There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Italian peninsula is synonymous with beauty. One could argue that everything in the bel paese is truly bellissimo. From its countless masterpieces housed in museums, churches and even city halls throughout the country; its cuisine and wine that has conquered the world; from the Alps to the turquoise seas of Sicily; from its people so passionate and full of life- there truly isn’t another place quite like it on earth. It has won every contest from the world’s favorite travel destination to the most popular food on earth.
But this particular contest is quite unique and maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on Italian beauty. Its trees. Yes, its magnificent trees. It stands to reason that a culture which appreciates beauty in every facet of life would also honor it in nature. The Italian organization, the Giant Trees Foundation, whose slogan is: “At the roots of the world there was a tree, and only trees can save us!” is sponsoring the contest.
There are four incredible “beings” that are in the running for the Italian Tree of the Year 2019. The winner will go on to the European Tree of the Year 2020 final. Each candidate, in its astuteness earned over centuries, has witnessed the passing of emperors, foreign invaders, the dropping of bombs, and children and lovers taking shelter under its limbs. Each could dictate its own prize-winning novel if only it could speak.
Gentle Giant Number One- the “Oak of Fossalta”
The first candidate takes us to northern Italy in Portogruaro (near Venice). Referred to by the locals as “la vecja” (the old one) this majestic oak is estimated to be around 600 years old. As the Serenissima Republic of Venice was reaching its height of power, “la vecja” was a mere sapling. It is sixteen meters tall and its circumference is nine meters round. Amazingly, it is hollow inside and this fragile giant remains standing despite the massive amount of weight it must bear. One of its curators describes it so beautifully and tenderly on his blog.
“It is like a sprightly little grandmother, lively with intellect and attentive eyes, who speaks to you of past worlds and ancient wisdom. With her hands, wrinkled and gentle, she prepares you coffee, but you see from afar that it is hard work to keep herself upright on her now tired legs and delicate bones. So my old oak tree welcomes me in her branches, speaking to me and whispering to me.
And every time I see her, like an old aunt of mine, she reminds me, sadly, but also serenely, of a life lived with extreme dignity and full of love and important encounters, as she approaches the end of her days. You look at her, the old woman, and try to help her, without invading too much of her intimacy and her susceptibility. But you never know, whenever you leave her, if it will be the last time you see her.”
Gentle Giant Number Two- “The Oak of Checche”
Our second gentle giant takes us to the Siena province in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia– one of the most photographed landscapes on earth. The “Checche” Oak has undoubtedly been the subject of thousands of snapshots and paintings over its estimated 350 year life. It rises twenty meters into the Tuscan sky and its limbs stretch outwards of over twenty-five meters. Its name derives from the magpies that are known to gather under its massive shade. “Checche” did not always stand alone, but was once part of an oak forest. Its imposing size allowed it to survive the cut. It has had the honor of being recognized as the first “green” monument in Italy. Recently struck by lightning and having lost a massive branch, its curator describes the intervention lovingly:
“It’ll just be just you and me- the big oak and me- and we can talk to each other without all this chaos.
It’s 43 degrees Celsius when I enter the giant’s arms. She speaks softly, aching and wounded. I look around at the lightning damage, old wounds, and new ones. Her 350 years lived out with dignity and serenity. She tells me, ‘I’m tired, so tired,’
“Me too, baby. I’m very sorry, I don’t think I can help you,”
‘I know. But sometimes you just need company,’ she says. When I climb down, I cry. I turn off my phone. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I get on my moped and look for a pool of water where I can disappear.”
Gentle Giant Number Three- “The Holm Oak of Etna”
Yes, that’s right. Etna. As in, the volcano. If you’re wondering how a tree can survive for hundreds of years on the slopes of an active volcano, the simple answer is- tenacity. 700 years old, twenty meters tall and five meters in circumference, this colossal being is located within Etna Park in Sicily. Its crown expands to an incredible forty meters towering over the less fortunate trees in the lava flow’s path. It is said to have the longest limbs of any tree on the entire planet. Some say it was favored by the gods being born on an elevated hill and just slightly away from the scalding currents that would have otherwise singed it long ago.
“Like a giant warrior who comes out of the smoke of battle or a deadly mythological monster that shakes a thousand hands. The other trees around are insignificant and defenseless extras. Under its green dome only the soft bed of billions of leaves.” (as described on gianttrees.org)
It warrants our respect for the life it has lived. Almost as you would travel deep into the forest to visit a wise wizard, you’ll be able to pay your respects to this tree within Etna Park on the Sentiero Ilice di Carrinu. The almost four kilometer hike is described as “easy” on the park’s official website.
Gentle Giant Number Four- “The Vallonea Oak of Tricase”
Salento is a region within the region of Puglia in the heel of Italy’s boot. It is home to some of the oldest olive trees in the world, but honestly, one may not think of it as having oaks as well. The Vallonea Oak of Tricase is the oldest tree in Salento. Estimated to be between 700 and 900 years old, its 700 square meters of very thick foliage are supported by its massive trunk which is over four meters in circumference.
Thankfully, this tree is a candidate to become a UNESCO national heritage site. Currently, it is winning by popular vote on the gianttrees.org website. You see, the Salentini are extremely proud of all aspects of their heritage.
The importance of this tree is further evidence of what an ingenious population can do with what nature has handed them. A natural tannin can be produced from its acorns and was used to tan leather for the local economy. Legend also has it that Frederick II found shelter under its massive crown during his visit to Barletta.
My native California is home to the Giant Sequoias and Giant Redwoods, it also happens to have three of the ten oldest trees on the planet (two bristle cone pines approximately 5,000 years old and a Palmer’s Oak estimated to be 13,000 years old). They’re obviously not in the contest for European Tree of the Year 2020, so I’ll be rooting for one of the four Italian majesties mentioned above and hoping that all four of them, regardless of the contest outcome, can continue to prosper for many years to come.
Visit the gianttrees.org official website to cast your vote until November 21, 2019 (international day of the tree) and stay tuned for the results in a future article!
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