Saturday 14 August 2021

Melting moments

As  I sit down to write this blog post the temperature gauge is reading 40.3C outside, and we have yet to reach the hottest point of the day. In the last week we've had a run of particularly hot weather, and the temperature has already exceeded 40C at least twice in the last couple of days. We barely know what to do with ourselves. From about 10am every day the house is plunged into darkness as we go around closing all the windows, the shutters, and doors to keep both the sunshine and the hot air out, and it stays like that until about 8pm when the evening air just starts to cool down slightly and we rush around the house throwing open all windows and doors to capitalise on the temperature differential. So, for the best part of 10 hours each day we've been hiding indoors in what feels like a cave through lack of natural daylight - yet it isn't anywhere near as cool as a cave should be or would be! 

Of course, looking around at the rest of the world we know we are not alone in this extreme heat, and in fact we realise we should be grateful that the mercury has "only" hit 40C. This week in Sicily the temperature reached a record (for Europe) 48.8C. I simply cannot imagine how uncomfortable that must feel - even earlier this week when we took a trip into Pescia for some shopping it almost felt as if my eyeballs were burning. Thankfully, here in our area we have not been affected by forest fires this summer (so far at least - and long may it continue that way), whereas so many other places around the world have not been so fortunate.

So it's a Saturday afternoon and we are stuck indoors - having spent Saturday morning driving around in the car with the air conditioning on (not something we usually treat ourselves to - usually having the windows open in the car suffices, but today we gave up on that after 10 hot and sweaty minutes and resorted to the A/C - that is with the exception of when we came to one particularly steep hill at which point we had to turn the A/C off in order to give the struggling car a fighting chance to make it to the top of the hill!). Our mission this morning was to try to find a small fan (mission accomplished, and in a blissfully air-conditioned electricals shop to boot) so that this afternoon, Stuart can attempt to make a DIY swamp cooler.

Last week Stuart successfully made a DIY air con unit that runs by blowing air over a block of ice inside a coolbox; this weekend it is the turn of a swamp cooler, which uses water evaporation to cool the air, rather than needing to rely on blocks of ice (which only remain blocks of ice for a limited period). Here's the theory:

And here's how the coolbox air con unit was made:

One cool box.

A cool box, a fan and a piece of plastic pipe.

Hole cut in the lid for the fan.

And a hole cut in the lid for the pipe outlet.

Fan and pipe inserted

Ice added to the cool box.

Cooling air.

We are thankful that, while the temperature has been high for many weeks now, it is only really the last week that has been a really significant struggle to cope with. Up until this week we had been managing to keep the house at a reasonably comfortable temperature, and although outdoor temperatures have regularly hit the mid 30s they haven't (until now) been so extreme that we haven't been able to do anything. Having said that, the mid to high 30s is still pretty hot and our work rate always slows significantly in these hot summer months; in part due to a higher work load for me in the office, in part due to the weather not being conducive to physical work, and in part due to there being fewer necessary tasks to get done. The main jobs that still need doing are the cutting of the grass on the terraces and getting the winter firewood ready and under cover.

Strimming the terraces has been slightly different this year.

To start with, there was the small issue of a broken rib. Having had undiagnosed vague aches and pains in my left-hand side for a few months, everything fell into (or more precisely out of) place one night when, during the night I turned over in bed and felt (heard, even) a crunch and crack and something that rather exceeded the amount of pain I'd previously been experiencing. It was obvious to me that I'd done some damage to my rib/ligaments/cartilage/, but I couldn't quite believe that breaking a rib could be, well, so easy. Over the next 4 or 5 days it was extremely uncomfortable, but it was 10 days before I could get to see the doctor, and another 4 days before I was able to have an x-ray, by which time the pain was subsiding.

Since the x-ray wasn't classed as urgent, I had to go all the way to a medical centre on the outskirts of Florence for it (nowhere closer had an availability for a non-urgent case) - a long and tiring drive on the motorway in rush-hour traffic for Stuart and I could barely look him in the eye when I came out of the medical centre to tell him that I would need to go back again two days later to collect the results (on CD-ROM!). I felt somewhat vindicated when I did pick up the results though:

Your guess is as good as mine. Good job the experts know what they are looking at.

It seems strange to say I felt relieved to have a broken rib, but I was relieved that the hassle of the journey to Florence and back had been justified and relieved to have an explanation for the vague aches I'd been having for a while, and relieved to have a cast iron, concrete "excuse" for having taken things easy for a short while.

Of course the rib episode happened just at the point at which the terraces were needing another strim and I had been planning to do them that week. With the grass and other vegetation growing like crazy, Stuart called in a favour from a friend who he'd been doing some work for and who had promised to repay him by doing a day's work for us, so Cristian came and cut the grass one day, and the following day our friends Paul & Kathy gallantly came to finish the job off. We were truly grateful to them all, and I can't tell you how frustrated I felt seeing other people work without being able to get stuck in myself! 

Thankfully, the pain subsided considerably after a few days, and a few weeks later I was back up to speed, back cutting the grass on the terraces with a new, much lighter weight strimmer bought thanks to some very generous help from my Dad.

Back in the game!!

