Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens

Baldassare Forestiere

Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens is a work of art that expresses the conflicted and often bifurcating experience of Italian immigration to America. Under a ten-acre parcel of land in rural north Fresno, California, Baldassare Forestiere (1879-1946) dug over one hundred underground tunnels and rooms where he lived throughout his life. Though Forestiere’s Underground Gardens have become known among a few cognoscenti and scholars, his grottoes are all but unknown outside the once small San Joaquin Valley town.

Growing up in Fresno, I visited the Underground Gardens many times and heard many stories from relatives about Forestiere and his site. In preparation for an article, I made a special visit to the Underground Gardens, which was conducted by Silvio Manno, docent and author of the just published, The Forestiere Underground Gardens: A Pictorial Journey (Ionian Publications), an informative and comprehensive photographic work. Since Forestiere has always been considered an eccentric for his life underground, little of any value has been written on him and his Underground Gardens before my 2001 essay and Manno’s subsequent work.

As the literature on the immigrant experience has taught us over the decades, adjustment for all immigrants to North America has been a complex process that includes at the same time the problematic adaptation of Old World culture and folkways in the new land and assimilation into a modern, New World society. The enculturation process has never been that rapid, linear process suggested by Israel Zanwig’s unrealistic Melting Pot Theory – once the prevailing social theory of at least the first half of the twentieth century. Recollections of the past and settlement in the New World were not often easily reconcilable, not only for the immigrant generation but also for its second and third generation offspring.

At least part of the reason is that, as Jerre Mangione wrote about his relatives in Mount Allegro, his immigrant relatives liked to tell stories about Italy, “a past they had long ago romanticized,” in spite of the very poverty that, in fact, drove them to immigrate in the first place. Misunderstood over the years, Forestiere’s grottoes express the tension between hope and memory, between his boyhood past in the mountains of Sicily and his adjustment to his new life in America.

Underground kitchen

Baldassare Forestiere was born on July 8, 1879, in Filari, a small village in the Peloritani Mountains in the province of Messina. His tyrannical father, Rosario, owned an olive factory and adjacent groves, which provided a reliable income for the Forestiere family. However, he was unwilling to share his economic resources with his four sons, Antonio, Baldassare, Giuseppe, and Vincenzo, according to Elena Faulks, Baldassare Forestiere’s niece. Unable to foresee any opportunity for himself within his father’s business or elsewhere in Sicily, in 1902, at the age of twenty-one Baldassare emigrated to America, along with his older brother Antonio.

After working on the east coast and the central California coast, Forestiere finally settled in Fresno in 1906. Settling in the north end of Fresno, he was far removed from the Italian community located approximately ten miles southwest of him in the immigrant neighbourhood known as the West Side. Forestiere lived a relatively isolated life in his new home (according to nephew Rosario “Ric” Forestiere).

From this remote plot of land he would begin his own version of the immigrant success story. To support himself upon his arrival in Fresno, he worked as a leveller and a grafter for other valley farmers. In typical immigrant fashion, he lived frugally, saved his money, and gradually began purchasing vineyards. By the time of his death, he would own more than 1000 acres of valley farmland.

After purchasing the parcel in Fresno, Forestiere built a small, wooden house on the barren land in advance of planting an orchard. He would soon find that the valley heat during the summer in his new home (which he often referred to as his “little sweat house”) made living intolerable. However, when Forestiere began planting his orchard, he discovered that approximately twenty-four inches below the topsoil was a thick layer of impermeable hardpan, a concrete-like packed clay that underlies many sections of the valley floor. His land was not suitable for trees.

Perhaps the low cost of the acreage should have raised the suspicions of this poor Sicilian immigrant. Forestiere never planted his orchard. Instead, after work each day, he returned to his small wooden house and began digging his caverns under his isolated ten-acre plot of land near the corner of Shaw and Cornelia Avenues. Forestiere would spend the next forty years, until his death in 1946, living in and digging what would become known as the Underground Gardens.

The stories that circulated within Fresno’s Italian community depicted Forestiere as an eccentric. During his lifetime, he became an embarrassment to some members of his family, but not all. A few of his relatives even urged him to stop digging his grottoes, according to Silvio Manno.  As word spread of his work on his caverns, local residents in the Italian community were quick to label him the “human mole,” a term that has unfortunately come to characterize his life to a wider public.

But the reality is that Forestiere’s life was in many respects similar to that of most Italian immigrants, both in what he accomplished in his over forty years as a successful farmer in the San Joaquin Valley and what his remarkable Underground Gardens expresses to us today.

By day, Forestiere worked in his remote vineyards. Each night after work, he descended and dug with his pick and shovel. In his imagination he took the religious and secular forms – arches and grottoes – of his remembered Sicily and recreated them in his tunnels. Forestiere’s grottoes became for him the private world of his past, which he would inhabit nearly exclusively until his death in 1946.

While Forestiere’s life underground may appear eccentric to his observers, his grottoes have cultural and historical antecedents in Sicily. In the first place, in ancient Greek myth, many gods and demigods lived underground and in grottoes, some even under the sea. The fabled giant shepherds, the Cyclopes, from Homer’s Odyssey, lived in the bowels of Mt. Etna, where they forged Zeus’ thunderbolts.

In Sicily, these legends formed part of the general cultural milieu of peasants, as well as land-owning latifundi, who learned these tales in school. The region that surrounds Forestiere’s native village also contains many underground dwellings and structures. The hillsides near the village of Rometta Marea, for example, contain a vast number of Saracen caves in which he and his brothers played as children (see Manno).

