these seven or so years of acquaintance and friendship that Paolo is in his element when he is in the woods. He knows his trees, his treelore, the art of woodcutting and pruning and although he professes not to be a true fruit tree pruner, he has helped us revive two ancient mulberry trees we found on the property which thrive and bear fruit today. He can cut through thickets of hateful blackthorn and bramble to create avenues where there were only wild boar passages. He can select and fell trees to create a park-like area where each year the trees look happier because he has given them the space they need to flourish. 

old mulberry tree before
and after Paolo's intervention
Paolo's woodlore includes some local wisdom about the woods which may not be found in botany books. For instance he claims that our oaks are either male or female, that the female sort is what they called cerro here and the male rovere or quercia. Looking this up I found that he is correct about the two sorts of oak, called downy oak, quercus pubescens, and Turkey oak, quercus cerris, although they are not defined along gender lines in the books. The downy oak provides excellent wood for burning while the Turkey oak's wood is not of great value and its acorns are not liked by the boar as they contain too much tannin.
The acorns of the downy oak are a great food source for the boar and were once for men too. However the Turkey oak grows to a great age and height and is the more majestic of the two.

quercus cerris or Turkey oak on our property: the wild boar never eat its acorns
Paolo is also interested in how woodsmen in the past were equipped for their work; he owns a large collection of the iron belt hooks used to attach tools and weapons to the working or fighting man's belt. Over the years his collection has led him to participate in local antique and flea markets, buying and selling many interesting old items from the working past of the people of Chianti. We have already dedicated a post to some of these items which have, irresistibly and inexorably, made their way into our lives.

Paolo's found tin basin now a home for zinnias

It must be obvious by now why we are celebrating Paolo as an Unsung Local Hero. Such an energetic, hardworking, knowledgeable and invariably cheerful human being amply deserves our small tribute.


  1. The cerro, being enormously tall and straight, was used for telephone poles. For a contadino, banishment to a woods of cerri was one of the worst possible punishments; the advent of the telephone saved many contadini from starvation.

  2. For those interested in this true story, the background is as follows: a particular peasant family of seven incurred the displeasure of the landowner, who banished them to the forest where there was no arable land. Before the end of the tenant-farm system, landowners had the right to move their tenants anywhere, even into sub-standard housing without glass windows, heat, adequate roofing and so forth. Conditions were terrible everywhere, but arable land was essential for survival. For this family, banishment into the mountains forested with turkey oak was tantamount to a death sentence. The advent of the telephone saved them as they were able to make a living harvesting the oak wood for telephone poles. Salvation thanks to technology. Soon technology would also mean jobs in the cities. The tenant farm (mezzadria) system ended in 1967.

  3. Oh, such a beautifully written tribute!


  4. A very engrossing account of a truly hardworking and knowledgeable countryman. He should be sung about.


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