By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XIII. INTO THE JUNGLE
This short plunge into the jungle was a relief, after the all-too-human experiences of Taranto. The forest of Policoro skirts the Ionian; the railway line cleaves it into two unequal portions, the seaward tract being the smaller. It is bounded on the west by the river Sinnc, and I imagine the place has not changed much since the days when Keppel Craven explored its recesses.
Twilight reigns in this maze of tall deciduous trees. There is thick undergrowth, too; and I measured an old lentiscus–a shrub, in Italy–which was three metres in circumference. But the exotic feature of the grove is its wealth of creeping vines that clamber up the trunks, swinging from one tree-top to another, and allowing the merest threads of sunlight to filter through their matted canopy. Policoro has the tangled beauty of a tropical swamp. Rank odours arise from the decaying leaves and moist earth; and once within that verdant labyrinth, you might well fancy yourself in some primeval region of the globe, where the foot of man has never penetrated.
Yet long ago it resounded with the din of battle and the trumpeting of elephants–in that furious first battle between Pyrrhus and the Romans. And here, under the very soil on which you stand, lies buried, they say, the ancient city of Siris.
They have dug canals to drain off the moisture as much as possible, but the ground is marshy in many places and often quite impassable, especially in winter. None the less, winter is the time when a little shooting is done here, chiefly wild boars and roe-deer. They are driven down towards the sea, but only as far as the railway line. Those that escape into the lower portions are safe for another year, as this is never shot over but kept as a permanent preserve. I have been told that red-deer were introduced, ut that the experiment failed; probably the country was too not and damp. In his account of Calabria, Duret de Tavel [Footnote: An English translation of his book appeared in 1832.] sometimes speaks of killing the fallow-deer, an autochthonous Tyrrhenian beast which is now extinct on the mainland in its wild state. Nor can he be confounding it with the roe, since he mentions the two together–for instance, in the following note from Corigliano (February, 1809), which must make the modern Calabrian’s mouth water:
“Game has multiplied to such an extent that the fields are ravaged, and we are rendering a real service in destroying it. I question whether there exists in Europe a country offering more varied species. . . . We return home followed by carriages and mules loaded with wild boars, roe-deer, fallow-deer, hares, pheasants, wild duck, wild geese–to say nothing of foxes and wolves, of which we have already killed an immense quantity.”
The pheasants seem to have likewise died out, save in royal preserves. They were introduced into Calabria by that mighty hunter Frederick II.
The parcelling out of many of these big properties has been followed by a destruction of woodland and complete disappearance of game. It is hailed as the beginning of a new era of prosperity; and so it well may be, from a commercial point of view. But the traveller and lover of nature will be glad to leave some of these wild districts in the hands of their rich owners, who have no great interests in cultivating every inch of ground, levelling rocky spaces, draining the land and hewing down every tree that fails to bear fruit. Split into peasant proprietorships, this forest would soon become a scientifically irrigated campagna for the cultivation of tomatoes or what not, like the “Colonia Elena,” near the Pontine Marshes. The national exchequer would profit, without a doubt. But I question whether we should all take the economical point of view–whether it would be wise for humanity to do so. There is a prosperity other than material. Some solitary artist or poet, drawing inspiration from scenes like this, might have contributed more to the happiness of mankind than a legion of narrow-minded, grimy and litigious tomato-planters.
To all appearances, Italy is infected just now with a laudable mania for the “exploitation of natural resources"–at the expense, of course, of wealthy landowners, who are described as withholding from the people their due. The programme sounds reasonable enough; but one must not forget that what one reads on this subject in the daily papers is largely the campaign of a class of irresponsible pressmen and politicians, who exploit the ignorance of weak people to fill their own pockets. How one learns to loathe, in Italy and in England, that lovely word socialism, when one knows a little of the inner workings of the cause and a few–just a few!–details of the private lives of these unsavoury saviours of their country!
