Hidden Countryside

There are three varieties of kale in the garden

 No, they are not relicts of the kale craze of a few years ago. They are there because I learned of kale’s great utility from the Portuguese gardeners I worked with during the 1980s. I also worked with Polish and Italian gardeners as part of developing a program called the Hidden Countryside.

The name Hidden Countryside came from an eighty-year-old Italian American gardener named Annie. The area of the city I was working in was densely built-up and populated. There were no front yards or lawns, and if you didn’t know, you’d believe that this facade was an accurate portrayal of the community. Annie pointed out that all the houses were built directly on the street, but many had generous inner courtyards and yards that could not be seen as you drove by. Inside those hollow squares were the gardens of the residents. As Annie told me: “Luigi, from the outside, it looks very much like a city, but inside is a hidden countryside.”*

It all started with Julia Gelowtsky. 

She invited my lovely assistant and me to lunch. She was not so innocently acting as a matchmaker. Lunch was set on the back porch with a full view of the garden. During lunch, Julia explained that her philosophy of gardening was handed down from her parents, who had immigrated from Poland. Moving up to the second story porch, she pointed out the gardens of her Italian, Portuguese and Irish neighbors. Over the next weeks, the idea of a Hidden countryside program developed as the center of a community program at the library.

I spent several months on the initial research: the Lithuanian priest introduced me to sorrel, I was invited to make wine when the grapes were ripe in one gardener’s arbor. I was instructed in the lore of how to properly plant and care for tomatoes. It was worthwhile work, and what I had been trained to do as an Anthropologist.

My partners in the project, the community members, began to take ownership of the project and direct me into other areas of interest. One Lithuanian lady introduced me to the medicinal uses for rue. She was seconded by Julia on how the Poles used it, and by an Italian gentleman on its use in Italian folk medicine. I was now involved in a new interest in folk medicine and herbology.

I was invited to a local saints day festival. Obtaining a video camera and crew, we plunged into recording and presenting a half-hour documentary to the community.

Eventually, we took an expanded Hidden Countryside and the Saints to Washington

In 1988 we all went to the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife; Taking the gardens, wine making, and the Saints.

The Hidden Countryside taught me how to garden, look at plants as medicine, revere the Saints, and eventually gave me a wonderful wife.

All because Julia Gelowtsky wanted to be a matchmaker.

*Just for reference only elderly Italian ladies are permitted to call me Luigi!

3 Replies to “Hidden Countryside”

  1. Oh, I wish I was an old Italian lady…

    Lou, you honestly have lived one of the most adventurous lives I’ve ever heard/read about. I’m so glad that you are on here to share some of your wisdom and experiences with the rest of us.

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