U Šumi — In the Forest
The corridor windows on the train from Budapest admitted warm, dappled western sun and brief showers of acacia blossoms. They had settled in creamy floes along the worn carpet by the time we got off in Zagreb. Then another train. Halfway, all the passengers filed from the train to buses. We finished the journey to Karlovac in the company of a live chicken.
Karlovac is an old town with a heart of green parks and crumbling Austro-Hungarian edifices; wedding-cake facades bearing scarlet danger signs with sexless figures hit by falling rocks. Hannah and Gottfried met me at the train station. I was here in eastern Croatia to volunteer on their farm for a month. They were both from _________, but had retired here. Gottfried was a big, square man, with a “click” (the word he used to describe his special ability) for languages. He spoke English, Italian, German, Dutch, Serbo-Croatian, and French. His hearty belly laugh had a little wheeze in it, from his daily pack of cigarettes. Dark eyes, gray hair, a wide charcoal gray mustache and thick brows bordered round rosy cheeks. At lunch he spread margarine on his bread and then salted the whole surface.
Hannah, his wife, had a deep square brow, steel blue eyes and steel gray hair. She spoke only a little English, and I spoke no German or Dutch, but we got on by catching the familiar sounding words from our respective languages and miming when we couldn’t understand each other. It was she who had wanted a farm; as a child her mother taught her how to judge the use of an apple from its taste and mouthfeel — whether to make vinegar, pie, wine, sauce, or cook them in a pickle. As an adult she worked in a town, but when she and Gottfried retired, she wanted to return to that childhood way of life. To that purpose, she and Gottfried bought a farm in a tiny village here. She tells me that the soil here in this part of Croatia is rich — people don’t add anything but compost and composted manure to their gardens, and the yield is enormous.
Rex, the breed-less one-eared hunting dog that served as the home’s guard greeted us by the irises and the towering old walnut tree. He accepted my presence with patient indifference.
This farm was on the side of a mountain, surrounded by meadows and thick forests, with butterscotch colored bracken in tangles beneath regiments of green ferns, and acacias dropping their scent in deep white pockets under the chestnut trees.
It has been raining lightly since dawn. Cuckoos sound like ghosts. Heavy honeythick sweet air. Pigs munch on thick broad algae-green leaves of wild plants in backyard pastures. The lady down the road owns a cow, and she puts the unpasteurized cream in a basin near her wood stove where it rises like bread dough. This is a traditional young cheese. A withered old man sits, as still as a stone or tree, under an awning, watching through a veil of rain as I walk past.
Hannah takes me to meet her neighbors, as there is not much work to do today. Hansel and Gretel, the neighbors’ twin sheep dogs with tightly waved black fur, meet us in the road and run ahead of us barking all the way to the house.
Laura has a long simple face with raw bones, and a gap between her front teeth. She is tall with square shoulders. Simon, her husband, is as tall, wiry, and has an intense abrupt charisma. They have two children, a boy and a girl. The boy shows me some pictures he had drawn. In them swarms of blue, gray, orange, and red stick men are engaged in inexplicable wars. They are elements, he says, water, stone, fire, lava, air. They just fight because they fight, but that’s just the way things are.
Laura has plans to raise snails. She has several of them in little bird cage,but says she will build them a larger house. After mating each hermaphroditic snail plants its eggs in the soil. Eventually, the vulnerable young emerge transparent from soil, already housed in tender shells.
Hannah and I weeded the garden today. After, we dumped the whole bucket of weeds into the chicken pen for the chickens to peck at.
Before dinner, we made plum marmalade. The elderly mother of Gottfried´s neighbor-friend taught her this recipe.
1 kilo plums
1 lemon, juice + zest, cut in little pieces
1 kilo sugar
100 milliliter red wine vinegar
Cook all until thick. Stir frequently so it doesn’t scorch to the bottom of the pan. Pour in sterile jars, seal, cool.
I trek down and up the mountain every day after dinner. Almost every day I pass an old man on his way up. He has a long nose, dark eyes very deep under a bony forehead. Two furrows run up each side of his mouth. Purple shadows, like bruises, on his eyes, cheeks. He limps heavily, supporting himself against a dirty pale yellow umbrella.
Gottfried says this is Jovan going to drink coffee and maybe a little rakija with Slavko, They have coffee under the grape arbor and talk, while Slavko´s black clad wife stands silently with folded hands behind him.
Laura and Simon have a lone rooster. They used to have seven chickens as well, but are inconsistent about closing the henhouse door (so says Gottfried) and lost four to the many foxes that prowl around the edges of the forest. The other three they lost to something else, a marten-or-ferret-like creature that scales the fences even in day and devours the intestines of the living birds. They say there is no defense against this creature.
