Umbria in May

Water in the house! We have water in our Umbrian house again! The winter rains saturate the hillside behind us until water seeps through the rock into our basement and puddles beside the bed. When we come back after six months in London, it’s like walking into an indoor swimming pool. The puddle has drained by now leaving a brown effloresences on the red floor tiles like an old bruise, but moisture is still thick in the atmosphere, the walls, the woodwork. The books on the shelves are soaked and curled. The furniture is damp to the touch. Our mattress and pillows are wet through. The closet has incubated mildew with its dank cellar smell and a blue-green fungus coats our leather belts and the backs of my shirts. Unclean!

The locals take it in their stride. Umbria is “the green heart of Italy” and Umbrians have been living with damp for thousands of years. Un po humido Pasquale shrugs when he visits, apparently not noticing the mildew. Waterproofing a house is an unthinkable expense. If a house gets damp in winter, it will dry out in the long summer drought. E normale! Why make a fuss?

But we do. We can’t stand to live like this. For days, we scrub and launder, dodging to the outhouse and the washing line in between the last winter storms, lightning in flickering displays on the far hills, thunder grumbling and snarling around the sky like a dog turning on its own tail, until it releases hissing streams of rain that white out the lake and make our gutters gurgle. It pours for a few hours. Then everything clears again. These last storms are half-hearted affairs- Jove, having run out of thunderbolts, throws a few sticks and stones before he stumps off the stage. And in between the wet it is spring whose champions are the irises. Their tall green lances point straight up and on the spear tips white kerchiefs of petal flutter like a lady’s favour, wonderfully white except for a few that are dyed blue-black, the colour of fountain-pen ink.

This year, Madam has planted a bank of snow- in- summer in front of the irises. A drift of the purest white with tangled skeins of light-green, velveteen leaves trailing below. Amid the smooth hard iris spears, slender reeds of wild garlic are shooting up, each tipped with a penumbra of white buds and in the centre, in a cluster, glistening pinkish brown berries that dry out into straw nuggets. Behind the irises, like a backdrop, acanthus plants spread their dark green soup plates of leaves so heavy they flop at the first touch of warm sun, only to revive again and stand straight at evening when it cools. And just starting, here and there, you can see feathery grass-like stems of love- in- the- mist fronded and feathered. When they come out, each stem will have a single blue flower with downturned edges and a lacey pompom, a garland of petals like a rustic bonnet.

The white and the blue-black irises grow near the house in clusters, like an advance guard, sitting proud and tall on their high horses. So does the jasmine whose white star-flowers droop over glossy polished leaves. Farther away on the bank mass the herbs- rosemary, sage, lavender- the foot soldiers among Mediterranean plants.

The rosemary comes out first, followed by sage, and last of all the lavender. All three flowers are coloured the blue of the Mediterranean sky and sea while their stalks are the parched green-brown of summer earth and their pollen must distill the southern sun because the bees love them so much. We watch bees drug themselves with drinking until they slip and tumble off the petals on to the ground.

Rosemary spikes are like honeycombs of little sky-blue flowers, packed more tightly at the tip of each curved rod. After a couple of weeks, rather than wilting and dropping, the flowers fade to a pinkish mauve, then into brown crinkled shreds, like nuts, and the stalks push them off, growing up behind them from the bottom, until the whole plant becomes a glossy Sherwood- green rosemary bush and you can run its filaments through your fingers to release the scent.

Sage flowers are either a bolder or a paler blue than the rosemary, with more purple in them. The sage bush is more open and the stalks straighter. When the bell-like flowers die, they stay in place for a long time as little brown anti-buds. The leaves and the brown bells shoot up on clearly defined levels, very tall, like a minaret made up of different storeys and on the very top, the last bits of bright blue are the muzzein.

Lavender is different again from the other two. It flowers a month or so later than they do, not until June. It is the highest bred or most etiolated of the three, no wonder its scent is associated with gentility and spinsterhood. In April the bushes are still dormant and in May all the lavender’s energies go into sending up its long tendril wires, a forest of them out of each plant until the ball of the shrub vanishes beneath these shoots like a high fashion model with a top-heavy coiffure. And there is something of the prima donna about lavender: even when the bushes finally flower: it is not clear whether they are puffs of delicately coloured elegance or overblown blue-rinsed hairdos.

And all the while scraps of this same Mediterranean blue go flying around the garden, in the form of small blue butterflies. The butterflies are like scraps of paper torn off and folded in half, the clues in some seasonal parlour game. They’re too small to fly high or far but they make up for it in speed. They make rapid fluttering trails to and fro across the grass, nosing out dandelions and daisies; occasionally they swoop up to a taller plant, then back down again.

Blue and whites are the colours of Umbrian May- and greens, of course, more different greens than you knew existed. But for real colour, we rely on roses, cultured and wild, or on an annual like the geranium. Geraniums, which are virtually Italy’s national flower- no photograph of an Italian village is complete without its scarlet geraniums flying gaily on every window sill like flags in pots- must be taken indoors in autumn in Umbria, where the winters can be bitterly cold. Part-time residents like us have to buy our plants fresh each year from a vivaio the same way we would in London or in Paris.