The other, more significant, difference in strimming this year is that we made the decision back in the spring not to cut the vegetation on the banks, instead only cutting the flat parts of the terraces. We did this for two reasons, one is that the banks have been becoming increasingly unstable in recent years, and constantly cutting the grass/plants growing on them does some considerable damage, whereas leaving the vegetation intact helps to stabilise the banks as the roots of the plants hold the soil together. The other reason was to leave all the flowering plants on the banks for the bees and other insects to feed from. 

The decision not to cut the banks has had a couple of effects. First, it has made the whole strimming process so much quicker, easier and less arduous. Whereas it last year (when we cut the banks as well as the flat terraces themselves) it had been taking around 17 person-hours to do the whole lot each time, this year it hasn't taken much more than 10 person-hours each time. Secondly, we have been thrilled to see the changes in nature itself - the succession of beautiful wild flowers, the increase in insect life and even the return of one wild flower (an orange lily) that we last saw in the year that we moved here, but had not seen on our property since then. So it seems it's a win, win!

Pretty in pink centaury.

Lilium bulbiferum var croceum (Orange lily) - it's six years since we last saw one here.

Nature creates such beautiful colour combinations - centaury, sheep's bit scabious, st John's wort and more. 

The morning sun gives everything a beautiful summery meadowy feel.

Sheep's bit scabious.

This month (last week, in fact) we finished the other big job of the summer, that of moving all the winter firewood down from the storage area by the gate to the winter woodpile near the house. We had delayed bringing it down this year because we are still hosting 36 bee hives on the small flat piece of land next to the gate. Usually the beekeeper brings them here in the spring and leaves them for roughly 3-6 weeks, purely for the flowering season of the acacia (robinia) trees. This year, the acacia flowering season (and thus the acacia honey season) was disastrous. No sooner had all the flowers opened than we had a period of very wet, very windy weather and all the blossoms were knocked off the trees. It was so bad, that local beekeepers have not been able to produce any of the highly prized acacia honey this year.

Unlike in previous years when Alain, the beekeeper, has moved his hives on to another location for the sweet chestnut flowering season, this time he decided to keep them here at our property for the whole summer - we guess he will be producing millefiori (a thousand flowers - essentially a generic honey that isn't a specific flower type) during this period, but he has said he wants to leave the hives here for the ivy flowering season, which may well result in him (or rather his bees) being able to produce a monofloral honey (ivy).

So usually we would wait until the bees had gone before doing any work in the area close to the hives, but with time ticking away we decided to brave it and tackle the wood pile. It felt like a particularly brave decision for me after having suffered a particularly nasty bee sting a few weeks previously, followed by 4-days of a very (very) puffy face, but after Stuart had done the first few tractor loads alone and reported back that the bees were calm and not bothering him, I joined in, and after approximately 20 loads (over the course of a few days) we had brought down all the wood for the winter.

Aside from those large jobs, we have of course been tending to the veg garden - including Stuart brewing up some 'actively aerated compost tea', or AACT, with which to fertilise our crops.

The recipe is: one kilo of worm castings with four tablespoons of molasses, aerated for 36 hours. This acts to increase the microbial life of the (already incredibly rich) worm castings fourfold. 

(The dog is not not an essential part of the process or recipe).

And we've had some decent crops from our veg garden already: tomatoes, soya beans, snake beans, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers, squashed, garlic, onions, chillis, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and more!

In these warm months we've really been enjoying the pond we built last autumn - we jokingly refer to it as the "Zen garden", but it really is relaxing sitting next to it in the shade, listening to the trickle of the water in the fountain and watching the fishes.

On the subject of fishes, we appear to have created a very healthy environment for them - having added to the pond six goldfish and two Koi carp back in October... we now have hundreds of baby fish. It has been fascinating watching the young fish develop and grow. At first they were so tiny it took a double check to see that they really were little fish. We were convinced the numbers would dwindle significantly through natural selection, predation, etc., but over the months a very large number of them have continued to grow and develop. There are fish that are still dark brown/black, and others that are well on their way to developing their orange and golden colourings. Quite what we'll do when they reach full size we're not sure!

Our garden flowers have been particularly beautiful this year - nurturing them (some from seed, others bought as plants) has proved to be a wise investment of time and effort.

And as always, we are fascinated by the nature that surrounds us and we try at every opportunity to record it!

Yet another stinkhorn fungus (and yes, they do stink).

Aesculapian snake, constricting a mole.

Lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus).

Male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa).

A type of bee-fly (Exoprosopa).

Wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi),

Peacock fly (Callopistromyia annulipes).

Aside from tending the land and hiding from the heat, we've had lots of opportunities over these summer months to catch up with friends and neighbours at various outdoor social evenings, made lots of use of our pizza oven and rocket stove for outdoor cooking (another attempt at keeping heat out of the house as well as being an enjoyable way to cook and socialise), we've had enjoyable treats in the form of a meal out for our anniversary in June and a meal out on my birthday in August (complete with flashback to ~5 years ago after finding ourselves stuck in the blazing sun in a car park with a car that wouldn't move - although thankfully on this occasion we were quickly rescued by kind strangers and quickly identified (and later fixed) the problem), oh and we have both had our first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with second doses due for us both in the next 10 days.

This is a sight you don't often see - both of us scrubbed up for a lovely anniversary meal.

Normal service resumed.

And not forgetting our boy.