Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our book is now available!

The Natural World of Saint Francis is now in print!

You can order your very own copy at Tau Publishing.

Pace e bene,

Tom and Susan.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Update on Book Project


We've finished the first draft of our book,
The Natural World of Saint Francis of Assisi,
and sent it out for fact-checking.

There is still lots to do,
but we are ahead of schedule to have it ready for our
planned publication date: October 4, 2009!

We're looking forward to sharing the natural history of central Italy with you.

Tom and Susan.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Last Posts from Italy


Here is another set of postings!

Pace e bene,

Tom and Susan.

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.

Oasis of Alviano

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. 


As we travel along a country road below Monte Cucco National Park, we see a farmer on a tractor busily plowing his field. 

His neighbor’s field is fallow, full of blossoming flowers — poppies, cornflowers, and mustard.


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.

Rieti Valley

We come to the Rieti Valley to visit four places that Saint Francis knew and loved, including La Foresta (pictured).

We stay in a little family hotel in a grove of walnut trees near the sorgente di Santa Susanna, the prolific source of a river that flows across the Rieti Valley. Eight centuries ago, the flat floor of this karstic valley was a marshy lake. A fisherman who ferried Francis across it gave him a fish, but rather than keep it to eat the saint put it back in the water. The happy fish played around the boat, apparently unwilling to leave until Saint Francis blessed him.

 There are still wetlands in the Rieti Valley as well as two lakes. We visit the four convents founded by Saint Francis in the surrounding hills and seek out the narrow caves where he rested and prayed. But we return again and again to the marshy lakes, to hear chorusing frogs and watch grebes and herons. One morning Tom sees a fox trotting near the water’s edge, its red coat soaked from the dewy grass. 


Near sunrise Tom goes out to photograph in the forest of Monteluco again. 

I go to Lauds with the friars in the old convent (pictured). 

As he walks quietly through the woods, Tom surprises a wild boar who jumps up with a startled snort and rushes off through the trees.


We take the road above Spoleto to the Franciscan convent atop Monteluco. This grove of ilex trees has been held sacred by every culture here since the Etruscans. 

These trees are thought to be the oldest holm oaks in Europe.

 There is a charming little nineteenth-century hotel nearby where as the only guests, we are given a room on the top floor with a view over the forested mountains around us.

 In late afternoon we walk down among the ilex trees by the convent wall. I stop to record the calling of thrushes. After a moment, the friars just over the wall begin to sing their evening prayers, joining their song to the birds. 


Calendimaggio is an annual event in Assisi. Wearing medieval clothes, citizens of the upper and lower halves of the town compete in flag-twirling, singing, and showing off in processions. Men beat drums, blare long, old-style trumpets, and stroll around ogling the women. The costumes are marvelous and evocative of the Middle Ages, especially seen here in the context of the old stone buildings and piazzas of the town. 

Above Assisi

Assisi lies on the western slope of a big round mountain called Subasio. Subasio is pleasant like a Capuchin friar, with a fringe of forest below its grassy dome. 

On the eastern side of the mountain we can see a rural valley with a few farms, but mostly leafy forest. On the western side is the Val di Spoleto, now crisscrossed by highways and littered with factories.

 Saint Francis spent a lot of time on Subasio, putting distance between himself and the busy, materialistic life that had been planned for him. A timeless, natural world is still right up the slope from Assisi. On the summit of the mountain, a field of wild narcissus is in bloom.

Eremo delle Carceri

The first thing we do when we reach Assisi is to visit the hermitage not far above the town. It is built on the north side of a ravine around a little cave said to be the one sought by the young Francesco before he renounced “the world.” Although many, many people come here every day, the eremo still has the tranquil quality fostered by Franciscan friars everywhere they go. It happens to be in an ilex grove surrounded by a beech forest.

 There are several altars in the woods; we pass one of them where a German priest has just finished saying mass for his little band of travelers. The melody of the final hymn they sing floats through the trees, embellished by the trilling of birds.