The opposite is true of the roses: they appear and disappear at will, a law unto themselves. One year there is nothing, an empty patch of ground, then the next year- a rose. A wild rose that will cover itself with fat pink blushes or carmine flower-heads or a rash of single-petalled coin-sized circles of very bright violet pink with white centres, like targets. Being wild, their blooms aren’t uniform; there will be different shades and combinations, of white and pink say, on each plant; nor do they last long. They bloom and perish quickly, carpeting the grass, but then more buds come, and more still, through the whole of May until they’re over- basta- finito- nothing but a burnt-out bush or a few green and brown twigs against a wall. You pass them by without a glance, never imagining how they splendid they looked in their finery.

All of this is in our garden, a concept the Italians don’t understand. Why spend time and effort growing things you can’t eat or sell? Geraniums, certainly- everyone needs flowers, in bright, showy colours, like presents in bright wrapping paper, the brighter the better, and bought in pots from a store, as is the proper thing to do with flowers. And wild roses too- what is wild can be beautiful, bello. But nothing in between. Nothing that needs work. What matters are the cash crops, the olives and the vines in the fields where, thanks to the wet winter, the grass and weeds have grown several feet high and are dotted and stained with swathes of colour: blue borage, yellow celandines, and, the most brilliant of all, scarlet poppies. It looks lovely and romantic but the plants, adapted to the summer drought, are hard as iron and have roots too deep to pull.

Now they must all go, one way or another, because the field must be stripped of everything but the olives. Olive trees can look like gnarled old survivors but they’re surprisingly sensitive and fragile reeds, at least according to the endless folklore that surrounds them. Ask them to share their soil with too much grass and weeds and wild flowers and they’ll either die or stop producing. May, once the last rains are past, is when the fields get cleared, cut and ploughed, in the old days by oxen and scythe but nowadays by machine. Five minutes drive away, over the hill, the fields are big and owned by large producers and agriculture is a quiet affair. A machine will creep to and fro over a field for a day or two before it departs and silence resumes. But on our side of the hill the land is divided into small individual patches, like medieval strips, and a contadino may own a strip here and a second strip a mile away and so on. All day, every day, from dawn to dusk, we are assailed by the angry buzzing of strimmers and grinding, clanking tractors, but anyone who regrets the lost peace of the countryside since the switch to machine-working took place- as the contadini themselves do in some moods- hasn’t known the backbreaking labour of traditional peasant farming. Since every inch of ground is cultivated, the work, and the noise, goes on for weeks, while bonfires smudge the surrounding sky. Finally, it’s our turn and Giancarlo arrives with his tractor to chug up and down and round and round our field, turning the heavy tractor as if it was a toy so as deftly to flick the harrow behind him in between the trees, as close to the trunks as possible (he doesn’t always succeed, but the trees can take a few scrapes). He’s done in three hours. What would it have taken him using oxen, we ask? He squints in concentration. Two and a half days, he says.

The Umbrian climate makes for productive and fast growth, but things also die here, equally fast and mysteriously, of their own accord. Big things. Weeds thrive but trees die, not as yet any of our precious olives- please god- but fruit trees and others. Not just young saplings either but hale, mature trees that go brittle and dead from one year to the next and must be cut down before they fall down. There seems to be no reason for this desuetude except as a balance to the general fecundity, but it’s disconcerting. There is something permanent about a tree, one feels, or there should be, but in Umbria the whole structure of a garden or patch of ground may alter without warning as a much-loved, spreading apricot or greengage or fig turns to matchwood and takes its shade along with it.

On the other hand, the olives can live a hundred years old or more and cypresses can last a thousand, the Etruscan burial trees whose roots supposedly go straight down to the underworld. Being the old Etruscan heartland, Umbria keeps the custom of planting cypresses in and around cemeteries, but perhaps for that very reason, Umbrians do not love the cypress and plant few of them elsewhere. It’s left to their Tuscan neighbours to the north, always a more frivolous and fashionable bunch, to appreciate cypresses for their own sake and turn them into their signature tree.

Umbrella pines are the other trees associated with Italy, wonderful for their shape and shade- like clouds in the form of trees- but Umbrians don’t like them much either. Recently, our village commune, in the name of civic improvement, tore out all its umbrella pines and replaced them with a new concrete piazza, a row of municipal evergreens from the oak family that you’ll hardly notice even when they’re full grown, and some nice rectangular beds for flowers, probably geraniums. There’s a fountain too, a hideous piece of modern sculpture no one can get to work but that already leaks.

You wouldn’t see that in Tuscany. The geographical distance may be slight, but you can tell at once when you move from one region to another. Everything is different. The land in Tuscany is less green. The farmhouses are a different design. The hills are more photogenic. Lazio to our south is different again. Tuscany has Florence and the Renaissance; Lazio has Rome. In Umbria, between these two more celebrated regions, we keep our heads down, till our patchwork fields and mind our own business. Our painters are Perugino and Pitruchio with their modest colours and sweet lines. We leave the Big Art and the Power Politics- as well as today’s Mass Tourism- to our neighbours north and south.

