Sori, 2 April 2022
Deary me, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Initially, it was because I was flat on my back – not from Covid, as one might reasonably presume in this day and age, but from a whole series of pulled muscles in my back which all gave at the same time. Which then led me to spending a lot of time doing physiotherapy and having injections of ozone around my lower spine (sounds awful and was indeed quite awful). Then I was rushing around catching up on all the work I had had to put aside because of my back problems. The one silver lining to all this is that my time lying on the sofa allowed me to “file and folderize” (as we used to say decades ago in the office) the photos which my wife and I have taken these last few months.
One set of photos got me writing this post. They were taken in a town called Bellano on Lake Como. The place is known for three things:
A) Being built around the mouth of the Pioverna river which, tumbling down the steep hills behind the town, has, over hundreds of thousands of years, carved a deep, narrow, and tortuous gorge for itself, before flowing swiftly through the town itself.
B) Being the birthplace of a writer and minor poet by the name of Sigismondo Boldoni, 1597-1630.
C) Having played host from 1828 to 2004 to a large, handsomely built factory, the Cotonificio Cantoni, owned by what was once one of Italy’s largest textile manufacturers but is now sadly derelict.
All three things happen to be linked. The gorge is known as the Orrido di Bellano, literally the Horrid of Bellano. It owes its name to the poet Boldoni, who was fascinated by this gorge and once described it as “l’orrore di un’orrenda orrendezza”, literally “the horror of a horrendous horrendousness”, which he then boiled down to the simpler and catchier Orrido. Finally, and more prosaically, the factory was built in Bellano to take advantage of the kinetic energy in the Pioverna river’s racing waters to drive the looms (this, in the days before electricity was commonly available to do the same thing).
It was the Orrido that got me going on this post: not the gorge itself, but the name. To my modern ear, it sounds delightfully strange. For one thing, “horrid” is an adjective, not a noun. But it was, too, when Boldoni coined the gorge’s name, so it’s not as if there has been an “adjectivizing” of a noun in the intervening centuries. I think we can just put this down to – literally – poetic license. More interesting is the change that has taken place in the meaning of the adjective “horrid”. To me, “horrid” conjures up nasty little boys – the ones who, with an evil laugh, pull the cat’s tail or their little sister’s pigtails.
Or maybe some of the food that’s served in school cafeterias could be described as “horrid”.
But several centuries ago, “horrid” had an extra, quite different meaning. It was said of places which were uncultivated and wild, which inspired fear or anguish. We have good examples in the diaries of the English writer and diarist John Evelyn, who was born in 1620 (10 years before Boldoni died) and died in 1706.
His diaries are peppered with the word “horrid” used in this sense. For instance, on a long trip he made down through France and then on to Italy and back again, which he undertook in the late 1640s, he had this to say about various wild places he passed through (to help readers, I have bolded and italicized the “horrids” in question).
“I set forwards with some company towards Fontainebleau, a sumptuous Palace of the King’s, like ours at Hampton Court, about fourteen leagues from the city. By the way, we pass through a forest so prodigiously encompassed with hideous rocks of whitish hard stone, heaped one on another in mountainous heights, that I think the like is nowhere to be found more horrid and solitary. It abounds with stags, wolves, boars, and not long after a lynx, or ounce, was killed amongst them, which had devoured some passengers. On the summit of one of these gloomy precipices, intermingled with trees and shrubs, the stones hanging over, and menacing ruin, is built an hermitage. In these solitudes, rogues frequently lurk and do mischief (and for whom we were all well appointed with our carabines); but we arrived save in the evening at the village, where we lay at the Horne, going early next morning to the Palace.”
“We embarked in a felucca for Livorno, or Leghorn; but the sea running very high, we put in at Porto Venere, which we made with peril, between two narrow horrid rocks, against which the sea dashed with great velocity; but we were soon delivered into as great a calm and a most ample harbour, being in the Golfo di Spetia.”
“On the summit of this horrid rock (for so it is) is built a very strong fort, garrisoned, and somewhat beneath it is a small town; the provisions are drawn up with ropes and engines, the precipice being otherwise inaccessible. At one end of the town lie heaps of rocks so strangely broken off from the rugged mountain, as would affright one with their horror and menacing postures.”
“The next morning, I was furnished with an ass, … we passed through a reasonably pleasant but very narrow valley, till we came to Duomo [Domodossola], where we rested … Here, we exchanged our asses for mules, sure-footed on the hills and precipices, being accustomed to pass them. Hiring a guide, we were brought that night through very steep, craggy and dangerous passages to a village called Vedra, being the last of the King of Spain’s dominions in the Duchy of Milan. … The next morning, we mounted again through strange, horrid, and fearful crags and tracts, abounding in pine trees, and only inhabited by bears, wolves, and wild goats; nor could we anywhere see above a pistol-shot before us, the horizon being terminated with rocks and mountains, whose tops, covered with snow, seemed to touch the skies, and in many places pierced the clouds. Some of these vast mountains were but one entire stone, betwixt whose clefts now and then precipitated great cataracts of melted snow, and other waters, which made a terrible roaring, echoing from the rocks and cavities; and these waters in some places breaking in the fall, wet us as if we had passed through a mist, so as we could neither see nor hear one another, but, trusting to our honest mules, we jogged on our way …”
I’ve personally been along the same path that Evelyn took in two places, the forest of Fontainebleau and the Simplon Pass between Domodossola and Brig. Neither struck me as “horrid” in the old sense. For me, the forest of Fontainebleau was simply a welcome break from Paris’s hyperdense urbanism, while the Simplon Pass looked very pleasant as we swished along through it in the train.
The fact is, in the centuries which separate me and John Evelyn – actually, it’s only really the last two centuries, since that textile factory was built in Bellano – our species has come to so dominate Nature that what was once frightening to us puny humans has become merely intriguing to us Masters of the Universe. Where would I have to go now to feel a “horrid” Nature? Sometimes, when my wife and I are hiking high up on the mountains, with slopes falling away precipitously to our side and not a soul in sight, I feel Nature baring its teeth. Or some of the storms we experienced in Thailand – rain so dense you couldn’t see 20 metres in front of you, accompanied by wild lightning shows – filled me with awe tinged with fear at the power of Nature. Or there was that time my wife and I, with two friends, were sailing on a moonless night from Corsica to Italy. Suddenly, in all of that inky blackness, the boat seemed very frail and the sea very, very deep. If the sea had been rough, I would have been on my knees babbling prayers to the Virgin Mary as I often see sailors do in ex-votos hanging in Italy’s churches.
As I write this, my decades of working on environmental issues set the alarm bells ringing. We think we’ve become Masters of the Universe, or at least of our globe, but actually we haven’t. We think all our clever gizmos have tamed Nature, but it’s not so. We’ve merely estranged ourselves from Nature, we’ve taken our finger off its pulse. If we go on like this, Nature is going to turn on us and with one massive swipe of its paw will wipe us out. Isn’t Covid a warning sign of that? We encroached on Nature too much and the virus came roaring out of the forests.
It’s time for us to show Nature some awe and fear, time to give “horrid” back its original meaning.