The hermitage of Sant’Urbano is in a grove of Quercus ilex — holm oaks — on the south side of a mountain. Roberto Venanzoni has pointed out that many of the places where Saint Francis sought solitude were in ilex groves like this. We’d thought Francis chose these groves because the great oaks are so moody and majestic, but Roberto’s view is that Francis located his hermitages among the ilex because they grow in the warmest places on the mountainsides.

 Quercus ilex is an evergreen oak that keeps its stiff, dark green leaves all year. It is an indicator species for the Mediterranean plant community, the way that saguaro cactus indicate the Sonoran desert. At this latitude and elevation, ilex grows only in patches on warm and sunny, south facing slopes. It occupies an ecological niche that is warmer than elsewhere on these mountains — or even in the plains below, where cold air pools in winter.

 But Francis was certainly never one to be concerned about staying warm or being comfortable. He was quite the opposite, sleeping on a bed of stone, eating next to nothing, and giving away his clothes to anyone who could use them. We see the cave where he stayed here at Sant’Urbano. “Warm and comfortable” are the last words we’d use to describe it, but the loveliness of this spot does ease the spirit.

Pian Grande, Monte Sibellini National Park

Father Benedict introduces us to Simone Olemammo, who works in resource management at Monte Sibellini National Park. His projects include reintroducing chamois and monitoring the increasing populations of wolves and goshawks. He holds up a finger: “We have one bear,” he says happily. This bear has apparently wandered up here from Abruzzo National Park.

Simone also keeps an eye on the wellbeing of the rock partridges, using a recorder to attract them. But he likes raptors the best of all the birds in the park. There are buzzards, royal eagles, and peregrines. He also admires nuthatches and an interesting woodpecker that crawls up rock faces with its wings spread out “like a butterfly.” We enjoy this young Italian’s enthusiasm for wild creatures; he makes us think of Saint Francis.

We spend an afternoon in the national park. It reminds us of Alaska with its sweeping scenery, high treeless mountains, and melting banks of snow. The wind is gusty and there is an occasional spit of hail. We can understand why Simone admires the fierce, magnificent birds of this environment. We find a meadow of wild crocuses, harbingers of the great number of flowers for which the Pian Grande is famous.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Greetings, patient friends!

Tom and I have gone native!

We have finally found a place where we can post some notes about our journey so far. We hadn’t realized that rural Italy would be so … well, rural! Although the internet is everywhere in homes, schools, and offices, it isn’t very accessible to travelers. Places that do offer a computer to visitors aren’t set up for strange alien devices, so posting pictures and bits of text hasn’t been possible until now.

As far as we can tell, you'll find the posts in reverse order; the most recent post will show up first. 

If you'd like to read them in chronological order, you may want to click through to the last page of the blog.

So let’s catch up!


We visit Norcia to see the marshes long managed by Benedictine monks. For a dozen centuries or so, the monks coaxed springwaters to spread out across the meadows of Santa Scholastica outside the walls of the city. This method yielded several harvests of hay a year while enhancing habitat for birds, animals, and wild plants.

 Agricultural practices — and distribution methods — have changed in Italy and the meadows haven’t been managed much over the past few decades. And even though it is the birthplace of the founder Saint Benedict himself, the Benedictine abbey in Norcia gradually lost its resident monks.

 Several years ago, a group of young American Benedictines started a little monastery of their own in an apartment in Rome. They were devoted to keeping the hours of the Rule of Saint Benedict in the traditional way, and to keeping chant alive and authentic.

 The bishop of Spoleto heard about them, thought about the empty abbey in Norcia, and invited them to take up residence there. Today they walk the marshes of Santa Scholastica for meditation.

 Susan had corresponded with one of the American monks, coincidentally also named Benedict, and he was expecting us. He would introduce us to an employee of Sibellini National Park, who could tell us about the wildlife in the park.

 Our morning began with mass in the crypt of the abbey. The celebrant sang and several monks chanted the psalms and responses. Each note was indescribably lovely resonating within those stone walls. The chant created an experience isolated from the flow of time, seemingly a single moment of awareness of the here and now.