In early May, we go from needing fires at night and tracking the notorious Umbrian mud into the house to daylong sun and warmth. Within a week of the new month, Umbria’s green heart has lost its freshness despite the unchanging silvery grey-green drift of the olives and a chlorophyll green jolt from the vines that shoot out their tendrils in all directions at the first touch of summer heat. Suddenly, wherever you step, there are rustlings and dark shapes flashing in the corners of your eyes. The sun has brought out the lizards on the house steps and the outside walls. They move in short rushes then freeze, head up, stock still, before they’re off again, sliding rather than running across the ground before shooting two storeys up a white stone wall, as if the vertical and horizontal planes were both the same to them, until they squeeze into a crack and vanish. Once in a while, one of them will dive headlong off the terrace or lose its grip on a wall and fall flop to the ground but they never hurt themselves: a wriggle and they’re gone again.

Some mornings, thinking of other things, I get up from my chair and go to my study door only to find one of them with its head and forelegs just peering over the side of the step, its wedge-shaped head fixing me with a basilik eye, like being eyed by a fragment of prehistory, a living chip of time. Or I’ll come across one at midday, sunning itself full-length on the warm stone, a brilliant green stripe running from its head down its back, its tiny heart sucking its whole body in and out at a furious rate. On hot, still days they are everywhere around the outside of the house, rushing about their business, so that you don’t know where to look, you’re constantly distracted and delighted by their movements. One summer, we had a larger type of lizard living in our flowerbed. He was very bright green but shy, he mainly kept among the foliage, but when you glimpsed him with his dragon features you felt a touch of the awe our ancestors must have felt for his ancestors, the dinosaurs, whereas with the little gekkos they are more like playthings, their rubbery bodies are toys for a child’s bath time.

As well as the lizards, May brings everything that creeps, crawls or flies. Butterflies, hornets, house flies, black bees and the small brown hover bees. The hover bees make such a loud noise, like static, they’ll have you looking around everywhere unable to credit something so small could make such a din. The big black bees are aerodynamic impossibilities that manouevre through the air listing from side to side. The black bees are harmless but the outsize yellow hornets are not: when one of those veers into the room with its rasping buzzing we get up from our chairs and stand aside until it finds it way back out again. The hornets are looking for a place to nest and they circle the exterior of the house, probing cracks in the walls and hovering over dead trees. We pray they don’t find a suitable spot because they are dangerous and spraying to get rid of them is an awkward operation. Flies and wasps are around too though the wasps mainly come later in summer, among them a mud-laying wasp that builds cocoons out of mud, tiny pots to hatch its young with a dead insect placed in each one for food, then sticks the cocoons anywhere that’s dark- in drawers, under tables, on the back of wardrobe doors, behind pictures on the wall, behind books on the bookshelves. Their industry is incredible and they get in everywhere. We go around scraping and knocking off the groups of mud nests but even so we find them, sometimes as late as the following year, in places we never thought of, the cocoons brittle and holed where the young wasps hatched.

The ants are as industrious as the wasps but easier to keep out of the house. They create their trails across the terrace, totally ignored by the lizards we keep hoping will eat them. Right now the ants are assembling building material out of the triangular papery brown seeds blown from the elm trees beside the fosso. Each ant travels what must be thousands of miles in ant-geography bearing a burden which, in terms of ant-physigonomy, is too heavy and unwieldly for it to carry. To watch an ant cross the expanse of the patio, the ant version of the Silk Road, bearing his prize aloft while he sways and tacks like a yacht under too much sail in a Force 9 gale, is to witness an epic journey against the odds. When he reaches the hole a team of his colleagues gather to pull and stuff and drag the seed into an opening which is too small for it. They try one way, then another, some of them go to one side, some to the other, they stop to think about it like human workmen around a hole in the road, then they start again. No, it can’t be done. Surely it will never fit. But if you go back to look an hour later, the small pile of seeds will be gone and the ants will be gone and the job will be done.

The birds are nest-building too. When we arrived a couple of weeks ago , there was only a crow or two. Now the whole group of them is back, moving between their two favourite oak trees, cawing harshly, the sound of Umbrian summer. Swallows, those jet fighters of the bird kingdom, fly so low in their search for a nest site that occasionally a swallow will fly straight into one of the open windows of our living room and straight out again through the other window without missing a beat. These are the same swallows that at our friend’s house, each evening, will fill the sky with crazy flight patterns, executed at express speed, before they line up to dip and swoop right down to the surface of his swimming pool, drink on the wing and soar away. They don’t need the water. It is pure bravado and show off, perfectly executed.

We’ve heard the cuckoo in the mornings as well and at dusk the harsh, mewling cry of the owl. Actually there are two owls, one in the woods below our house and one in the woods above and they call to each other like demon lovers- or maybe they are warning each other off, who knows? For the most part they are too canny to show themselves, hunting a way off among the trees, though according to Pasquale when we weren’t here and the house was shut up, an owl came to perch on our roof post. We keep a wooden bench underneath the spot and we found it splashed with white droppings, impossible to scrub clean.

