The forest is no fit place for a young Italian man to live.
I feel like I’m dancing around bear traps sometimes. Except for a pleasant four years in Chicago where I lived by a lake, every place I’ve called home has bordered on or been surrounded by a forest. My family’s property in Canton was, some years back, carved out of a copse of trees next to a cornfield. The trees were so congested that the few patches left are still sufficient to block out the sun at the right time of day. Wolves, languidly confident, sometimes venture out of the woods to stare. Huge deer munch on my father’s tomato plants despite the best efforts to fence them out. My father, my brother and I came across one mid-meal once, and fanned out in an attempt to capture the thing. What were we thinking, exactly? Even if one of us had something other than our bare hands, I’m certain that killing a deer in Massachusetts is illegal.
It bounded away at top speed before we got within fifty feet. Back into the forest.
That seems so long ago.
Quinctilius Varus took three legions from Rome to cement the Empire’s rule of Germania. This was two thousand years ago, give or take two months. Three legions is twenty five thousand men, all marching in red rectangles to civilize the barbarians.
Maybe a relative of mine marched with them. Unless I get a genetic test, I’ll never really know from where my family originated. As far back as I’ve cared to trace it, we’re Italian to the core, but my family turns out light as well as dark, unlike what you’d traditionally see. Back in college, my brother researched the history of Cassino, my family’s hometown, and found that it had been invaded by (conservatively) everybody. English, French, Germans, Moors, Vikings, and probably Carthaginians and the Aragonese for all I know. I never really got how people could be terribly proud of a cartoon version of their heritage (KISS ME, I’M ITALIAN) after I heard about that little revelation. Better to embrace your commonality with everyone, and make where your ancestors came from the least interesting thing about you.
If a distant DeMartino did make that march, it didn’t end well for him. Varus was betrayed. His men were slaughtered. This doesn’t happen all that much in modern times, because you have lines of communication and advanced forms of transportation, so people can get away, but odds are that every single one of Varus’ 25,000 legionaries died or were captured. Rome was devastated by the loss – the emperor Augustus (who found Rome in brick and left it in marble) was said to have gone temporarily mad, banging his head against the walls of his villa and crying, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
The battle took place in the forest of Teutoburg.
I live in a condominium surrounded by several miles of forest, deep enough so that the woods will come to me as I’m walking from my car. It’s not all bad. A family of foxes greeted me once as I pulled into my parking space. All of them fled except for one, the youngest. We stared one another down until its mother came back to fetch it.
Other times, the darkness seems to stretch and stretch. We used to hold bonfires in a sandpit (the origin of which we never discovered) in the middle of a forest near my friend Yaron’s house. Heading back from the campfire one night, many years ago, my flashlight went out just as I reached the edge of the woods. I kept walking, because I was sure that if I looked over my shoulder, I would have seen nothing at all.
I hope someday I’ll end up sipping wine on a hill, overlooking a lake. It’ll be a nice change from the constant sense of menace they exude. I don’t know that it has anything to do with Teutoburg, but almost exactly two millennia ago, someone whose chin or eyes or laugh may have resembled mine was in a forest too, his shield soaked and useless, the trees suddenly teeming with painted men who sacrificed their captives to a woods-god. For all I know, he may still be there.
Anyways, history hasn’t been kind to young Italian men in the forest.