On Roberto’s advice, we spend a day exploring the plant communities of karstic plains. The first of these is Colfiorito, a swamp lush with reeds, willows, poplars, and great gray herons.

 In the time of Saint Francis, much of the low land between the mountains was swampy like this. The Romans had drained the valleys for farmland, but the swamps and marshes returned after their civilization declined. These swamps were wild places, full of malaria, wild animals, and bandits, but Francis made his way through them on foot.

 It is lovely to see this intact marsh. Great flocks of geese and other aquatic birds from northern Europe spend their winters in the wetlands and lakes of central Italy. This is an oasis for wading birds.

 During the Renaissance, the valleys were drained and devoted to agriculture again. In recent times, they have become a different sort of wilderness, full of factories and highways. Yet places like Colfiorito have remained or been restored, where the world that Francis knew still exists.


Il Professore

We have finally met Professore Roberto Venanzoni, with whom Susan has been corresponding for months. We’re staying in Camerino, where the professor keeps a place for his elderly parents. He looks after them for the three days a week that he isn’t teaching at the university in Perugia.

 Roberto is fun, helpful, and incredibly energetic. He guides everything we do with firm courtesy.  He makes sure that we have authentic Italian meals and don’t ask for ketchup. He fills in blanks in our understanding of Italian plant communities and shows us the amazing forest of potted trees on his patio, which includes a two-foot California redwood and a boxelder from Arizona. He tells us about growing up the traditional way in the village of Serrapetrona. Roberto is a wonderful teacher, coming up with examples that clarify the complexities of the mingled plant communities of central Italy. We are thoroughly charmed.

Scaglia Bianca

We spend the day exploring the Apennines east of Gubbio, looking for illustrations of central Italian geology. Geologically, Italy is an extension of Africa, which is slowly colliding with the European continent. This collision is shoving the limestones of Italy into steep upwarps called anticlines. The Apennines are a series of these anticlines that run down the length of the country from the Alps to the toe of the boot.

 We find a vantage point atop Monte Petrano, where we get a clear view of the obvious anticline of Monte Nerone. All around us, men are exercising their hunting dogs on the sweep of alpine grassland where buttercups and wild orchids bloom.

 Across the gorge below us, Tom spots a village clinging to the cliff, surrounded by blossoming redbud trees. The village is just below an exposed cliff on the mountainside and Tom is sure that this will be the perfect place to photograph the folded layers of Scaglia bianca, the thin white layers of limestone so typical of the Apennines.

 We drive down Petrano and find our way to a road that we think must lead to the village. It’s only a gravel track just wide enough to squeeze between shrubs and trees that brush the sides of the car. We wind up the mountainside as far as we can, then stop the car and walk. As usual, Tom is right: the rock here is tortuously buckled into folds.


We walk up the mountain from the monastery to the hermitage at Camaldoli. The steep path takes us along a stream that froths over ledges of rock. Creeks join it here and there, tumbling down the mountainside in waterfalls overhung with blossoming currants. 


Camaldoli is especially famous for its herbal preparations. The monks here tend a chestnut grove as well. Tom and I are walking among remarkably gnarled chestnut trees taking pictures when a movement downslope catches our eye. A mother boar and her speckled piglets are snuffling below the trees, eating fallen chestnuts.

Ancient Beeches

The surest place to find old-growth trees in Italy is around a monastery or hermitage. These retreats were established in remote places centuries ago and the woods and meadows around them have been preserved ever since. Some communities of monks and friars actively tend their sacred groves and grasslands, gathering herbs for the remedies they prepare or truffles and berries for preserves. Others simply retreat to them for prayer and meditation.

 I have been recording the sounds of birds, crickets, and even noisy Italian families having dinner in trattorias. In the tranquil woods above La Verna, I am recording the sound of birds singing in ancient beeches and spruce. In the middle of this natural symphony, bells in the monastery below begin to ring, calling the friars to prayer.