Strangest, and most precious, of the returning birds is the hoopoe. You only know it’s back when you hear its call and think ‘there’s the cuckoo’ then think again ‘no, it’s not’. The hoopoe’s note is higher and its rhythm is a piping honk, much quicker and more cartoonish than a cuckoo- boopboop boop-boop . I’ve only seen a hoopoe in the flesh-or feathers- a couple of times, a black and white fan tail, a sleek caramel-coloured body and a head like a stork’s but black and yellow, an unmistakably tropical bird, high-strung and long-necked. Catching it flutter across the fields, in its strong colours and nervous grace, feels as if an exotic stranger has moved into the neighbourhood bringing with him the flash and dash of the tropics or of Africa.

By the middle of the month, summer starts in earnest. The surrounding hills are no longer solid green but a jigsaw of green alternating with yellow or sandy orange squares where the grass has been cut and regiments of olives or vines march across the sloping, cleared ground in close formation. In our own field, the cut grass has turned to straw in thick, brittle strands and the daily sun bakes the land until the earth itself cracks in deep black fissures. This cracking is the way summer brands the land. On the other hand, to anyone who grew up in the north, the dark green cherry trees with their frond-like leaves filled with ripening red berries remind you of holly trees and Christmas rather than high summer.

While all this is going on, while the days grow hotter and longer and the nights shorter and softer, the spring poppies reach their height. They shake their papery flowers at us as we pass along every road and at the end of every stone terrace as well as in drifts in some fields that have been left fallow or abandonata. The longer they last, the less brilliant they become, so each new flowering is a little paler, a little more orange, until they disappear altogether. But if you look inside their cups in their prime, they have pistils like black buttons and a stain in the shape of a Greek cross. Their red and black are the spanking colours of new uniforms but their fading is blood and remembrance, which is why, for all their gaiety and glory, I do not love them.

The cat’s piss smell from the fig trees is one sure sign of the season. So is the sight of a trio of kites circling high above the village on the hill, angling their wings to catch the thermals on a cloudless, windless morning when the sky turns the fierce blue of southern skies so different from the pale blue of northern Europe. On our walks, the woods at the bottom of our lane are full of wild broom, yellow and spiky, as if a troupe of wood nymphs had stripped off their summer dresses and flung them over the bushes while they ran to cool down in the lake. The temperature can reach 100 degrees at lunchtime- too hot to work outdoors- and one understands the Mediterranean siesta not just as a custom but as necessity. In any case, as May nears its end, there is not much work to do: once the fields have been cleared and the new vines pumped, they can be left on their own for the slow, silent ripening until the vendemmia, the grape harvest, in the autumn, followed by the olive harvest, the climax of the contadino’s year, which in Umbria usually takes place in early November.

Between now and then lies a long pause for nature and for the farmers alike, but summer’s stasis has been prefigured, signed into existence, by May, in the evenings after the sun sets and there ensues a period of absolute stillness and slowly waning light, as if night itself was reluctant for the day to end. The sun drops between the long horizontal ridges of the surrounding landscape like a coin into a slot. I’ve counted up to seven layers of hills mounting behind our lake. In the foreground, the last rays of the sun make the vine leaves translucent. The rows of olives lift their shimmering silver-green arms to a newly vacant sky. The water in the lake turns over like a mirror displaying its silvered back. Then the hills take heat from the day and wrap its haze around their shoulders, like a purple shawl. Even so, the day is not done: there ensues a kind of conversation or dialogue between light and dark, day and night, that is sometimes heated, staining the sky with red and pink stripes and blushes, and sometimes more sotto voce, when a broad band of whitish yellow opens on the horizon against which the topmost fronds on the olive trees- solitary tufts that look as if the pruners overlooked them by mistake but which are left in place to draw the sap- etch their silhouettes.

Stars prick out in the slowly gathering gloom though the moon won’t rise for hours yet. Farm dogs bark. Wild boar snort and crack their teeth on the cherry stones, sounding as if they’re almost within reach but staying out of sight in the bushes and patches of uncultivated ground. Finally, in the darkest shadows under the trees, the fireflies arrive- June bugs, the Americans call them. One night the very first lone firefly drifts past on its meandering course as we sit out on our terrace after dinner. The next night there are two. The next night three, and so on. Each night brings more of these floating will o’ the wisps, flashing their mysterious signals. They are magical, especially when they multiply enough to invest whole fields, sometimes crossing the centre but mostly patrolling the boundaries, sticking close to the hedgerows, where their flashing speeds up and intensifies, they seem to urge each other on, until they become a whirl of little lights, then a reverberation, and at last a dance. The dance of the fireflies, while way above them the blackened sky fills to the brim and spills its stars.

Water in the house! We have water in our Umbrian house again! The winter rains saturate the hillside behind us until water seeps through the rock into our basement and puddles beside the bed. When we come back after six months in London, it’s like walking into an indoor swimming pool. The puddle has drained by now leaving a brown effloresences on the red floor tiles like an old bruise, but moisture is still thick in the atmosphere, the walls, the woodwork. The books on the shelves are soaked and curled. The furniture is damp to the touch. Our mattress and pillows are wet through. The closet has incubated mildew with its dank cellar smell and a blue-green fungus coats our leather belts and the backs of my shirts. Unclean!

