28 dicembre 2008

After the rain

After the rain we had some days of beautiful, crisp, clear, bright, cold weather, which could almost make me like winter, or at least make it tolerable. The horse and I went out for some nice wanders and did some dreaming in the sun.

Sadly we lost another duck, right in the middle of the day, to a mystery predator – but we’re not ruling out Maxim. We have four ducks now, of which one is a male, and the other three are all laying, though not all on the same day. Generally we’re getting two or three eggs a day, sometimes only one. We have an egg glut.

On Boxing Day it started to snow and has been snowing intermittently ever since – not very hard, so we’re not snowed in, but it’s not very pleasant out there. The vicious northeast wind that howled round the house for the first day has stopped, at least, but it’s still very cold. The ducks don’t seem to mind it and they hang out round the pond near the veg patch – grubbing around in the mud on the edge but for some reason failing to actually get in the water. It’s unbelievably frustrating to watch them. Give them a plastic washing-up bowl full of water and they leap in and sit there; give them a pond and it freaks them out. What is the matter with ducks?

12 dicembre 2008

For two whole days

For two whole days it has been raining solidly, and the world is wet. The valley is a lake. Actual streams are flowing across the field below the veg patch where the sheep were grazing a few weeks ago. The pond has overflowed and the outflow from it has formed another stream running down the gully at the edge of the field. Narrow, fast-flowing torrents are everywhere. Water is everywhere. Within a few minutes of being outside I’m soaked, water runs down my supposedly waterproof trousers into my boots and water drips off my hood and into my eyes and down my neck inside my scarf. The air has turned to water, you breathe in water. The sound of water is everywhere too, the hiss of the rain coming down, the gurgle of the streams that have sprung up, the squelch and splash of my footsteps.

The horse is standing miserably in her field, getting wet. She’s been standing miserably in her field getting wet for 36 hours and she’s very cold now. At lunchtime when I took her hay down she was shivering, which made me worry. Now I take her hay right down and put it in her shelter, which she never goes in because it’s scary; but now this seems ridiculous. She’s freezing to death. I slog back up from the shelter (why did we build it halfway down the field?) and get the piece of rope that’s draped by the gate. Cassie sidles away from me warily but I get the rope round her neck and, surprisingly, she allows herself to be led down the field towards the shelter. We slip and slide together (steep slope) and I hold on to her mane and her neck to stop myself falling over – if she decided to take off now I’d be face down in the mud. But she’s ok and I lead her straight into the shelter, where she promptly wheels around and starts to get agitated. I point out the pile of hay. Mmm, hay, she goes, and starts to munch it, jumping only occasionally when something in the woods startles her. This is really good, actually, as normally she hates her shelter and won’t stand in it at all without getting all neurotic. Now she lets me rub her down with some handfuls of old straw and she does seem calmer.

I go up through the Somme-like field to deal with the rest of the animals. The ducks are in duck heaven and don’t want to go into their pen; I leave them rootling around ecstatically in the puddles. The cats are very unhappy indeed. The dogs come out from their hideaway and start bouncing all over the place. I feed them, then go back to the field to take Cass her feed and a whole load more hay. She’s still standing in her shelter, out of the rain. Who knows if she’ll be brave enough to stay there all night?

3 dicembre 2008

Last night down in the field

Last night down in the field just after sunset I saw the current conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, together with the new moon, in the west. Not sure it really comes out well in the photo but it was very beautiful (you can just see Jupiter above Venus to the right, if you squint; well, trust me, it's there!). If we get a clear night I’ll take the telescope out and try to see Jupiter’s moons – the four Galilean moons should be visible. I’ve never seen them and Jupiter is currently so easy to find that it seems silly not to try, even though the telescope still hasn’t been properly aligned. Andromeda is right overhead at the moment so Alessio and I are going to look for the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars – saw it last summer but the winter skies are better, less hazy. So here’s hoping the cloud clears.

So, weeks have gone by since I last posted and winter is here now. There’s snow on the mountains; down here in the foothills we’ve had a lot of rain, and the horse’s field is a swamp of mud. She loves rolling in it and is back to her winter Mudpuppy incarnation.

The hornets’ nest has been struck by tragedy: recent high winds have damaged it, I think beyond repair. The beautiful sculpted-paper outside was blown off in bits and now the internal cells (like honeycomb) are exposed and gradually being blown away. The hornets themselves seem to have disappeared. This solves our hornet problem, of course, but it’s hard not to feel sad for them. All that work and effort. Life is tough in the jungle!