La Verna

Because he was ill and too frail to walk, Saint Francis once agreed to ride a peasant’s donkey high up a mountain in Tuscany to the hermitage of La Verna. When the peasant became thirsty and couldn’t continue, legend has it that Francis caused water to spring from bare rock. No one we’ve asked about this spring seems to know anything about it.

 Now Tom has found the words Fte. S.Francesco next to the symbol of a spring on an old topo map. We slither down a muddy trail in search of it. It is not where we expect to find it and we almost give up but farther along, there it is! … a tiny chapel and the little spring. We stay for a little while, gazing out over the landscape from the heights and having some bread and water. In the Little Flowers, Saint Francis remarks that a table of stone surrounded by nature is infinitely grander than a banquet hall. And of course, we agree.

Celle de Cortona

Friars have lived at Cortona ever since Saint Francis established a hermitage here in 1211. In the beginning, Francis slept in a little cave in the wall of a gorge. Over the centuries, his cave has been joined by so many cells, chapels, and gardens that the hermitage is now a stone honeycomb perched above the roaring stream that rushes through the gorge.

 Tom and I pause on the zigzag path down to the bridge across to the monastery. An old man hoeing a garden below us looks up suddenly and meets my eyes. Tugging off his gloves, he holds up his hands. “You must always remember to be grateful!” he cries, his eyes shining. In Italian so simple that even I can understand it, he tells me that he once lived in Tanzania but had to leave because of illness, and about his coming home to Italy but falling ill yet again. He tells me that despite his struggles, he has always known he is not alone. A bell rings and he rushes off to prayer.

 Later we go into the little chapel by the cave of Saint Francis. Brother Tanzania is there. He comes to sit beside me and takes my hands. He reminds me again to live my life in gratitude and praise. 


 Northern Lazio is volcanic. There are many thermal and mineral springs in the area; it has been considered a place of healing since Etruscan times. When Saint Francis first came here to the village of Sarteano, he spent time in a community of monks who cared for the sick. He sought his own, spiritual health in the wilds of the beech forest above the town.

 Tom and I find the old path through the woods that leads to the empty Etruscan tombs where Saint Francis and the other friars spent much time in contemplation. The beeches create a natural cathedral of arching black branches and green light, its floor carpeted with fallen leaves.

 Few pilgrims seek out this obscure spot, apparently. The tranquility and solitude are profound.

Monte Amiata

 Over the millennia, lots of plants and animals have been added to the natural diversity here. Among other things, the Romans introduced chestnuts from the eastern part of their empire. Chestnuts became a staple food of country people and caring for them a whole way of life in the parts of Italy where they do well (they like sandy soil between 1,500 and 3,000 feet). We visit groves on the slopes of Monte Amiata that have been passed down through the generations for many centuries. People here claim to have propagated at least three hundred varieties for particular qualities — these sweet, those huge, these good for flour, these for roasting

Spring Rains

 It turns out that we have come to Italy during one of the most rainy springs in many years. A Perugian botanist tells us that it has rained 50% more this season than the average over the past two hundred years! Everything is shining: meadows are an incandescent green, poppies are bright as little flames, streams and waterfalls are roaring.

 Every morning, the birds awaken us just before dawn. A few have been calling all night but as the sky begins to lighten, more and more add their trills, whistles, and songs. The roosters join in, too.

 We have been staying at a relatively low elevation so far, exploring the northerly part of the province of Lazio. We walk whenever we can because that is how Francis traveled, seeking out ancient paths through forests and villages. The rolling hills of this landscape are a mosaic of leafy forest, olive groves, and pasture. Grapevines and vegetable gardens are tucked around the hilltop villages and there are little shrines adorned with flowers at crossroads.

 This is still a purely Mediterranean environment, but today we’ll head north to Cortona. As we go farther north and higher in elevation, we expect the landscape to become more like that of continental Europe.

 The peninsula of Italy is a bridge over the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. The climate, plants, and animals of all three areas mingle here in central Italy to create an astonishing diversity and abundance of life.

