In the dry season
the porcupines head to higher ground.
Or so my cousin tells me.
“There’s an expression round here,” he says,
“Whereby if you see someone walking alone
in the dead of night, you tell them
‘Come un porcospino.’”
My cousin tells me lots of things.
We are in Sicily to visit some land
he has recently bought,
to do a little work around the house
and hopefully enjoy a good pasta.
On our first night here, there was mist
on the hills of Ragusa
and Chiariamonte Gulfi,
the small village huddled snug
in those high hills,
wore it like a ribbon of cotton batting
around her old buildings
and her lights were visible from far off
against the black Sicilian night.
Driving home along winding, narrow lanes,
we passed vast olive groves, caught their old trees in our high beams,
and their gnarly, knotty limbs and ghosty faces
made them look like startled ancient beings
frozen in ghoulish postures.
By day we drove those same roads
wound high up into the hills.
Through dense forest and passed ruined farmhouses
with their roofs half caved
and fields where horses and cattle grazed.
We passed tall cypress trees,
in rows of exquisite symmetry
and stone walls overflowing with pink almond blossom.
We drove through modern town centres
and by busy, brutalist tenements
on whose balconies laundry hung to dry.
From the car park of the Ikea in Catania
we could see Mount Etna and a vertical plume of smoke
climbing high against the blue and windless sky.
And then we walk his land.
Up we go through more olive groves
and fields of citrus
and into a wild section of which he is most proud,
thick with pampas and moss
and plump bunches of wild thyme.
My cousin has done well to find himself some land here.
I can see how excited he is.
It’s in the way we linger by an enormous walnut tree
and he stoops and grabs a handful of soil
and he rubs it between his fingers,
and tells me of his plans for the place.
Chiariamonte Gulfi is known as the balcony of Sicily
for its impressive views,
and looking around
at the panorama of steep hills and wide sky,
at the landscape’s checkerboard
of field and forest,
I think to myself,
you could get fat here,
and I don’t mean in the waist or wallet.
And I recall something I once read
which said that the best feelings of humanity
are to be found in the natural world.
High up on his property he is keen to show me an elaborate
porcupine den riven with many deep burrows.
“They’re notoriously shy creatures,” he says,
“I hope they’re still here,”
and as though in answer
we come upon fresh tracks and some scat
and he picks it up and smells it
(He is not squeamish of such things)
and he passes it to me to examine
as though it were a thing of great value
and not being squeamish either,
I accept it.