In a figurative language, the story Our Gourds First by philosopher, anthropologist, and artist Leone Contini recounts not only the history and the knowledge of his Chinese farmer migrants’ friends in Tuscany, but also thus of foreign seeds and plants growing on the Prato plain that inhabit a collective memory and that function as vehicles for extended periods of time and knowledge. He states: »I consider these gardens as ramps to exploring the future, but the mainstream narration is infinitely different.« This narration emerges from the conflict in Italy, between local farmers, the government, and the fourth estate. Instead the author traces and records into something that surpasses a one-sided view, revealing a richer, more fluid and poetic perspective on reality and the state’s landscape.
The Prato plain, January 2010. Under the embankments of the stream Ombrone, the countryside is foggy and silent. I’m roving through abandoned vineyards and neglected fields, the snow melts under a light rain. I’m getting lost in this swampy world, where everything seems to be flaking apart. When suddenly a little forest of waxy, shiny greens is rising from the mud: a Chinese garden.
This vital force emerging from the non-form of the lowlands resonates with a vision I had 15 years before, in December 1995. Back then I was living with my parents in Florence. San Donnino (a location near the airport) was for me the »elsewhere,« a place lost in the peri-urban bowels, where it was said the Chinese settled in large numbers. At this unreal place, in the lapse of few hours, a forest of bamboo sprouted and expanded along the outer margins of the enclosed, measurable space of the city, to finally flood out and saturate the whole plain between Florence and Prato.
It was a liberating vision which in tur, reconnected me with previous memories, when in the early 1980s we moved in our new house, a freshly renovated colonica, located on the hills around Florence. At that time, I mainly had experienced transregional sociality, with a light Sicilian twist on the side of my mother’s family. Egidio, our farmer neighbor, was instead loudly dialectal, a truly vernacular genius loci. On his piece of land, I cultivated my affinity for Tuscany, and a thick accent. But not far from his garden, close to a convent, I vividly remember another farmer: Paolo, a Chinese man. He was tall, smiling, and silent, very different from Egidio. He owned the first and for long time only Chinese restaurant in Florence, mainly attended by Florentine Maoists, blithely enjoying recipes shaped trough the diaspora, resulting in the creation of a new cuisine, adapted do the Western palate and food habits, and exotically embellished. Fortunately the local Chinese food industry survived the vanishing of the Florentine Maoist utopias, and literally boomed in the late 1980s.
Paolo was growing spring onions and other luxuriant Chinese greens – the same size as me! Shards of ancient potteries, scattered everywhere around the convent, were floating on the surface of the freshly hoed soil, as precious polychrome minerals.
Thirty years later I’m facing the same lush greens, on the other side of the Prato-Florentine alluvial plain. The sprouts of my late adolescence vision made it so far, bridging my childhood into my present and future poiesis. It is in fact nearby the gardens of Mr. Hu, Yu Fen, Quo Cin, and Xiao Chen that I imagined and cultivated my own heimat: ToscoCina*.
*ToscoCina [TuscanChina] was the name of a Chinese restaurant in Florence. It closed before I could eat there.
Unexpected rural activities sprouted between the provinces of Prato and Florence since the early 2000s, as Chinese migrants realized how favorable the new environment was for their horticultures. After 15 years of acclimatization, these practices range from family gardens to small and medium enterprises, fulfilling the demand of the local migrant community.
Small activities usually take place in residual rural areas scattered around the industrial district, while larger farms often reactivated abandoned rural structures, the so called coloniche – in many cases abandoned after the end of the sharecrop system, in the late 1960s.
I consider these gardens as ramps to exploring the future, but the mainstream narration is infinitely different: hidden in the periphery or in the remote countryside, illegally imported seeds grow out of control, polluting the regional and national horticultural heritage. The food produced this way is threatening the public health and its distribution is beyond legal regulations.
