Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews     entry March 2013

Of Trees, Dolomites, Flights and the Rites of May

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,

The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear,
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
murmering a wizard song for thee...

Thus begins the poem, The Two Trees, by William Butler Yeats. It is a lovely part of a vast body of literature in many languages that bespeaks the respect and reverence we have for trees. They have enormous cultural importance around the world; they are magic, mystical, life-giving (and –taking) and even represent in the well-known world-tree mythologies a bridge connecting the earth with the worlds below and the heavens above. One of the most delightful manifestations of the "sacred tree" in Italy takes place about 160 km (100 miles SE of Naples in the mountains of the Regional Nature Park of Gallipoli Cognato — the Small Lucanian Dolomites in the Basilicata region of Italy.

The term Lucania is the traditional name for the area that corresponds approximately to the modern Italian region of Basilicata. The mountains are called the Small Dolomites because of their geological similarity to the Dolomites, the mountain range in northeastern Italy. The peaks of the small Dolomites of Lucania  are generally over 1000 meters (3000 feet), reaching a high point of 1455 meters (4500 feet) at Mt. Caperrino. The park, itself, was founded in 1997 and covers an area of about 270 sq. km (105 sq. miles) in parts of both provinces that make up the Basilicata region —Potenza and Matera (named for the two largest towns in the region). The administration of the park is housed in the town of Accettura. The area is of great scenic beauty and variety of flora and fauna. It is a heavily wooded area dotted with limestone outcroppings, stone giants surfacing from a sea of green to have a look around. The park area also contains, besides Accettura, the towns of Pietrapertosa, Castelmezzano, Oliveto Lucano, Castelsaraceno, Rotonda, Terranova di Polino, and Viggianello, ranging in population from around 600 to 2000 inhabitants. They are ensconced delicately (I hate to say precariously!) on hillsides in the fashion of Pietrapertosa (photo, above right).

Besides its great natural beauty, the area also offers a bit of zany adventure in the form of the Volo dell'Angelo (Angel's Flight)
, a zip-line (alias aerial runway, flying fox, etc.). A steel cable connects two of these towns, Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, located on different hillsides about 8 km (5 miles) apart. They pop a crash helmet on your head and strap you horizontally into a harness connected to the cable; you can then fly from one town to the other at speeds of up to 100 kph (60 mph) at an altitude of 500 meters. Those who have lived to tell...have done it say that it is, indeed, fine adventure!  

All of the towns mentioned above, plus Alessandria del Carretto, near the town of Cosenza (in the adjacent region of Calabria), celebrate through tree rituals the return of spring and fertility. These are the "Rites of May," rituals that reach back many thousands of years. The ritual in Accettura may serve as a typical example. It is generally held in mid-to-late May and involves a "marriage of the trees"(!), specifically an oak tree (the male) and a holly tree (the female). This is not just an easy, symbolic declaration of "I now pronounce you Oak and Holly but entails the very physical cutting down of the trees and dragging them by oxen into town and raising them into prominence in the town square where they are bound together by ropes. There is, as is to be expected, a great deal of cultural borrowing (termed "syncretism" by anthropologists) in order to avoid the sin of "tree worship" (termed "dendrolatry"); that is to say that the rites are now dedicated to the local patron saints, and the raising of the trees is part of a Christian religious procession. The rites generally take place in April or May, but some of them may be held very late—even in September, in which case they are better viewed as less of a celebration of spring rejuvenation and fertility and more as a celebration of the harvest and the change of seasons.

The park administration maintains a museum of "tree cults" in the town of Accettura. The listed phone number in Accettura for the Regional Nature Park of Gallipoli Cognato — Small Lucanian Dolomites is 0835/675015. They have an email address: I usually just pop into these places unannounced. If that's what you want to do, find Potenza and then ask. If you get lost —and you will— look up and watch for flying tourists

[For an interesting example of a symbolic "Tree of Life," click here.]

photo credits -
top: The May tree raising in Accettura, by Biagio Labbate; middle: Angel's Flight, by
bottom, Pietrapertosa, by Vito G.

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