Northern Lazio

For months before we began this visit to Italy, we studied the geology, plants, and animals and did our best to learn the language. We did this research for The Natural World of Saint Francis so that we would know where to go and what to photograph.

 But before we even left Rome, we recognized elements of the Italian landscape that we had never noticed on previous visits to Italy. For the first time we could call the cheerful green lollipop trees clustered on hilltops by their rightful name, “umbrella pines.”

 In the past, the pretty scenery here has made a great impression on us. But before, we couldn’t really distinguish individuals or understand how everything fits together. Now we can appreciate that many of the lively little songbirds here have just returned from Africa to court and mate and nest, and that the luminous early green of the meadows is due to the Mediterranean pattern of winter rain. We are no longer simply admiring a scene out of a medieval painting. We are experiencing the natural world that Francis knew.  

Outside Alviano

Holm oaks lift a canopy of dappled green over the cave where Francis slept near Sant’Illuminata. The cave is narrow, a small opening in a limestone bluff weathered into patterns like melted wax. Birds call and sing and trill above us; wild cyclamen bloom on the forest floor. Other pilgrims have left small offerings here: flowers, notes, a ring.

 The ancient hermitage of Sant’Illuminata is abandoned now. Its stone altar and cross stand crookedly in a meadow of grass so brilliantly green it appears translucent, dotted with deep purple orchids.

 We are a mile or so outside Alviano, one of the many central Italian villages that remember visits from Saint Francis eight centuries ago. People here say that Francis once asked a noisy flock of swallows to be quiet while he spoke. The birds obeyed instantly, astonishing the local people so much that they opened their hearts to what Francis had to say.

 After his sermons in the bustling piazza, Francis would walk through the forest to rest in this little cave. Places like this that are associated with him are revered to this day. Everything has been left much as he found it. Ancient trees still stand witness here, the flowers he spoke to are blooming.


But first, a bit about Saint Francis —

 Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved figures in history, but not everyone is sure of exactly who he was.

 Francis was born about 1182 in Assisi, a walled town on the slope of Monte Subasio in central Italy. It was the High Middle Ages, when the feudal attachment to the land was giving way to a more commercial way of life in which everything had a price. Loyalties of every kind were shifting as the old political, religious, and cultural hierarchies adapted to the power of money.

 Francis was born into a family made wealthy and influential because of the new way of life. He had a charming personality and a talent for commerce, but a good heart and a longing for romance. He sought happiness through carousing with his friends, dressing extravagantly, and even riding off to battle time and again, but he found nothing but an unfulfilled yearning within himself.

 He began to leave the safe walls of Assisi to climb Monte Subasio, where he would tuck himself into a narrow cave and search his soul for answers. Eventually, his prayers and reflections led him to a life devoted to the poor and to extreme personal poverty. He became an itinerant preacher who begged for food and had no home. But his joy was so contagious that thousands chose to follow him.

 Although there were struggles, frustrations, and disappointments in his radical way of life, Francis found renewal and strength in the natural world, for “the Creator cannot be seen but can be known through Creation.”

 Francis divided his time between preaching and prayer, staying out alone all night in the forests to commune with God, urging all creatures to join him in praising their Creator.

 As lifelong lovers of the natural world ourselves, Tom and I have always wondered about the companions of Saint Francis on his extraordinary journey. Who were the plants, the animals, and even the stones and the clouds that he loved as brothers and sisters?

We have come to Francis’ homeland to meet them ourselves.

Greetings, patient friends!

We have finally found a place where we can post some notes about our journey so far. We hadn’t realized that rural Italy would be so … well, rural! Although the internet is everywhere in homes, schools, and offices, it isn’t very accessible to travelers. Places that do offer a computer to visitors aren’t set up for strange alien devices, so posting pictures and bits of text hasn’t been possible until now.

 So let’s catch up!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

We will arrive in Italy on Friday, April 24 and will begin making regular posts then.