The fascinating history of green manure in Italy (sovescio)

cover crop sovescioAbove: the term “sovescio” has a long history in Italian agricultural studies. It’s properly translated as “cover crop” or “green manure.” But “sovescio” denotes, in particular, cover crops that have been sowed by breaking the soil and planting the seeds at different depths below the surface, depending on type of seeds and the desired effect. Not all cover crops are planted in this manner. The etymology of the term is uncertain but most philologists speculate that it is derived from the spoken Latin “subversiare,” meaning to “turn under” (image borrowed from a post by my client Bele Casel, an organic Prosecco producer).

Every time I fall down a rabbit hole like this one, I am reminded of a famous aphorism by the twentieth-century Austrian essayist Karl Kraus: “The closer you look at a word,” he wrote, “the more distantly it looks back” (see this note on a word’s “aura”).

It all began yesterday when California-based importer of Italian wines Justin Gallen wrote me suggesting that I add an entry for sovescio to my Italian Wine Glossary.

The term sovescio is rendered in English as cover crop or green manure.

As Justin noted in an email, these days “you can’t talk to an Italian wine grower without them mentioning that word.”

The practice of planting cover crops to replenish nitrogen levels in farmland soil dates back to Roman times.

“First consideration belongs to the lupine [a legume],” wrote Columella in the first century C.E. (De re rustica), “as it requires the least labour, costs least, and of all crops that are sown is most beneficial to the land. For it affords an excellent fertilizer for worn-out vineyards and ploughlands; it flourishes even in exhausted soil.”

But the practice of planting cover crops as a means to improve soil “health” became a hot button issue in early nineteenth-century Italy when Piedmontese chemist Giovanni Antonio Giobert published his revolutionary research on sovescio and its farmland application. His experiments centered on the use of rye for green manuring (crop rotation was another focus).

His work was met with unbridled disbelief in some quarters. After his greatest detractor, Count Carlo Verri, issued his response refuting Giobert’s findings, one of their contemporaries noted that their dialectic represented the dawn of a “new era” in Italian agriculture.

Ultimately, Giobert’s theories were embraced by hundreds of Italian farmers according to the anonymous author of an 1820 report on Verri’s polemic.

Today, as Justin observed, the popularity of green manure among Italian grape growers is growing rapidly as more and more of them embrace organic and biodynamic farming practices.

That’s good news for all of us, at least in my book. But it seems that the novel technique isn’t as new as some would think.

Thanks for reading… and thanks, Justin, for suggesting the entry.

7 thoughts on “The fascinating history of green manure in Italy (sovescio)

  1. please forgive the super-long comment, but the Krause quote reminded me of an essay that i guest-published in Liberty. I know Jeremy has a deep interest in words, so here goes.

    Word Watch

    By Stephen Cox

    Michael Christian has long been an advisor to this column. He’s especially valuable because of his fluency in European as well as American. When he said that he wanted to discuss a subject that I hadn’t paid much attention to– the subject of the “heft” or weight of words– I asked him to go ahead and write. Please take the column, I said, so long as you agree to give it back.

    I think you’ll be interested in what he says. Here’s Michael Christian:

    Stephen Cox’s complaints about our language can be weighty, and I usually find myself agreeing with them. My own complaint is about weight itself, or rather the lack of it, in English as it is spoken and written by the educated, the powerful, and the obtrusive. The problem is a lack of [[heft]].

    Long ago, when I was studying French, I learned to love the heft of a certain kind of English. Our mother tongue is full of words that are palpable, words you can stub your toe on. Yet these are the very words that every contemporary spokeshole seems to avoid. The detour these people take around good old rocky English is usually paved with French words.

    In their own land, a lot of French words have their own heft. Quite the contrary with the French words that, over the centuries, have plumped up English vocabulary. These words tend to be fluffy.

    Francis Ponge, a twentieth-century French poet, loved the French etymological dictionary, “Le Dictionnaire d’Emile Littré de la Langue Française,” which is called with affection “le Littré.” According to Ponge, when he was still a boy, he discovered this great old dictionary of French in his father’s library. Many years later, his passion for the “Littré” seems to have grown. He said that the “Littré” would take you back, very far back, “very often farther even than the Latin, even unto the Vedic roots.” Ponge wanted to buttress the French language with the recycled stones from ancient, crumbled arches. As he put it, he wanted to “restore to French the density, the weight, and the thickness (a mystery, certainly) that come from its most ancient origins.” {{Is “a mystery . . . “ part of the original? — YES BUT WE CAN REPLACE WITH ELIPSIS IF YOU LIKE}} In some of his poems, I think he succeeded.

    Ponge felt that words possessed something beyond denotation and connotation. He was no post-modern semiotician, but he perceived some magic that happened between words and their referents, as though words, through their own history, spoke for the things they could be used to describe.

    However that may be, I agree that words often convey a powerful feeling about language itself, and the feeling often comes from the roots of words. This feeling, which Ponge called “density,” obsessed him. I’ll call the feeling “etymological heft,” or just “heft” for short.

    By the way, the Oxford English Dictionary (our “Littré,” and then some) says that “heft” was lately derived (sixteenth century) from “heave.” Now “heave” itself is an old word with plenty of heft in English, and the word “heft” gets a lot of that weightiness by association with “heave.” The OED takes “heave” back all the way to Teutonic and takes the first example from “Beowulf”: “Ic hond and rond hebban mihte”: “I could lift hand and shield” (“hebban” was a form of “heave”). {{it’s not past tense}}

    When I was reading in college and law school, I found heft in odd corners of French — in Ponge of course, in Rabelais (oodles of it), and in the obscene, slang-soaked pulp fiction of Frédéric Dard, who mostly wrote under the pseudonym “San Antonio.” I learned to love language when it had that heft or grip, in French or English.

