Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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“How do you treat your malaria patients?” I once enquired of a doctor in India. A few good stiff doses, he said, when the attack is on; that generally settles them. If not, they can begin again. To take quinine as a prophylactic, he considered folly. It might grow into a habit; you never know. . . .

It is to be hoped that such types are extinct, out there. They are extinct hereabouts. None but an ignorant person would now traverse malarious tracts in summer without previous quininiza-tion; or, if infected, deal with the disease otherwise than by an amply protracted treatment of cure. Yet it is only quite lately that we have gained our knowledge of a proper use of the drug; and this accounts for the great mortality long after its specific effects had been recognized by the profession. It was given both inefficiently and insufficiently. It was sold at a prohibitive price. The country people were distrustful; so-and-so had taken it for three or four days; he had improved, yes; but the fever was on him once more. Why waste money on such experiments?

I remember accosting a lad, anemic, shivering with the tertian, and marked by that untimely senility which is the sign-manual of malaria. I suggested quinine.

“I don’t take doctors’ stuff,” he said. “Even if I wanted to, my father would not let me. And if he did, there’s no money to pay for it. And if there were, it would do no good. He’s tried it himself.”

“Well, but how are you feeling?”

“Oh, all right. There’s nothing much the matter with me. Just the bad air.”

Such types, too, are practically extinct nowadays; the people are being educated to recognize their peril and how to avoid it; they begin to follow Professor Celli’s advice in the matter of regarding quinine as their “daily bread.” For since the discovery of the anophelic origin of malaria many devices have been put into execution to combat the disease, not the least of them being a popularized teaching of its causes and consequences by means of pamphlets, lectures to school-children, and so forth.

Now, you may either fight the anopheles–the vehicle, or the disease itself. The first entails putting the country into such a state that the mosquito finds it unpleasant to live there, a labour of Hercules. Yet large sums are being expended in draining marshy tracts, regulating river-beds and afforesting bare spaces; and if you are interested in such works, you will do well to see what is going on at Metaponto at this moment. (A considerable portion of the Government grant for these purposes has lately been deflected for use in the Tripolitan war.) Exemplary fines are also imposed for illicit timber-cutting and grazing,–in those towns, at least, where the magistrate has sufficient sense to perceive the ulterior benefits to be derived from what certainly entails a good deal of temporary hardship on poor people. Certain economic changes are helping in this work; so the wealth imported from America helps to break up the big properties, those latifundia which, says an Italian authority, “are synonymous with malaria.” The ideal condition–the extirpation of anophelines–will never be attained; nor is it of vital importance that it should be.

Far more pressing is the protection of man against their attacks. Wonderful success has crowned the wire-netting of the windows–an outcome of the classical experiments of 1899, in the Roman Campagna.

But chiefest and most urgent of all is the cure of the infected population. In this direction, results astonishing–results well-nigh incredible–have attended the recently introduced governmental sale of quinine. In the year 1895 there were 16,464 deaths from malaria throughout Italy. By 1908 the number had sunk to 3463. Eloquent figures, that require no comment! And, despite the fact that the drug is now sold at a merely nominal rate or freely given away to the needy–nay, thrust down the very throats of the afflicted peasantry by devoted gentlemen who scour the plains with ambulances during the deadly season–despite this, the yearly profits from its sale are amounting to about three-quarters of a million francs.

So these forlorn regions are at last beginning to revive.

And returning to Foca, of whose dreadful condition up to 1902 (year of the introduction of Government quinine) I have just spoken, we find that a revolution has taken place. Between that year and 1908 the birth-rate more than doubled the death-rate. In 1908 some two hundred poor folks frequented the ambulance, nearly six kilogrammes of quinine being gratuitously distributed; not one of the natives of the place was attacked by the disease; and there was a single death–an old woman of eighty, who succumbed to senile decay. [Footnote: Doctor Genovese’s statistical investigations have brought an interesting little fact to light. In the debilitating pre-quinine period there was a surplus of female births; now, with increased healthfulness, those of the males preponderate.]