The locals take it in their stride. Umbria is “the green heart of Italy” and Umbrians have been living with damp for thousands of years. Un po humido Pasquale shrugs when he visits, apparently not noticing the mildew. Waterproofing a house is an unthinkable expense. If a house gets damp in winter, it will dry out in the long summer drought. E normale! Why make a fuss?

But we do. We can’t stand to live like this. For days, we scrub and launder, dodging to the outhouse and the washing line in between the last winter storms, lightning in flickering displays on the far hills, thunder grumbling and snarling around the sky like a dog turning on its own tail, until it releases hissing streams of rain that white out the lake and make our gutters gurgle. It pours for a few hours. Then everything clears again. These last storms are half-hearted affairs- Jove, having run out of thunderbolts, throws a few sticks and stones before he stumps off the stage. And in between the wet it is spring whose champions are the irises. Their tall green lances point straight up and on the spear tips white kerchiefs of petal flutter like a lady’s favour, wonderfully white except for a few that are dyed blue-black, the colour of fountain-pen ink.

This year, Madam has planted a bank of snow- in- summer in front of the irises. A drift of the purest white with tangled skeins of light-green, velveteen leaves trailing below. Amid the smooth hard iris spears, slender reeds of wild garlic are shooting up, each tipped with a penumbra of white buds and in the centre, in a cluster, glistening pinkish brown berries that dry out into straw nuggets. Behind the irises, like a backdrop, acanthus plants spread their dark green soup plates of leaves so heavy they flop at the first touch of warm sun, only to revive again and stand straight at evening when it cools. And just starting, here and there, you can see feathery grass-like stems of love- in- the- mist fronded and feathered. When they come out, each stem will have a single blue flower with downturned edges and a lacey pompom, a garland of petals like a rustic bonnet.

The white and the blue-black irises grow near the house in clusters, like an advance guard, sitting proud and tall on their high horses. So does the jasmine whose white star-flowers droop over glossy polished leaves. Farther away on the bank mass the herbs- rosemary, sage, lavender- the foot soldiers among Mediterranean plants.

The rosemary comes out first, followed by sage, and last of all the lavender. All three flowers are coloured the blue of the Mediterranean sky and sea while their stalks are the parched green-brown of summer earth and their pollen must distill the southern sun because the bees love them so much. We watch bees drug themselves with drinking until they slip and tumble off the petals on to the ground.

Rosemary spikes are like honeycombs of little sky-blue flowers, packed more tightly at the tip of each curved rod. After a couple of weeks, rather than wilting and dropping, the flowers fade to a pinkish mauve, then into brown crinkled shreds, like nuts, and the stalks push them off, growing up behind them from the bottom, until the whole plant becomes a glossy Sherwood- green rosemary bush and you can run its filaments through your fingers to release the scent.

Sage flowers are either a bolder or a paler blue than the rosemary, with more purple in them. The sage bush is more open and the stalks straighter. When the bell-like flowers die, they stay in place for a long time as little brown anti-buds. The leaves and the brown bells shoot up on clearly defined levels, very tall, like a minaret made up of different storeys and on the very top, the last bits of bright blue are the muzzein.

Lavender is different again from the other two. It flowers a month or so later than they do, not until June. It is the highest bred or most etiolated of the three, no wonder its scent is associated with gentility and spinsterhood. In April the bushes are still dormant and in May all the lavender’s energies go into sending up its long tendril wires, a forest of them out of each plant until the ball of the shrub vanishes beneath these shoots like a high fashion model with a top-heavy coiffure. And there is something of the prima donna about lavender: even when the bushes finally flower: it is not clear whether they are puffs of delicately coloured elegance or overblown blue-rinsed hairdos.

And all the while scraps of this same Mediterranean blue go flying around the garden, in the form of small blue butterflies. The butterflies are like scraps of paper torn off and folded in half, the clues in some seasonal parlour game. They’re too small to fly high or far but they make up for it in speed. They make rapid fluttering trails to and fro across the grass, nosing out dandelions and daisies; occasionally they swoop up to a taller plant, then back down again.

Blue and whites are the colours of Umbrian May- and greens, of course, more different greens than you knew existed. But for real colour, we rely on roses, cultured and wild, or on an annual like the geranium. Geraniums, which are virtually Italy’s national flower- no photograph of an Italian village is complete without its scarlet geraniums flying gaily on every window sill like flags in pots- must be taken indoors in autumn in Umbria, where the winters can be bitterly cold. Part-time residents like us have to buy our plants fresh each year from a vivaio the same way we would in London or in Paris.