The veg patch is doing okay but not loving the sub-zero temperatures we had last week (minus 4.5 one night) nor the gales – the cime di rapa (turnip tops) are all bent over and soggy. We sowed broad beans, onions and garlic at the beginning of November (traditionally round here they sow broad beans around the Day of the Dead and All Saints, Oct 31st and Nov 1st) so hopefully those will all just happily while away the winter doing whatever it is they do under the earth and then burst through next spring. The savoy cabbages are thriving, which is good I suppose, though I can’t help viewing all twenty of them with some trepidation. It’s a lot of cabbage.

23 ottobre 2008

Every autumn a shepherd

Every autumn a shepherd from across the valley brings his flock over to our side to graze the fields that had hay on over the summer. It’s a nice custom and one of the ways in which traditional farming is still carried on here – the fields benefit from fresh fertilizer and the sheep get some good end-of-season grazing before the winter sets in. These sheep are a thin, black, rather goatlike local breed used for milking, and Misici, the shepherd, is well known round here for his superb pecorino cheese.

The sheep have been in the top field opposite our house for a week or so, being moved about by the shepherd on a daily basis, and attended by four or five of the usual enormous white Maremmano dogs. We hear the sheepbells tinkling as the flock pours from one field to another. When they’re on the move, Teo goes mad with barking and makes forays towards them, but not near enough to let the dogs get him. When they come into the field just below the house, the horse can hear them but not see them and she starts to fret, staring in horror in the direction of the scary noises and periodically setting off round her field at a frantic trot in, I suppose, an expression of the flight part of her fight or flight instinct. (The horse is definitely a flight animal. Especially this horse.)

Yesterday morning the shepherd brought the flock into the field below the house for a couple of hours and then took them away again, hidden up over the brow of the hill. Teo barked solidly for the two hours that they were visible. After lunch I happened to be gazing out of the kitchen window and spied a tiny black shape in the grass. It was a lamb, and through binoculars I could see that it was a very small lamb with two or three very big black crows hanging round it. As I watched, one of the crows hopped right up to the lamb and pecked around it threateningly; the lamb scrambled to its feet and the crow moved off, but not very far.

It took about five seconds to decide to rescue the lamb. By the time we got out into the field the crows were gone. The lamb was lying down but it got up as we approached and staggered about a bit in that funny, unsteady, sweet, lamblike way that’s part of what people like about very young lambs. I grabbed hold of it fairly easily and we carried it back to the house. We put some hay down in one of the old store-rooms and put it in there. It didn’t seem very distressed, and let itself be cuddled, but it did seem hungry – tried to suck the hay, but refused to suck water off my finger. Occasionally it said “baa”, in a heart-melting kind of way.

I went inside to track down the shepherd and reached him on only the third phonecall. “Have you found my dog?” he said. “No,” I told him, “but I’ve got one of your lambs.” He promised to come and get it. I promised to look for his dog. Alessio came home from school on the bus and fell in love with the lamb. I got into trouble for half-saying we could keep it if the shepherd thought the mother wouldn’t accept it back. Luckily when the shepherd turned up, he had no such worries and carted it off in his van. Alessio was devastated, and I was pretty sad too. There’s something about lambs.

Please, no one mention mint sauce.

22 ottobre 2008

We have a new duck

We have a new duck. This duck is one of a pair that were won as ducklings at a fair by a schoolfriend of Alessio’s, whose family were able to keep both ducklings over the summer in their small apartment garden, but who don’t have the facilities to keep them over the winter. We agreed to take both ducks, but sadly one of them escaped and was run over on the road (few ducks come to a happy end round here), so in the end we’ve just got the one.

She’s the same age as our other four and is another dark-coloured one. We put her in the pen when she arrived, with the others outside, and after a few minutes of looking at one another through the wire and quacking excitedly, it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to work out how to actually get together, either by means of our ducks going into the pen or the new duck going out. Ducks can never cease to amaze by their sheer dimness. So we lifted her out and plonked her down among the resident ducks, and they made friends pretty much straight away. There was a bit of pecking of the new duck, but nothing major or really vicious. I knew they’d be all right when I checked on them after a couple of hours and they were all looking in the same direction, whereas initially our four would face one way and the new one would face them. They all survived overnight okay and now are inseparable, doing everything and going everywhere together in the way that we’ve come to know and love in ducks.

