The Natural World of Saint Francis is now in print!
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
Friday, May 15, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
We meet Roberto Venanzoni in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Perugia, where Benedictine monks still share the campus with the faculty and students.
Roberto has arranged for us to meet Professore Alessandro Menghini, who conceived the university’s Medieval Garden.
Menghini is a bright-eyed, two-legged encyclopedia of all things medieval: numerology and alchemy, medicinal and culinary herbs, Scripture and the Book of Nature, which many people in the Middle Ages believed was as much the word of God as the Bible.
Professor Menghini spends an hour walking us around the garden, explaining its symbolism. It is a microcosm of the moral and physical universe arranged according to numbers once considered sacred. Planted in triangles, circles, and rectangles of soil are hundreds of plants used as medicines, foods, seasonings, scents, and symbols during the time of Saint Francis.
It’s impossible to take it all in at once, but Menghini’s enthusiasm is contagious. Suddenly every plant, every color, every fragrance and taste has its own character and significance.
The Oasis of Alviano is a wetland managed by the World Wildlife Fund. We had tried to visit the oasis early in our travels, but it is only open on Sundays and holidays.
Later, we pass it again on our way to Rome, but it is a Tuesday. We decide to walk around its wooded perimeter anyway, and peer through the trees. We hope to catch at least a glimpse of it.
At the entrance, we bump into a WWF naturalist. She is preparing to take a group of schoolchildren on a field trip through the oasis in hour or so.
Tom asks her about the net she is carrying to scoop up wetland creatures to show the children.
She looks us up and down — sunhats, notebook, camera, boots — and reaches in her pocket.
“Take my keys and let yourselves through,” she says. “You can leave them for me at the bar down the road.”
The oasis is one of the high points of our travels, a place where we experience the bottomlands of central Italy as they were when Saint Francis crossed them on foot, in all their soggy glory.
On the other, eastern side of the Apennines in the region called Le Marche, the soils and plant communities are different from what we've become used to in Umbria. We visit the hermitage of Santa Maria di Valdisasso, which is surrounded by maples and other deciduous trees and is specially protected by the regional government because of its rare plants.
When Francis first came here in 1210, he had trouble finding this little Benedictine hermitage. He asked for help from a farmer, who left his plow to guide him up the mountain. They say that when the farmer returned to his field, it was perfectly plowed and yet his oxen were rested. At the bottom of the mountain we see a likely field, and our hunch is confirmed by a stone plaque commemorating the “miracle.”
Francis liked Valdisasso so much that he often visited there and it was an important retreat for Franciscans for centuries before reverting to the Benedictines. In the little garden, we meet a sweet young Benedictine nun who is reading a book about Saint Clare.