Pills Of Italian Daily Life: The Criteria Of The Poplar

How a man built a sustainable house with a poplar tree in the yard and did so following criteria that shape construction even today.

The Poplar

Italians and the surrounding landscape: a matter of love and poplar trees.

In this period of quarantine, everyone is very much envying those who have a yard or live in the countryside. The spring from behind a window looks even more beautiful.

Outside is an important place for every Italian. Since the climate allows us, a big chunk of our social life happens directly under the sky: on outside tables, in the squares, or in our backyards.

To tell you how much not having a space to stay outside bothers an Italian, I want to tell you the story of my great grandpa, “Ward.”

Ward was his nickname. His clan were “the Wards.” Ward had 7 children, a lot of cows, a lot of land, an intelligent wife, a lot of daughters in law, and an army of grandchildren. 

He was a happy man. Lucky almost. Though, there was something missing in his life. He had everything, but missed a fresh, shady place to enjoy the breeze during lazy summer evenings, put a table and chair and eat a few slices of salami washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. He would have loved to put a long table and eat outside with an army of children and collaborators during the harvest season. He did not have a porch, so the problem of where to install that shady place and where to enjoy the sun and the “fresco” was complicated.

Why complicated? Well, houses at the time were built with criteria. But which criteria, as the builders were absolutely illiterate?

Do not be deceived by new concepts of sustainable building. That poor farmer, who centuries ago built the house where my father was born, already built it to be durable and sustainable. It is worth noting that the house is still there: not a single part of the roof has crumbled. The external plaster has a few cracks here and there, but nothing dramatic.

How did he manage to build a house in the 18th century according to the most modern concept of building? 

Well, necessity is the mother of invention.

Should we use bricks? But we have the soil. Tiles? soil again! Scaffolding? Use wood. What about reducing energy consumption? Here is what kind of genius is required: there was no electricity and no centralized heating… how can you guarantee a lit up and warm house? Easy peasy.

You just put up a stick and then observe it on a sunny day at regular intervals. 

Why? Because if you build the house on the east-west axis — so that that line cuts exactly the diagonal of the square designed by the house — you grant yourself full insulation and with specular windows on each side you have natural light flooding the whole house for the whole day.

During the winter you need more heating. So, you build yourself a stove with an integrated tank for hot water and you place that in the middle of the house, while the fireplace has to be on the northern side. 

Why? The fire of the stove can be used for cooking, heating and to keep water in the tank boiling hot. The fireplace on the northern side favors the heating of the coldest part of the house.

Then, you make sure to have thick walls made of rocks so that the house is well insulated: warm in the winter and cool in the summer. 

What about storage? You have the attic which is highly ventilated to store fruit and seeds. You have the cellar, where you can leave your prosciutto and salami to dry, and your wine to rest.

That genius of my family that lived 200 years ago even built the house next to a substantial stream. Having that stream meant there was a continuous supply of water to keep the soil moist for crops, a bit of fresh water fish, and beds of reeds to make baskets, fit chairs, and provide light material to be mixed with mortar to sustain the tiles of the roof and seal the ceilings.

Now, you see that it is important to decide where to place a tree next to the house. It cannot be just a random decision. Planting a tree cannot mess with the overall criteria. A tree planted in the wrong place could jeopardize the whole equilibrium.

The tree cannot be too far away from the house, but cannot be on the east-west axis, it cannot not occupy the square in front of the house that had to be clear of everything as to not interfere with the movements of the cows, machinery, and the operations of separating the grain from chaff. And of course, the tree could not be on the northern side, as it would be mostly in a shady, cooler place, defying its purpose.

Ward decided that the best place was on the southern side of the house. He found the spot, but the issue was not solved.

What to plant? A pine? Holm oak? An oak? A plane tree? Nope. Ward had a poetic soul and a solid intelligence of the hidden criteria which informed the construction of his house. He wanted a poplar. Poplars are good at reinforcing the banks of the rivers with their roots and a poplar is not just “a tree.” Poplars have a voice. Their wood is soft and flexible, so the branches move with the lightest breeze, and the sound of the leaves keep you company, especially if you want to enjoy a bit of quality solitude, where you are alone, but not lonely.

The soil was prepared meticulously, with criteria.

He shoveled for three days to prepare the space for the roots, one meter deep of shoveling to reach the most nourishing layer of the soil. Then a bit of a reinforcement, a bit of manure, to give an extra boost to the life that was supposed to flourish there. A bit of water at the end, to adjust the moisture. 

Ward went to his brother. He asked him for one of his younger poplars. The tree was as tall as a child, with little and fresh leaves. Ward took the tree, caressed the leaves lightly, shook his brother’s hand and brought it home between his arms. He arrived at the spot next to the stream, unbounded the roots enclosed in the sack. One last look at the prepared soil, and then the tree was positioned. The gaps were covered. The tree was watered. The sun was beautiful that day. Another child. Ward smiled.

He would know for sure only very much later in his life if the promise embedded in the poplar — the shade for lunches and quiet spot for solitary evenings — would have been kept. He was 30 on that day.

The poplar is now 90 years old and it is 20 meters tall: it kept its promise. Ward could not have known this, but he nurtured it anyway, for the hope he had that not only all “the Wards” to come would have a place to enjoy lunch in the shade, but also to be remembered that the past looks at us: according to the same criteria, set by the loving gaze that used to be embedded in all things. The same gaze that Ward had when he laid his eyes on the poplar on that sunny day in the spring of 1930.

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