Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thoughts while watching a sheep being skinned in Tuscany

When we arrived to the place we would be staying after Vinitaly, we first stopped at the nearest neighbor’s house. They are shepherds from Sardegna who moved to this remote corner of Tuscany many years ago. I loitered around one of the feeding pens to look, listen and take in the aromas of sheep world. There were a few there who looked up from their feeding; they really are such wonderfully expressive creatures.

In the other room, Giovanni was calling to me. Crossing over a barrier, I eventually made it outside to where he was. I saw several cats that looked like they had dipped their heads in red paint. When I stepped outside I saw why.

Giovanni had slaughtered a mature sheep for a birthday party over the weekend. He was shearing the wool and the skin from the rest of the lifeless body, which was hanging upside down. At the bottom, brave little wild cats, scads of them, were taking their place in the process, licking the fat, slopping up the random drops of blood. They were very determined.

It got me to thinking about the place we assume in this world and also what we leave behind. For many of us, this is it, a brief moment here and back to where we came from, the mix of oblivion.

For some though, there are centuries of stewardship and the enticement to fashion a sacred mission here on earth. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, what I have been observing here in the last week humors me and worries me at the same time as it also causes me to blush with admiration.

I’ve witnessed families who pass their life’s work to their children. Along with that goes property, wealth, an honored place in their society, a purpose for being.

Many people in Italy have fashioned a micro-universe in which all these things serve to exalt their mission. We probably need some of that in order to keep the world running.

In Italy, some families have set up dynasties; they have enlarged their power and position over the centuries. Some have recently been cast from the form but nonetheless they’ve fashioned quite a large micro-galaxy, in this alternate universe of wine.

What does the shepherd think? When I stopped in, he was too busy skinning the unfortunate one at the same time as he was feeding his flock. He might think about it when he is in bed or at church, or when he is walking in the hills with some of the sheep. I’m not sure it’s that important to him. So why does it seem all that imperative for these families in the wine sector to build a dynasty, a collection, a legacy? I’m not sure.

Indeed, in universal time, measured in millions of years, not generations, none of this will survive. Even the beautiful marble statues of Bernini and Michelangelo will someday be micro-dust. Is that why so many people today seem to be one step away from dropping their own Little Boy? Do they intrinsically sense that none of this matters, at least to those in their own little vacuum-wrapped narci-centric universe? I wonder.

The creatures at the farm in the hills above the Maremma where I am, the cats, dogs, sheep, birds of prey, foxes, all living creatures, do they care one way or another? The cat is lapping up drops of blood from a sheep that over the weekend will be barbequed and enjoyed with Rosso di Montalcino. The dogs are protecting the sheep from encroachment. The humans are harvesting the sheep for their milk, their meat and their wool. Life is buzzing and mewing and bahh-ing and barking and humming. There is no legacy, no 600 year plan, seen from the rear view mirror of the latest model Ferrari as it roars down a country road towards the sea.

All of these energies somehow co-exist. The cat finds their little bliss in field mice and sheep fat. The dogs find their joy in their loyalty to their masters and their power over the flock they are protecting. The sheep search for the sweet grass in the hills but scamper with equal enthusiasm towards the dried hay in the bins as their teats are hooked up to drain their fresh milk. And the humans revel in the combination of roasted meat with red wine, relieved to have half a day in which they are corralling or draining or butchering the life around them.

All this in the split of a moment, came this epiphany. “And what about you?” the inner voice whispered in my ear. The pole with a long line and a hook at the end, dangling, daring me to nibble.

As Giovanni came to the point where he had separated the fur from the body, he twisted the head of the departed sheep and with his knife separated it so he could prepare the carcass for the barbeque. He placed the skull and the fur in a corner and in an instant a dozen cats rushed to the furry mess. “Come back tomorrow, there will only be fur and bones,” he said, as we headed out to finish out the last remaining hours of daylight, adding "and bring some nice red wine for the feast."

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