The opposite is true of the roses: they appear and disappear at will, a law unto themselves. One year there is nothing, an empty patch of ground, then the next year- a rose. A wild rose that will cover itself with fat pink blushes or carmine flower-heads or a rash of single-petalled coin-sized circles of very bright violet pink with white centres, like targets. Being wild, their blooms aren’t uniform; there will be different shades and combinations, of white and pink say, on each plant; nor do they last long. They bloom and perish quickly, carpeting the grass, but then more buds come, and more still, through the whole of May until they’re over- basta- finito- nothing but a burnt-out bush or a few green and brown twigs against a wall. You pass them by without a glance, never imagining how they splendid they looked in their finery.

All of this is in our garden, a concept the Italians don’t understand. Why spend time and effort growing things you can’t eat or sell? Geraniums, certainly- everyone needs flowers, in bright, showy colours, like presents in bright wrapping paper, the brighter the better, and bought in pots from a store, as is the proper thing to do with flowers. And wild roses too- what is wild can be beautiful, bello. But nothing in between. Nothing that needs work. What matters are the cash crops, the olives and the vines in the fields where, thanks to the wet winter, the grass and weeds have grown several feet high and are dotted and stained with swathes of colour: blue borage, yellow celandines, and, the most brilliant of all, scarlet poppies. It looks lovely and romantic but the plants, adapted to the summer drought, are hard as iron and have roots too deep to pull.

Now they must all go, one way or another, because the field must be stripped of everything but the olives. Olive trees can look like gnarled old survivors but they’re surprisingly sensitive and fragile reeds, at least according to the endless folklore that surrounds them. Ask them to share their soil with too much grass and weeds and wild flowers and they’ll either die or stop producing. May, once the last rains are past, is when the fields get cleared, cut and ploughed, in the old days by oxen and scythe but nowadays by machine. Five minutes drive away, over the hill, the fields are big and owned by large producers and agriculture is a quiet affair. A machine will creep to and fro over a field for a day or two before it departs and silence resumes. But on our side of the hill the land is divided into small individual patches, like medieval strips, and a contadino may own a strip here and a second strip a mile away and so on. All day, every day, from dawn to dusk, we are assailed by the angry buzzing of strimmers and grinding, clanking tractors, but anyone who regrets the lost peace of the countryside since the switch to machine-working took place- as the contadini themselves do in some moods- hasn’t known the backbreaking labour of traditional peasant farming. Since every inch of ground is cultivated, the work, and the noise, goes on for weeks, while bonfires smudge the surrounding sky. Finally, it’s our turn and Giancarlo arrives with his tractor to chug up and down and round and round our field, turning the heavy tractor as if it was a toy so as deftly to flick the harrow behind him in between the trees, as close to the trunks as possible (he doesn’t always succeed, but the trees can take a few scrapes). He’s done in three hours. What would it have taken him using oxen, we ask? He squints in concentration. Two and a half days, he says.

The Umbrian climate makes for productive and fast growth, but things also die here, equally fast and mysteriously, of their own accord. Big things. Weeds thrive but trees die, not as yet any of our precious olives- please god- but fruit trees and others. Not just young saplings either but hale, mature trees that go brittle and dead from one year to the next and must be cut down before they fall down. There seems to be no reason for this desuetude except as a balance to the general fecundity, but it’s disconcerting. There is something permanent about a tree, one feels, or there should be, but in Umbria the whole structure of a garden or patch of ground may alter without warning as a much-loved, spreading apricot or greengage or fig turns to matchwood and takes its shade along with it.

On the other hand, the olives can live a hundred years old or more and cypresses can last a thousand, the Etruscan burial trees whose roots supposedly go straight down to the underworld. Being the old Etruscan heartland, Umbria keeps the custom of planting cypresses in and around cemeteries, but perhaps for that very reason, Umbrians do not love the cypress and plant few of them elsewhere. It’s left to their Tuscan neighbours to the north, always a more frivolous and fashionable bunch, to appreciate cypresses for their own sake and turn them into their signature tree.

Umbrella pines are the other trees associated with Italy, wonderful for their shape and shade- like clouds in the form of trees- but Umbrians don’t like them much either. Recently, our village commune, in the name of civic improvement, tore out all its umbrella pines and replaced them with a new concrete piazza, a row of municipal evergreens from the oak family that you’ll hardly notice even when they’re full grown, and some nice rectangular beds for flowers, probably geraniums. There’s a fountain too, a hideous piece of modern sculpture no one can get to work but that already leaks.

You wouldn’t see that in Tuscany. The geographical distance may be slight, but you can tell at once when you move from one region to another. Everything is different. The land in Tuscany is less green. The farmhouses are a different design. The hills are more photogenic. Lazio to our south is different again. Tuscany has Florence and the Renaissance; Lazio has Rome. In Umbria, between these two more celebrated regions, we keep our heads down, till our patchwork fields and mind our own business. Our painters are Perugino and Pitruchio with their modest colours and sweet lines. We leave the Big Art and the Power Politics- as well as today’s Mass Tourism- to our neighbours north and south.

