30 ottobre 2009

Maria called me

Maria called me to see if I could give her a lift up to the cemetery. This is the big weekend for ancestor-honouring and she always takes flowers up to her parents' graves. This year, she confided to me in the car, she decided to get in a day early to avoid the crowds.

A cold front is coming in on a north-east wind and the clouds are gathering behind the mountains but at 3.30 there was still enough sunlight slanting across the fields to make it look pretty. I've never been inside an Italian cemetery before. This is a tiny one on the edge of the village. It consists of a walled, well-kempt, grassy space with at one end of it a high wall of — tombs? Gravestones set into the wall, essentially — but what's behind them? A space containing the ashes of the deceased, or are they just name-stones? I didn't like to ask Maria because she was busily refreshing the flowers and grappling with the on/off switch of battery-operated Padre Pio votive light (luckily I was able to help her with that).

Down one side of the cemetery were several little mausoleum-type buildings each containing six or eight tombs (or whatever they are) of what must be the richer families. And there were four English-style graves in the ground, relatively recent, in swanky polished black granite, which got Maria all emotional as she explained to me who they were. (Three were two brothers and their mother who all died within 17 months of one another.) And then the Sunday-best photographs, one affixed to each stone — all those strong, staunch Italian peasant faces from years ago, staring out from the past.

28 ottobre 2009

Herbie has a small fracture

Herbie has a small fracture in his left back leg, which seems to be healing nicely despite his failure to obey doctor's orders to rest and not run about. In fact he shows no signs at all of developing mentally beyond the kitten stage and is driving Orsetta crazy in his attempts to get her to play with him. He's very funny.

After last week's grim and dismal weather it's now fantastically sunny and beautiful again, with misty mornings and soft autumn colours. Cassie's field is still very muddy, and so is she, although I cleaned her up the other day and took her out. I also closed off the bottom half of the paddock, raked it and sowed grass seed, feeling like someone in an illustration from a medieval book of hours.

We're still getting ripe tomatoes from the veg patch, which is pretty amazing, though obviously not of the same quality as the ones we get in the summer. Sadly we need to pull up the plants now, as this weekend is the time to sow broad beans and sow onions and garlic for
cropping next year, and in our crop rotation plan we've got the beans going on this year's tomato beds. They traditionally sow broad beans on November 1st and 2nd here — All Saints Day and All Souls Day respectively. No idea what the connection is but we go along with it.

19 ottobre 2009

This is the last

This is the last swallowtail chrysalis. I now have three, plus one very tiny caterpillar that I'm not sure will make it. This is a very beautiful green colour with yellow points — the others started off like this too, and gradually turned a leafy brown colour, so I guess that's what will happen with this one as well. They will overwinter and come out as butterflies in the spring. My naturalist friend Andrea has told me to keep them in the light (not to put them out of the way in a wardrobe), as the cycle of day and night is essential to their circadian rhythms and is what will let them know when it's time to emerge. So the next time I post about them it will be springtime.

15 ottobre 2009

It's Blog Action Day 2009

It's Blog Action Day 2009, and these are the latest pictures of my swallowtail butterfly caterpillars Basil and Bob — now preparing to pupate. Very exciting. This year Blog Action Day is about climate change, and I'm proud to have Basil and Bob helping me on this.

Let's think of caterpillars as among the forgotten victims of climate change. It goes like this: as the world warms, the characteristics of habitats change. Spring comes earlier perhaps; the patterns of the rains change; winter comes later and is milder, or the cold snaps are fiercer and at the wrong time. All this plays havoc with the butterfly's (caterpillar's) life cycle. Butterflies lay their eggs on a specific food plant, so that when the caterpillars hatch they can begin to eat immediately. They need to eat and eat and eat for weeks on end — and they need to eat that specific plant. (Basil and Bob ate a lot of my fennel patch.) If the plant's life cycle is altered because the climate is warmer, say, or wetter — well, the caterpillar loses its source of food, and can't survive. Butterflies can expand or move their habitats and colonize where the climate is more favourable relatively quickly, but plants take years or decades to move any significant distance, for deeply obvious reasons. (Ok: no feet.) Plants will lag behind animals in moving as the climate warms; animals will lose food sources and plants will lose pollinators and seed distributors. Whole food chains will be disrupted in subtle but far-reaching ways.


