Burning Brush in Cinque Terre


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Nothing about agriculture in the Cinque Terre is easy.  This land is not made for easy.  After a day in the fields, the thing that most hurts is the soles of your feet from trying desperately to keep yourself steady on the hill all the time.

Last March, we decided to do an intensive pruning of one of our two olive groves, which meant cutting the trees down at about 5 feet high and leaving just the trunks.  Like clockwork, those trunks have now sprouted an amazing number of new, fresh, healthy shoots that, in time, will be trained into productive olive branches.

But with the intensive pruning came a whole lot of branches, big and small, that were left on the ground.  The stuff that is big enough to burn in a wood-burning stove has been carefully piles for drying and future use, while the smaller branches and twigs were thrown into innumerable piles.  Sooner or later, I would have to burn them.  That’s how it’s done in Liguria.

I waited through the summer, when burning is verboten (though that didn’t keep one careless local from almost burning down our hilltop town of Gallona when his impatience got the best of him and his small brush fire turned into a full-on forest fire), and now that the rains have thoroughly come, I headed up to the grove to take care of this thankless task.

Given the experience with the forest fire, I was nervous about burning down the whole valley, even though the conditions were right for doing it.  And so I carefully made my pile, doused it with diesel, and let ‘er rip.

Four hours later, and exhausted as all hell from climbing up and down the hill dragging the brush toward the fire, all that was left was a large pile of embers, still hot, but clearly going nowhere.  I was physically beat, thirsty, hot despite the cool weather, and ready for home.  I’m glad I won’t have to burn all this brush every year.

That’s why they say that this is a “terra di fatica”.  You bust your hump for small rewards: a couple dozen gallons of olive oil, a few hundred bottles of wine.  But if it isn’t done, we lose what makes this land special.

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