Monday, April 5, 2010


I had anticipated the first day of spring in Italy to be sunny. So I had planned a hike across the mountain tops of eastern Elba to take in the views and the lushness of spring after a wet winter.
But the sirocco, the strong winds rising in the Sahara and traveling northward across the mediterranean, obscured views and saturated everything. I began to wonder why I had come such a long way to seek out spring, la primavera, which I carelessly translate from the Italian as first green, when already at home in the Pacific Northwest spring was racing forward at an unusually fast tempo. Nearly as fast as the winds off the Mediterranean that nearly blew me from the peaks with gale force. I had imagined a light galavanting stride through flowers and bird song as I searched for this first green.
There was plenty of green. Elba is a lot like the Northwest, evergreen. The dull dark green of conifers here is the dull dark green of lentisco (Pistacia lentiscus), laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) there. What I was expecting were those acid greens that drove van Gogh wild, like the scirocco which eventually drove him mad. Maybe I had a bit of him in my blood that day, because despite it being Sunday, and me still fatigued from jet lag I insisted on making a long hike. A hike that was a constant fight against the wet winds. A vista-less hike, no grand and picturesque views to the Tyrrhenian sea or Corsica. The fog, so unlike the lackadaisical fog that slumps into the valley here at the farm, was driven by the winds, forced me to trust a trail that I could only read to about 20 feet in front of me. I did not look back as the same wind and fog erased where I had stood moments before isolating me in a soaking wet present. The birds I encountered screeched instead of sang as I frightened them from their hiding places in the macchia; they flew in short low bursts to escape me and the winds. Any flowers I saw were not in a state of triumph, but declined recognition by hiding their faces.

Star anemones (Anemone hortensis) cowered against the wet wind.

And the only bit of sunshine was the bright circular presence of lichens on the stones. But yet I remained happy. It was the first day of spring despite the weather. I know to expect nothing from spring even if I had wished otherwise. Spring is capricious, down right irresponsible. A tease. But I would not let this cold shoulder dampen my spirit in the quest for the first true green.
Yet that day there was no trace of first green, of that lovely green infused with yellow. After all that is what I am really waiting for, yellow. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, we were actually starving for green, any green, even the green of weeds, by the time March rolled around. But when one lives in an evergreen place, whether the Pacific Northwest or the Island of Elba, I think the hunger is truly for yellow. Whether it is the yellow which vivifies green, or the raw primal dandelion yellow so prevalent in spring is irrelevant. There is something defiant about yellow. Yellow won’t take “No” for an answer.

Even the cemetery cannot not sulk or haunt when yellow overtakes it. That’s why I think that yellow is the color of spring. I know, I know, there will be many colors that come and go as spring traces its yearly course through April, May and June. But at the end of March, even in Italy it is yellow that is the triumph over winter. It is the force that breaks spring through.

It appears in macerone, what we call alexanders,(Symrnium olusatrum),

and in the sunny yet invasive Bermuda sorrel (Oxalis pes-caprae)

or the lovely early spider orchid (Ophyrus sphegodes).

Even if it is only dandelions, or sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) I love yellow this time of year.
My time on Elba went so fast, as if the winds had blown me on and once again I found myself in Pisa for a few days. Someday I’ll need to write about Pisa, I have spent more time there than is necessary for most, those jumping off of trains and buses for a glimpse of her leaning tower. This has forced me below her surface, has helped me find her heart beat. I am a hybrid here, part tourist, part guest. A friend and a foreigner. Like a migratory bird.
And then I flew.

I flew to Florence, actually I took the train. My impatience got the best of me and I bagged the lines at the Uffizi once again. It was sunny, the touristic squalor of Florence was disheartening, so I went and stood on a bridge over the Arno. If I would once again miss Leonardo’s drawings I could at least watch the waters that he watched. Those gray green waters rushed with an urgency. Spring’s urgency. Then I snuck off to Giardino Bardini, hoping no tourists would follow. And they hadn’t. I had the place to myself. There were swallows, swallows swallows; sparrows, sparrows, sparrows. And one lonely dove, or at least she sang that way. I sat in the grass polka-dotted with dandelions and looked into the valley below. The valley filled with triumphant Palm Sunday church bells, then emptied again, taking my breath away.

I wandered on to Giardini Boboli. After too many visits in winter to this heavily clipped and statue laden garden, it was a revelation to visit in spring. I was taken by the nearly vertical bulb pocked meadows. When I finally met up with my friend and fellow gardener Alessandro Tombelli it was already late in the afternoon. We headed out for a walk in the hills around Florence and to visit Gallileo’s villa which was only open for the day. Once again a line of tourists beyond imagining. So we paused and in that pause, lighted on a wall. There I found the green I was looking for in the olive orchards surrounding the villa. So vivid it made the cypresses look black and the olives gray. So vivid as to electrify. I just wanted to stare, as I did, as if I were drinking. As if I had thirsted and could finally drink. It was a speechless satisfaction nothing could match. Green, new, completely new green. La Primavera!

Spring seemed suddenly in a rush. The sun roused birds, flowers and humans, which buzzed as plentifully as bees around the city. The next day I climbed the hill, actually the bus climbed I just sat, up to Villa Gamberaia. You think I would have been satisfied with having found that virtuous green the day before. But still the desire to know this first green informed my looking. My eyes scanned thirstily, now that I had drunk, my thirst was not slaked but strengthened, took on bestial breadth. I new at the end of the day I would be leaving the sunny south and flying north, not of my own accord but in a jet, to Berlin, where rumor had it winter was still lingering.

Luckily the tired old boxwoods were blushing like giggly school girls in the water parterre at Villa Gamberaia. Not blushing a fleshy rosy pink, but blushing a virtuous yellow green. All the immaculately carved shapes of the garden were blurred with the new growth. They went fuzzy like chicks, or me when my hair won’t lay right. What could have been austere became jolly under the influence of new growth.

