Sunday, June 5, 2011

Luigi Meneghello amid the Mugo Pines of the Asiago Plateau

In I piccoli maestri (an English translation, by R. Trevelyan, The Outlaws, now out of print, was published in the 1960s), Luigi Meneghello recalls his time as a partisan on the Asiago Plateau in northern Italy. He and his fellow partisans, seeking to avoid the sweeps led by the Fascists and the Germans, are constantly traipsing through dripping woods and over barren summits. In the excerpt below, he describes a nearly surreal encounter with a pair of mugari:
It was raining in the forest, and Lelio and I had found a small hut made of logs and covered with branches; inside, it was like being in an oblong room under the stairs. On one side and on the other were planks forming two pallets, and on the floor a crude firepit. When we went in, the place was empty, but there were bundles of wood, a saucepan, and other objects. Around dusk, two men, one of them old, the other of indeterminate age, but younger, showed up. They were civilians, and we were dumbfounded to see them there.
“Are you rebels?” the man of indeterminate age asked us.
“Are we rebels, Lelio?” I said.
And Lelio said:
“More than ever.”
“And what are you?” I asked.
Mugari,” said the man.
Mugari: those who herd livestock among the mugo pines? What surprises Italy is full of! Wild mugo pines.
“What are mugari?” I said.
“Mugo-pine people,” said the man.
They lit the fire, put a pot of what they said was coffee on it; then they started heating up some water in a saucepan (the water was in a small drum, because it was raining around there, but there was no drinking water) and from beneath the plank bed they took out a sack of cornmeal and started making polenta.
Then they took two enameled metal bowls, and from the pot they poured this coffee into them; they gave the two of us one of them and started eating out of the other. They dipped a slice of polenta into this coffee (barley or chicory) and ate in big gulps. Lelio and I started doing the same.
That was dinner.
“It could be better,” said the older man.
The younger man said:
“We usually have cheese in the evening, too.”
“We finished it last night,” said the other fellow. “We’re almost out of cornmeal, too.”
“And then?” I said.
“We’ll go down to get some more.”
“Where might down be?”
“In Lusiana,” said the man. “At home.”
“Do you go down on foot?”
The man laughed and said:
“Not by carriage.”
“How long does it take?”
“Seven hours down, nine or ten up, because we’re loaded down.”
They led this life in the summer months; they worked with the mugo pines, around twelve hours a day, one week of seven days and another of six. Saturday evenings they went down to Lusiana and Sundays they came back up with their loads. This was their day off, one day every two weeks.
“I like the working Sundays better,” said the younger man. “The Sundays we go down are harder.”
Both of them had families in Lusiana; one had four children, the other three.
I asked about the mugo pines again. I didn’t even know mugo pines existed before I came to the Plateau; they had fascinated me immediately. They aren’t real bushes and they aren’t trees; they are species of the crags on which groves of them are dotted, about as tall as a man. They seem soft, but they’re tough, and when you try to make your way through them it’s as if you were captured by an arboreal force that seems almost liquid. The mugo pine is a big tuft, intricate and alive.
“Exactly what work do the mugari do with the mugo pines?” I said.
“They cut them, don’t they?” said the man.
“For firewood?” I said.
The man laughed and said:
“You don’t know they’re for making charcoal?”
We had everything explained to us. The hard part of the work is that the mugo pine is tricky to cut; not hard, but tough—it’s like cutting a tire with a hatchet. And how much did they make? I don’t remember the numbers anymore, but there was a five—maybe the number of quintals a mugaro can cut in one day—and a ten or a twelve, the number of lire for a quintal or for a day. I know that the money was fairly good, and in fact these mugari were rather proud of it; in theory, in the months they worked, it was a little more (or a little less) than a schoolmistress’s wages, but what was awful was the savage, indecent piecework. The point was to use all of a man’s strength, and all of the hours in his day, and all of his days in a season, to accumulate quintals of mugo pine […].
This aspect did not bother the mugari; to us it seemed we were seeing the depths of cisalpine poverty. They, on the other hand, harped on the inconvenience of having to stop work to go down for cornmeal and on the dangers of the hatchets. Every once in a while these hatchets broke, because to cut mugo pines you have to go at it hard, and if you don’t get the angle just right the hatchet breaks: not the handle, but the blade. And every now and then even the most experienced mugari—chop and chop—take bad swings and break their share of hatchets, and when they were broken new ones had to be bought and then carried back up with the sack of cornmeal. The day a hatchet breaks you work, more or less, for the hatchet.
They did this work only in the summer months, but while it lasted the pay was good, and they considered themselves fortunate. That year there was the danger of the rebels and the Germans, and of getting shot […].
“And what do you do the rest of the year? What work?”
The answers weren’t very clear, but I think they meant: out of work.
In the morning (we had slept on leaves, under the plank beds), the mugari made coffee and gave us some, too, along with a little bit more polenta; then they left.
It had stopped raining; the sun had just risen, and the day was cool. I was at the door looking at the forest; Lelio, who always takes forever to get ready, was fiddling with the straps of his rucksack.
“Lelio,” I said. “This seems like an extreme, an odd kind of thing, but I don’t think it really is that much of an oddity. There must be a ton of Italians who live more or less this way.”
“I know,” said Lelio.
“This people of saints,” I said, “of transmigrants, of poets.”
“This people of mugari.”
“After the war,” I said, “if you forget these things, a person could call you quite the blackguard.”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” said Lelio.
He had almost finished his long, long preparations and was combing his hair with his hands. The forest, sparkling, was as if washed; we left, and a little bit later we had to go into the mugo pines, and for a good ways we had trouble clearing a path for ourselves. The mountain pine is springy and it seems to capture you.


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