This is an example of what the new quinine-policy has done for Italy, in briefest space of time. Well may the nation be proud of the men who conceived this genial and beneficial measure and carried it through Parliament, and of those local doctors without whose enlightened zeal such a triumph could not have been achieved. . . .

Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery, by the way, has been fruitful not only in practical humanitarian results. For instance, it has reduced North’s laborious “Roman Fever” to something little better than a curiosity. And here, on these deserted shores that were once resplendent with a great civilization–here is the place to peruse Mr. W. M. Jones’s studies on this subject. I will not give even the shortest precis of his conscientious researches nor attempt to picture their effect upon a mind trained in the old school of thought; suffice to say, that the author would persuade us that malaria is implicated, to an hitherto unsuspected extent, in the decline of ancient Greece and Rome. And he succeeds. Yes; a man accustomed to weigh evidence will admit, I think, that he has made out a suggestively strong case.

How puzzled we were to explain why the brilliant life of Magna Graecia was snuffed out suddenly, like a candle, without any appreciably efficient cause–how we listened to our preachers cackling about the inevitable consequences of Sybaritic luxury, and to the warnings of sage politicians concerning the dangers of mere town-patriotism as opposed to worthier systems of confederation! How we drank it all in! And how it warmed the cockles of our hearts to think that we were not vicious, narrow-minded heathens, such as these!

And now a vulgar gnat is declared to be at the bottom of the whole mystery.

Crudely disconcerting, these scientific discoveries. Or is it not rather hard to be dragged to earth in this callous fashion, while soaring heavenward on the wings of our edifying reflections? For the rest–the old, old story; a simple, physical explanation of what used to be an enigma brimful of moral significance.

That Mr. Jones’s facts and arguments will be found applicable to other decayed races in the old and new worlds is highly probable. Meanwhile, it takes one’s breath away quite sufficiently to realize that they apply to Hellas and her old colonies on these shores.

“’AUTOS. Strange! My interest waxes. Tell me then, what affliction, God or Devil, wiped away the fair life upon the globe, the beasts, the birds, the delectable plantations, and all the blithe millions of the human race? What calamity fell upon them?’

“’ESCHATA. A gnat.’

“’AUTOS. A gnat?’

“’ESCHATA. Even so.’”

Thus I wrote, while yet unaware that such pests as anophelines existed upon earth. . . .

At the same time, I think we must be cautious in following certain deductions of our author; that theory of brutality, for example, as resulting from malaria. Speaking of Calabria, I would almost undertake to prove, from the archives of law-courts, that certain of the most malarial tracts are precisely those in which there is least brutality of any kind. Cotrone, for instance. . . . The delegato (head of the police) of that town is so young–a mere boy–that I marvelled how he could possibly have obtained a position which is usually filled by seasoned and experienced officers. He was a “son of the white hen,” they told me; that is, a socially favoured individual, who was given this job for the simple reason that there was hardly any serious work for him to do. Cosenza, on the other hand, has a very different reputation nowadays. And it is perfectly easy to explain how malaria might have contributed to this end. For the disease–and herein lies its curse–lowers both the physical and social standard of a people; it breeds misery, poverty and ignorance–fit soil for callous rapacity.

But how about his theory of “pessimism” infecting the outlook of generations of malaria-weakened sages? I find no trace of pessimism here, not even in its mild Buddhistic form. The most salient mental trait of cultured Calabrians is a subtle detachment and contempt of illusions–whence their time-honoured renown as abstract thinkers and speculators. This derives from a philosophic view of life and entails, naturally enough, the outward semblance of gravity–a Spanish gravity, due not so much to a strong graft of Spanish blood and customs during the viceregal period, as to actual affinities with the race of Spain. But this gravity has nothing in common with pessimism, antagonistic though it be to those outbursts of irresponsible optimism engendered under northern skies by copious food, or beer.

To reach the uplands of Fabbrizia and Serra, whither I was now bound, I might have utilized the driving road from Gioioso, on the Reggio side of Caulonia. But that was everybody’s route. Or I might have gone via Stilo, on the other side. But Stilo with its memories of Campanella–a Spanish type, this!–and of Otho II, its winding track into the beech-clad heights of Ferdinandea, was already familiar to me. I elected to penetrate straight inland by the shortest way; a capable muleteer at once presented himself.

