This post first appeared on my website.
Yesterday morning, I got into the car in bright sunshine. As I rounded the corner by Maria’s agriturismo there was a fat, black slug of cloud lying low on the horizon beyond town. But the sun was still shining on me.
I went into the post office and paid a bill. When I came out, tiny hailstones were falling fast, bouncing off the street and coating cars. I pulled up my collar and put on my hat and went into the bank. When I came out, it was snowing: soft fat flakes sitting on the icy cars but turning straight to slush on the roads.
Yesterday afternoon I pulled on my hat and gloves but had to remove them before we were even halfway down the field on our walk: the sun was shining again and I just didn’t need them.
Very strange weather indeed.
I’ve been to our Spello project twice now with Signor Bonomi, the tree man. Of course, when we started pruning those stately old lime trees all kinds of problems leapt out… like completely hollow trunks and creatures of all descriptions making their munching way through the rotting caverns. It’s rather like doing work on an old abandoned house: all kinds of unforeseen problems present themselves, as we well remember. So Bonomi was summoned.
He could be anywhere between 65 and 85. Hugely tall, with the most beautiful long, thin hands. His hands are always filthy though, his nails caked with whatever mould he has been scraping out of rotting tree trunks recently. P calls him Rasputin, but the beard is missing. And though his eyes are piercing, it’s generally with mischief rather than with cunning. He’s slightly stooped, and his slow deliberate speech becomes mesmeric at times. But he’ll be lulling you into an arcane place, expounding on tree law, the intricate workings of nature and his special treatments for ailing tree-creatures then suddenly you’ll realise he’s talking about dropping mini-tv cameras into holes and using advanced technology to gain his ancient ends. And he does love his Powerpoint presentations.
He says he doesn’t talk to trees but he clearly communicates with them on some level. You can see it in the way his those beautiful fingers move over the trunks, even in the way he gently scoops rotting wood and presses it to his nose – ostensibly to sniff out the fungus that’s causing the decay but looking much like he’s savouring the must from some fine wine.
We were standing surveying an oak, parts of which were dead or dying. It had clearly been struck by lightning. He followed the scars of the strike down the trunk, tracing its almost imperceptible path along ruffled bark as if he were gripped and entranced by a novel or a work of art.
I want to be able to read trees like that. I’d love for every twist and turn and minuscule change in colour in a plant’s bark to tell me a story. And I’d love my love for trees to be so practical. Signor Bonomi is an inspiration and an education.
I talked long (and loud… he does shout) to Apple Boy on the road to Castiglione del Lago about the confusion which seems to rage over planting non-organic fruit trees on organic-certified land. I’m trying to find out how long it takes, with all-organic tlc, for the fruit of these trees to be considered organic. Apple Boy – who has something of a rosy-cheeked country Ian Drury look about him – rambled at great length about how often they had almost lost faith during the four or five years during which they were converting their orchards from chemical to organic. So many customers, he said, abandoned them when they saw spots on the apples and thought they’d taken a turn for the weird. But they stuck to their guns, though you’d never know it as you shoot by on the Castiglione road. There’s a comic array of signs around the Golden Delicious-yellow shed saying “mele” (apples) but no mention of “biologico” (organic). Is the idea so very scary to some people?
The upshot was, however, that he didn’t know. No one seems to. For converting land, there are rules. I’m beginning to doubt that there are any guidelines at all for individual plants.
We also discussed apple pruning. He does it all year long, he says. He has to, with the number of trees he has. But for my paltry collection now is the time, apparently. And just as well I have something to do out there, because you certainly can’t do much that involves contact with our water-logged ground. I managed to rake the thick carpet of leaves off the lawn yesterday, but with some difficulty: They were so wet and heavy, teeth were breaking off the rake. I’m going to need a new one very soon.
Down in our valley it’s a marsh underfoot. And our tiny dribble of a stream is a raging torrent. Well, more or less.