The existence of these farms is in fact strongly contested, as if a foreign seed could turn our soil into a contaminated area, trigging an ontological shift in its inner substance: The solid ground of the countryside, bearing the weight of the collective body – the physical one to be nourished, and the ethical one to be reinsured (of its existence?) – is turned into a hybrid, gelatinous medium. Each Chinese garden is quicksand, able to swallow the strongholds of the self. The restoration of the rural order always takes the form of police repression. In the aftermath of the farms’ seizure, the local media promptly intervene to suture the wound. The sinkhole is therefore stuffed with words such as: illegal seeds; irregular seeds; genetic contamination; protection of the national food patrimony; Chinese Empire; danger for public health; criminal preventive seizure; zero tolerance; Chinese mafia; blitz; the Chinese invade the countryside; more blitz; to protect the decency of our territory, clandestine businesses; unfair competition with the legal farmers; genetically modified vegetables [mere journalist statement, unconfirmed]; dorm-farms; dorm-greenhouses; unauthorized shelters; inhuman conditions; contaminated water; toxic waste; unauthorized; after the fashion the Chinese conquer the fields; maxi-vegetables; proliferation of maxi-vegetables, inhuman; OGM vegetables [according to the journalist]; extra-large vegetables, illegal street vendors [again according to the journalist]; genetically modified seeds [the journalist imposes his verdict few hours after the police confiscated the farm]; genetically unknown features [lol]; suspect seeds; infesting plants and rotten water; they look like spinaches, but are they real spinaches? [in fact no, they are called 好菜]
Carmignano, Prato, 2014. Yu Fen is building an elongated pergola with found reeds, while his father is busy with a wheelbarrow full of dung and a pitchfork. Across the stream Furba the first slopes of Carmignano hills and a Sangiovese vineyard are in full germination. It’s springtime. In less than two months the bottle gourd plants  will turn the reed structure into a lush green tunnel. But now they are newborn, stretching their little bodies into the quiet and sunny warmth of the sprouting house: the earthy, delicate 丝瓜 [sī guā], the bitter and blood-cleaner 苦瓜 [kǔ guā], and the 蒲瓜 [pú guā], to cool down the summer heat. Since early July the shady inner area of the tunnel will be crowded with soft-skinned hanging gourds in various shapes and stages of accretion, like planets of a young universe. They will grow throughout the summer and sold in the neighborhood bit by bit. But the most beautiful ones will be spared, to slowly dry on the vine, and fully ripen. The autumn sun and the mountain breeze will ease their full transmutation into wood-like shelters: Sealed within such vessels, the seeds and their genetic information will be finally projected into the elsewhere of future times.
In late summer the tunnel will be transformed into a greenhouse, to protect the brassica rapa varieties and other greens from the frost. The 瓜 [guā] will give way to 菜 [cài]: 大白菜 [dà bái cài] and 小白菜 [xiǎo bái cài], together with 芥菜 [jiè cài], 好菜 [hǎo cài] and 香菇菜 [xiāng gū cài].
The summer will be shady and opulent, and since 白菜 [bái cài, white vegetable] sounds like 百财 [bǎi cái, hundred wealth], the winter will be just as rich and pleasant.
Yu Fen built a water-flooded pool for 茭白 [jiāo bái, water bamboo], while Quo Cin is planning to grow 莲藕 [lián’ǒu, lotus root] into a pond and Mr. Hu dreams of a little businesses out of 香菇 [Xiāng gū, mushrooms]. Each of their attempts and desires is a break into the future, and nothing seems impossible to be thought (and grown) on the tabula rasa of their transmuted soil.
Mario is 40 years older than his farm neighbor Yu Fen, and never moved from here. Nevertheless, modernity heavily impacted his rural practices, in terms of mechanized work and chemicals. His traditional knowledge survives in scattered fragments, as after an explosion: He ties the shoots of the vines as his ancestors did before him, using the flexible young branches of the willow tree, but he also heavily weeds the rows of vines, thus polluting the little canal that marks the border between his field and You Fen’s. And again, despite everything, he takes care of the canal itself, avoiding the entire area to sink back into the swamp from which it was rescued long before.