    Dard used and produced so much argot, both collected and invented, that a long dictionary of his slang was published. I think his rule (and it’s a good one) was “always aim low.” He might substitute a verb for “talk,” which is “parler” in French, but it would never be “discourir” (equivalent to the grotesque verb in English “to discourse”); instead, it would be “papoter,” which means “to chat.” Actually, “papoter” is even better than “chat,” because it sounds silly.

    Ponge’s early poems, my favorites, were descriptions of common objects. One such poem did nothing but describe an oyster. In that poem, Ponge said you could open the oyster’s stubbornly closed world with a “couteau franc.” In this context, the best translation of “franc” is a knife that is “plain and suited to the task.” Ponge could have said “a plain knife” (using the French word “simple”) or “a short knife” (“court” in French). But “franc” is an old, common word. And old, common words tend to have many meanings — as handy to a poet as a “couteau franc” is to the shucker who goes through thousands of oysters at a Parisian brasserie.

    The “Littré” gives “franc” more than 20 meanings, and several of them suit Ponge’s poem. They include such notions as “free,” “suitable,” “tidy and strong,” and “true.” Better yet, the “Littré’s” version of the word’s history gives us the Celtic tribe, the Francs, whose name came to mean “free,” because they, before Caesar, conquered Gaul and thereby became free men among subject men. They were the knife that first opened the oyster of Gaul. I have no doubt that Ponge was aware of this.

    But English is better than French. It offers heft by the imperial ton. And here’s a curious thing: English has some Vedic roots, like those revealed in Ponge’s beloved dictionary, but they don’t reach us by passing through French. French is a huge graft on the trunk of English. When you graft a branch, the roots don’t come with it, do they? The old roots of French words didn’t make it over to England. They branched without the roots, and consequently without the heft.

    Of course you can get out your OED and trace the history of a word from English to French to Latin and so on to Indo-European (“Vedic”), but you can’t feel the density, weight, and thickness of the ancient roots when they come through French. When we find heft in English, it usually comes from the Old English, the Germanic, the Norse. It recalls battles in the snow and trolls under bridges, not gods on Olympus.

    Old French words have heft — in French. In English, the huge vocabulary that comes from French is the source of the lightest, fluffiest words, the darlings of shallow, clever writers. To put my hand on an example of “shallow” and “clever,” all I have to do is reach out to my fellow Harvard Law alumni. Speaking at Wayne State University, Michelle Obama said, “Embracing our challenges and not shrinking from them is the surest way to succeed.” Just image if she had used hefty, old words: “hugging our worries…” It prompts one to wonder what the hell she was talking about. And that’s the point. If you don’t have anything to say, use words that fog up the picture you are making, like Vaseline on a camera lens. Most of the audience will just assume that “embracing your challenges” must mean something smart and will let it go and move on to the next idiocy.

    To my ear, sometime before the middle of the past century both French and American lost their heft. But “lost” is too passive. They gave it up. They dumped it. Why? I think it was a fashion for cleverness, on both sides of the Atlantic. The catwalks of academia paraded mostly cleverness, and cleverness is brainpower that can’t be bothered. It’s a display of cheap, shiny things: “Watch my synapses fire.” It’s unoriginal, easy, and everywhere. It’s lazy (which is probably why it will persist as long as it’s rewarded). It’s also the kryptonite to super heft. More clever, less hefty.

    In English as a rule, the more Frenchy a word is, the more it flits away from its object and the less heft it has — very handy if you want to appear clever but have nothing to say. Modern English usage has more and more French in it and less and less heft. At least that’s what I read and hear.

    Probably the scribbling and chatting classes who ought to use hefty language but don’t are bad examples. Some other parts of our language don’t get so messed up with fashion or the aversion to meaning that has become the trademark of the academic, the bureaucrat, the politician, the consultant, the expert, and (God forbid) even the businessman. You are safe when the bus driver says, “Get off here for Balboa Park.” Nothing special, true, but a lot better than the San Diego city buses’ spokesman who actually wrote, “The problem of emissions from vehicle emissions is accelerating.” I can translate that sentence into French without even changing the words; that’s how Frenchy it is: “Le problème d’émissions véhiculaires des véhicules s’accelère.” Ghastly in both tongues. Why not, “Cars keep spewing more dirt”? Okay, “cars” has some Latin associations, but it didn’t reach us rootless through the French. It came to Middle English from Late Latin and found a home in almost all the Celtic tongues too. Hefty enough for me. Let’s not be puritanical about it.

    Or how about in the 2008 Olympics, when the NBC commentator said, as rain fell on the beach volleyball final, that the ball would “accumulate moisture.” Couldn’t it just get wet?

    I admit that you can hardly produce a sentence in English without using a word that comes from French. But whenever you succeed in avoiding all French and Latinate words, it’s a sure bet that your words will have heft. It takes a little work, because you will have to say what you mean. With hefty English you can’t just kick up a cloud of confused images that other people are supposed to credit with meaning.

    Try it. Women, don’t cover yourselves in lingerie; put on your smallclothes, or take them off. Criminals and libertarians, don’t contravene venerable procedures; break the old rules. Spokesmen and politicians, don’t generate a negative news story; slander. Businessmen and consultants, don’t discover potential synergies; just don’t. (They’re just excuses for paying too much in a merger.) Writers, don’t compose your discourse; root around for some heft.

  2. Pingback: A note from our blogmaster @DoBianchi | Montalcino Blog

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