"We are our dreams"

It was a symbolic gesture: to plant a tree is to plant a life.

They were both born on the same day – May 21st – but one year apart, and their first, shy kiss, when he was ten and she was nine, was to unite them for life.

Oreste and Anna lived in a small village in the province of Siena, a beautiful and bountiful land. She, known as “Annina” due to her minute build, was particularly skilled at preparing strawberry tree jam and drying fruit. Her dried figs were a real delicacy.

Oreste was a farmer, but in the autumn he turned into a woodcutter and charcoal burner. Finding the right wood to cut and burn was an art which he had been perfecting since he was a child. To make 100kg of coal one had to burn about seven times the weight in wood, and Oreste was very skilled at always obtaining the maximum yield. “Your coal is the best!” his customers said when they came from Siena to buy it. In those days, coal was required above all by blacksmiths for forging iron, given its superior caloric efficiency compared to wood. But it was hard work; it meant being away from home for weeks, often without sleeping for three nights in a row. In fact, the charcoal pit had to be carefully monitored, day and night, until all the wood had been made into charcoal.

It was a Sunday in late November 1935 when, in their early twenties, Oreste and Anna exchanged wedding rings and promised themselves to each other. The thought that a new life might be born from their union made them even happier and more hopeful for the future.

“A marriage without children is a tree without fruit…”, “Many arms, much bread”, “Children are the wealth of the poor”. These were just some of the many popular proverbs handed down from father to son.

 At that time, babies were usually conceived in the spring and born the following autumn. The reason was simple: weddings were celebrated in the winter months when there was less work to do in the fields, and the birth of a child was decided in the spring because only then did the farmer know whether that year’s harvest would bring in enough to provide for his family.

More than a year had passed since the wedding and the village rumours were becoming more and more insistent: how was it possible that two young people like Oreste and Anna had not yet given birth to a child? Something wasn’t right. The list of theories on how to get pregnant and related fertility rituals was endless: the flowering branch of a cherry tree fixed to the door on the last night of April would bring good luck; regularly eating bread made from nine different types of flour was considered an almost foolproof solution… But none of them seemed to work.

“I have to do something!” Oreste thought, and obviously he was not referring to his so-called conjugal duties. “I have to do something practical; I’m not one for prayers and supplications.

A few days later he had an idea and talked it over with Anna, who agreed with enthusiasm: “I will plant a cypress tree in the field every month, until we conceive a child.” It was an auspicious symbolic act which associated the fertility of the earth with that of the woman’s womb; to plant a tree was to plant a life.

Every first day of the month, the ritual was the same: Oreste would go to Duccio’s nursery and procure a cypress sapling in exchange for some simple country produce: a dozen eggs, a flask of wine, some pork lard for greasing leather shoes. There wasn’t much money around so bartering was an established custom.

That morning Oreste got up very early, before dawn, when the sky was just starting to turn pink. He was due to plant his 83rd cypress. He made the usual hole in the ground, placed a few stones in the bottom and inserted the root ball. At that precise moment the sun peeked over the horizon. An irresistible desire made him look up and stare at it. He remained there as if hypnotised and watched as the first rays of light appeared behind the hills. He had admired the same scene a thousand times, but that morning the sensation was different: intense, primordial. 

Nine months later Eliana was born, the first of four children, so called for the meaning of her name: “daughter of the sun”.

Four generations later, the spirit and tradition of Oreste and Anna still lives on in the family. It is customary for young couples to plant a cypress tree before dawn on their wedding day – an auspicious ritual, a gesture of recognition and gratitude to Oreste and Anna who never gave up on their dream and pursued it to the end.

Oreste e Anna photographed by Michele Cazzani