And with any luck they’ll start laying soon.

14 ottobre 2008

After an uncharacteristically cold and wet

After an uncharacteristically cold and wet second half of September – the worst of which I was lucky enough to avoid because I was having a very lovely time in sunny London – the Italian autumn has reverted to type and we’re enjoying days of beautiful warm, balmy weather, soft sunshine and hazy mornings, temperatures in the high teens/low 20s and a general feeling of nature at its most benign and gentle. We will almost certainly pay for this later, but right now it feels good. The summer ended this year with such brutal suddenness – going from 30 degrees to 15 degrees within a matter of days – that it was difficult to feel positive about anything much. Amazing the difference some sunshine makes.

In my absence the veg patch has flourished, with John and Alessio planting up a whole load more green leafy things as well as fennel and (late) leeks. We now have an endless supply of cime di rapa (turnip tops) and swiss chard, and will have broccoli, savoy cabbage, cauliflower and green-leafed chicory. So we won’t go short of folic acid this winter; nor iron – the uptake of which by our bodies is greatly aided by eating your green leafy veg in the company of something containing vitamin C, otherwise known as a glass of red wine (oh yes, and lemons have it too). The red onions I planted too late are still not really ready but I guess we’ll have to pull them once the weather turns again; the tomatoes are still hanging in there, but are green and not really ripening now. Last year we ate fried green tomatoes once or twice, which were quite nice, but once or twice was probably enough. Sadly, not that keen on green tomato chutney or that would be the answer to the glut. Most of them we will throw away (in the new compost bin the council gave us for free, of course).

The September rain greened up the countryside almost overnight, but didn’t deflect the resident hornets from their purpose. The nest is now enormous and fantastic and resembles some kind of weird alien space pod, gradually taking over the host birdbox around which it is built. A friend whose husband is a naturalist told me that the hornets will be laying eggs now, for the larvae to overwinter in the nest and then hatch out next spring. Or perhaps it’s the eggs that overwinter and will hatch out into larvae next spring. The point being, the hornets are not crazy or indulging in unseasonal behaviour, the nest will not be abandoned in the winter, and we will have a huge live hornets’ nest very near our house next spring. Must find a way to deal with it that doesn’t involve wholesale destruction, either of us or of the nest.

6 settembre 2008

The hornets are continuing

The hornets are continuing industriously to build their nest around the birdbox. It’s fascinating and slightly scary to watch. They’re single-minded and driven, and when you stand under the nest (which is about 4 or 5 metres high up on the oak tree) there’s a sense of great intensity.

I’ve looked up the life cycle of the hornet and they’re meant to build their nests in spring, have summer frolicking and reproducing, and die out over the winter, so I don’t quite understand what’s going on here – building a nest in autumn? The websites warn you not to stand near their nest or get in their flight path, as a disturbed hornet will not only sting but also give off pheromones that alert the rest of the nest to the presence of danger, which is what causes hornets to attack en masse. So far they don’t seem bothered by our standing there though. They just fly round us.

I have an ethical problem with killing the whole nestful, but I’m not that happy with living with a nest of hornets as pets, especially with kids around. So I’m hoping they will die off as they’re meant to over the winter. And then we can preserve the nest too, which is a work of art.

1 settembre 2008

The first day of September

The first day of September: a cool, hazy morning. Summer is ending. The farmers are starting to plough and people’s veg patches are filling up with all the winter veg seedlings as the summer stuff gradually starts to fade. The swallows are still here, the babies from the nest in the workroom now fully grown. They sit on the power line outside the kitchen window and up until a few weeks ago we would watch the parents feeding them. Now the young ones are indistinguishable from the parents. Periodically huge numbers of swallows swoop and wheel in the valley after their insect feast and often now they alight on the electricity cables, presumably waiting for the invisible signal that will set them on their way south. I can never remember when they leave – perhaps I’ve never noticed – so I will try to make a note of it this year. For a summer lover such as me, it’s a melancholy sight.

