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.

31 July 2022

Friends here have abandoned their top floor. When the mercury hit 41° inside, they simply moved downstairs, trading in hot beds for cooler sofas in the living room. We’re still hanging on upstairs but the heat is relentless. The occasional rain dotted on the forecast quietly evaporates well before its scheduled time of arrival. We see angry black clouds laden with violent heat-rain pass over. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll release their load anywhere, and they certainly haven’t done so on us for quite a while. Yes, in the past few days temperatures have dropped… but that means to just below 35°C (95°F) rather than above.

This time last year

I was musing on C&B’s wedding, a year ago this week. At 2pm when we sat down to lunch it was 32°C (89.5°F)… alleviated just a little by the fact that the sun had moved round and the house was casting a shadow over the table. This year on 23 July at that time it was 37.2°C (99°F) and the heat radiating off walls assaulted by sun each day since May was ferocious. We would have had to shift the whole thing back until the blessed relief of after dark. There is no way anyone could have eaten outside in that.

And so I sit here in our dark shuttered house through the day, waiting for the release of (relative) cool in evening, and muse angrily on my favourite theme: “what’s so difficult to understand about ‘the world’s burning up and it’s our fault and we’re doing very little to stop it’?” The busy way we’re searching for non-Russian sources of hydrocarbons; the dusting off of decommissioned coal-fired power stations; the mad grab for any available air-con unit… the ostrich-manoeuvre hopelessness of it all. There’s so much to be ashamed and afraid of at this point in time.

Actually, it’s a complete lie that all my days are spent in our cool-cave. Much of my recent time has been spent burning assiduously through fossil fuel as I shuttle between one garden project and another, and all the other various things which require my being behind the wheel of the car to keep them running. Up at Pieve Suites rapturous guests wax lyrical about the air conditioning. I am, of course, as hypocritical as the rest.

Yesterday morning – early, before the real heat set in – I combed our field for signs of gory animal combat. There’s a family of boar who trot out there every evening now: the heavyweights plus their teenage offspring who grunt and head-butt and rock around the field in their hobby-horse way. There are hares and deer and I saw one big badger beetling across in a very determined fashion. I suspect the magic portal into his sett is where the stump of the big dead apple tree has moulded away gradually.

Very late the night before last there was such an ear-splitting screeching of fauna getting vicious. It was impossible to tell what kind of animals were involved but something was angry and something was suffering, and the din made your blood run slightly cold.

By the time we located a powerful torch, the noise had died down. From way down the field, two eyes glittered back towards us. They stayed there for some time, unmoved by our prying.

I was thinking, naturally, of the early-morning wolf attack in our neighbours’ olive grove last month and fearing for the lives of those baby boar, though all the time wondering whether even a very determined wolf would attack a piglet with parents of such monstrous size as the ones that roam our land.

In the event I found nothing – just one stray pigeon feather which I don’t think had anything to do with the altercation. There was no blood, no gore, no signs of kill being dragged off into the woods. Maybe the monster-pigs did get the better or whatever wanted their offspring for dinner. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into a bit of screechy squealing.

What I did get to marvel at as I roamed the property is the miracle of the endless water than flows from the spring up in the corner of our land. The bed that we’ve cleared out for the trickle is doing its job. It’s lined with stones now, thanks to L’s tireless clearing of the rocks which constantly and inexplicably appear in the fields: lying in wait, ready to break the teeth of the mowing machine we get to come in once a year. All around us people’s deep wells are drying up, mighty Lake Trasimeno is becoming a muddy ditch, watering limits are imposed and fishing water from local waterways is banned. But that tiny trickle just keeps on going. It’s a different cool green world down there.

And talking of water, we had a visit from Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) the other day. I’ve written about Renato here and here . Yes yes, I know: water divining is bunkum. Except it works, so what can I say?

Renato had called earlier to say he wanted to bring us lots of stuff from his orto. Gosh Renato I said, how kind… but I’ve got so much stuff in my own that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But about the only thing Renato still hears these days seems to be water running underground so he came anyway, with his great big bucket of tomatoes and beans and lettuce and courgettes and there was really no way I could tell him no.

