The Arno teems with wildlife. One need only look for it. The water courses through the city, a vital line of energy, sluggish and full of mosquitoes in summer, rushing and angry during winter months. It is rarely placid. It is never blue, unless the sky above is clear and the sun shines brightly, making a heavenly reflection on the dun surface. I have spotted egrets, herons, ducks, and gulls in the nooks and crannies under the old bridges. The pluck fish from the water. River sushi.
The city enclosed the river within stone retaining walls – the Lungarno, or the length of the Arno – centuries ago. Prior to that, the riverbank was level with the mouths of many streets, and when the water rose with the rains, damage ran deep. Now walls two or three stories high drop from the street level to the water below, and when the water rises, it rarely breaches the walls. The last time this happened was in 1966, and the people still talk about it as though it were yesterday. Cars swirled through intersections, borne up by the pulling current. Innumerable precious manuscripts and works of art were lost. In Piazza Santa Croce, a priest held the hand of a woman in a wheelchair, trapped in her home, praying with her until she drowned. I still don’t understand how she was trapped in her ground-floor apartment. There is an account of it somewhere, the door, the iron grilles, the rising water.
I walk each day in the city. The quarantine this year was so hard that now I take every opportunity I can to gulp fresh air, gaze at a blue sky, a cloudy sky, blankets of mist, I don’t care. I walk up and down the Lungarno, out Via Romana to the old Porta Romana, back to the river again on Via degli Serragli. Two weeks ago we had rain for a week, heavy rain, and the river was roiling. Chocolate milk garnished with logs and lost balls ended in billows of foam over the old weir that used to power a woollen mill for a monastery. I could not stay away from the river and its simple drama: river running high. How different it looked, its tone, its voice, so loud I could barely hear my audio. It seemed frustrated, not angry, but somewhere under those swells was the memory of calmer waters.
The last day of the river’s churning I was walking across Ponte Vespucci (Amerigo himself is buried in the church of Ognissanti, at the bridge’s eastern landing, kindly painted by Ghirlandaio.) When I had almost reached the other side, I looked down and spotted a wise moustache, two bright eyes, and a sleek coat. The nutria! One of the nutrias of the Arno. He didn’t see me, but looked around, blasé and bored, never mind the water. I watched him scratch his belly with a back leg. He looked well-feed, and handsome, his whiskers almost touching the large rock upon which he sat to view the rushing weir. The poor cousin of a walrus or seal, coursing their salt swells in far-off oceans. More muskrat than beaver; the gamey meat falls somewhere on the spectrum, I read, between pork and turkey. They’re farmed as a protein source in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and longer ago, for their fur, but no one wants a water-rat coat or even water-rat collar these days. I laugh and think of my rabbit-patch fur coat from the seventies. Perhaps it was dyed nutria.
His face was wise. Bored, even. He’d seen it before. He’d see it again. I waited to see if he’d see me, but he never did. I walked on. He seemed so kind that I am now sorry to learn he is considered a global pest, an unwanted pelt, a faux pork chop.
There was a highly promoted rage in Southwest Michigan when I was in high school. People were led to believe that they could raise nutria and sell them as mink and thus reap great profits. Alas, it proved to be a scam, and most of the nutria farms were just abandoned.