Another bird we’ve seen a lot of recently has been the kestrel: far more usual here are the buzzards and peregrine falcons, but this summer there has been a kestrel family on the other side of the valley and suddenly they’ve become a common sight in the field below the kitchen – often six or seven at a time flying about, and coming incredibly close to the house. When they perch you see how small they are in fact – pigeon-sized – and when they fly you see the beautiful smooth terracotta colour of their backs and wings. We see them up on the top road as well, perching on the power lines and hovering over the stubble fields. And the buzzards are always around, floating in the blue air and riding the thermals in huge, high arcs over the valley, piercing the sky with their cry.

We have hornets too! A nest in the wall near the apartment, where the hornets have gone in and out all summer, bothering no one; and a new (or newly noticed) nest in an empty birdbox on the massive oak tree by the side of the path to the veg patch. The knee-jerk reaction to hornets is panic and terror – they are huge and mean-looking and have a terrible reputation – but we have recently learnt that hornets are less vicious and more docile than wasps. Unless riled. (Never rile a hornet.) So we're inclined to leave the nests and see what happens. The one in the birdbox is interesting because you can see that the hornets are constructing, over the circular entrance hole designed for cute blue-tits or sparrows, a sort of intricate porch-like shelter. They make a kind of strong papery material with which they build their nests, very strong and resistant and beautiful. To get rid of a hornets' nest you call the fire brigade and they come out and deal with it (we had to do this a couple of years ago, when we had a really big one we couldn't leave) – because destroying their nests is something that really riles hornets and is not recommended you try on your own.

In the veg garden we are getting ready for the new season and have rotovated a patch and planted winter veg seedlings: savoy cabbage, broccoli, green cauliflower, chicory (greens) and cime di rapa (turnip tops). Still room for fennel but we’ve left it too late for leeks, which is no great disaster as for the past two years our leeks have been useless (I think we always plant them too late). Cime di rapa are really tasty and when John’s mother stayed years ago she told us they used to be a staple vegetable in England too – now sadly unknown. You eat them like spinach but they’ve got a sort of nutty, buttery flavour and are far less muddy when you wash them. The cauliflower we’ve planted is a beautiful, sculptural thing, bright green in colour and shaped like some kind of weird organic ziggurat: a vegetable as work of art.

26 agosto 2008

A fantastic harvest

A fantastic harvest of tiny pumpkins! We picked them early this year to foil the porcupine, who last year ate half the crop; but even so, this year’s harvest has exceeded expectations – there are at least fifty. This tiny squash is called Jack Be Little and the big green one is Sunburst (I think). They’re autumn squash and should keep now at least until Christmas.

Now that the end of summer is approaching we’re harvesting a lot of other stuff from the veg patch as well and preparing it for storage over the winter. Kilos and kilos of tomatoes are going into making sugo, which we freeze in yoghurt pots and will give us tomato sauce for the whole year. Loads of green beans this year so I’m freezing them for the first time. We make batches of basil pesto and freeze it in meal-sized portions. Normally around this time we’d also have a glut of courgettes and patty pans, but this year the plants aren’t happy and we’ve barely got enough courgettes to eat, let alone worry what to do with. The red onions I planted so late have survived but are not very large yet; if the weather continues so hot I guess they’ll ripen ok, but otherwise maybe we’ll have to harvest them very small. I also wanted to try pickling cucumbers this year but again there are are only just enough cucumbers to eat on an ongoing basis, no extras.

But — melons! – yes, for the first time I have melons to be proud of! We ate the first one today and it was sweet and delicious. There are four more on the way. Every year we grow melons and this is the first year they’ve grown to a decent size and ripened. No idea why, but it’s very pleasing.

17 agosto 2008

We got back late

We got back late from the boy’s birthday party last night, around 9.00pm, when it was nearly dark. I went straight to feed the horse and close the ducks in. The ducks had put themselves to bed in their pen and I closed the door without looking at them very closely – just a group of ducks. It was a bright full moon and the horse was in the same agitated state she’d been in earlier in the afternoon, pacing round her field and snorting manically in the direction of the woods. She wouldn’t come up to the gate so I just left her bucket and put some hay down for her and left her to it.

This morning I got up very early and went down to do the feeding. The ducks were in their house but they tumbled out into their pen when they heard me and I chucked some feed in for them. Let the dogs out of the barn and went down to feed horse. She hadn’t come up to eat her feed or hay overnight, which is very unusual, perhaps unprecedented, so she must have spent the whole night fretting and pacing, poor girlie. I went into the field and she came halfway up to meet me – all covered in dried sweat and still all jumpy though not as bad as yesterday. I stayed around to keep her company, hoping she’d calm down. It was about 7.00 at this point and a cool, autumn-like morning; the sun came up from behind the hills and started to warm me up, and the horse finally gathered the courage to go and eat her hay, although she snorted in horror at the sight of the wheelbarrow, which I’d left by the gate. She definitely still thought there was some scary monster in the woods. And perhaps there was.