Dating from the ninth century, when the Arabs invaded and colonized Sicily, these caves, dug out of the limestone cliffs, served originally as storage depots for food and armaments, as well as housing for Saracen soldiers. As late as the nineteenth century, these caves provided storage for grain and shelter for shepherds tending their flocks on the remote hillsides.

South of Messina, Syracuse contains a plethora of catacombs, grottoes, sepulchres and mines. Over the centuries these underground structures have been used as prisons, garrisons, work places, and domestic dwellings. Certain aspects of the Underground Gardens even bear a resemblance to the catacombs of San Giovanni in Syracuse.

Forestiere’s grottoes have both practical and aesthetic dimensions. He devoted the first ten years to excavating his living quarters. To escape the searing summer heat, he fashioned a kitchen with a properly vented wood-burning stove, a chamber with two beds, and finally a living room. Adjacent to his living quarters, he constructed what he called the “Sunrise Plaza,” designed to capture the morning sun. The “Sunrise Plaza” also contains a small fishpond in which Forestiere placed fish, which he caught in nearby rivers and lakes, until he was ready to eat them.

One bed was adjacent to a window that overlooks the “Sunrise Plaza” and was designed to let in the light and warmth of the spring and summer months. During the long winter months when bright sunlight was less frequent and valley temperatures plummeted, he slept in his winter bed, located deep inside the bedchamber and closer to the stove. He also dug a room for the storage and production of wine and cheese and the curing of meat, important aspects of the Sicilian culture he had left behind in Filari. In the evenings throughout the year, when he was not digging in the dark recesses of his caverns, he was able to rest comfortably in his living quarters and work on his English by reading an occasional newspaper by kerosene lantern, according to Elena Faulks.

Beyond his living quarters, he continued for the next thirty years to dig approximately ninety more grottoes: the “Aquarium Chamber” filled with fish and below that an “Aquarium Viewing Chamber,” in which visitors could view the fish above through a Plexiglas ceiling, the “Boat Planter,” the “Auto Tunnel,” and the “Sunrise and Sunset Patios,” designed to capture the valley sunlight.

The central planter in the Sunset Patio originally contained a wide variety of fruit and citrus trees, as well as other plants. Forestiere grafted one tree with as many as eight different varieties of fruit. He replicated a garden to recall that special aspect of the Sicilian landscape that he remembered.

Since the ninth century and the Arabic invasion of Sicily, the island has been idealized as the Mediterranean’s “garden paradise.” Throughout the grottoes, Forestiere designed conical-shaped skylights, which allowed for an increased flow of air and controlled the entrance of rainwater.

Forestiere’s clever engineering and design of the skylights and the planters constituted an efficient drainage and irrigation system. The skylights funnelled rainwater into the planters irrigating the trees and preventing flooding in the chambers and tunnels that connected them.

Forestiere completed his tunnels and grottoes with a “room” one hundred feet long and thirty-five feet wide. Some have called this an auditorium or a dance hall. No one is certain what Forestiere intended. The “room” contrasts with the intimate nature of the rest of the chambers.

But observers of the “room” fail to take into account that originally there was no roof on the space. After Forestiere’s death, Giuseppe, who scavenged the trusses from an abandoned airplane hangar at a local airfield, added the roof, windows and flooring. Without the roof, it can be seen as one more iconic representation of an important aspect of the life that Forestiere left behind in Sicily: the communal life of Filari. In Forestiere’s Underground Gardens, it serves as the “piazza,” the  place of communal gathering. The piazza is yet another aspect of Forestiere’s recollections of his youth in Filari not accessible to him in his remote and isolated location on the far north end of Fresno.

Between the hours of nine in the morning and three in the afternoon, sunlight shines through the skylights of the various grottoes and permeates the Sunrise Patio, the Sunset Patio, and the larger garden area on the west end of the site. From late spring to late autumn in Fresno, before the shortened winter days and fog return to the valley, throughout the grottoes there is a contrasting display of sunlight and shadows. The Underground Gardens have a monastic-like atmosphere conducive to introspection. Yet they also capture, at least for part of the day and part of the year, the light of the countryside surrounding them. The contrast between light and darkness characterizes Baldassare Forestiere’s inner and outer life. At night he dug his grottoes, recalling his past, and by day, as a successful valley farmer in Fresno, he laboured in the full sun of his vineyards.

The interplay between light and darkness is a central feature of the Underground Gardens, just as Forestiere’s retrospective arches and gardens express that contrast between the Old World and his home in the New World. The problematic nature of the past is a seminal theme that runs throughout North American Italian literature. While Forestiere dug, hauled, and carved in his Underground Gardens, he was also expressing, paradoxically, that other impulse to escape from the bitter aspects of his past. As Gennaro’s rebellious son Emilio says, in Garibaldi Lapolla’s The Grand Gennaro, what past should the Italian immigrant recall: “The Roman past and the past of the sixteenth century? Or the past of their miserable enslavement? Or the past of their recent history – the betrayal of Garibaldi and the republican hopes of Mazzini?”

Forestiere and his brother left Italy to escape the patriarchal order that his oppressive father represented. While his vineyards recalled the labor of his past and even created for Forestiere another kind of serfdom, his grottoes were his castle: “In casa sua ciascuno è re.” His grottoes allowed him to live comfortably between two worlds: his livelihood as a successful San Joaquin Valley farmer and his memories of Sicily.

This article is an expanded version of an essay which appeared in The Land Beyond: Italian Migrants in the Westward Movement, edited by Gloria Ricci Lothrop. San Marino: Patrons of Italian Culture, 2007.

Kenneth Scambray is professor of English at the University of La Verne,

First published in Accenti Magazine Issue 10.

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