Hilary White

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Of lonely mountain shepherds and Italy’s looming demographic winter

Italy’s illness is hidden, but far advanced already and potentially deadly.
Thu Dec 18, 2014 - 10:49 am EST

Something that can be missed by the casual tourist coming to Italy to see the glories of Florence’s museums or Rome’s churches, is that the country is in trouble, and it’s not the kind of trouble that is immediately evident. Italy’s illness is hidden, but far advanced already and potentially deadly.

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If you were to venture outside the usual tourist cities, with their crowds and bustle and (sometimes) charming chaos, you will see something, if you know where to look that will give you pause to worry. Italy’s rural areas are dying, the lights on many of those gorgeous, picturesque medieval hill towns, are going out, one by one, like candles pinched out by an invisible hand.

Close to where I live, high in the mysterious Sibelline mountains, there is an almost magical place that has caught the imaginations of visitors for thousands of years. A long grassy plain, 1,500 m above sea level, where the local people have farmed sheep since long before the Roman empire. I took a trip up there earlier this month as part of a small group of hikers guided by an experienced mountain trekker, who was full of interesting information about the local history.

At first glance, as you round one of the hairpin turns on the mountain road leading up to this place, you think that you are above the tree line. But this is an artificial condition: the trees were cut down 5,000 years ago to make room for pasture. The local economy, the survival of the local people, has been dependent upon sheep farming from time out of mind here. And sure enough, the large flocks, and the lively, intelligent dogs who watch them, are one of the few living things you meet on a chilly, foggy, sleety morning in early December.

The Piano Grande, the Great Plain, is a huge bowl, ringed closely around with some of the tallest mountains in the Appenine ridge that forms the spine of Italy. Standing on the floor of the bowl, one looks almost straight up to see the snow-covered top of Monte Vittorio, the tallest mountain in the area. On the north slope of the side of the bowl is a hill that sports a little town or village, like a crenellated conical hat, called Castelluccio, built in the 13th century, but with much more ancient roots.  

Looking out at that famous but lonely place as we approached, I was astonished to be told that the town is one of Italy’s many abandoned medieval villages. A total of four very elderly people live there year round and are native inhabitants. For the winter, the only people who live in this valley are these hold-outs and the shepherds. The touristy places that sell the famous local sausage and truffle products, and two restaurants, are only open on weekends at this time of year, staffed by people who drive up from Norcia.

The road we were taking up from Norcia was new, and until it was completed in 1961, the only way into the area was on foot up an ancient and extremely steep trail that had been built so long ago there were no records. The year the road opened, there were about 800 people living in Castelluccio, and the families were young. People saw no reason not to have 10 or 12 children.

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Before the new road, it was close to impossible to get there in the winter and the people of Castelluccio had no electricity or running water: “Like living in the middle ages.”

This Sunday, there was only one chimney showing a sign of life. All the little stone houses, some of them decked with satellite dishes, are occupied only in the summer months, with most of the rooms rented out to tourists. People flock to the Piano Grande in the spring to see the famous display of “fioratura,” the annual “Bloom” of the wildflowers, that light up the whole valley in waves of red poppies, yellow canola and blue and purple cornflowers. The place is popular with hikers, mountain trekkers, parasailers, hang gliders and other outdoorsy types. But its true inhabitants are now mainly sheep and a few semi-wild horses, the handful of people who care for them, and the wolves that hunt them.

We parked in the piazza in the lower section of the village and met our group, and soon set off on the rocky trail down one side of the hill of the town, across the bowl and up the lower slopes opposite. We walked a total of 12.5 km, and went up and back down about 400 m that day, in about five hours. On the way the weather shifted constantly from heavy overcast with lots of drifting fog, out of which the flocks of sheep burst unexpectedly, to bright sunshine, to rain, to snow. It was certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I will go again as soon as I can, but the trip also left me with a feeling of foreboding.

My guide said that, although the local economy is still dependent upon sheep, as it has been for thousands of years, there are no more Italian shepherds. All the people still willing to do this very hard and lonely work, are Albanian and Montenegran immigrants, usually young men who come to Italy and do the job for the summer, living in little caravans in the high mountain meadows. They are paid only about 400 or 500 Euros for a summer's worth of loneliness and hard, physical labor, and then go home to their families in these almost forgotten countries. They have no other work and the family is often entirely dependent on this pittance.

He said, simply, that Italians no longer are willing to do such work, and for so little pay. The sheep owners will come up to the pasture once a day and feed and milk the sheep, and that is all the contact these young men have with other people. Except for the hikers. He knows only one Italian shepherd, who works near Cascia, the home town of Santa Rita, about 15 minutes drive from here. “He’s a very lively and happy man. Very fun to talk to. But he is the last.”