In early May, we go from needing fires at night and tracking the notorious Umbrian mud into the house to daylong sun and warmth. Within a week of the new month, Umbria’s green heart has lost its freshness despite the unchanging silvery grey-green drift of the olives and a chlorophyll green jolt from the vines that shoot out their tendrils in all directions at the first touch of summer heat. Suddenly, wherever you step, there are rustlings and dark shapes flashing in the corners of your eyes. The sun has brought out the lizards on the house steps and the outside walls. They move in short rushes then freeze, head up, stock still, before they’re off again, sliding rather than running across the ground before shooting two storeys up a white stone wall, as if the vertical and horizontal planes were both the same to them, until they squeeze into a crack and vanish. Once in a while, one of them will dive headlong off the terrace or lose its grip on a wall and fall flop to the ground but they never hurt themselves: a wriggle and they’re gone again.

Some mornings, thinking of other things, I get up from my chair and go to my study door only to find one of them with its head and forelegs just peering over the side of the step, its wedge-shaped head fixing me with a basilik eye, like being eyed by a fragment of prehistory, a living chip of time. Or I’ll come across one at midday, sunning itself full-length on the warm stone, a brilliant green stripe running from its head down its back, its tiny heart sucking its whole body in and out at a furious rate. On hot, still days they are everywhere around the outside of the house, rushing about their business, so that you don’t know where to look, you’re constantly distracted and delighted by their movements. One summer, we had a larger type of lizard living in our flowerbed. He was very bright green but shy, he mainly kept among the foliage, but when you glimpsed him with his dragon features you felt a touch of the awe our ancestors must have felt for his ancestors, the dinosaurs, whereas with the little gekkos they are more like playthings, their rubbery bodies are toys for a child’s bath time.

As well as the lizards, May brings everything that creeps, crawls or flies. Butterflies, hornets, house flies, black bees and the small brown hover bees. The hover bees make such a loud noise, like static, they’ll have you looking around everywhere unable to credit something so small could make such a din. The big black bees are aerodynamic impossibilities that manouevre through the air listing from side to side. The black bees are harmless but the outsize yellow hornets are not: when one of those veers into the room with its rasping buzzing we get up from our chairs and stand aside until it finds it way back out again. The hornets are looking for a place to nest and they circle the exterior of the house, probing cracks in the walls and hovering over dead trees. We pray they don’t find a suitable spot because they are dangerous and spraying to get rid of them is an awkward operation. Flies and wasps are around too though the wasps mainly come later in summer, among them a mud-laying wasp that builds cocoons out of mud, tiny pots to hatch its young with a dead insect placed in each one for food, then sticks the cocoons anywhere that’s dark- in drawers, under tables, on the back of wardrobe doors, behind pictures on the wall, behind books on the bookshelves. Their industry is incredible and they get in everywhere. We go around scraping and knocking off the groups of mud nests but even so we find them, sometimes as late as the following year, in places we never thought of, the cocoons brittle and holed where the young wasps hatched.

The ants are as industrious as the wasps but easier to keep out of the house. They create their trails across the terrace, totally ignored by the lizards we keep hoping will eat them. Right now the ants are assembling building material out of the triangular papery brown seeds blown from the elm trees beside the fosso. Each ant travels what must be thousands of miles in ant-geography bearing a burden which, in terms of ant-physigonomy, is too heavy and unwieldly for it to carry. To watch an ant cross the expanse of the patio, the ant version of the Silk Road, bearing his prize aloft while he sways and tacks like a yacht under too much sail in a Force 9 gale, is to witness an epic journey against the odds. When he reaches the hole a team of his colleagues gather to pull and stuff and drag the seed into an opening which is too small for it. They try one way, then another, some of them go to one side, some to the other, they stop to think about it like human workmen around a hole in the road, then they start again. No, it can’t be done. Surely it will never fit. But if you go back to look an hour later, the small pile of seeds will be gone and the ants will be gone and the job will be done.

The birds are nest-building too. When we arrived a couple of weeks ago , there was only a crow or two. Now the whole group of them is back, moving between their two favourite oak trees, cawing harshly, the sound of Umbrian summer. Swallows, those jet fighters of the bird kingdom, fly so low in their search for a nest site that occasionally a swallow will fly straight into one of the open windows of our living room and straight out again through the other window without missing a beat. These are the same swallows that at our friend’s house, each evening, will fill the sky with crazy flight patterns, executed at express speed, before they line up to dip and swoop right down to the surface of his swimming pool, drink on the wing and soar away. They don’t need the water. It is pure bravado and show off, perfectly executed.

We’ve heard the cuckoo in the mornings as well and at dusk the harsh, mewling cry of the owl. Actually there are two owls, one in the woods below our house and one in the woods above and they call to each other like demon lovers- or maybe they are warning each other off, who knows? For the most part they are too canny to show themselves, hunting a way off among the trees, though according to Pasquale when we weren’t here and the house was shut up, an owl came to perch on our roof post. We keep a wooden bench underneath the spot and we found it splashed with white droppings, impossible to scrub clean.

