2 November 2020

I spoke too soon about the hunters. Their hounds were yapping down there in our valley all yesterday morning. I heard few shots. But as I endeavoured to pull weeds out of my soggy beds yesterday afternoon, a boar somewhere started roaring in what I can only imagine was pain.

The hunters’ noises had all but disappeared by then: the only other human sound I could hear was the chatter of olive-picking from across on the parallel ridge. My first instinct was to move inside. The boar sounded close and I pictured it gathering its last bit of strength for a final charge at a random representative – me perhaps? – of the species which had put a hole in it. 

The moaning-roaring-grunting came and went, and I realised (largely thanks to L who, fresh back from his bike ride, ignored my eminently sensible warnings and strode down into our fields to investigate) that it was further away than I thought – far down our valley and probably up the hill on the other side. So I returned to my weeding, with one ear to the pain. I tried to call hunters I know to ask them to investigate but no one answered. Surely one of those infuriating dogs could have tracked the poor beast down, rather than abandoning it to its fate. 

This morning I could hear nothing out there except the usual birdsong and insect noises. I hope the boar has died, its suffering over. Problematic as boars can be, it pains me to think of anything in pain.***

We spent all day Saturday – (almost) entirely literally – wrapped in the thickest of mists. It was as if the day didn’t really exist. It’s odd to find ourselves in that situation: we’re used to feeling oh-so-smug about our sunny uplands as we survey the sea of mist in the Val di Chiana, wondering as we do how they could possibly bear so many months of clammy, reduced-vision winter.

On Saturday though it seemed somehow to reflect the general state of the world as we flounder towards more lockdowns, more illness, more deaths, more confusion… and a possible second presidential term for a man who really does seem to present an existential threat far beyond his own borders. 

There’s much talk of Covid fatigue, lockdown fatigue, virus fatigue. The Italian media are full of accounts of violence as protesters take to the streets to demand an end to masks and restrictions. As always, I find myself wondering whether these stories are given prevalence because they’re really what’s happening or whether they fulfil a pre-decided narrative arc. I noticed that some in the British media were careful to stress that these were ‘small’ demonstrations in Italy; elsewhere the usual tiny groups of right- and left-wing rabble rousers were blamed. Political commentator Fabrizio Barca was at pains to point out yesterday that all press eyes in Rome were on a handful of anti-mask thugs in campo dei Fiori whereas just across the centro storico thousands of masked marchers were peacefully asking the government for far tougher measures – plus adequate financial support – with barely any coverage at all. 

In this small Umbrian microcosm what I’m seeing above all is tetchiness. On the town Facebook page long squabbles break out over things which have only tangential bearing on the situation and how best to handle it. 

One local woman was rushed to hospital last week for something unrelated and, before she expired, was found to be Covid-positive. Cue angry, lengthy complaints over suggestions that this could be classed as a ‘Covid death’. 

And then there’s the discrepancy between town numbers and regional numbers, these latter always slightly higher than the former with regards to CdP. The debate is endless. Has the region got it in for us? Is our mayor hiding something? Can we believe anything from anyone if the numbers don’t align? The completely plausible explanation that one counts residents who are effectively domiciled in town, and the other just considers where sufferers are officially resident doesn’t seem to calm anyone down. (As I write, I’m talking about a 16/18 case divergence.)

Then there are the voices wailing that depriving children of their right to go to school is criminal. As things stand, no one is actually doing that. Kids of all ages have returned to their places of education, though classes where positive cases turn up are sent straight home. But this situation will probably change tomorrow when the latest government orders are issued: all but the very smallest children will probably return to what is currently my favourite new Italian ‘word’/neologism: dad, ie didattica a distanza

In theory I agree utterly that the learning and socialising and learning to be a member of society that school provides is essential… as is every parent’s right not to have to deal with children 24/7, and this is particularly so with women who in Italy – as everywhere, though perhaps more than in some places – find the burden of childcare fully on their shoulders. But I can’t help noticing that case numbers leapt not as a result of our fun summer of relatively carefree socialising, but came the moment three things happened: colder weather meant we started spending more time indoors (and inside, as this brilliant infographic shows, is dangerous); far more people started using crowded public transport for everyday moving about; and kids packed on to school buses and returned to classrooms. 

