19 March 2013

We’ve been scanning the heavens a lot over the past few days. First of all, for signs of good weather, which comes and goes in a frustratingly spring-like way – spring-like in its unsettledness, but not in its temperatures which remain resolutely wintry. (So odd to note that this time last year, the thermometre went up to 24 degrees and I was already worrying about lack of water: this year it has rarely been past 12 degrees and we’re more worried about being washed away.)

Then we’ve been looking upwards to watch struggling birds, thrashing branches and unseemly gusts of gale. From every which  way: from the icy north and the strong-armed south, bringing debris and rain and buffetting discomfort each time you step outside.

I’ve always loved the Italian relationship with winds. They never talk of a ‘northerly’ or a ‘sou-westerly’. Every wind has a name** which somehow makes it more personal. But personal in the way an infuriating relation is personal, and the past week or so has really tried our patience. (Funny, though, how the moment I started writing this paragraph about wind, the olive tree outside the kitchen window here has stopped thrashing: it’s almost as if it’s listening to my thoughts. Too much wind clearly puts odd ideas into my head.)

And lastly there as been the comet. A very disappointing comet, if you ask me, and I’m a bit of a conoisseur.

There was nothing, admittedly, to suggest that Pan-Starrs was going to compete with, say, Hale-Bopp, but still I was hoping for a bit of a spectacle.

I love comets (just as I love shooting stars), and find them mesmerising. Hale-Bopp hung about for months in 1997. I don’t know how many times, of a Friday night – generally after dinner and far too tired to be in a fit state to drive – I would chuck my sleeping daughter in the back of the car and drive up to the little house we used to rent near here, my exhausted eyes focussed much more on the heavenly phenomenon than on the traffic around me. Then we went to Turkey and its was there too, glowing at us over the fields of Canakkale (Gallipoli). I felt it was my comet, and I hated seeing it fade.

In comparison, Pan-Starrs was a smudge, and a very hazy smudge at that, one night only, up there above the pergola in the orchard… hardly even worth getting cold and blown about for.

But let-down as it was, it did get me thinking once again about light pollution and the way we are so privileged here as far as heaven-gazing goes. We, in particular, live in a wonderland of stars which even pievesi nearer town can’t hope to rival. Yet way across on distant Monte Pausillo, that agriturismo we can see right near the summit gets more illuminated by the month; and across through the trees towards the Perugia road, someone has redone their garden lights in an unforgiveably twinkly way. Each time Mario Draghi is in residence in his villa on the rise opposite Maria’s agriturismo, I wonder whether his ghastly Blackpool Illuminations are due to security concerns or just to a total inability to appreciate the effect from a distance: I always swear that one evening if I see him in town, I will take him by the hand and frog-march him down our lane to show him how that beautiful valley is ravaged by his light-assault. He’s a nice man. I’m sure he would be horrified.

In fact, I’m sure most people would be if faced with the evidence. But viewing it exclusively from within and not from without, they really don’t get it. It’s always something I try to broach with my clients right from the start – with varying degrees of success. There’s no need to stumble about your garden in complete darkness at night. On the other hand, there’s no need either to replicate day-time. What’s the point of that? You can create gentle pools of light mitigated by green. You can shine lights downwards, making a glow without directing the beam towards anyone who doesn’t want to share your brightness. You can have lights on timers or attached to movement sensors so that they are only on when they are strictly needed (cheaper too). And you can make sure you set aside areas of darkness where your night-vision isn’t impaired by ambient light – areas which in our over-illuminated world are rare and priceless treasures.

To me it all seems so obvious. Why is the idea so hard to communicate?

**Any way the wind blows:

N: Tramontana – cold, generally dry, strong wind
NE: Grecale/Greco – strong winter wind affecting the central and eastern Med
ENE: Bora – cold, dry, violent, felt from the eastern Alps to the gulf of Trieste
E: Levante  usually gentle and damp, bringing rain
SE: Scirocco – hot, humid wind from from Africa
S: Ostro/Austro – generic name for southerly; from the Sahara, can bring sand-laden squalls
SW: Libeccio (occasionally Garbino) – violent wind affecting the centre and north Med
W: Ponente – fresh wind or summer breeze from the Tyrrhenian sea
NW: Maestrale/Mistral – dry, cold, gusting wind affecting southern France and Liguria


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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