A propos of nothing… our beautiful theatre

He’s tiny – getting tinier I think – and I’ve never seen him without his pork pie hat. When I went up to the top carpark to meet him he was busy working his water-divining fob watch above the well. It was swinging vigorously. This isn’t because of the water he found for us all those years ago which – touch wood – is still running strongly. Once a vein has been ‘stroncato‘ (broken into) the spell is broken.

“There’s another vein immediately beneath yours,” he said, “at 92 metres.” Ours is at 86m. “It’s not as strong,” he said when he finished counting off the 92 pulls on his chain. “But it’s not bad.”

“Fantastic,” I said, “if we ever need it we can dig down deeper.” He looked at me like I was being completely stupid and come to think of it, I was.

“No,” he said in a ‘how can you not see how that couldn’t work?’ kind of way. “How would you attach more tubing below the tubing you already have? There’s no way you could get it down there.”

So. Great. We have lots more utterly unreachable water hardly any distance below the lots of water we already have. Thank you Renato for that invaluable advice.

A visit from Renato is never just about water, or vegetables. It’s really about Renato finally having a captive audience for his endless rural-philosophising which he does in a just-audible monotone. It’s very difficult (and kind of pointless given his deafness) to break into and even more difficult to steer towards an end.

“So,” he said, “what do you think we should do about Draghi?” This was just days before our ‘tecnico‘ prime minister finally threw in the towel and left Italy’s fractious politicians to clean up their own mess. Renato, it should be said, also found Draghi’s water for him and has located a vein for a second well. It’s a bit close to the cemetery, he said, but because Draghi’s Draghi, they might give him a special waiver… which to me sounded like a very undesirable perk of Draghi’s esteemed status, given the kind of potential run-off there might be.

We made some dismissive comments about what the immediate political future might hold but this was of no interest whatsoever to Renato. What he wanted to do was tell us about the minivan taking him and his fellow workers (he used to be a builder) to some building site many decades ago in which there was one character who insisted on smoking Gauloises as they drove along. Other times.

Renato takes immense pleasure in telling stories about what a thug he was when he was young. Given that he’s tiny even by Umbrian contadino standards this is quite difficult to imagine. He sorted the Gauloises smoker out, he said, by getting his neck in an armlock and choking him until he had to be resuscitated when the rest of the crew pulled Renato off him.

In some difficult-to-fathom Renato-esque way this story was related to the question of what Draghi should do next. I had a fleeting mental image of SuperMario, one foot on Matteo Salvini’s neck as Giuseppe Conte’s face, emerging from beneath his armpit, gradually turned deep purple as the result of a protracted armlock. But no. Unlikely.

In the end Draghi handed the hot political potato back to the people stacking coals on the political fire, and I accepted Renato’s veg with as much grace as I could muster then gave them to someone in town who needed them more than I did.

Scouring the horizon for rain that never comes…

On the radio on one of my endless fuel-guzzling jaunts, Italian pundits were musing on the Conservative party election to replace the foully feckless Boris Johnson. It was early days in the competition. What most struck these Italian commentators?

There are ten candidates, someone pointed out, and seven of them are from ethnic minorities. (Silence.) And… this is not even news.

There was criticism galore for Britain and its politicians, who were being compared most unfavourably to (at the time) Italy’s immensely grown-up looking government (though that screeched to a halt very soon thereafter). But there was also unbounded wonder at the fact that a country could – at some level – be so utterly integrated that a right-wing party can field seven out of ten ethnic minority candidates and no one bats an eyelid.

Such a pity, then, that ethnic origin has become so totally divorced from consideration for would-be immigrants. Such a pity that knee-jerk racism remains such a part of the fabric of other areas of society. Such a pity too that a Brexit campaign can be victorious to a large extent on the back of massive, totally contrived, anti-immigrant and xenophobic scaremongering. It’s a weird and very contradictory country. I’m so very over it.