We were so relaxed, so confident about being in good hands. For the majority (of which I’m a part), the confidence is still there. Tomorrow’s new measures won’t include a full lockdown, but that will come I reckon, and it’s not too far away. The numbers are scary and the thought of what awaits us over the winter months is distressing.

Less scary and less depressing, though, because we’re here. 

My trip last week to Rome to plant a terrace was traumatic, even though I drove down, and spent the whole day backing away from workers and colleagues and clients outside on a terrace – a terrace with a view over the dome of St Peter’s so beautiful it almost took my mind off contagion. Almost.

Too many people about though, and without the same respect I feel here. Is it because country folk have more space, and more leisure to consider the effects of their actions? Is it because (here at least) they’re all more or less related to each other so don’t want to feel they’re infecting the family? No, I think it’s the same idea of local pride that keeps our streets so clean and our townscape so well cared for. We care about our shared space. And we don’t want to be seen to be letting the side down.

I’ve started putting my non-garden designs on my website – probably a vain task given the small number of people who happen upon my site and the even smaller number who spend time leafing through it. But if nothing else it’s important to have a record of the things I do, and something to show people should they ask. And I do love fiddling about with photos and websites.

 ***I’ve just noticed that all the thanks I got for my heart-ache for wounded boars was much serious digging all over what I call my lawn. There must have been dozens of the brutes out there last night. There are bits that look like they’ve been ploughed over, and holes you could break your ankle in. So not so much sympathy for the moment. 

13 October 2020

I used to get furious at the boar who would root about in my grass cuttings pile and strew stuff all over the place. (I know: it’s a niche irritation, but it goes with our territory.) They’re definitely looking for insects to snack on in there. But I’m also pretty convinced that they spread it around and bed down in it: such a soft warm mulch of decaying biomass.

Recently though, I’ve decided to stop getting riled and started working with them instead. They create mayhem night after night; I let them enjoy themselves. They turn it over and over, pulling out the better rotted, insect-rich bits from the bottom of the heap and – I presume – they add their own bit of manure to what’s already pretty rich organic matter. Instead of doing the Sisyphean task of piling it all back up again and again, I now simply wait until they’ve worked their magic then transport the lot up to the vegetable garden or wherever it happens to be needed: perfectly turned, mixed, aerated compost, all ready to heave on to my beds. So, sorry boar if I’m depriving you of your compost playground but you know, it’s only fair: I cut the grass for you, you make the growing medium for me. Sounds like a good deal.

So far this autumn I have heard one shot and one tinkly hound (Umbrian hunting dogs wear bells around their necks). Basta. Usually by this time they’re driving me beserk every weekend of the pre-stagione. I think this is one of those rare Covid-silver-linings: a hunting season which is starting late. It could also have something to do with the fact that the band of gung-ho idiots who are usually allotted this particular area to hunt in are engaged in a legal wrangle after they broke some arcane hunting reg last season. Long may they be banned. It’s such a relief not to live amid hunting mayhem.

The boar themselves are somewhere between relaxed and brazen. Between one downpour and another I was doing a little tidying in the orto the other evening when I heard loud noises on the level below. I peered over. A huge beast was looking straight at me in a “so? you got something to say to me?” way. I suspect he was there because that’s where I hurl all the half-rotten apples that fall from the trees into my veggie beds: there’s a carpet of fruit. He stared at me, I stared at him. Then he sauntered off into the mass of brambly weeds below. “But only because I want to,” he seemed to be saying, “not because you made me.”

Summer was exceptionally fruitful; autumn is following suit. In some of the recent storms which have turned my clay-heavy soil to filthy glue, gusts have snapped off fruit-laden branches. I’m still picking bucket-loads of apples from trees which have rarely produced very much at all before. But now the next batch is ready too: the pomegranates and quinces, the medlars and the persimmons and oh-so-many walnuts. One unforeseen effect of last spring’s land-clearance is that the walnuts from the tall tall trees, the tips of which used to only just protrude from the jungle below, now fall in places where I can pass by and scoop them up, if I can beat the boar to them… and I have. 