All day, the lone rooster crows and crows, calling the chickens to him.
Laura comes over with her little daughter, who runs in front of Hansel and Gretel (the black sheep dogs) and then suddenly turns around and jumps back at them screaming laughing. They patiently trot on, pink tongues hanging out,only making a detour from following her to devour all of Rex´s food.
Gottfried stands under the linden tree smoking and laughing at the child’s antics. She tries to make Rex sit, she says “Sit-Stay-Good!” all at once, indiscriminately, without waiting for compliance. Gottfried’s tries English, Dutch, and Croatian. Rex won’t sit for any language.
Rex walks with a limp, from the same accident that took his ear. Gottfried says that when he was a puppy he fell asleep under a saw machine, and the owner, unaware, turned it on.
We collect wild thyme on the mountain — there are wide mats of it throughout the grassy meadow. Glossy fragrant tiny leaves, tangled with tall blades of grass, or sprawled, deeper green, on drier and sunnier parts of slope.
Here and there a bubbly white foam is suspended on the broad underside of a grass blade. Hannah tells me that that the foam is from a little translucent green bug which lays its eggs in snail slime. Her elderly neighbor, a lady who lived on the other side of the mountain for her first nineteen years, and this side for the rest, told her this.
We make thyme syrup for winter coughs:
Pour boiling water over thyme and weigh down in large basin or pot. After ½ hour, add more weight. Continue until thyme is all submerged –then make into a syrup. Very fragrant.
I walk past a wheat field; in the slanting late day light it is more silver than green. Slavko, a very tall old man in a dusty blue jacket, walks tenderly between the plants, mowing weeds with neat twists of his scythe. He picks his long legs up and sets them straight down, precisely, like a stork hunting in a shallow pond.
Jovan leans against his yellow umbrella and watches Slavko at his work. Every few few moments they exchange words, then fall into silence.
Along the road from Slavko’s house to this wheatfield are scattered lone stalks of wheat, which as they develop reveal to him the ripeness of his field.
— — -
Today we rake the long dry sugar-smelling grass into piles and make nests at the bases of the fruit trees.
We go hunting for mushrooms. Hannah tells me that every year she sees Slavko emerge from the woods with bags of apricot colored chanterelles. She can’t guess where they might grow. The families have their secret places they only share with each other.
The beech woods are beautiful. Silver trunks, small whispering leaves. There are shallow muddy creeks veined throughout the woods, where the steep slopes of mountains meet. The deep moss and dead leaves release a sweet murky odor.
From the meadows to the forest there are daisies, valerian, wild mint, wild thyme, wild strawberries, moss, turkey-tails, beech trees, wild apple trees, ferns, beeches, chestnuts… under the leaves and moss, the black forest soil is thick with white tangled mycelia. Bright coral or white slime molds spread across some of the rotting logs. Huge slugs, millipedes and spiders populate the forest floor. In sunny parts, verging the meadow that seems to be an abandoned orchard, bright ferns stand in regiments, rising as tall as my shoulder. Narrow, tightly curled fronds unfurl to bursts of openwork leaves in the sun. Grass in the wind on the mountainside has a current of its own.
As I pass a grove of acacia trees, breathing in the thick sweet air, I sense a machine. My mind first leaps to an electrical generator, then a truck or tractor, but finally I realized what it was — an enormous buzzing of bees. Here, if you leave an empty hive out, or a pile of roof tiles, or a basket, or any likely hollow place, the wild honeybees will come nest.
There is more garden work today — hoeing young squash plants, weeding onions, cultivating tomatoes. Little green fruits have formed on the plum trees, and there are fine hairs on the peaches like the ones on the curve of a baby´s cheek.
From the grove of plum trees, there are 1,500 kilograms of plums in a good year. Last year was hot and dry, so there were fewer plums –but those were very sweet.
Gottfried makes rakija from the plums, with 42 percent alcohol to drink and 36 percent for Hannah to make herbal infusions. She makes a digestif from green walnuts off their 80-year old walnut tree.
The old lady next door has a still,and although she doesn’t drink, she made rakija every year until just a few years ago. She felt sorry for the plums that they had to fall to the ground and rot, without ever being used. Now Gottfried uses the still and shares the rakija with her.
Hannah tells me when this old lady was fifteen and lived on the other side of the mountain, she was courted by a young man who was courting three other girls at the same time. She didn’t find this out for a long while because people rarely went down to the village, as they were so poor. But when she turned nineteen her father’s friend suggested she meet the young man who became her husband, and from then on she lived on this side of the mountain.
