Cinghiale. Wild boars. Tuscany is known for them, and in the fall, it’s impossible not to see wild boar ragu across restaurant menus throughout the region. It’s a dish I love, rich with the earthy, gamey meat of the fresh pig.
What I do not love is seeing the cinghiale in the flesh. Up close. Particularly in the middle of hunting season.
The first time I saw a boar in the wild, it was from a distance in late September. Looking down on the valley below, I saw a lone dark spot moving through the fields about a half a mile away. “That’s a cinghiale, pointed out Andrea, my host. “First of the season. We’ll be seeing more soon.”
I was spending the fall in the Val d’Orcia, a beautiful yet remote valley tucked away in the southeastern corner of Tuscany, near the borders of neighboring Umbria and Lazio. The hillsides are sparsely populated, given over to either sheep or hay; deer, pheasant, boar and other animals roam freely, grazing as they move between water sources. Walking in the evening just before sunset had quickly become a favorite pastime. The light at that time of day is rich and golden, before it cools to the dusky grays, blues and pinks of twilight. Alone on the hillsides, the pheasant would wander, the deer grazing nearby until a misstep on a pebble would send them prancing away. After years of the sounds of New York — jackhammers on concrete, screeching subways, car horns at all hours — I relished the quiet rustling of the dead leaves in the forest as unseen creatures moved about me.
Twilight is also when the boar come out. And as we moved into October, they came out in ever increasing numbers, nosing in the woods for acorns, rubbing their coarse-haired bodies against the trees. But still, they were at a distance, moving now in groups across the plain beneath our house, leaving their traces for discovery on the next day’s walk. Near the lake, I could see raw patches of bark worn thin. I did not think much about them.
One day I was following one of the pathways descending into the valley through a dense forest. It was a bit later than usual, and I was moving quickly down the hillside. Without warning, two boar burst out from beside me, cutting across my path within feet of me at great speed. I stopped in my tracks as they veered wildly from left to right, crossing each other as they ran from whatever spooked them. Had they come nearer, I would have been trampled. I returned to the house, with eyes as wide as saucers, trembling. “What happened?” A glass of wine was thrust into my hand to calm my nerves after I explained, “unless you’d prefer vodka?”
From that time on, I heard the cinghiale everywhere. The rustling sounds I’d found so pleasant before now struck terror into my heart, sending me scurrying back to the house. I began to take my walks earlier in the day, thinking to avoid them, but then I’d see one grazing ahead of me and turn another direction, only to see several more running up the hill ahead of me, disappearing around the corner. I kept trying new paths, smugly satisfied when I passed through without a sighting.
I found an open trail that passed by a large fig tree and returned to it for several days, plucking the sweet fruit from the trees as I passed. I returned a few days later, wandering past the tree and thinking about the fruit I’d gather when I walked by it on the way back. Looking ahead of me, the hulking form of a slow moving older boar suddenly appeared in my path, calming crossing from one side of the forest to the other. My own calm was shattered as I swiftly turned on my heel and scurried back to my car, praying its thin shell would protect me if the boar decided to come back my way. In the end, it paid me no attention, but I did not return for any more figs.
Outside my window one night as I was falling asleep, I heard the yelp of a fox following by a violent chorus of grunting boar. The sound swelled, filling up the silent night air, and I was appalled by the violence of it. I could not see through the darkness to know what was happening, but finally, the sound of the screaming fox died away. My daily walks dwindled after that.
I was less afraid when I was not alone. After all, we were staying on the land owned by my host, and he knew their nuances. Together, we’d walk deep into the forest, looking for chanterelles and porcini, walking along the pathways he’d cleared over the last thirty years. We made for the lake on one of these walks, which was bordered by a dense copse of trees. As we settled by the edge of the water, we heard the sound of dogs barking nearby. “Damn hunters’ dogs have gotten lost on my land again,” he muttered. The barking moved closer, and I got up and walked toward the sound of them, only to hear the loud chorus of grunting boars, running ahead of the dogs. As I realized how close the animals were to us, I heard Andrea yell “Move back from there, back toward the water! The dogs have spooked them! Last thing you want is to be caught in front of the terrified cinghiale if they come this way.” They’re terrified? I thought as I moved swiftly back towards the lake. My hands continued shaking until the last sounds of grunting finally passed.
On my last day, I was determined to complete one last climb to the nearby ruin alone, and once I made it to the top, I breathed out slowly as I turned to gaze down on the valley below, at the peak of Monte Amiata in the distance. I stayed for awhile, soaking in the solace of the place, all the while dreading the walk back through the woods. As I descended, I heard several rustles, and my heart quickened with each one. I forced myself to breathe out slowly and evenly, to keep a steady pace, praying I would not spook the beasts out of hiding. I made it home safely, swiftly closing the gate behind me as I arrived, images of a running boar behind me speeding me along.
This was their land, not mine, their continuing presence kept reminding me. I was just a visitor. I think next time I’ll return in the spring instead.