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.