Among the Savages
In March to Athens on 21 February 2012 at 15:37
March to Athens
Day 105-XXXI, from Eboli to Contursi Terme, 21 km.
Day 106-XXXII, Contursi Terme.
Contursi, February 21
We have started our ascent into the wilderness. There exist no known maps of this territory, only old stories. According to the accounts of ancient travellers like Pliny the Elder and Herodotus, it’s at least a week marching up to the pass, the watershed that divides the west from the east. The peasants confirm. But all the brave people from the outside world who have entered this territory before us did so in summertime. We are climbing the mountains in the dead of winter.
Carlo Levi, in his Cristo si è fermato in Eboli, paints a vivid image of the natives. For them times had never changed. Since the dawn of man, they had gotten up with the first light to work their small and rocky pieces of land down in the valley. And afterwards they returned up the hill to their caves or their houses every evening. They were small and dark-skinned and they usually survived up to their forties.
If they survived, they suffered disasters of all types. Plagues, earthquakes, draught, famine, the overlord and the state. Their religion had a sauce of christianity over it, but in its core it was still made up of pagan rites and beliefs and superstitions linked to the forces of nature. Witchcraft was a common practice.
In the 1930s the peasants and the degenerated local nobility had made their first acquaintance with the outside world. An automobile was seen, and over the mayor’s radio set you could listen to victorious proclamations about the war in Abessinnia. The immortal fatherland and Rome almighty were illuminating the world through the power of fascism, but the peasants didn’t care. For them, the only thing that ever came from Rome, aside from the proclamations, was the tax collector. He came to confiscate their livestock, their tools and their houses when austerity measures were imposed to finance the war or the debt.
Next to the mysterious Black Madonna of Viggiano, the people revered only one other idol. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For the peasants, the civilised world wasn’t here in Italy, it was on the other side, either in heaven or in America. Many peasants emigrated, they made their fortune, and they lived like civilized people. Some of them returned here with a bag full of dollars, believing that things would change under fascism.
They never did. So the remigrants spent the rest of their days reminiscing about America. And they died of boredom.
Three to four generations have passed when the March to Athens, after a one day stop in Eboli, pushes on into the unknown.
The first of the savages we meet is a small and dark-skinned peasant. He simply smiles us on. The next is a shepherd guiding a herd of sheep. He bears a certain resemblance to the homo sapiens. And from my first impression I think it won’t be too far-fetched to hypothesise that we have a common ancestor somewhere.
I try to speak to the old man. First in signs and then in primordial sounds, but he doesn’t understand me. As a last resort I simply speak Italian.
He understands, to my surprise, and his language is actually pretty similar to Italian. I wonder if he has ever been as far as the coast, or if the people from the civilised world have been up here in recent years.
Not likely. When I take a picture of the panorama the old shepherd marvels at my camera. I show him how it works, and once he has seen the result he insists on being photographed.
Finally he shows us the way. And so here we are in Contursi, camped on a windy hill top over a river valley, closed in by two walls of mountains.
The actual situation that I find here is pretty different from that of seventy years ago. While neither Greece, nor Rome, nor Christ have penetrated here, globalisation has..
“There is no work here”, says an old lady. The local agriculture has been destroyed by the import of lowcost products from elsewhere. What remains is the monoculture of olives, some small scale agriculture and the thermal baths. There’s no artisanry or industry.
Still, Contursi is not a dying village. It looks inhabited, clean, pretty rich. And not only, I’ve noticed more than one house with solar panels on the roof, or a small wind turbine. On the other side of the valley there is an entire wind park on a hill top.
Instead of a prehistoric society, in Contursi I find the first possible signs of a sustainable future.