Before the marriage, her husband built a one room wood house, still standing, where they lived for fifty years, raising their three children. Now it is empty except for beets, potatoes, cabbages, and rakija. After her husband died she went abroad to work, then came back and built a new stone house with an enormous satellite dish. It sits beside the old wood one. Many roses bloom in the yard.
She has at least 120 liters of rakija stored up, years old, and says it is for when her grandson is married. Gottfried doesn’t know who will drink the 120 liters of rakija, and says that the grandson will probably get married in Germany, so even then it won’t be drunk.
I stumble on the enormous timber skeleton of a house, with ratty rags of brown and drab green cloth trailing from the few remaining rafters. In the dim shadows of the solid intersecting beams, beech leaves, and fluttering cloth, yellow flowers grow.
Hannah mimes to me; the house was a shelter. In World War II, gray planes terrorized and attacked anyone they saw in these fields. The houses were no longer safe, so all the people on this side of the mountain moved into this house, in the woods. They drank from the streams and ate mushrooms, nuts, and other foraged food. Slavko, who was a child then, told Gottfried that some of the men would creep to the fields and plant seeds and farm where and when they could. It was a memory shared by everyone in the village, except the youth, most of whom had left, and the foreigners.
Some of the local people say that the first elderflowers here were planted by the gypsies. If you cut one bush down, you must plant one of its sticks in the soil so that a new one can grow to replace it. It is bad luck if you don’t. Their broad clusters of waxy white flowers smell like lychees and shake yellow pollen everywhere. You must look for flowers the bees haven’t gotten to yet, because the bees will take the pollen. This, says Hannah, is where all the medicinal qualities are. You must pick one gently, place it tenderly into your bag. We cover them with water and let them sit in the sun for two days before we make elderflower syrup and jam.
— — -
On a day very near my last at the farm, Gottfried drove me into the village. We saw two figures along the road. One was a young man carrying a scythe. The other man was very old, and carried an axe on his shoulder. The two were cutting the young trees along the road. “That’s Jovan’s brother, Nikolai, and his nephew,” Gottfried told me. Nikolai saw Gottfried and his grizzled face broke into the innocent smile of an infant. He put his hand on the Gottfried’s car as he passed, so that he had to stop. They exchanged greetings, and I was struck by the exuberant friendliness of Nikolai, something I had never encountered in people of the region. As we went on our way I commented on it to Gottfried and he said, “He knows I dont trust him, and that nobody in the village does either. Thats why he’s so friendly.”
This is why:
Nikolai and Jovan were brothers and grew up on their family’s farm on this mountain. They had hidden together in the forest as children, and they had drunk water from that stream in the forest with the yellow flowers beside it. They, as other families, had shared their secret places to gather mushrooms, chestnuts, and other foraged foods. They had worked, as all other sons in the region did, planting and harvesting potatoes and cabbages, and raising and slaughtering pigs on their father’s farm. Their father had done the same, and his before him.
Back when they were children, all the families used to have vineyards. There had been an ancient tradition of winemaking in the region. Everyone made wine, so the government decided to raise money by taxing grapevines. But the peasants, unable to pay the tax on these grapevines that had been in their families for generations, had to destroy them instead. Money was too rare and precious a resource. All the families planted plum trees where the vines had been, so they could distill rakija.
Nikolai inherited the farm. Jovan had nothing. There was no money. He continued to work, as always, on the farm, now his brother´s. You worked because you worked, life wasn’t something you could separate from it. It was simply how you passed your day. Throughout the years, he helped in the farm. He entered the army. He left it. He never married.
Eventually, was able to buy a cow.
He played folk music to the cow in the morning and evening on his worn, crackling wireless, frenetic accordion music.
He went to all the farms on this side of the mountain to cut grass from the meadows with his scythe, and pulled it back on his cart to feed the cow. The cow rewarded his care by producing the best milk and cream on the mountain. He would put the milk in a ceramic pot beside the wood stove, and there it would curdle and rise into a mild, sweet young cheese. Everyone in the village knew that his was the best. People from other villages wanted to buy his cow, but he wouldn’t sell her.
In these villages they do the same work every year, with the same tools. In June, Jovan always climbed the cherry tree to pick the cherries. This June he fell, fracturing his leg. They thought he might never walk again, that he might not even live to return home. He lived, and then he walked, and a few months later returned to the farm and his daily work. But in those few months Nikolai sold his treasure to a man from another village.
On the way to Karlovac we pass a dark blue river with dusty maroon lily pads dispersed across its surface. They are unmoved by the current that slowly lifts and drops a flat broad wooden rowboat, faded drab from whatever its bright color was, rising and falling beside the still unopened flowers.