I'm not much of a scientist, but it hardly needs saying that if caterpillars disappear, then so do the creatures that feed on them, and so on down the line. On this green planet we're all linked together. Nothing, really, is too small to be left unconsidered. So, save the caterpillars: if they go, we go — only more noisily, and with a whole lot more pain.

14 ottobre 2009

Here is Ken

Here is Ken in his new incarnation as a chrysalis! A beautiful pale green one with gold flecks. (Hard to get a good photo through the glass jar.) When he comes out as a swallowtail butterfly, will he still be Ken?

Grim sleety day today. Yesterday, which was cold but bright and clear, we saw that the first snow had fallen on the high mountains.

13 ottobre 2009

Hot news

Hot news on the caterpillar front. Ken is definitely in chrysalis-making position: he's curled himself onto a sturdy bit of fennel stem and has lashed the stem to the glass and himself to the stem using strands of silky cobweb-like stuff. He is fastened there by his mouth (?) and his bottom, as well as having a sort of sling around his midriff. Every now and again he twists and wriggles a couple of times in a very slightly alarming manner, so something is going on inside him. I've seen this happen on an incredible video on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2cE86AA1q0 ), where the caterpillar shucks off its caterpillar skin to reveal inside, already formed, the chrysalis. I think that's what will happen with Ken. The other big green one, Boris, has been motionless for a day as well but is looking less deliberately placed and more like he just stopped where he was for a rest. The other two are now huge — just as big as Boris and Ken — but their coloration is still predominantly black rather than green. I don't know why they haven't turned green, but they look healthy enough and are eating huge quantities of fennel. Tiny tiny Egbert has reached the heady length of 1cm and is really fairly visible without having to squint.

In other news: the weather has turned, dramatically, and we're now in the full depths of autumn. Big storms yesterday with torrential rain and horizontal winds; lots of branches down all over the roads and the fields running with water. It was 25 degrees on Sunday; today it's 9. Something of a shock to the system. When I went out to feed the animals at 7.15 this morning I put on my new, bargain, fake-sheepskin-lined wellies from Lidl for the first time, to find that the lovely warm lining goes down only as far as the ankle and that the whole of the foot part is completely unlined. What the hell is the point of that? But the air smelt amazing as I hunted about for wild fennel in the meadow — the fennel itself (smelling of curry), wild mint, hay and all sorts of other grassy, herby smells mixed in — brought out by the rain. If only my feet had been warmer I'd have been pretty damn happy.

12 ottobre 2009

The butterfly emerged

The butterfly emerged from the chrysalis on Saturday morning and it's a beautiful red admiral. It took a whole day for its wings to dry. It moved around in the mixing-bowl and also sucked up some juice from a slice of orange that I put in there for it, but it didn't really flex its wings out wide till the following day. So on Sunday morning Alessio and I took it out to the barn and released it right where we found the original chryalis, and when I went to check in the evening it had gone. Hopefully to find a mate, rather than snapped up by a passing pigeon.

11 ottobre 2009

Really lovely day at a horse fair

Really lovely day at a horse fair at a place called Cantiano, about one and a half hours' drive away up towards Urbino. The area is where Cassie's breed comes from — Monte Catria (she is a Cavallo del Catria) — and this fair celebrates the breed. And it was full of Cassies! Most of them behaving themselves really well. Lots of mares tied up with their foals, loose, in tow. It's a selling fair and they were auctioning off the horses (tempting) as well as holding competitions for best of breed and so on. Alessio fell in love with a donkey and John was drawn to a classy-looking black foal.

I spent a long time watching a chap in the indoor arena who was working his horse first on the ground and then mounted, with only a halter, a long rein and a lunge whip — the horse knew exactly what he wanted and responded immediately. It was incredible to watch and I felt like I'd never seen such harmony and understanding between horse and human. He was doing a lot of the natural horsemanship stuff that I've been trying to aspire towards with Cass. I lay in wait and collared the man as he came out of the barn and we had a long chat. He uses the Parelli method and said that when he first got his horse, a couple of years ago, it was a monster — a dominant stallion that would bite you if you got within a metre. Now after Parelli training the creature is a gorgeous, calm (castrated) angel. It was very, very inspiring to see. There's a Parelli trainer there and they run courses, but it's a bit far for me to go and expensive (plus I don't have a trailer, and who knows if Cass would deign to go in it even if I did). But I'll see if I can maybe go and watch again, or something. It's good to know there's a natural horsemanship contingent in the area, at least. His horse was barefoot, too, like Cass.