A few weeks ago I visited him, and he gave me the seeds of what he calls zucca da pesce [the fish bottle gourd], an originally Moroccan (as he explained to me) variety that he reproduced every year since 1955, after receiving one from a fisherman as a gift .. The dried squash, or gourd, was in fact used as a water container to keep the captured fish and frogs alive, »back then when the Ombrone stream was feeding the families.« Mario is now old and tired. Two years ago he dismissed the stable, and lately the henhouse. But concerning the (maybe) secondary heritage of his childhood squash, he handed it to me, in a fistful of African seeds.
Vittorio is a winemaker and some of his vineyards are located on the other side of Yu Fen’s farm, perched on the first hills of the renowned Carmignano wine appellation, the pride of Prato. He is the initiator of sustainable viticulture in this area, starting from the early 1990s when he made the first biodynamic wine of the d.o.c., and he’s currently creating the Biodistretto Montalbano, the organic district of the Montalbano mountains.
In the past 30 years his viticultural skills were constantly challenged, and modified. For example, as recently as the 1980s he would have cut off the leaves around each grape cluster, as before him every Tuscan winemaker did for centuries, to enable the sun rays to hit the fruit early morning and to concentrate its sugar content. The low sugar/alcohol was in fact, historically, the Achille’s heel of Tuscan wine itself. But meantime the force of the sun increased to such an extent that the leaves are now left untouched, to shelter the fruits and to avoid the opposite risk: excessive alcohol levels and the loss of organoleptic balance, if not burning the grapes. What was a secular knowledge of this territory was turned upside down in few years. To follow the tradition would now compromise the quality of the wine, if not its very production.
The climate changed fast, turning this farmer into a stranger in his own place, and a pioneer of a foreign biosphere.
Vittorio spent many years fighting and retuning daily to the ancient art of viticulture, to survive a groundless ecosystem, while Yu Fen traveled across the globe to reinvent a familiar landscape – which probably only survives in his premigration memories. Mario is instead the keeper of broken traditions, floating in fragments on the modernist toxic flood.
These neighboring farmers have very different backgrounds, practices and goals, but they equally inhabit a foreign time, struggling on the crossroads of Carmignano and the Anthropocene.
Our Gourds First
Late summer in Poland. Wólka Kosowska, south of Warsawa, is a Chinese-Vietnamese wholesale district located at the margins of the eastern European platform. The zeitgeist constantly vaults over its gigantic, gray storehouses, actual temples of global trade. Nevertheless, Wólka is a spot of diversity in the monochromatic rural plain of the Podlasie depression, and a crossroads of human relations. Its anonymous architecture reminds me of Macrolotto 1, the outer offshoot of the Chinese textile district in Prato – it’s homely to me. Here everything is traded, from Italian clothing (made in Prato) to any goods produced in Asia, to the best phở in Poland and possibly in Europe, plus several types of Wurst-like meats strongly flavored with Vietnamese spices.
The grocery »ITALIA hải sản tươi sống 海鲜« [Italy fresh fish, both in Chinese and Vietnamese] is advertised with the colors of the Italian flag. The owner is originally from Whencheng, but she spent a large part of her life in Prato before moving to Poland. It’s nice to meet a paesana here, where everyone seems so displaced. Her husband seems happy too. We take a selfie together, also with their little Polish-speaking daughter.
Rather than frozen Baltic fish, my homesick former neighbor seems mainly proud of her perfectly pear-shaped and soft-skinned 蒲瓜, surprisingly grown in our countryside, close to where I live. What a long journey for a bottle gourd! But mobility is the spirit of the time, and competition. If not from Tuscan-China it would have been imported from Spain. Then, our gourds first.