The lot of the southern serfs was bad enough before America was “discovered"; and quite unendurable in earlier times. There is a village not many hours from Naples where, in 1789, only the personal attendants of the feudal lord lived in ordinary houses; the two thousand inhabitants, the serfs, took refuge in caves and shelters of straw. Conceive the conditions in remote Calabria! Such was the anguished poverty of the country-folk that up to the eighties of last century they used to sell their children by regular contracts, duly attested before the local mayors. But nowadays I listen to their complaints with comparative indifference.
“You are badly treated, my friend? I quite believe it; indeed, I can see it. Well, go to Argentina and sell potatoes, or to the mines of Pennsylvania. There you will grow rich, like the rest of your compatriots. Then return and send your sons to the University; let them become avvocati and members of Parliament, who shall harass into their graves these wicked owners of the soil.”
This, as a matter of fact, is the career of a considerable number of them.
For the rest, the domain of Policoro–it is spelt Pelicaro in older maps like those of Magini and Rizzi-Zannone–seems to be well administered, and would repay a careful study. I was not encouraged, however, to undertake this study, the manager evidently suspecting some ulterior motive to underlie my simple questions. He was not at all responsive to friendly overtures. Restive at first, he soon waxed ambiguous, and finally taciturn. Perhaps he thought I was a tax-gatherer in disguise. A large structure combining the features of palace, fortress and convent occupies an eminence, and is supposed by some to stand on the site of old Heracleia; it was erected by the Jesuits; the workpeople live in humble dwellings that cluster around it. Those that are now engaged in cutting the corn receive a daily wage of two carlini (eightpence)–the Bourbon coinage still survives in name.
You walk to this building from the station along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago. Detesting, as I do, the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts have disfigured the entire Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria. Soon enough they will learn that instead of preventing the disease, it actually fosters it, by harbouring clouds of mosquitoes under its scraggy so-called foliage. These abominations may look better on their native heath: I sincerely hope they do. Judging by the “Dead Heart of Australia"–a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover–I should say that a varnished hop-pole would be an artistic godsend out there.
But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy. A single eucalyptus will ruin the fairest landscape. No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through those everlastingly withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chattering of ghosts. Its oil is called “medicinal" only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue–objectionable, above all things, in its perverse, anti-human habits. What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves–as if these were not narrow enough already!–towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade and maximum of discomfort to mankind?
But I confess that this avenue of Policoro almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans. Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil) their foliage is here thickly tufted; it glows like burnished bronze in the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are unique in Italy. Gazing upon them, my heart softened and I almost forgave the gums their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect of precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing short of a scandal on this side of the globe. . . .
In the exuberance of his joy at the prospect of getting rid of me, the manager of the estate lent me a dog-cart to convey me to the forest’s edge, as well as a sleepy-looking boy for a guide, warning me, however, not to put so much as the point of my nose inside the jungle, on account of the malaria which has already begun to infect the district. One sees all too many wan faces hereabouts. Visible from the intervening plain is a large building on the summit of a hill; it is called Acinapura, and this is the place I should have gone to, had time permitted, for the sake of the fine view which it must afford over the whole Policoro region.
Herds of buffaloes wallow in the mire. An old bull, reposing in solitary grandeur, allowed me so near an approach that I was able to see two or three frogs hopping about his back, and engaged in catching the mosquitoes that troubled him. How useful, if something equally efficient and inexpensive could be devised for humanity!
We entered the darksome forest. The boy, who had hitherto confined himself to monosyllables, suddenly woke up under its mysterious influence; he became alert and affable; he related thrilling tales of the outlaws who used to haunt these thickets, lamenting that those happy days were over. There were the makings of a first-class brigand in Paolo. I stimulated his brave fancy; and it was finally proposed that I should establish myself permanently with the manager of the estate, so that on Sundays we could have some brigand-sport together, on the sly.
Then out again–into the broad and sunlit bed of the Sinno. The water now ripples in bland content down a waste of shining pebbles. But its wintry convulsions are terrific, and higher up the stream, where the banks are steep, many lives are lost in those angry floods that rush down from the hill-sides, filling the riverbed with a turmoil of crested waves. At such moments, these torrents put on new faces. From placid waterways they are transformed into living monsters, Aegirs or dragons, that roll themselves seaward, out of their dark caverns, in tawny coils of destruction.