I was told the story of a war, in the 16th century, between Castellucio, which was under the local jurisdiction of Norcia, and the neighbouring town of Visso, over the rights to use about half the plain as sheep pasture. Hundreds were killed, and the border between the regions was set by the outcome of a bloody battle.

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We saw the place, a little hill looking over the plain, called since the war the Piano Perduto, the “Lost Plain,” where a small white painted stone marks the border that was decided that day in 1522. On one side, in red, it says “Visso” and the other says “Norcia,” and the trail that runs over the top of that little rise is to this day the border between the Marche and Perugia regions.

I remarked how shocking it seems to us modern people that hundreds of men would give their lives in an argument over sheep pasture. But I was reminded that in those times, it meant life or death, the sheep were and are the key to survival in a hard place.

Indeed, that was a place marked by death. On the second half of our walk, we crossed that Lost Plain, that even now is filled every summer with sheep and horses. In winter it is littered with the bleached bones of both of these, caught by the wolves that come down hungry from the heights. When we wander from our modern comfort zones, with our “first world problems,” the hard realities of life and death are still there, waiting for us to notice.

At the end of our long walk, we sat in the restaurant in that empty town, having a hot chocolate and chatting about the next trip, and I was tempted to ask my companions how many children they had. I thought there would not be many. And I’m one to talk. At one point, after being told so many things related to the population decline in the local area, I said that I was not surprised, that this is a lot of what I write about. I said the total fertility rate in Italy had been well below replacement-level for 40 or 50 years. The response was a bit of awkward silence, followed by a polite change of subject, for which I was grateful. But I did wonder how long it would be before these nice, well-educated and intelligent Italians could no longer avoid the question.

It was not the first time I’ve come face to face with what is happening here below the shiny touristy surface. A few years ago, I went to visit a small monastery in the region of Molise, south of Rome and also in the midst of fantastic mountains. It too had a long windy road from the main town, up and down valleys, and past half a dozen of these little ancient hill towns. It makes me realize now that most of them were probably abandoned too. The human population of Molise has been dropping for a long time, and it is possible to buy whole medieval villages there, empty for decades.

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When I got to that monastery, a revival of one of the most ancient houses of the Benedictine order, I got my first hint. I was told to be careful to stay indoors after dark, not to take walks outside the monastery’s grounds. There were a lot of wolves around these days, you see. That monastery, re-occupied after a break of several centuries by a small group of American nuns from Connecticut, had once kept sheep, but after about ten years they gave it up and sold the flock. Molise is now so empty of humans that the wolf population has surged, and they were losing sheep in the middle of the day to these normally shy and nocturnal hunters. 

I live down the mountain from Castelluccia, in Norcia, which has a pretty steady population of about 4,000 people, and a strong local agricultural economy. But even here the icy drafts of demographic winter are starting to creep down from the mountains. A few weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance here, a bishop, who had come up to visit from Rome to pray a bit and have a little retreat after the emotional turmoil of the Synod.

We chatted in the Piazza for a few minutes, and he asked me what had prompted me to come live up here. Well, aside from the peace and quiet and a cooler climate, I said, it was because the rents are so low. I can live in a nice place here for about a third of what it cost me down on the coast.

“Oh?” he said, “Why are the rents so much lower here?”

“Mostly because of the population decline. It’s starting to really affect the land values in most of Italy, outside the big cities.”

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He shook his head and said, “It’s amazing isn’t it? With a demographic disaster happening right here in Italy, and in two weeks at the Synod, not one mention of it.”

“Not even in the Aula when the press wasn’t watching?” I asked, surprised.

He shook his head, “It might have got a mention once or twice, but apart from that, no.”

I am asked a lot what is going to happen, and it is difficult because the answer, simply, is that I don’t know. I don’t know if the disaster will ultimately be a good thing, a slap that wakes people out of their comfortable stupor, and shocks them back to their senses. Hardship is often good for the soul, but no one sane would ever wish it on another person. Will Italy revive? Will Europe step back from the edge? Will the Church restore herself in time to help?

I don’t know. But I know that it’s possible, and I know that the only way is to start, right here and now. I can’t have children of my own, and I’m not married anyway. But I know it’s possible to help in other ways. To tell people the truth, as clearly and fearlessly as we can.

It’s why I work for LifeSiteNews, and why we are so grateful for the help and support of our readers.  


  demographic winter, europe, italy

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