Rubble and Rebirth
EMILIA-ROMAGNA’S EARTHQUAKE IN 2012 DESTROYED THE MEDIEVAL CASTLE OF GALEAZZA AND MUCH OF ITS GARDENS. ARE THE REMAINS WORTH DIGGING UP AND TAKING AWAY?
It’s difficult to know how or where to make a new beginning when you lose your home in an earthquake. One day you have it, the next day it’s gone. Unlike losing your home and all your possessions to the devastations of fire or flood, after an earthquake, much can be saved. If you’re lucky (as I was) you’ve survived and part of your house is still standing. So now it’s up to you: there are aftershocks, but if you feel comfortable taking risks and want to go back inside the structurally unsound building to pull out whatever you want or need – shoes, medication, family photographs, a special bottle of wine, seeds of a rare plant – it’s unlikely that anyone will notice or try to stop you. You know it’s not safe, and there are clear warnings in newspapers, on television, and on the radio – Do not, under any circumstances, go back inside.
I went back in. This stretch of Emilia-Romagna was devastated, a state of emergency was declared. The six-hundred-year-old, mostly derelict castle where I lived was only a few kilometres from the quake’s epicentre. Its partly collapsed medieval tower, a local landmark, crenellated and strong, could be seen from miles away. That proud edifice suddenly vanished from the horizon after centuries of serving as sentinel, but its disappearance drew relatively little attention. People had died and others were still missing, hospitals had been evacuated, schools were destroyed, churches crumbled to the ground, factories collapsed with night-shift workers inside. The police didn’t notice me poking around in the castle ruins, sliding thousands of books down a tarp that I had hooked to an upstairs window frame. Neighbours helped surreptitiously in the castle garden or packed things into boxes from a safer distance. Everyone slept outside those first nights after the quake, even those with homes that appeared unscathed. Fear pushed and kept us outside all day, and at night we would retreat into tents or campers, garden sheds, porches, anything on the ground floor and easy to escape from. The aftershocks and groaning sounds of an angry earth continued for weeks, and nobody slept well.
My priorities for what to save were clear: first paintings and my passport, then computers, books, and small furniture, then some clothes, towels, sheets, personal papers, photos, documents. I knew that sooner or later I would have to think about what to do with the garden as well as the goats, but for the first week or so I was pretty nonchalant about the garden and my missing cat, knowing that whatever wasn’t crushed beneath the fallen parapets or tower would probably survive. I moved some potted plants, watering cans, tools and tables away from the walls, just in case more fell, and picked up and re-planted a few seedlings from pots that had shattered.
May is a gentle month for an earthquake to strike. I would take watering and weeding breaks between moving boxes and furniture, sit with my feet in the fountain, pick cherries from the tree. Those moments in the garden, even if I was mowing the lawn around the detritus of fallen walls and merlons, helped me. I’m a gardener, and the normality of maintaining the garden felt good. Yes, technically it was a waste of time and energy. It was clear to me that there was no hope for the place, and sprucing up the garden was the equivalent of putting make-up on a corpse, but I felt I needed to do it. Gawkers at the gates must have thought I had gone oV the deep end. Perhaps a glimpse of me futilely gardening in the midst of rubble made the disaster scene even more poignant. The earth in that period was still shaking and bits of the castle were still falling. And then there was a second earthquake, nine days after the first, that killed more people and left thousands more homeless.
When the castle was emptied of all paintings, books, beds, and anything I could get out with two hands, I began to dedicate more time to the garden. Summer was approaching, and summer in the plains north of Bologna means 40°C temperatures and no rain for months. It was time to water and start digging things up. While trying to prise up a garden cart that was partially crushed by a fallen turret, I got a whiff of death, and found the remains of my white cat, Malvolio, who had gone missing since the earthquake. I left the scene, and have never found the courage to go back to that area of the garden, but I was not about to stop.
In July, I was assisted by an American friend who took a break from her Peace Corps duties in Morocco to help me move the garden. We didn’t know where we were moving it to, but neighbours were willing to plant-sit and water whatever I took to them. For the summer, I lived in a wooden shed in a neighbour’s garden, just a five-minute drive from Galeazza. Their property looked like a nursery and garden centre by late July. We saved what we could. Not ‘save’ in a heroic sense. In some ways it was selfish. I wanted to keep the plants. No, it wasn’t that, either. It was less conscious, more instinctive; I felt I couldn’t leave them. I was desperate to hold on to whatever I could – whatever I had grown over those nine years at the castle. I began to see the garden and all of those plants, trees, grasses and flowers as part of me, part of my life and reason for being, living organisms that have a value not easy to define. They, too, I was convinced, should be moved to safety and live on in a new garden where they would be cared for.
But annuals? Common berry bushes that I could pick up at any hardware store for a few euros? Yes. Because a thousand plants would cost thousands of euros which I didn’t have to start again, but I admit, moving them had nothing to do with their nursery value. At first I just wanted a few of each species or variety, special souvenirs or things that were going to flower or ripen soon – Galega offcinalis from a Gertrude Jekyll garden, Persicaria amplexicaulis from Henk Gerritsen’s Priona in the Netherlands, currants and horseradish from a friend in Germany. But in no time, I was grovelling to dig up tiny volunteers, Stachys byzantina grown from seeds that I had picked up years ago in Verona’s Giardino Giusti. Each fuzzy leaf suddenly held some secret value for me, even if I had ten of the same plant already potted. I began rummaging around near unstable walls to gather seeds of every sage and poppy. For years I had been playing a game with my hymenopteran friends – I was determined to have pastel to pure white Shirley poppies by eliminating all the scarlet ones as soon as they would appear, but bees are fast! Then the roses; how could I leave the ‘Albéric Barbier’, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, or ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’? Could I abandon all of my favourite ferns that I had smuggled back from Japan? Unthinkable! Dwarf mondo grass, Japanese primroses, groundcovers, even the clumps of moss that I added would have to come with me.
Through a friend who owns a plant nursery and landscaping business, I quickly found a new home, Corte Eremo, where I came up with a new garden project. Since late September, I have been living just a few kilometres from the renaissance city of Mantua, just over an hour ‘s drive from the castle. So here I am with my plants, making a new start. Romeo’s city of exile has become mine, as well. We’re safe, it seems, from the earthquakes, and screened oV from the rush and ugliness of modernity by tall stands of poplars, woods, and wide open fields.
The owners of the eighteenth-century villa here have allowed me to stay in the farmhouse and open my home to guests as I did for many years at the castle. We can organise concerts and art exhibits in their villa until we fix up another space for those events, and most importantly, they have asked if I would like to create a hortus conclusus in the area where their old cow barn now stands. I love the barn as is, and so do my shade-loving woodland plants from Galeazza. All we need to do is make it structurally sound. Leave the mangers and metal bars and watering bowls as they are. Let Schizophragma hydrangeoides crawl up the walls, and Ophiopogon japonicus, Saxifraga stolonifera and Pachysandra terminalis spread through the troughs. Fill the mangers with Japanese ferns. Outside, soften up the severe façade with a rambling rose or star-shaped Japanese morning glories, cover a rusty fence with love-in-a-puV. Add a bit of movement with Miscanthus sinensis and Stipa tenuissima. Surround the paths with big pots of artemisias, lavenders, helichrysum, senecio, sages, and other silvers . . . I can see it already, and it already has a name, this reincarnated garden; it will be my Hortus Horrei, Garden of the Barn.