RICHMOND — Over and over, we hear politicians talk about how we are all immigrants. What's also true is that the earliest immigrants probably took advantage of the second wave, and the second wave looked down its nose at the third bunch, and now we're in the umpty-umpth wave, and discrimination lives on. It was apparently the same for a man named Baldessere Forestiere when he arrived in Boston while the 20th century was quite new.
He left his native Sicily because he saw no future there. He wanted to raise citrus trees, like his father, but he was not the first-born son, so he wasn't in line to inherit the family groves. Once in Boston, he quickly learned that the climate wouldn't support citrus trees, and he would have to pile up some money and go to California. So he took a job building subway tunnels, which provided him with skill in stone construction.
The story goes that he soon made his way to California where his immigrant status and his poor English did not serve him well. Finding his money would buy him some 80 acres in a town called Fresno, he quickly had his farming hopes dashed when he started to dig. He'd been sold a field of hardpan, a layer of solid rock that in places was five feet deep.
But he must have been an intrepid optimist — with strong arms and a strong back. He whacked away at that rock until he reached soil and proceeded to combine his knowledge of citrus, his long-time love for the stone catacombs back home and his tunnel-building skills to create an underground garden. It is not merely remarkable — it's admittedly strange — but quite beautiful.
A competent guide took us through the maze of archways and small rooms where Forestiere spent 40 years turning his dream into reality. What he created is a unique work of art that became his residence and his citrus farm. Orange, grapefruit and lemon trees planted many feet below the surface — in stone planters much like what are used on city streets — rise through openings in his caves and produce fruit.
He also built himself a little apartment of several rooms with an ingenious set-up for his bathtub, bringing water in from above and draining it out below. For his entertainment, he built an aquarium at one level with a transparent central panel, then set up a place to sit in the next level down so he could watch the fish. Modern cruise ships often give passengers below decks a view of legs and arms in the glass-bottomed swimming pool above. Fish would be prettier.
It can be very hot in Fresno, and Forestiere at some point added a resort aspect to his property. He planned to open his underground rooms, some of them 23 feet down, as a kind of day resort where Fresno families could escape the city's heat for a day. His construction created a series of micro climates. Temperatures in his gardens can be 10 to 30 degrees cooler than surface temps as people descend from the surface to the lowest of the three levels.
Members of the Forestiere family still operate the underground garden and the plantings above ground as Forestiere Underground Gardens. We happened upon one of the sons, Giuseppe, just as we were leaving and congratulated him on the marvels we had just seen. He smiled but gruffly commented, "They're falling apart." On the contrary, while a number of chambers were off limits and under renovation, the areas we toured seemed to be in great shape and fascinating, a tribute to an uneducated man who worked without blueprints to create a unique place. Sold a lemon by an apparently unethical person, he made gourmet lemonade.