Of Woods and Wolves

The American students in this four-week multimedia class are taught to look for their “story” within their assigned “leads.” Lurking underneath their reporting, there’s a compelling story to tell in words, in photos and in video. But how do they know what bits and pieces of their reporting, photography and video – the facts – will be useful in their final (creative) storytelling?

Students in CollegioMy little talk, squeezed between the more practical lessons by my colleagues on reporting, photojournalism and video, was about what makes a story. The basic elements to look for: People, people solving problems, a sense of place, action, a process. And then there’s eye candy: cute kids and cute animals. According to market research, children and pets are at the top of the list of reader appeal.

Luckily, the students I’m editing have stories with very young adorable Italian children and adorable Italian dogs and sheep. . .and even a Big Bad Wolf.

Kelsey and Eliza-Morgan have twice visited a pre-school where the children learn from being outdoors, in woods and fields. L’Albero Maestro, the school of nature, is on the ridge opposite Urbino going out toward Mt. Cesane.Albero sign

Liza and Alli are venturing further afield, to the vast high pasture lands of a shepherd named Emilio Spado, whose exquisite pecorino cheese is sold in Urbino’s specialty shops under the names of his parents’ families, Cau e Spada. His farm, about 30 km west of here into the Apennines, has some 2,500 sheep and 25 maremmani, a special breed of Sicilian sheep dog his family brought to the Marche from Sardinia in 1971. Maremane are bred to protect sheep from wolves, which are a growing presence in this part of Italy.

Before I’m their editor, I’m merely these students’ driver. Visiting these two places – so that they can produce four to six stories in various media – has been pure poetry for me. In fact, there is actual poetry connected to each place.

The name L’Albero Maestro is itself a play on words. It means “mast” in Italian – which makes me wonder if the English word is short of “master tree” – but can also mean “the teaching tree.” There’s an Italian translation from Walt Whitman on the little gate to the grassy field where the children hold their “sharing circle” and have lunch under a little pavilion. The original from Whitman is from “Song of the Open Road” (I discovered in the thin paperback of Whitman I brought here from home, for some reason): “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” One of the co-directors identifies a loGinestravely yellow flower we see all over the hillside – Ginestra – and tells me there’s a famous poem about it by a 19th century Italian poet we learned about staying in his little hometown in this region – Giacomo Leopardi. His “ginestra” grows on the cinder-bleak side of Mt. Vesuvius, symbol of re-birth and the human spirit. Yet this flower, tanto meno inferma dell’uom (so much less weak than man), will be crushed again by the volcano, unable to believe, like the friars, in its bloodlines, fate and immortality. Or something like that. In English, the flower is simply “broom.”

I sent Kelsey and Eliza-Morgan a poem I think fits the school’s philosophy just right: Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations on Immortality.”

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended. . .

Happy manemareThen out to the green pastures of Cau and Spada, where Emilio Spada proudly serves us fresh, frothy sheep’s milk in wine goblets, still warm from the udder. With that taste commended to our tongue’s memory, he brought out five kinds of pecorino. Out of a rolled leather sleeve he drew several different kinds of knives, each one specially made for the cutting of each type of cheese, from softest to hardest. When I emailed retired professor Bob Youngblood, my Italian tutor back in Virginia, about this experience, he sent me . . . a poem. Something by Gabriele D’Annunzio. It seems to drip with sweet sadness, in golden-light September (Settembre, andiamo. È tempo di migrare.), seeing shepherds lead their flocks down from the mountains to the Adriatic.Milked sheep

Ah perché non son io cò miei pastori?

Ah, why am I not with my shepherds?

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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