Democracy and Ecology in Northern Italy

Creative Nonfiction
Corbitt Nesta

I don’t know why I am obsessed with saving the tree. It’s true; it is a huge, scraggly, messy tree, our Fraxinus excelsior, a kind of ash. In the bush form, what it was when we first moved to this condominium building in Northern Italy, it is considered a weed, a spontaneous plant. And if there is one thing the engineer downstairs cannot stand, it is anything spontaneous. And especially weeds. The engineer and his silent little wife raise Japanese bonsais. They have about twenty of them, and are teaching their five-year old all the intricacies of punishing trees, how to stunt the poor things, efficiently and systematically. The three of them check for weeds daily. They arrange the little plants’ branches, they twist them, tie them, untie them, torture them. Clip, clip, uproot, replant, clip, clip. The engineer hates the lack of discipline in the Fraxinus, just outside his window. He thinks the tree is low-class, not fit for a professional’s front garden.

The other thing the engineer and his wife do not appreciate is having to pay people to do things. The tree sheds its floppy, porous, tropical-looking branches on the lawn and in the street in front of our building. People are paid to clean it up. The engineer will argue for days over the staircase cleaning bill, for weeks over leaks in the roof. He says the roof does not leak. He doesn’t live on the top floor, though he would dearly love to. He lives on the ground floor; repairs to the roof are low on his priority list. Unruly trees are high.

This tree’s roots are robust. They dig deep and spread widely Perhaps too widely. Can they reach the cellar? Let too much humidity in? Ruin the engineer’s expensive wine collection? Crack the six foot wall around our building? The engineer is already calculating how much that would cost. Thinking ahead, he spends his evenings chatting up the other owners. The tree will have to go, he says. The condominium assembly is next week. First item on the agenda is whether to have the tree cut down. Or not.

Mr. and Mrs. Rossi, ground floor, across from the engineer, are both almost ninety, and they like the tree. They sit under it in the late afternoon, he shelling peas or cracking nuts, she knitting orange and purple scarves she gives to relatives and neighbors at Christmas. She owned a knit shop thirty years ago and is prudently using up the roomful of wool left over when she retired and closed the shop. I have five of these scarves. But the Rossi’s will go along with the engineer. It is the perfect exchange for them. If Mr. Rossi lets the engineer cut down the tree, then the engineer will not insist that he replace his gas heater. Sure, the heater is forty years old. But it is still going strong. Why replace it? The new laws have nothing to do with him, says Mr. Rossi. He certainly didn’t vote for those leftist city hall people who passed the gas heater safety and maintenance law.

The young family right below us, the wife an accountant, the husband a contractor, will also vote to cut the tree down. They too are clippers, arrangers, power-mongers in miniature. Their six-year-old daughter is their little masterpiece. She knows her catechism by heart, four years ahead of time; she can count to twenty in English; she is always perfectly dressed, and her fingers are never sticky. She is a very serious little girl. Every morning I can hear her in their bathroom, directly below ours, singing Gregorian chants she has heard at Mass, where she goes every day with her grandmother. Her grandmother goes to Mass often because she wants to be clean, pure, when she dies, she tells the child as they rush down the stairs at 7 am. The little girl’s parents don’t like the tree: they say it is a trashy tree, not an elegant upwardly mobile poplar or chestnut. It sheds branches. One of the branches could fall on the child when she goes outside once a month to play in the garden.

The child is being raised by the grandmother, who lives in the apartment across the hall from them. The grandmother’s job is cooking and washing, constantly. When she goes to Mass, clouds of bean/cabbage/sausage odor trail behind her down the two flights of stairs. Her other job, or perhaps it is a hobby, is spying on the neighbors. We are the only ones in the building to know that she keeps a pair of binoculars on the balcony. We see her just below, using them every evening after dinner, before the eight o’clock news. In the dark. The grandmother will want the tree cut down; it interferes with her line of vision.

Our balcony is on the top floor, among the branches of my tree. I watch the tumescent buds open in the spring, and on the first warm days, they seem to grow entire inches in just a few hours. I watch blackbirds and sparrows bickering over bits of dried grass they’ve gathered for their nests in the top branches. On hot summer afternoons, tiny newborn lizards lounge, immobile, on the tree’s sunny limbs. On some evenings, storm clouds blacken the sky and rain pelts through the leaves. I sit on my balcony and am in a jungle. Then a cool wind whips the branches back and forth—my own expressionist painting. I close the windows and stand watching and think of how many millions of years this tree, this species, has survived, here, just south of the Alps in the lake region of Northern Italy.


“I am a retired English-as-a-second-language/Composition/translation college instructor. I am American, and I have lived in Italy for many, many years.” Corbitt can be reached at atsen2[at]