We passed through one single village, Ragona; leaving those of S. Nicola and Nardo di Pace on the right. The first of them is celebrated for its annual miracle of the burning olive, when, armed to the teeth (for some ancient reason), the populace repairs to the walls of a certain convent out of which there grows an olive tree: at its foot is kindled a fire whose flames are sufficient to scorch all the leaves, but behold! next day the foliage is seen to glow more bravely green than ever. Perhaps the roots of the tree are near some cistern. These mountain villages, hidden under oaks and vines, with waters trickling through their lanes, a fine climate and a soil that bears everything needful for life, must be ideal habitations for simple folks. In some of them, the death-rate is as low as 7: 1000. Malaria is unknown here: they seem to fulfil all the conditions of a terrestrial paradise.

There is a note of joyous vigour in this landscape. The mule-track winds in and out among the heights, through flowery meadows grazed by cattle and full of buzzing insects and butterflies, and along hill-sides cunningly irrigated; it climbs up to heathery summits and down again through glades of chestnut and ilex with mossy trunks, whose shadow fosters strange sensations of chill and gloom. Then out again, into the sunshine of waving corn and poppies.

For a short while we stumbled along a torrent-bed, and I grew rather sad to think that it might be the last I should see for some time to come, my days in this country being now numbered. This one was narrow. But there are others, interminable in length and breadth. Interminable! No breeze stirs in those deep depressions through which the merest thread of milky water trickles disconsolately. The sun blazes overhead and hours pass, while you trudge through the fiery inferno; scintillations of heat rise from the stones and still you crawl onwards, breathless and footsore, till eyes are dazed and senses reel. One may well say bad things of these torrid deserts of pebbles which, up till lately, were the only highways from the lowlands into the mountainous parts. But they are sweet in memory. One calls to mind the wild savours that hang in the stagnant air; the cloven hill-sides, seamed with gorgeous patches of russet and purple and green; the spectral tamarisks, and the glory of coral-tinted oleanders rising in solitary tufts of beauty, or flaming congregations, out of the pallid waste of boulders.

After exactly six hours Fabbrizia was reached–a large place whose name, like that of Borgia, Savelli, Carafa and other villages on these southern hills, calls up associations utterly non-Calabrian; Fabbrizia, with pretentious new church and fantastically dirty side-streets. It lies at the respectable elevation of 900 metres, on the summit of a monstrous landslide which has disfigured the country.

While ascending along the flank of this deformity I was able to see how the authorities have attempted to cope with the mischief and arrest further collapses. This is what they have done. The minute channels of water, that might contribute to the disintegration of the soil by running into this gaping wound from the sides or above, have been artfully diverted from their natural courses; trees and shrubs are planted at its outskirts in order to uphold the earth at these spots by their roots–they have been protected by barbed wire from the grazing of cattle; furthermore, a multitude of wickerwork dykes are thrown across the accessible portions of the scar, to collect the downward-rushing material and tempt winged plant-seeds to establish themselves on the ledges thus formed. To bridle this runaway mountain is no mean task, for such frane are like rodent ulcers, ever enlarging at the edges. With the heat, with every shower of rain, with every breath of wind, the earth crumbles away; there is an eternal trickling, day and night, until some huge boulder is exposed which crashes down, loosening everything in its wild career; a single tempest may disrupture what the patience and ingenuity of years have contrived.

Three more hours or thereabouts will take you to Serra San Bruno along the backbone of southern Italy, through cultivated lands and pasture and lonely stretches of bracken, once covered by woodlands.

