5 April 2014

0405BI was up in the chicken house when the first rain began to come down, thrumming on the metal roof of the shed where I was chopping up some fruit tree prunings that had been piled up there for ages, annoying us. After ten minutes of water in sheets, with a little hail thrown in for good measure, my rain gauge – which had had a tiny bit of liquid in the bottom – was registering 20mm. The moment the cloud passed, the sun came out, creating brilliant emeralds.

There were a reasonable number of minced bright-green leaves beneath my newly budding plants, and the bright red tulips that L loathes in the rose bed outside the front door were mostly snapped at the base (did he take advantage of the meteorological situation to eliminate them, I wonder?). The cherry tree, which yesterday morning had about three tiny flowers on it and yesterday evening was one great white bee-filled haze, was looking very bedraggled but not stripped. My little apricot tree up the top still had its impressive wannabe-crop of tiny little fruit. The thing that irked me most was feeling cheated because there was no post-downpour rainbow arching across our valley.

0405The first storm was nothing to what came a few hours later. Just as L had set off up to town on his bike (he soon came back, drenched), there was a re-run, with added bangs and flashes. When it began, I was on the phone to a friend who lives across the valley, on the Tuscan side. “My god!” I said to her when my kitchen window suddenly looked like the outside of a glass-sided swimming pool.

“My god!” she replied. From the window where she was standing, she could see the blackest cloud she had ever seen, hanging low over CdP.

What fell from it was cataclysmic. I have never seen so much water this side of the tropics – again with hail – falling all in one place. It pounded down for about half an hour, during which I struggled to keep leaves from clogging the drains I keep cut into my lawns, and trudged up the lane with my hoe (vainly) trying to restore swept-away rain channels cutting across the lane to take the excess off to the verge.

The gravel path down to the house from the car park had great bare patches where I wasn’t quick enough at removing build-ups of dead leaves, and the water had jumped straight out of the run-off ditch at the foot of the rose bank, sweeping away everything before it. When I checked the rain gauge there was 71.5mm of water in it. The average in these parts for rainy wet April is 70mm. That’s just too much for one single day.

In the fading light the glorious blossom on my hazy wild cherry tree looked sallow and sad. And my little Malus Rouge Cardinal crab apple, which had been so shockingly dark pink, was limp and battered. I didn’t have the courage to check the apricot tree. But those hardy irises which were already out – and there were plenty of them – may never recover from the shock. Then again, Nature’s a resilient old girl and if and when the splendid sunshine forecast for next week really happens, it may look as good as new.

That was yesterday. Today I took my courage in my hands and did the rounds. The apricots are clinging on, there’s still some blossom on the other trees. How it survived, I don’t know. I scraped up barrow-loads of gravel from the lawn and placed it back where it belongs on the path. L dealt with the smaller of the landslides up beyond Mario’s house, where the bank has come down in two places – not so much that we can’t get past but badly enough to send water coursing in such a way that our newly remade road surface is badly damaged.

The reason for the landslides, says Giuseppe the bulldozer boy who fixed the road, is because no one bothers to channel water in fields any more. There’s a shallow pond that forms spontaneously on the upper level between Mario’s olive trees, and when the pond gets too full, it’s inevitable that it’s going to drag soggy soil on to the road beneath. As L returned from shoveling mud, he found Mario’s Romanian nurse/housekeeper with her son in the field below their house, staring down into the massive landslide that took out our phone lines in February. It has collapsed further, moving back towards Mario’s house in a way that makes you wonder just how much further it’s planning to go. Disturbing.

It’s funny, I had been thinking of floods just the other day when the people who parked their car in our top carpark and disappeared into Mario’s field, rustling amongst the Arundo donax, turned out to be Gigi and his nephew, chopping canne to grow tomatoes up.

Gigi was born in our house. He will, he told me with some pride, be celebrating his 90th birthday in a couple of months. He’s planning to go to London to visit his daughter for the event. He’s looking uncannily healthy and apart from a bad limp gives no sign of being much more than 70. The canes were for his vegetable garden, which he still tends assiduously.

We were debating the lavatoio (wash house). He was trying to argue that there used to be a place somewhere on this property where all the local women brought their washing so they could scrub it in company. But I’m pretty sure – from what he has told me previously and from what I heard from another elderly man, now dead, who grew up further up the hill, in the house where our Canadian friends now live – that the washing was done at our vaschetta, which is still clearly visible though badly in need of repair.

It was all this talk of watery arrangements that reminded me of the story he told me long ago of the Great Flood, when a wall of water came down the lane and slammed into the house; it was so huge that they all (and I mean all: he lived here in the top four rooms with his eight siblings, parents, grandparents and assorted hangers-on) thought they were about to be washed away.

I wonder how much more water that would involve than what we had today. I’m pretty sure that there would have been all the necessary channels in the fields where they – as sharecroppers – had to make sure that the ground was in sufficiently good shape for them to be able to go on producing enough to feed themselves after they had hived off the part that went to a landlord who, by all accounts, was inflexible. But I shouldn’t imagine that the crumbling wrecks they were given to live in – including our house – were top priorities for major flood-protection measures.

0405CWe have storm drains, and the big pipe that gathers the water from the lane and takes it off underground down towards the valley on the Camparca side, and (except where the landslides happened) a very well made and carefully maintained road surface further up with more under-pass drains at strategic points. And I gave a fair amount of consideration to flood measures as I made my garden. And of course we have a front door which fits properly and a roof that doesn’t let sheets of water in. I bet that what came down in the Great Flood that terrified the young Gigi to such an extent that it still haunts his nightmares almost 90 years later didn’t involve much more water than we had yesterday.

Out there yesterday evening, watching my lawn channels turn into rushing torrents carrying all before them, I felt a little of the panic that child-Gigi must have felt seeing water crashing where it shouldn’t have been. It’s a very scary thing when it wants to be, water.


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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