I couldn’t help but smile the whole time I was in this perfectly proportioned garden. I even rested there in the warm shade near a damp grotto. For a few moments I forgot my travel plans, I forgot I had to return to the valley city below to catch a train in a few hours. Forgot about eating lunch, about writing or taking pictures. Surely this was created to be a pleasure garden, and what a pleasure it was to forget all the traveling I had ahead of me, and to just sit and inhale green.

But the alarm went off, the dream was broken. It was time to head back down the hill toward the train that would take me to Milan, and the jet to Berlin and possibly winter. Yet like the bad tourist I was becoming I could not leave Florence without cramming in one more thing. Il Orto Botanico del Universita degli Studi di Firenze. Florence’s little botanical garden founded in 1545, the third oldest in the world, after Pisa’s and Padua’s gardens, is a Renaissance jewel, besides being the only garden where I’ve seen poison ivy ( Toxicodendron radicans) deliberately cultivated. The great renaissance order of the garden lied under a patina of decline, yet trees planted centuries ago lent venerability. All in all my rushed visit was a delight. I found the botanical name for macerone in the well labeled collection of edible plants. This is why I love botanical gardens; collections and sign-age. They are really living books. Voluminous encyclopedias of living information. Shamefully I had just flipped through the pages of this one, then rushed off to catch the train to Milan.
And the flight to Berlin.
I don’t know how to write about Berlin. It’s magnificence, it’s vivaciousness bounds ahead of my words. It’s so young for an old city. When I first visited in 1984 West Berlin was an island in communist territory. Now Berlin was set free. Black girls, together with Chinese girls and German girls break-danced on the steps of the Reichstag. Children ran through the powerful sobriety of the Jewish Holocaust Memorial with a glee that shocked me. Their laughter I hoped rose like prayers of forgiveness. Their laughter was yellow ringing in the the gray catacombs of shame and sorrow. The sound rang fresh as rivulets off the recently melted snow, feeding a swollen Spree, Berlin’s river. Despite the rumors I heard, spring was in the air and coming out of the ground. The miracle of air travel is not only that one transverses vast amounts of space quickly, but that one also travels through time. I had flown backward in time to early spring which was already gone from Italy, and even Seattle, which I had left weeks earlier.
I was starting all over. As was Berlin.

There is an incredible sense of hopefulness at the start. Otherwise why start. In Italy, especially Florence, though lovely beyond words or photos, things seemed to sag under the weight of historic importance and tourism. But in Berlin a renaissance has begun, a modern renaissance. But still I insisted on visiting the 100 year old botanical garden, the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden. Not old, I know, by Italian standards, but significant in its position as the largest botanical garden in Middle Europe and third largest in the world in collections.

You know even in the most unlikely of seasons, the snow had just fled, I needed to go out and see what’s growing. The first breaths of spring were being exhaled like a sigh of relief after a winter everyone was declaring “the worst” . I could see severe damage around the garden, but I wasn’t really looking for what winter had done, but for what spring was doing. I know spring only gets better as it turns into summer, yet I have a real love of spring’s beginning. And the defiant first flowers of spring. I couldn’t help but lay aside my yellow fetish when I came upon this crocus lawn. The squirrels had eaten all that I had planted at home, so I had missed crocus this year, until then.

As the clouds fickly stole and returned the sunshine and the warmth throughout the day it was hard not to want to cling to yellow. The stark leafless trees seemed hopelessly locked in their dormancy. Yet garish forsythias and primrose (Primula vulgaris subsp. vulgaris) refused to be daunted by the changeable weather.

As did the swamp lanterns (Lysichiton americanus), which stopped me in my tracks, the fast moving almost unstoppable tracks of a brief visitor. A migratory bird. Okay, a tourist. A tourist with so little time to enjoy it all. It was not only a dramatic joy they brought to this swampy corner of the garden, but to me a jaundiced homesickness, or was my liver tired from all the pork and alcohol I had consumed in the previous weeks? I wanted to stop each and every visitor who stopped to wonder at these exotic plants. I wanted to tell them “ This plant grows wild in my garden back home.” There I said it, home. I love to travel, but I also love to go home. The swamp lanterns would already be finished by the time I return, I knew. So I let the nostalgia flood me a little and then I rushed off to the moss collection. A botanical garden with a moss collection!

Here outside the botanical museum is the moss garden, you can step down into this basin and view the mosses at eye level. That some one thought to make these miraculous little plants so accessible for viewing I found brilliant. Yet I had to leave, there were so many other brilliant things to be seen in Berlin, like the Neues Museum, the New Museum, and I had so little time left.
I am not a travel agent and my return from Berlin to Milan than Pisa, where I would catch a jet to London and from there another to Seattle was wrought with bad timing, middle of the night layovers, and a long last day in Pisa, which I thought I had seen enough of.

But when I saw this graffiti on the wall outside the garden of the Biblioteca di Filosofia e Storia which read “Lift your eyes” I could not resist to wander into this garden I had never visited. It was Good Friday. A good friday, a warming sun shone and baked a bit of the German chill out of my bones. This garden had been renovated with a great deal of care and talent, yet was not maintained. I wondered how the landscape architect might feel. I wondered about my own anal insistence on weed free gardens as I watched the care free students move through this one, verdant with weeds. Maybe this weedy garden was the last vestige of wildness in a cityscape centuries in the making. I thought about what the graffitist said about looking up. I don’t think he meant for everyone passing by to look up into the blue skies. At least that’s not the way I see it, because when I look down and see the yellow flowers of spring, even the weed, I can’t help but quote the man whose death is celebrated on Good Friday:
“Look, all is new.”