15 August 2012

Last Friday we watched, mesmerised, as Our Worst Nightmare appeared over the horizon – great billows of smoke rose then subsided, then rose again, white then black then white. It was heart-in-mouth stuff, tempered only by the fact that there was a stiff north-westerly wind blowing from us towards the fire, keeping it away.

I spent ten or 15 intellectually fascinating minutes in my office, reflecting on what I’d take with me if we had the luxury of gathering belongings before we had to flee. Our old photos, of course, or rather the big box where I keep all the negatives, and the CDs where digital ones have been stored: so much more portable. But assorted boxes of my old family pictures, and family documents (I thought at first house title deeds but they’re all registered on some databank somewhere) and the file of memorabilia I will one day give to C: blond locks from her first haircut, and funny pudgy little handprints in green paint. I would have taken my father’s baptism robe, made from my grandmother’s wedding dress. And I would have taken my mother’s pearls – not because they are pearls but because they’re my mother’s. I gave considerable thought to old diaries but realised I would have needed a truck to take them all away, and somehow I felt I could lose my words more happily than I could lose my images. Nothing else seemed worth wasting precious escape-minutes on. Except L and my computer of course.

All revealing but in the end, unnecessary. The wind kept blowing the flames in the other direction (no one lost homes either, thankfully). And a cycling inspection by L the following morning, with Canadairs still circling overhead to douse the last smouldering patches, showed that the danger had been further away than it appeared, coming only to seven or eight kilometres of us, and not just beyond the Perugia road as we had thought.

It was a fire, news reports said, set by arsonists, which broke out in several places simultaneously. The job of putting it out was made extra difficult by the fact that that valley is full of Second World War ordnance. The were dull booms throughout the day, and at four AM on Saturday morning when the false dawn had woken me I heard another go off. That, I think, was where Irish forces advanced, pushing back the Germans in the belief that the British were doing the same in the neighbouring valley. But the Brits had stopped somewhere for rest and recuperation, leaving the Irish to battle on alone, exhausted and exposed.


This morning L intoned the two-week weather forecast from Accuweather,  a ritual dirge: Thursday sunny 31; Friday sunny 30; Saturday sunny 32; Sunday sunny 34. And on and on and on. In the mean time I look at my stunted garden and wonder what on earth we’ll have in the pantry for this winter (except apricots in various forms, of course).

Aside from the tiny cherry tomatoes – which I suspect would survive, like cockroaches, even nuclear holocaust – I haven’t had enough fruit to make a single jar of passata, never mind my winter-long supply. The courgettes have only just been enough to eat (none to freeze) and the beans have been quite hopeless. Will it all surge in September when the temperatures go down? It’s getting a bit late for that. It’s all very disorientating, and very disturbing.

This afternoon I hauled the stepladder up to the vegetable garden to pick the rest of what I always call the damsons from the stunted, twisted, fruit-laden plum tree up there. I’m not sure that they are damsons, but they’re small and round with dark, bitter skins and some years they never ripen sufficiently to be good for eating. But they’re always wonderful for jam, and that’s what I was planning to do with this second haul – a huge quantity of fruit too high to reach on my first damnson-picking expedition. But there were hardly any left. It was most mysterious. Two days ago, I was wondering how on earth I’d cope with them all. I found very few on the ground so they hadn’t fallen off. Had the jays taken them? Those pesky birds dug deep holes in all my apples and pears before I even noticed and taken measures to ward them off. But they wouldn’t have consumed the whole fruit, stone and all, would they? It was almost as if someone had crept down here and removed them all under the cover of darkness. But who would drag a stepladder this far simply for a basketful of damsons? All very strange.

Now we have to hang our hopes on the peaches: fewer than last year, and already much larger than they were then at maturity, despite the fact that they’re green and rock hard and showing no signs of approaching readiness. The old tree by the drive is bending so low under the weight that each passing car knocks basketfuls of fruit off on to the gravel.


Finally my review of Chaumont garden festival is up on thinkinGardens. That was fun to write. Why is it that things you do for nothing often turn out to be so much more amusing than things you get paid for? That doesn’t seem right or fair.


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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