It may well be that the townlet has grown up around, or rather near, the far-famed Carthusian monastery. I know nothing of its history save that it has the reputation of being one of the most bigoted places in Calabria–a fact of which the sagacious General Manhes availed himself when he devised his original and effective plan of chastising the inhabitants for a piece of atrocious conduct on their part. He caused all the local priests to be arrested and imprisoned; the churches were closed, and the town placed under what might be called an interdict. The natives took it quietly at first, but soon the terror of the situation dawned upon them. No religious marriages, no baptisms, no funerals–the comforts of heaven refused to living and dead alike. . . . The strain grew intolerable and, in a panic of remorse, the populace hunted down their own brigand-relations and handed them over to Manhes, who duly executed them, one and all. Then the interdict was taken off and the priests set at liberty; and a certain writer tells us that the people were so charmed with the General’s humane and businesslike methods that they forthwith christened him “Saint Manhes,” a name which, he avers, has clung to him ever since.

The monastery lies about a mile distant; near at hand is a little artificial lake and the renowned chapel of Santa Maria. There was a time when I would have dilated lovingly upon this structure–a time when I probably knew as much about Carthusian convents as is needful for any of their inmates; when I studied Tromby’s ponderous work and God knows how many more–ay, and spent two precious weeks of my life in deciphering certain crabbed MSS. of Tutini in the Brancacciana library–ay, and tested the spleenful Perrey’s “Ragioni del Regio Fisco, etc.,” as to the alleged land-grabbing propensities of this order–ay, and even pilgrimaged to Rome to consult the present general of the Carthusians (his predecessor, more likely) as to some administrative detail, all-important, which has wholly escaped my memory. Gone are those days of studious gropings into blind alleys! The current of zeal has slowed down or turned aside, maybe, into other channels. They who wish, will find a description of the pristine splendour of this monastery in various books by Pacicchelli; the catastrophe of 1783 was described by Keppel Craven and reported upon, with illustrations, by the Commission of the Naples Academy; and if you are of a romantic turn of mind, you will find a good story of the place, as it looked duringthe ruinous days of desolation, in Misasi’s “Calabrian Tales.”

It is now rebuilt on modern lines and not much of the original structure remains upright. I wandered about the precincts in the company of two white-robed French monks, endeavouring to reconstruct not the convent as it was in its younger days, but them. That older one, especially–he had known the world. . . .

Meat being forbidden, the godly brethren have a contract for fish to be brought up every day by the post-carriage from the distant Soverato. And what happens, I asked, when none are caught?

“Eh bien, nous mangeons des macaroni!”

Such a diet would never suit me. Let me retire to a monkery where carnivorous leanings may be indulged. Methinks I could pray more cheerfully with the prospect of a rational dejeuner a la fourchette looming ahead.

At the back of the monastery lies a majestic forest of white firs–nothing but firs; a unique region, so far as south and central Italy are concerned. I was there in the golden hour after sunset, and yet again in the twilight of dew-drenched morning; and it seemed to me that in this temple not made by hands there dwelt an enchantment more elemental, and more holy, than in the cloistered aisles hard by. This assemblage of solemn trees has survived, thanks to rare conditions of soil and climate. The land lies high; the ground is perennially moist and intersected by a horde of rills that join their waters to form the river Ancinale; frequent showers descend from above. Serra San Bruno has an uncommonly heavy rainfall. It lies in a vale occupying the site of a pleistocene lake, and the forest, now restricted to one side of the basin, encircled it entirely in olden days. At its margin they have established a manufactory which converts the wood into paper–blissful sight for the utilitarian.

Finding little else of interest in Serra, and hungering for the flesh-pots of Cotrone, I descended by the postal diligence to Soverato, nearly a day’s journey. Old Soverato is in ruins, but the new town seems to thrive in spite of being surrounded by deserts of malaria. While waiting for supper and the train to Cotrone, I strolled along the beach, and soon found myself sitting beside the bleached anatomy of some stranded leviathan, and gazing at the mountains of Squillace that glowed in the soft lights of sunset. The shore was deserted save for myself and a portly dogana-official who was playing with his little son–trying to amuse him by elephantine gambols on the sand, regardless of his uniform and manly dignity. Notwithstanding his rotundity, he was an active and resourceful parent, and enjoyed himself vastly; the boy pretending, as polite children sometimes do, to enter into the fun of the game.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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