I spent a while tidying up the field and then went up to let the ducks out of their pen. Noticed that there was no egg in the duckhouse, but as Big Duck has been laying erratically recently (eggs in the herb bed) I didn’t think much of it. Then I noticed that there were only four ducks – the young ones. Big Duck sometimes shoots out first and whizzes up to the dogs’ area, so I went and checked up there, but she wasn’t in sight. I began to feel very uneasy. My parents had come out to join me by now, and we walked along the track below the house – and discovered a large quantity of giveaway white feathers scattered over the path. A fox must have got her yesterday evening, most likely while we were out – I didn’t count the ducks when I closed them in, just assumed they were all there.

So we have lost Big Duck, and it’s a sad day. It’s the boy’s birthday and we haven’t told him yet as he’ll be upset and it’s not news you want to hear on your birthday. We’re all upset: she was our duck with character (although “personality”, as my mother described it, might be taking it a bit far) and we had a lot of fun watching her hang out with the dogs, take a bath in their drinking bowl, and waddle along after them when they went off to bark at something.

Maybe the horse really did sense something scary in the woods. Ducks come and ducks go, but we will miss Big Duck.

25 luglio 2008

We are connected

We are connected! Our photovoltaic array has been installed for several weeks, but has been sitting there on our roof completely uselessly until the electricity company, ENEL, came to connect it all up. This they finally did last last week, a day of great excitement, and now we are our own little substation, generating electricity during daylight hours and feeding it into the national grid.

We continue to use electricity drawn from the grid – so when there’s a power cut, we still go dark, despite the high-tech array above our heads – which seems perverse but saves us having to set up an enormous quantity of batteries to store the electricity the panels generate, and is also the only way we get the government subsidy. The subsidy, or “incentives” as they call it, runs for twenty years and allows us to take out a loan to pay for the panels and to pay it back over ten years using the income from the incentives, meaning that the second period of ten years will be all profit (though we’re not talking huge sums here, and neither is it inflation-linked). The principal benefit to us will be that we’ll no longer have to pay an electricity bill, which will be a great relief as prices go up and up.

The greater and infinitely more significant benefit of course is that by not using fossil fuel-based electricity we are avoiding C02 emissions and thus helping a tiny bit in the fight against global warming. This feels good.

23 luglio 2008

We're talking about the weather

We're talking about the weather again, a far-away friend of mine said to me recently… Like that was something bad, or boring, or we couldn’t think of anything better to talk about (though we had lots to talk about in fact, and the weather was our subject of choice). And it’s true that the weather is a staple topic of conversation and it’s often what people talk about, well, when they haven’t got anything better to talk about. But it’s also true that – and I’ve noticed this especially since living in the country and having animals and growing vegetables – the weather is: interesting. Really, it is.

You seem to have a lot of weather out there, this same friend said, and I laughed. A lot of weather? But yes, it’s not the stable, hot, same-day-after-day Mediterranean summer climate that I thought it would be when we moved here. Maybe this is something to do with climate change, who knows? Two days ago it was baking hot and we couldn’t move for the heat; yesterday it was still very hot but there was a strong wind all day – the scirocco, the hot south-west wind that blows straight from Africa and dries all our plants to death. Murderous as it is, we hate the scirocco at this time of year. Overnight there was unexpectedly a huge, thundery rainstorm. (We’d left the skylights open and I’d hadn’t shut the car windows either.) This morning was grey and cloudy but the air was uncommonly still. I took the horse for a workout in the ring with one of our current guests, a 14-year-old girl, and we got caught in another rainstorm that blew up and passed over. The horse pranced about a lot in the wind and rain but managed not to totally lose it, and after 15 minutes or so the sun came out again and the breeze dropped (and the horse calmed down). And late this afternoon I was out in the ring cutting down the tall weeds with a sickle, and a strong persistent wind got up that was blowing from the east (that’s Siberia, pretty much) and was positively chilly. As I write this it’s barely 14 degrees, almost unheard of in July, even at 10pm.

So that is a lot of weather in a short few days.

