The tree of contention
The day grandma got sick I was still a child. The priest came round and they spoke alone in her bedroom. It was a difficult discussion. At some point we heard her shout and when we burst into the room she said: “Nobody is to touch that tree. The priest asked me to cut it down but I never will!”. This is one of the most vivid childhood memories I have. The tree had been planted just before the turn of the 20th century, in the autumn, by my mother aged twenty. It had been placed at the far corner of our garden to trace the limits of our property, as people used to do in those days. It grew straight and tall and that’s when the problems with our parish started.
In the beginning it was only a matter of small rows due to the leaves falling right at the church entrance creating a yellowish mass: it was beautiful to look at but for some it was clearly a nuisance. In order to avoid discontent, I used to be sent to sweep it up with the help of other children. Then its crown grew so broad then it darkened the kitchen of the parish. This marked the start of a love-hate relationship between Father Schierano and our tree. He was a man of great intelligence and a friend of the family. In the summer the tree was greatly appreciated as it blossomed heavily and fed the bees with its flowers. As children we’d be encouraged by our parents to suck the honeycomb, it was a huge celebration. At other times, the tree turned out to be a hassle: the memory of grandma shouting at Father Schierano dates back to one of those times. Other ministers came along and their relationships with our tree had their ups and downs.
Piero Gagliardi followed Fr. Schierano. Gagliardi was a young priest who loved playing with the children. Thus the tree enjoyed a little break from rows. Except when we had to have electricity and phone cables placed along its path. With the current minister, Fr. Giuseppe Torta, things started on the wrong foot. At the beginning he revealed himself to be extremely hostile towards the tree and some fighting did take place… With my grandma gone, it was my dad’s turn to defend it. He fought very hard, he was a soldier, so battling was in his blood. He deeply loved trees. When he was young he had studied Natural Sciences and he brought us back a herbarium from China. He always followed it with great care. He become the tree’s most precious ally and honest protector. Meanwhile though, the tree kept growing taller and making the priest’s house darker and darker. In the end, out of mere exasperation, Fr. Torta moved the kitchen to the other side of the building where he could finally enjoy the benefits of the morning sunshine. Things turned out for the better.
Nowadays this tree doesn’t appear to be a source of separation for the village anymore. On the contrary, it unified it as it ended up becoming its symbol. I wish it could be safeguarded by some kind of conservation policy, as men are so good at creating snares. When I close my eyes, the first thing I see when I think about my holidays spent in Villa is our tree. It always reminded me of home and peacefulness. When I was young I always used to read in the shade of its branches. And despite having lived in Rome and abroad, I always strived to spend the hottest months of summer in its shade. It rustled in the tramontana wind as if to warn me that the cold months were on their way.
I wish to thank our tree for its presence and for giving me the sense of escape I inherited in my childhood. Then I had the illusion that the country fields, with their open space and absolute freedom, would lay just beyond its branches. I could not see the church from my window. Its awe fills me with pride: throughout time it has fought a competition with the church and in the end it has reached its same height, growing to the same height as the church’s roof, creating its own vital space. It managed to reach the sky and therefore taught me how to dream.
When I was a child, the houses in the village were linked by underground tunnels which were subsequently closed down. I always dreamt of the roots of our tree penetrating those silent, secret passages. There have been moments when I feared for it, especially when it had to suffer a few mutilations due to badly-carried out trimmings. I fear for our tree as a mother fears for her son. But it has always managed to spring back up. During all the years I have been around it, has always won its battles. I like to think that it will always be so.
(extract by Rosa Cristina Salza from La Casa sull’albero edited by Laura Nosenzo, Edizioni Impressioni Grafiche, 2003)
Rosa Cristina Salza (Casale Monferrato 16-7-1919) aka Titti is the widow of the ambassador Giovanni Stefano Rocchi. They lived in Rome, Geneva and Bogotà.
Rosa had a happy childhood. She spent her summer holidays at her grandparents’ house in Villa San Secondo. Her grandmother taught her to trim rose plants and this, along with her father’s love of botany, helped her develop a strong passion for trees and flowers. In their garden, where azaroles bore small red apples, some centuries-old kaki plants still exist. They were among the first ones to appear in the region.
She is passionate about music and literature and she likes giving her loved ones the book: L’uomo che piantava gli alberi (The man who planted trees) by Jean Giono.
Rosa Cristina Salza’s tree stands out on the top of the hill in Villa San Secondo (15 km from Asti), in front of the parish church of Saint Matthew and Saint Secondo. This church is considered to be one of the finest in the Monferrato area. The tree is clearly visible from the valley thanks to its own majesty