Retracing the steps of Walden

21 October 2020

“We arrive at home in the evening, before my eyes there was a fabulous landscape, detached not just from the plains but the entire world.”

We begin today not with the protagonist of this story, but the place where she lives, as described by the poet Attilio Bertolucci in an interview of the 1980s. We’re talking about Casarola, a small village in the Emilian Apennines near the borders with Tuscany and Liguria. An Emilia that’s still wild, a world still detached from the rest.

This is where Elena Siffredi Duranti lives, Venetian in origin and a forager by profession and for passion, together with her partner, her son Adriano and the few other inhabitants of this isolated place. All around us are the forests of the Park of a Hundred Lakes. These are highlands, around 1000 meters above sea level, which provide chestnuts, mushrooms, wild herbs and fruits. Elena is like a modern-day Walden, with the difference that she doesn’t just wander this wilderness, but forages in it too.


Finding a moment with Elena isn’t easy, as she’s rarely tied to an electronic device. She’s busy with the last chestnut harvest of the year. “I went out to gather chestnuts for the first time yesterday. This year the quinces, pears and blackberries have all grown well, and they’re harvested around a month later here compared to the lowlands. There were only a few blueberries and I didn’t touch them, I wanted to leave them so the plants would reproduce from the seeds. Then there were the wild strawberries! That’s what it’s like around here: spring provides an abundance of wild herbs and flowers. The summer is more uncertain, because its gifts depend on how much it has snowed or rained in the previous seasons, and we’re never certain of what it will bring. The only way for me to follow the rhythm of the seasons, the cycles of activity of the plants, and to know how to interpret them, and not try to force them.”

Elena has been here since 2006, when she finished her studies in forestry at the University of Padova. “At the beginning I gathered and transformed foods without having a real workshop. I was part of a spontaneous circuit of sale and distribution. Then in 2008 I made a big step and started my workshop in Monchio delle Corti, seven kilometers from here. I didn’t want to hide anymore, I was ready to make this my profession.” And so La Giustrela (the lizard) was born, in honor of “this small reptile that carousels around the countryside, moving fast, as if it were always in search of something.”


These mountains and Casarola are in Elena’s blood by now, and they were her saving grace during the lockdown. “Here we used to pass the summers with our grandparents. In the lockdown… well, for Adrian it was a “happy” time. He stopped going to nursery and came to the forest every day with me. We did what he hadn’t done for a long time – we walked a long way, foraging a lot, even under the rain. It was a special time.”

Elena walks in search of her forage, and she loves to do it, even in conditions that would be difficult for most. “The land is low, sometimes it’s a real struggle. There are days that pass by where people gather dandelion buds under the rain. But for me this is all natural: I can’t survive in the city for long, the mountains call me home. Working at a desk would be the worst thing for me.”

All this passion for walking has important cultural roots. Elena is an avid reader, and among her favorite books are those by Henry David Thoreau: Walking and Walden: Life in the Woods. Books that are considered prophetic by some, which claim spiritual salvation and freedom in the simple act of walking through forests, of contact with nature. The difference between Elena and Walden is great: Walden didn’t forage, while for Elena it’s at the center of her excursions.


There are difficulties in this life, but lots of satisfactions too. Elena tells how this life, for a women, is particularly hard, and how she needs help to do her work as best she can. It’s a challenging job, especially with a young child in tow.

“The harvest phase requires a lot of time, above all if we’re talking about small fruits. Then there’s the processing. And selling the finished product. Up until a few years ago I also did small markets, including the Earth Market in Colorno, while it existed. Now my circle is people who know me, small shops. Beyond this, I also accompany small groups on walks looking for edible herbs. I used to work a bit with schools, but obviously all these activities are stopped for now. But when I can bring children to the woods in the summer: what they love most of all is finding mushrooms!”

In general, however, the gift of the mountain is not just the herbs and fruits: there’s also the beauty of the landscape, the awareness, on occasion, to be in contact with an uncontaminated space, a place where the air is clean and the water too, essential things we humans often deny ourselves access to with our own hands.


A brief word on a special collaboration. We’d like to thank Anna Kauber, director of the film In questo mondo (In this world), which recounts the lives of women herders from all over Italy. She’s opened the beauty of this world to a new audience through her work.

by Silvia Ceriani,