My tomatoes are still going strong. My garlic was an usually measly crop. I tried planting in spring this year rather than autumn/winter. It didn’t work. It’s going into beds treated with boar/clippings compost in a couple of weeks, in raised strips to make sure it doesn’t rot. Why is it every year I have to turn to google to remind me how to make elegant garlic plaits? Every year I think I’ve bookmarked the perfect instructions; every year I find (a) that I haven’t and (b) that it takes forever to find anything that’s any help at all. This year I happened across this. The plaits seem to be holding together. 

I’m now watching my Crocus sativus in great anticipation. Last year a saffron-growing friend gave me six bulbs as a present. I stuck them in a fallow bit of vegetable garden and, hey presto, about enough saffron for one risotto for the two of us. Occasionally L laments the fact that we never took to saffron-production, a fine CdP tradition. This is ludicrous in a number of ways. 

Firstly, though the idea would have been his, it certainly would never have been ‘we’ who did the dirty work: in the long run (in fact, in the not-very-long-at-all run) garden things always fall to me. And secondly because saffron production is so labour-intensive and messy that it takes no time at all before you start wondering why saffron doesn’t cost more than its already-exhorbitant price. The bulbs have to be planted and lifted and replanted with extreme care at very definite times; the flowers have to be picked at dawn each day; stamens have to be extracted and dried over a flame of precisely the right temperature within a certain amount of time. Dull dull dull: no thanks. I like the kind of gardening where no harm is done if I forget everything for weeks. Tight timetables are anxiety-inducing. 

This year I lifted my six bulbs at a time when I needed the patch they were occupying for something else. Horror: too early. I got it all completely wrong. The six bulbs had grown and divided and magicked themselves into more than 20. Which naturally I forgot to put back into the ground at the right time; since when I’ve been watching anxiously for any sign of life. It would have been ignominious, going back to my friend to admit I’d killed off her gift. But no, they’re coming up: tiny little spikes are nosing their way out of the ground. Phew. Maybe this time we’ll get four or five risottos. That will be a luxury.

There’s so much going on around the place at the moment, so much of which I don’t go to – partly because I forget, but mainly because I almost always come away from things thinking “no, I didn’t like that: too many people in too small a space. If one of those people had the virus…”

It will get more difficult now that cold is driving us inside. Rising numbers of new cases – fewer than most European countries but still increasing – are proof of the risk. I see that one student at our local high school became CdP’s fourth positive today. How do you stop Covid spreading in a scenario like that?

One thing I really wish I had attended was this, a conference about our town’s historical archives, “one of the 15 best in Umbria” as the article keeps saying, making them sound less rather than more important if you ask me. I’ve heard about the notorial archives before. That they’re just a small part of the whole I didn’t realise. The contratto di concubinato (1456) in italics in the middle of that article is priceless. Bear with me while I translate.

In the presence of the notary Cola di Iacopo, the cobbler Giovanni and his son Tommaso promise that Tommaso will take Caterina di Germania as his concubine, giving her board and lodging. Should Tommaso have one or more children from her and should Tommaso’s wife die, or should the couple separate, Tommaso will marry Caterina and give her 40 florins as a dowry. Should Caterina not have children or should she no longer wish to stay with Tommaso, or should Tommaso no longer wish to keep her, then he will give her 20 florins, unless Caterina commits adultery with someone else. 

True, the odds are rather stacked in favour of Tommaso who, though he’s grown up enough to have a wife and a concubine, still needs to be accompanied by his Pa to sort this business out. But there’s also a reasonable lifestyle (board and lodging) and some redress (20-40 florins) for this woman who was probably a foreigner (di Germania) and perhaps without much protection. (Whether Wife N°1 feels a trifle miffed at the new arrangement is not something we’ll ever know.)

We tend to think of the writ of the Church being all-powerful in the Italian Middle Ages (with the Renaissance well on the way) yet here’s this utterly prosaic (presumably nothing out of the ordinary?) contract in which a cobbler’s son can have multiple partners with whom he is planning to have children. Will they be baptise-able? Of course the Catholic Church didn’t start strictly enforcing marriage as a sacrament under its sole dominion until the 16th century. And the same went for baptism which even now can be administered by anyone, not just a priest in a frilly frock. But that’s by the by: what’s great here is the image it paints of daily life in the 15th-century. It’s business like and sensible and delightfully shocking.