A Second Chance at the Chestnut of 100 Horses

 Fig and Lichens
In September of 2010 I visited the Castagno dei 100 Cavalli for the first time. It was the height of Mediterranean summer, over-ripe, really, and the Castagno was no exception. Its half-dome canopy was so heavy with foliage and chestnuts that one could barely see the branches for the leaves. I made some photos, but came away thinking the umami of it (I like to keep my mixed metaphors vegetarian friendly) was somewhere underneath that surface: while the lush growth was impressive, it is the structure of its split-and-spread trunk that really tells the story of what it's like to be alive for 3,000 years. 

Moss on the Castagno, 2012

Since I was returning to Europe to install my exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, I took a cue from the death of the Senator Tree earlier this year, and decided to seize this opportunity to return to the Castagno. Spring was well underway in the tree-lined streets of that southern German town last week. Their chestnuts were already well-leafed, and I worried that I had come all this way just to face the same obfuscation. But I had forgotten an all important factor: it's not just latitude that matters; altitude can make a world of difference.

 Hail and Lava
I arrived in Sant'Alfio in the dark. I drove my rented Smart Car through the narrow, steep-walled switchbacks and up (then back down) an unsigned one-way street. Once safely tucked in at my favorite agroturismo, a thunderstorm settled in, then hail pelted down in loud, if brief, intervals, stirring up the yard dogs. In the morning, a layer of perfectly round hail covered the previous layer of lava spit down from Mount Etna. 

By the time I had made my way over to the Castagno, the hail had already melted, but I could see it had knocked a few tender leaves from its branches. The high altitude slows the coming of spring (and it's not hard to believe that its unseasonably cold here, as I write under a blanket in an old stone farm building.) I welled up with tears at the sight of its bare branches flecked with green, at the beauty of its form...and in relief for not having come all this way for naught. 

The weather changed every few minutes, clouds rolling in and just as soon rolling right out again. I explored the perimeter and the adjacent hazelnut orchard with my cameras. This morning I returned once more to meet Alfio, a gate keeper of the tree here in Sant'Alfio, whom had kindly held an umbrella over my head in 2010 while I photographed through our first meeting. The clouds persisted, but the precipitation did not, and I was able to see much more this time than last. I saw the heavy sections of the trunk and new suckers pushing forth, connected below the surface by a massive root system. I saw the details of gnarled and moss-covered swirls of bark. And I saw the deep charcoal of one section that I had overlooked before:

"Fire," I asked? Yes. Someone had tried to grill sausages inside the tree, and had nearly burnt it down. The fence has been up ever since.

The Ancient Olive of Ano Vouves

[Olive tree of Ano Vouves, approx. 3,000-years-old (unconfirmed)]

I find I've been talking about "time flying" a lot lately. A blink (and a 19-hour travel day) later, and I'm back home in Brooklyn. It's amazing how 30 days on the road and crossing 7 time zones requires so much recalibration. It feels significant in the realm of personal time, but what happens when pondering the loose fragment of a second taken to capture an image of 4,000 years of growth? Even if we don't think back quite that far, the question remains - what did it feel like when it took months to get from that village in Crete all the way to New York City? Or years? Or how about when the continents weren't even known to each other? To us, it is always now...and now seems to be getting faster and faster. So I wonder: If context shapes our understanding and experience of time, are we therefore temporal relativists?                                                                                                                                     
Ok. I'll stop waxing philosphic for the moment and leave you with this picture of the venerable old tree, holding court in upper Vouves. Stay tuned for the 1,000 words later.

Posidonia Oceanica

It's amazing how time can fly by on the road. It seems that one minute I was still trying to gain more intimate access to the Castagno dei 100 Cavalli (which I did, albeit in the rain), and in the blink of an eye it's already my last day in Spain. 

In the past week I made four dives to different sites where the Posidonia Oceanica grows, the image here a rather shallow shot, showing off the beautiful color of the grass, and hinting at the expansive meadow. The grass extends all the way from Ibiza to Formentera, and was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, even before its exceptional age was discovered. 

It was really interesting to watch the biologists at work, hear about the accidental discovery of the clone grass (analysis of the genome of shoots from well-separated plots proved identical), and to hear about the vital role of the meadow in the ecosystem - as well as the invasive species of algae that now endanger it. More details on all of this to come, and in the mean time, see them below, counting shoots of grass in special plots which they've been returning to for the past 10 years.

Tomorrow it's off to Crete, in search of what very well might be the world's oldest Olive tree.

A tough (chest)nut to crack

It's proving a bit tricky to get accurate information on the age of the tree, or to even get through the gate for that matter. (No, that rope fence isn't holding me back - I'm still relegated to the outer circle of the high metal fence. I stuck my camera through the slats, my arms separated by a post, to get this shot.)

I've gotten a small taste of Italian bureaucracy in trying to gain access and information, but it's been tempered by one of the most helpful people I've yet to meet on my travels. Valentina, jack of all trades at the agroturisomo, sat and made call after call for me this morning, speaking in rapid Italian to scientists in Catania and Florence. The first, it turned out, was an entomologist. He passed along the information for someone he said was an expert on the tree. When we got her on the phone, she told that she would study the tree, except she's not all that interested in forestry. She passed along the name of another 'expert,' this one who was at least offer up the information that there is a book on the subject. Which brought us full circle back to the first call Valentina made, to Sant'Alfio City Hall. Someone will be coming up to meet us here this afternoon, perhaps with book in hand. And then we'll set out together to find the traffic carabinieri to open the gate.

Fingers crossed. 

Buongiorno Castagno

First look, Castagno dei 100 Cavali (5 exposures)

It's my second morning here in Sicily. Another overcast day, but that's my favorite shooting weather.  After settling in yesterday, I went directly to the Castagno dei 100 Cavali. It seems to be quite happy, large and green and heavy with the season's chestnuts. Today I'm trying to find out how to breach the protective fence which encircles it. I've just been instructed to find the traffic police in the town square -two women in a white car - and ask them to let me in.

I arrived here in Sant'Alfio yesterday afternoon, after a somewhat harrowing drive from Catania, where I had flown in the night before. Street signs, traffic lanes, signals - who needs 'em? Scooters and motorcycles whip by from all directions, pedestrians cross whenever and where ever they see fit, cars push their way towards/into/in front of wherever they're trying to go. One out of five streets seems to have a sign. I laughed aloud while driving up a busy, narrow two-lane street, the scooters scooting comfortably into the oncoming traffic... suddenly joined by an older woman in a motorized chair, wheeling her way up the street as a bus barreled towards them all from the opposite direction. No one seemed to find this unusual except me. 

Good thing I'm not a nervous driver.

And from that frenetic drive in Catania into the country-stillness of Sant'Alfio. It's quiet and peaceful here, birds breaking the near-silence amidst olive, apple, fig and plum trees that dot the still-working farm and one-time monastery where I'm staying. The farm dogs were kind enough to give me a walking tour when I arrived.

And on that note, it's time to get off the computer and back to the tree.  Oh, and feel free to check in on my Flickr stream, where I'm posting more images from my trip.

Ciao for now...