11 August 2022

Dawn – a time of day I rarely witness

The other evening we found a viper (Vipera aspis) in the kitchen. We were at the table outside eating dinner with friends. I came in to fetch something or other and something moved over in the corner by the containers where we keep garlic and ginger and cooking implements. At first I thought it was a lizard. But the tail was too long and too grey-ish, and it was just moving in the wrong way. Then I saw the head wending up towards the knives on their magnetic strip.

I don’t like snakes: in fact it’s fair to say they terrify me, though I do try to retain a little bit of composure when I come across them. But the horror of life-threatening fauna instilled in me during my early childhood in Australia doesn’t go away, and I don’t have any of the grown-up coping mechanisms which – I presume – are taught later on.

Most of our snaky friends around here are of the harmless grass snake type which – though still repulsive – are at least not venomous. In general I draw comfort from that thought; grit my teeth and try to convince myself that snakes, too, are part of Mother Nature’s marvellous plan; and cross my fingers that they stay well away from wherever I am. So finding one – and a venomous one at that – curled around the kitchen knives didn’t exactly bring me unbounded joy.

So what did I do? I quietly summoned L.

I called him, naturally, with the idea that he would grab one of those kitchen knives and slice the beast into several quickly-dead pieces. But L – being kinder than me – had other ideas. He was going to liberate the snake.

I could hear murmurs of disbelief from our guests as they realised what was up – not at there being a snake but at anyone wanting to be the snake’s saviour. I was torn between lunging at it herpetocidally and not wanting to let L down. I opted, very reluctantly, for the latter and offered moral support and monitoring services from some distance while L wielded a big palette knife and tried to urge the increasingly disorientated animal into a bucket.

Snakes’ ability to spring themselves out of tricky situations is (and I’m really struggling to be objective here) quite remarkable and (ugh) admirable. At one stage L managed to flip the beast – which was no longer than 40cm and pencil thin – into the bottom of a very deep bucket at which point it projected itself straight back out and whizzed behind the spice rack with a coiled-ring torpedo strike. Nothing lid-less was going to hold it.

On the second successful bucket-flip we were ready with a lid… but hadn’t calculated the bucket’s spout. In a split second the animal was trying to manoeuvre itself through the tiny open chink. Thank heaven for wine bottles with corks! L grapped one that was lying on the work surface, filled the gap and then liberated his slithery friend way along on to the slope at the south end of the house. Bleugh. Good riddance. And may you never darken our doors again.

A couple of post-snake considerations.

We have no photographic record of this incident which perhaps – however techno-forward we like to consider ourselves – marks us out as part of a generation where dealing with situations takes absolute precedence over filming ourselves dealing with situations. Does that mean we’re old?

As snaky wiggled away I consoled myself with the thought that this was the first time in our whole Umbrian life that we’ve had a snake inside the house. This didn’t, of course, stop me checking carefully under my pillow and under (redback spider style) the loo seat for the following 24 hours. If a snake-incursion happens once every 20-odd years I thought, it is kind of manageable. I voiced this small crumb of comfort to a group of friends, one of whom swiftly kicked my last prop out from under me: “it’s the first one you’ve noticed,” he said. “Who knows how many there have been really?” For which thought: many thanks.

I don’t know why I started my recent episode of – completely haphazard – research on local fruit varieties. Could it have been because clients in the Valle del Niccone want to plant a huge orchard? For whatever reason it was, my searchings were completely derailed by this lovely document (in Italian, sorry) on the history of fruit growing in Umbria and the autochthonous varieties found here over centuries of studies.

My one small gripe would be that it’s clearly done by researchers who have looked eastwards rather than westwards in their work, and who rather gloss over the area around Città della Pieve, save for one pretty pear from Monteleone which is the next town along from here on the crest of the hill.

Still, the document is completely charming. It’s wonderful to think of botanists and naturalists and pomaceous fruit specialists through the ages poking about in our Umbrian orchards. It’s wonderful too to think of Umbria being an important pome-growing area. It’s not famously so any more, though there are growers here and there. I’m wondering though whether Umbria is simply getting too hot for apples and pears. Perhaps it’s a question I should put the this region’s indefatigable hunter-out of long-lost varieties Isabella dalla Ragione whose collection of ancient varieties on her property near Città di Castello is pure joy.

In the mean time I – from a long line of Irish apple growers – continue to be incapable of producing much in the way of fruit at all. My apples are pathetic, my pears are non-existent (one dead tree, one moribund) and I can’t remember the last time I produced a peach.

Once again this year the Plum Mystery occurred. This used to happen with the sad, twisted specimen that looked so wretched in the middle of my old vegetable garden, which produced insignificant blobs which I called damsons: raw they were foul; made into jam they were the fruit of the gods.

That tree – just like my big scosciamonaca plum tree this year – would be laden down with fruit which would disappear overnight. Poooof! Gone. What I’d picked I’d picked, what I hadn’t vanished. It wasn’t that strong winds had knocked the fruit off or that it had suddenly and inexplicably fallen. I don’t even think it was great flocks of dawn-raiding birds picking them all off. There were no rotting remains or scattered stones on the ground beneath. The fruit just evaporated. I used to think someone was stealing it in the dead of night. Now I just put it down as one of the mysteries of the countryside.

A brief aside on the scosciamonaca aka cosciamonaca and coscia di monaca, all of which monikers boil down to “nun’s thighs” which, I think, harks back to the important part that convent/monastery gardens played historically in fruit cultivation around here… and to a certain lack of respect towards the good sisters. It’s a very common variety in central Italy: it’s a Damascus/Syrian plum of the Prunus domestica spp insititia type – long and firm and very very delicious. So the fact that my whole crop vanished overnight last week is particularly galling. I didn’t even get a chance to make jam. Damn.

It occurred to me, after publishing my last post, that there was a small irony in my endless moaning about never-ending drought that had completely passed me by. In fact, on paper, July was the first month since last December in which the total rainfall actually surpassed my own personal July average (which only goes back to 2013, admittedly). Only problem: of the month’s 48.3mm (1.9″) total, 43.4mm fell in one dramatic 30-odd minute dump. The surface run-off must have been phenomenal.

If I wasn’t functionally innumerate I could probably study this information on run-off curves and work out more or less how much benefit we reaped from that sudden downpour. But that’s beyond me. Suffice it to say: not a huge amount because my “grass” is now a figment of my imagination and when I went out for a bit of quick weeding in the days immediately after only the immediate topsoil was very slightly damp.

August so far is equally bleak, rain-wise, though the heat now feels far less extreme, for which I thank the angle of the sun as we move away from the solstice. Occasionally the forecast promises storm-cataclysms. Thunder crashes all around. Some places have had more rain than they can cope with. But not us. We’ve barely had a sprinkling here on our side of the hill.

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