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War (Earth Primer #1)

(Photo courtesy of Giacomo Sartori)

N.B. With this post, we inaugurate a weekly series penned by the brilliant Italian novelist and soil scientist Giacomo Sartori. We'll be posting a new column each Friday, so stay tuned!

Wars are as unfortunate for the earth as they are for people. The aerial footage from the battles in Ukraine showing fields studded with craters is sadly identical to that of the Adige Valley, in my region, due to a conflict more than one hundred years ago. The same visible pimples on the edges of farmed fields, perfectly round but differing in size, which depends on the force of the projectiles. The rockets and shells that don’t wound people—which, fortunately, are by far the majority—lascerate the earth, though this damage is not accounted for. We take no notice of the earth; in peace as in war, we consider it merely the substratum for our senseless actions. Actually, this is even more true in war, where farmland becomes terrain for advancing, lying in wait, and squaring off: battlefields. Fields sown with death. During truces, the earth is assigned the role of disposal site for corpses, recycling their putrefiable parts..

The Ukrainian trenches also remind one of the first global conflict. In these photos, I can identify the various layers of fertile soil, its life turned to the purposes of death. My unconscious brain supplies me with a precise taxonomic classification. In the Somme, in Picardy, where I stayed recently at a writers residence, the land is identical to that of Ukraine, fine soil carried by Northern winds after glaciation, though lighter in color at the surface, due to the drier, colder climate. After the apocalyptic bloodbath, returning farmers faced many problems, because the land was literally stuffed with unexploded ordinance, corpses, and scrap metal. Of the few local residents who survived, most refused to dig again into that land of death, so a great number of Belgians moved in—they had fewer demands and were less afraid of getting blown up.

The surly immigrants from Flanders dug into the task of unearthing all the shells, projectiles, and all the rest, ripping war meter by meter from the earth. For many decades after, despite the squadrons of bomb disposal units constantly present, accidents were very common, causing amputations and deaths. Even today, at a distance of more than a century, clusters of grenades and unexploded bombs still surface. Even today, enormous chasms in the fields still open up when ceilings collapse from the barracks tunnelled into the gysum below, under the trenches that divided up that earth carried down by the wind. Despite everything, the region is considered one of the jewels of the European agricultural industry. As the writer Martin Pollack might have commented (since, after hunting down mass graves all over Europe, he coined the term), this is “a very contaminated landscape.”

In Vietnam, the land is still poisoned by twenty-some million gallons of herbicide, and by the lethal dioxins that remain from it, that the Americans sprayed in order to flush out their enemies. At a distance of fifty years, these poisons circulate from the soil to fish farms and into people. On the battlefields, the herbicides were used to dry up both trees and men. After all, chlorine- and phophorus-derived insecticides were invented and perfected for military aims before moving towards use in agriculture; the chemical runway generally leads from battlefields to agricultural fields.

In the former Yugoslavia, at a distance of thirty years, many children and other inhabitants still get maimed or killed by unexploded mines that doze in the earth’s bedding, which also happens in many other countries on this Earth, with a capital “E.” War exterminates men and earth, even at a distance. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a truce born of second thoughts about the use of nuclear weapons. But they will be used again, and in all likelihood very soon, the earth is well aware of this, and it knows how long the effects will last. Once peace returns, the surviving human beings will return to life as usual, turning the page and forgetting as quickly as possible— with merry pigheadedness, as the psychoanalysis James Hillman has shown us. The earth does not forget.

Read Part 2 Here.

Giacomo Sartori is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by Jim Hicks



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