And it’s a staple topic of conversation, especially in the country, because it’s a significant force, perhaps the most elemental of all. It affects everything you do and so much of what your life revolves around: no rain at all, you lose half your tomato crop; too much rain in May, you lose your hay; late frost, no cherries; strong wind, half your figs are blown off the tree (that happened today).

So. Weather. There’s a lot to talk about.

9 luglio 2008

This is the season

This is the season of Really Big Machinery. The farmers are getting in the second-crop hay with the tractor/mowers, and the corn and barley harvest is in full swing. For this they bring out the big guns – the combine harvesters.

Before I lived here I didn’t, for perhaps obvious reasons, think about combine harvesters much. In fact I still don’t think about them very much, but this is their season and it’s hard to avoid them. And they are incredible, amazing, really very, very large beasts indeed. They are itinerant and travel from farm to farm for the harvest, and meeting them on the tiny, narrow country roads is a scary business. They dwarf everything around them. They even dwarf the big tractors pulling the big trailers carrying various other big bits of combine-harvester supplementary equipment. They are wide and long and tall and bulky, an inelegant, awkward, asymmetrical shape, with a cab high up near the treetops, and surprisingly small wheels. Their sheer size inspires awe, especially in someone driving a Fiat Panda. You see them on the roads moving in a slow convoy, a tractor/trailer first and then the combi and then the lorry that the harvested grain is spewed into, the whole preceded by a jeep with someone waving a red flag to let oncoming traffic know there’s something to be taken seriously on the road ahead.

And yet in the fields they are almost nimble and so perfectly fit-for-purpose. They pass up and down the rows of corn with unrelenting straightness. On these steep cultivated hillsides, they are balanced in such a way that they can drive laterally along the slope, one set of wheels higher than the other, and yet the cab remains horizontal. This is amazing to someone like me with absolutely no concept of how such a feat could be achieved.

They are little worlds in themselves: some of the new ones have air conditioning, fridges and sound systems.

Round here we see two or three regulars every year: a slightly elderly, rickety red one, a grasshopper-green one, and a huge new, swanky, dark-green one. You can see them working in a field from miles off, by the cloud of dust that is raised around it as they work. Tractors, lorries and heavy-duty off-roaders wait in attendance by the side of the road. I read on the internet that it costs about £700 at the moment to fill up a combi with red diesel (the subsidized diesel that farmers use), and that this is enough for a single day’s work.

A rather fabulous thing about them is that they work at night, too. In the ferocious summer heat the farmers often save their tractor work till evening when it’s cooler and continue into the night, working by the light of their headlamps. Looking out over the valley you’ll see little sharp pools of light beetling their way across the slopes under the stars. They look lonely, but purposeful and industrious. Driving late at night I stop at the sight of a combine harvester working like this in a dark field, all lit up like some alien craft just touched down out of the sky. I watch the slow power of its progress for a while, and then drive home.

6 luglio 2008

The ducklings are fine

The ducklings are fine: growing apace and living quite happily in the pen. Overnight they go into the duck house with the big duck and they now seem to coexist together without any friction. Interestingly, a few days ago our current guests witnessed the big duck flapping about outside the pen to frighten off some predatory magpies that were chattering around too near the ducklings - so her maternal instinct has finally switched itself on!

The little ones are still very sweet to watch, with their fluffy downy feathers gradually shedding now as their adult feathers come in. They are very, very nervy and run away in their little group if you go too close, or when you change their water or feed them or adjust the sheet over the pen that shades them from the sun. Then they stand very still, listening, until they decide that they are safe, and one by one they sit down, which they do with a kind of folding, collapsing motion of their legs. I don't remember the first lot of ducks we had being this nervous, but maybe they were. We'll let them out into the big wide world soon, under supervision and with Maxim the duck-eater well out of the way.

Nothing more to report on ducks right now.

27 giugno 2008

Finally decided to plant out the onion sets

Finally decided to plant out the onion sets that I bought weeks ago, hoping they hadn’t died in the meantime. They looked brown and small but not completely dead. At 9.30 in the morning it was already very hot, in the high 20s, so I slathered up with sun protection and headed down before the full onslaught of the heat.

Hacked my way through the knee-high jungle of weeds that just a couple of weeks ago was a pristine area of fine tilth. With the luxury of the new rotovator (motozappa) we have made the veg patch very big this year, and it turns out to be too big – vast acreages of space in between individual plants or groups of plants, which has allowed the weeds to flourish. That and the weeks of rain in late May/early June, followed by this heat – it has all led to the growth of a sort of miniature tropical forest.