Strangest, and most precious, of the returning birds is the hoopoe. You only know it’s back when you hear its call and think ‘there’s the cuckoo’ then think again ‘no, it’s not’. The hoopoe’s note is higher and its rhythm is a piping honk, much quicker and more cartoonish than a cuckoo- boopboop boop-boop . I’ve only seen a hoopoe in the flesh-or feathers- a couple of times, a black and white fan tail, a sleek caramel-coloured body and a head like a stork’s but black and yellow, an unmistakably tropical bird, high-strung and long-necked. Catching it flutter across the fields, in its strong colours and nervous grace, feels as if an exotic stranger has moved into the neighbourhood bringing with him the flash and dash of the tropics or of Africa.

By the middle of the month, summer starts in earnest. The surrounding hills are no longer solid green but a jigsaw of green alternating with yellow or sandy orange squares where the grass has been cut and regiments of olives or vines march across the sloping, cleared ground in close formation. In our own field, the cut grass has turned to straw in thick, brittle strands and the daily sun bakes the land until the earth itself cracks in deep black fissures. This cracking is the way summer brands the land. On the other hand, to anyone who grew up in the north, the dark green cherry trees with their frond-like leaves filled with ripening red berries remind you of holly trees and Christmas rather than high summer.

While all this is going on, while the days grow hotter and longer and the nights shorter and softer, the spring poppies reach their height. They shake their papery flowers at us as we pass along every road and at the end of every stone terrace as well as in drifts in some fields that have been left fallow or abandonata. The longer they last, the less brilliant they become, so each new flowering is a little paler, a little more orange, until they disappear altogether. But if you look inside their cups in their prime, they have pistils like black buttons and a stain in the shape of a Greek cross. Their red and black are the spanking colours of new uniforms but their fading is blood and remembrance, which is why, for all their gaiety and glory, I do not love them.

The cat’s piss smell from the fig trees is one sure sign of the season. So is the sight of a trio of kites circling high above the village on the hill, angling their wings to catch the thermals on a cloudless, windless morning when the sky turns the fierce blue of southern skies so different from the pale blue of northern Europe. On our walks, the woods at the bottom of our lane are full of wild broom, yellow and spiky, as if a troupe of wood nymphs had stripped off their summer dresses and flung them over the bushes while they ran to cool down in the lake. The temperature can reach 100 degrees at lunchtime- too hot to work outdoors- and one understands the Mediterranean siesta not just as a custom but as necessity. In any case, as May nears its end, there is not much work to do: once the fields have been cleared and the new vines pumped, they can be left on their own for the slow, silent ripening until the vendemmia, the grape harvest, in the autumn, followed by the olive harvest, the climax of the contadino’s year, which in Umbria usually takes place in early November.

Between now and then lies a long pause for nature and for the farmers alike, but summer’s stasis has been prefigured, signed into existence, by May, in the evenings after the sun sets and there ensues a period of absolute stillness and slowly waning light, as if night itself was reluctant for the day to end. The sun drops between the long horizontal ridges of the surrounding landscape like a coin into a slot. I’ve counted up to seven layers of hills mounting behind our lake. In the foreground, the last rays of the sun make the vine leaves translucent. The rows of olives lift their shimmering silver-green arms to a newly vacant sky. The water in the lake turns over like a mirror displaying its silvered back. Then the hills take heat from the day and wrap its haze around their shoulders, like a purple shawl. Even so, the day is not done: there ensues a kind of conversation or dialogue between light and dark, day and night, that is sometimes heated, staining the sky with red and pink stripes and blushes, and sometimes more sotto voce, when a broad band of whitish yellow opens on the horizon against which the topmost fronds on the olive trees- solitary tufts that look as if the pruners overlooked them by mistake but which are left in place to draw the sap- etch their silhouettes.

Stars prick out in the slowly gathering gloom though the moon won’t rise for hours yet. Farm dogs bark. Wild boar snort and crack their teeth on the cherry stones, sounding as if they’re almost within reach but staying out of sight in the bushes and patches of uncultivated ground. Finally, in the darkest shadows under the trees, the fireflies arrive- June bugs, the Americans call them. One night the very first lone firefly drifts past on its meandering course as we sit out on our terrace after dinner. The next night there are two. The next night three, and so on. Each night brings more of these floating will o’ the wisps, flashing their mysterious signals. They are magical, especially when they multiply enough to invest whole fields, sometimes crossing the centre but mostly patrolling the boundaries, sticking close to the hedgerows, where their flashing speeds up and intensifies, they seem to urge each other on, until they become a whirl of little lights, then a reverberation, and at last a dance. The dance of the fireflies, while way above them the blackened sky fills to the brim and spills its stars.

The rewards of a Mediterranean winter are warm, sunny days that can arrive here and there without warning in January or February or March. But the rewards of a Mediterranean summer are its nights. During the daylight, we work hard. We strim, chop, clear, cut, bend, gather, dig, clip, scythe, pick, pull, weed, heft, carry, rake, stack, burn.......Umbria in May

The rewards of a Mediterranean winter are warm, sunny days that can arrive here and there without warning in January or February or March. But the rewards of a Mediterranean summer are its nights. During the daylight, we work hard. We strim, chop, clear, cut, bend, gather, dig, clip, scythe, pick, pull, weed, heft, carry, rake, stack, burn.......Umbria in May

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014