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Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves (An American Naturalist …

Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves (An American Naturalist in Italy) by Gary Paul Nabhan

Colin Fletcher, one of the great walkers of the 20th century (The Man Who Walked Through Time and The Complete Walker) advised his readers to find something to think about as you walk. Take up geology or botany, birds or wildflowers. You spend a lot of time on the trail, he observed, why not have something to think about!

Well, here are the “trail thoughts” if you will of Gary Paul Nabhan as he embarks on a personal pilgrimage in Italy walking the Franciscan Way from near Florence to Assisi, home of St. Francis.

Most of us love to walk or pedal our bicycles in Italy in order to enjoy one of the western world’s most fascinating rural landscapes. Covered in grape vines, olive groves, and hilltop villages, travelers in Italy rarely tire of these classic vistas. But have you ever thought what Italy might be like without tomatoes on pasta, without sunflower fields in Tuscany, corn flour polenta in Veneto, or prickly pear cactus in Sicily? Gary Nabhan thought this and more on his walk through Tuscany and Umbria.

Gary Paul Nabhan is one interesting guy. MacArthur Fellow (1990-95), naturalist, ethnobotanist, former Director of Science at the Sonoran-Desert Museum near Tuscon, and, if I’m up to date, now director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. His latest book is Coming Home to Eat: The Sensual Pleasures and Global Politics of Local Food (W.W. Norton and Co., 2001). But for travelers to Italy you’ll want to read Songbirds.

So often we are reminded of Columbus’ impact on the New World. Yet Nabhan turns the tables and writes about the profound impact that Columbus’ voyages had on rural landscapes in Europe. You’ll learn which crops explorers like Columbus brought back to Italy and Europe. Even better, you’ll learn about the impact some of these crops had on the local agriculture, diets, and health of Europeans (like the impact polenta had in northeast Italy)!

Nabhan recounts the amusing story of how he argued with an Italian (actually, Sicilian) geographer about the real origin of the prickly pear cactus. Clearly from Sicily, recounted the Sicilian, while Nabhan pointed out the plant’s true origins in northern Mexico. And how about pasta e fagioli, the famous Italian bean soup? As American as they come, points out Nabhan, along with tomatoes, sunflowers, and more.

This book transports you to the Italian countryside, back to America, then back to Italy. Read it before you go and again after you get back! You’ll look at the rural world from a different perspective.