9 ottobre 2009

Did I mention the egg

Did I mention the egg? I found it a few days ago attached to a strand of fennel and brought it in to see if it would hatch (yet another jar). It was tiny — about 0.5mm diameter — and yellow. Yesterday morning it had turned a dark bluish-black colour. This morning it had disappeared, and there was a tiny, tiny caterpillar in the jar. It's about 2mm long. I've given it some more fennel and it's munching through it. The other caterpillars are growing. I had to separate the two big ones (Boris and Ken) as they had a fight!

Also have what's either a painted lady or a red admiral chrysalis sojourning in a mixing-bowl in the kitchen — if it's the red admiral it may well overwinter in this state, whereas if it's the painted lady the butterfly should emerge in the next day or so. Either way, I need my mixing-bowl back.

8 ottobre 2009

Finished the vendemmia


Finished the vendemmia at lunchtime yesterday. It was fun, except I got stung by a wasp. Lunch was good — Maria had remembered about the meat and had cooked me a special tunafish sauce for the pasta (I don't eat tuna, but I did this time) and while everyone else then had huge plates of rabbit and chicken, I was treated to a whole trout. So it wasn't exactly vegetarian, but she'd made a big effort and was very keen that I be happy. Because we had such a wet early summer and then two months of sun, the grapes are fabulous this year. Mario's going to give me some juice to make grape jelly with, and hopefully his wine might be better this year as well!

6 ottobre 2009

Glorious sunshine

Glorious sunshine is what we're enjoying right now — the rain of a couple of weeks ago didn't last long and we're having a fantastic indian summer. The temperatures have been in the low 20s (that's the 70s for those of you who still think in old money: you know who you are) and we've been eating lunch outside every day. The house is cool and it's hard to come inside after that — I like to sit there in my shorts and t-shirt and close my eyes and imagine I'm on my private tropical beach ... then the ducks start quacking or a tractor starts up and that idyll goes up in a puff of smoke. Still, a girl can dream.

On the land, the farmers are ploughing, the last bales are being taken off the fields and the vendemmia (grape harvest) is starting. Mario is doing his tomorrow and we'll be helping, along with one of his daughters and an assortment of sun-ripened contadini. Maria provides lunch, which when I helped a couple of years ago was very funny — she forgot I was vegetarian so she failed to keep any pasta aside for me and just poured the meat ragù over everything. When she realized, she and the daughter then attempted to wash off the sauce under the tap. I was so embarrassed that I even ate it. Worse than the lunch (which hopefully will go better tomorrow) is the fact that Mario thanks us for helping by giving us some of his wine. It's as impossible to refuse as it is to drink, but we still can't help feeling guilty when we pour it down the sink.

The caterpillars are doing fine.


5 ottobre 2009

Haha, those two were just babies

Haha, those two were just babies. Look at their big brother that I found this morning! I went to pick some leaves for the littl'uns to eat and there he was. So this one I found on a stand of wild fennel at the edge of the field, but as the leaves were a bit sparse I then went down to the veg patch to get some leaves from our cultivated fennel (doing very well this year, by the way), and as I inspected the row, I found it pretty much crawling with caterpillars, in all stages of their development. They're veeeery pretty but they are eating a lot. John wants to disinfest the crop but I feel rather attached to them now and no way can we just squish 'em. That would be murder. A re-homing project looms.

4 ottobre 2009

Found these little beasties

Found these little beasties in the fennel as I was weeding amongst it. After much research on the Net I reckon they're going to turn into a kind of swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon, if anyone's interested). They're in a relatively early stage of their caterpillar childhood and should go through two or three more stages before they turn into a chrysalis. I hope to nurture them up to that point and then overwinter them in an attractive home made of a former Nutella jar, and then give them lots of fresh fennel leaves to wake up to next spring, when they should hatch out as lovely swallowtail butterflies.

Here's hoping.