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.