Anyway, back to the onions. I hoed three nice furrows in which to plant them, hauling out tonnes of weeds as I went. Couch-grass infestation is the worst, with endless tough roots that are practically impossible to pull out fully. I managed to put in the little onions, ten per row, and then had to hoe another row for the remainder, I seem to have about 40 in all. Watered them in. And I hope they will survive. They look very tiny and I think it’s too late in the season, really, to be planting out onions, but we’ll see.

The tomatoes meanwhile have also suffered neglect but have enjoyed it and flourished like crazy. Each main stem had put out three or four strongly growing side shoots; even the side shoots had side shoots. All these shoots should have been pinched out weeks ago as soon as they appeared but we failed dismally on that. Now the plants are so green and strong and healthy it seems a shame to take off the extra shoots, but that’s what has to be done so that they grow tall and put their energy into producing fruits now, and so I spent a bit of time doing that and enjoying breathing in the pungent greeny smell that tomato plants give off when you break them.

Finally and exhaustedly I did a bit more obsessive weeding and hoeing around the self-seeded dill that has sprung up all over the place, and by the end of this it was midday and I was hot as hell and drenched in sweat and dying for a drink of water. In this weather this kind of work needs to be done before 10 am and you definitely need a siesta after lunch. Some hope.

We found out recently that the local contadini (farmers) know how to tell the year’s weather using onions, by peeling off the layers of onions at the beginning of each year and somehow using them to forecast fairly generalized weather predictions for the whole year ahead. They got it right at Easter, when during a warm spell I was told that “next week it will snow – the onions say so”. How we scoffed; how right they were. And now they are saying that after a hot July the weather will break and the rest of the summer will be lousy – let’s hope the onions will be wrong on that one.

23 giugno 2008

We have had the ducklings

We have had the ducklings for ten days or so now and they’re about three weeks old. At night they live in a tub in the spare room lined with newspaper and straw, and in the mornings we put them out into the enclosed duck-pen. It’s incredible how smelly four little ducks can make a room in twelve hours. They’re eating chick starter feed and getting through not as much water as I’d have expected given the heat. During the day they huddle in their little group in the shade with occasional forays – all together – to their drinking water or their feed. They move as one. They rootle in the grass and I’ve seen them catching bugs and insects. Good ducklings. They are just about big enough now to poke their beaks over the edge of the washing-up bowl that serves as the big duck’s bath, and they’re trying to drink from that but without a great deal of success.

In all, they are very very cute indeed but I hope they can live outside soon as the moving them to and fro every morning and evening is a pain and so is the smell. This all depends on the big duck now – we have put her in the pen a few times together with the ducklings to try to get them used to each other, and she hasn’t actually attacked them, but she’s not very happy being with them and paces up and down along the wire like a caged, er, duck. I’d never have thought a duck could pace, but she is definitely pacing. This is a duck we’ve had for two years, one of our original four, the others having been lost through a process of natural attrition (otherwise known as the fox. And the puppy). Since Christmas, when the last two ducks were brutally torn from us, this duck has hung out with the dogs, Teo and Maxim, in a very sweet and strange little threesome. Teo is totally laid back about the situation (possibly he hasn’t even noticed) – the duck follows him everywhere and when he lies down, she does too, and when he goes off to bark at something in the distance, she goes too and stares off intently into the same distance, seemingly on the very point of barking. Maxim is somewhat more bothered, he being the one that killed the first duck and now living in fear of retribution; this duck tries to nick food from his bowl, and you can just see Maxim’s torment as he suppresses his natural canine instinct to rip her throat out and meekly backs away. The upshot of this is that the duck basically seems to think she’s a dog, which is why we’re not sure what her reaction to the ducklings is going to be. Apart from, so far, confusion – “What are these little things? They’re not puppies. Get them away from me.” I wouldn’t like to shut the ducklings in with her in the duckhouse overnight in case we opened the door in the morning to baby-duck carnage.

So: tonight's the big night and we’re putting the ducklings in their tub and leaving it (covered) in the enclosure, with the big duck shut in the attached duckhouse. So the little ducks get a chance to experience night in the big wide world, and the big duck gets used to having them in her territory.

Come the morning, we will know all.