ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
“Stop! Stop!” my wife suddenly insisted as we motored along a local country road. That her feet were up on the dashboard was unusually remiss, if not exactly risqué. “It’s there! It’s there!” she cried, pointing to the floor. Steering on to the nearest hard shoulder is fraught with peril, given the proximity of sheer drops hiding in the undergrowth. Courage old boy, I said, and stopped. “What is there?” I asked, peering over the gear lever at the floor. “A lizard.” Came the answer. “It’s gone under the dashboard.” That was not good. Drivers don’t venture these days into such a labyrinth, and are hardly Houdini enough to do anything when they get there, especially as the creature in question has four legs, and accelerates faster than the car. I decided the illusive stowaway would have to stay there, like the large spider who commandeered the back seat area in my old Alvis, and hung cobwebs over the windows oblivious to the fact that they never opened, and suicidal flies were unlikely in that neck of the wood. My wife, having an instinctive fear of things with lots of legs, said it was a female, and territorial; therefore I should get rid of it. I thought that a bit extreme, and wondered how I’d get rid of a motor with a sitting tenant. The lizard in question, on the other hand, appeared reluctant to stay, and peered out of the air vent on the drivers side. Extreme measures were required, so I opened the door, and encouraged it with a finger, at which it promptly threw itself through the opening, and scuttled away into the long grass. I calculated it was a drop of thirty feet to a human, and one would not be shuffling off anywhere after.
Italy is full of lizards, and they don’t all turn out to be President of the EUB. The gardens have their fair share, but they rarely venture indoors, having a high regard for the ever-ready broom. Though there is a large Green Lizard, the majority are Common Wall and Sand Lizards, half the size of their big cousin. Their tails, which might be twice as long as their body, are readily detachable. They are very partial to sun bathing, the females seemingly attracting predatory males of the species, as do beaches everywhere, resulting in an ‘exchange of views’ – et sequentia! Despite her moment in the car, my wife is quite tolerant of them in the garden where they hoover up stray insects.
Not so the Gecko who is a shifty character, and impossible to keep out of the attic. They have out- of-town relatives living in the garden shed, and the gas meter box in the wall. Apparently they are Moorish Gecko’s, though their sandy colour is decidedly more Arabic than Berber. They have five strange toes fitted with suction pads so they can hang from the ceilings, or vertical walls. A local art shop had one hanging from its ceiling for months, giving the impression it was dead. No one took any notice of it, and apparently, finally left in a huff. They are reputedly nocturnal, but not in our house, where five or six congregate on the ceiling of a balcony before sunset for their supper of insects.
This favourite location is shared with a Common Pipistrello – the latter being the Italian word for ‘bat’ – which also has a penchant for hanging about. He’s not welcome either. Bats are protected of course, due to a decline in their population, a statistic not shared by noisy brats who are also protected, but increasing it seems, exponentially! In Tuscany bats seem prolific enough, no doubt due to an abundance of chestnut beams that have never seen a smidgen of Rentokil, or the ministrations of my wife. As pipistrelli are a decided nuisance, and not a little incontinent, as ‘peepeestrelli’ on the walls will soon show; therefore, they are not domesticated hangers on! Persuading them to leave is no easy task. They are indifferent to the regulation garlic, or sheet foil as recommended by modern witches. Neither does the latter enhance ones environment. Having thus ignored your eviction order you have to stoop to native cunning. You’ll be aware that they fly by Marconi echolocation for their nocturnal commuting, so they have no problem locating our balcony, and its ‘protected from the weather corner’ after a late supper pursuing flying bugs round the street light. Chasing them away is no use as they have wit enough to know we will soon be in bed – and so will they! Success comes at a cost, albeit small, in the form of a forty watt bulb in the balcony light. Works a treat, except for the crowd of moths that take its place, and would have been its supper.
You may have wondered when I would get around to Lepidoptera. Our Tuscan garden has its fair share in all the colours of the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Guide. Four seem particularly adept at attracting our attention. There’s the Great Banded Grayling, a butterfly that’s a bit of a show off. If you stand still long enough they will treat you like a merry-go-round, even as a temporary perch to regain their breath. If you’re not handy, any old tree will do. They are very social. You can often see about twelve clustered tightly together on the ceiling of Etruscan tombs. Another species that is a bit of a tearaway, acting as though it’s a formula one racing car with helicopter attributes, is the minute Humming Bird Hawk Moth. Also known as the Sphinx Moth it has a very long proboscis that enables it to hover, and extract pollen from deep flowers like Datura which have a wonderful scent. It is reputed to be poisonous, and a narcotic, which might explain their behaviour. There are also some jumbo sized members, three and a half inches long (9cm), Hawk Moths with two or four spots on their wings.
But my wife’s favourite is a prolific butterfly, the Swallowtail, an elegant and conspicuous haunter of Lavender and Rosemary bushes of which the lady has planted a copious number.
Her interest in this butterfly proved useful. Decorating the ceiling of my study she made a smudge. No, you can’t touch up a lime based paint invisibly. A section of the ceiling would need to be repainted, obliterating a part of the central panel. Ever resourceful in moments of panic, the Swallowtail appeared where the smudge was.
Generally speaking, one cannot be said to be enamoured of bugs, or even fond. Fascinated is as far as you can go. Into this category falls the Preying Mantis. There are no British versions of this very strange insect that would make a good feminist logo as it’s likely to consume the male whilst mating – talk about having your cake and eating it! They turn out to be extremely spirited widows, and frightened the wits out of one of our kittens with its raucous, noisy response, when he became too inquisitive. However, it appears that one of these monsters became enamoured of yours truly. Firstly, understand that our garden falls steeply through four terraces, accessed by forty steps. Right. On the bottom terrace, was an old wooden former for an arch, and one such Mantis decided it was perfect in which to construct a case for her eggs. There might be more than two hundred in there – the stuff of nightmares. As I’ve only ever seen one Mantis at a time in the garden, and they only have a life span of a year, they don’t seem to have a very high survival rate. Having accomplished the deed on Day One I expected the new mother to take herself off to pastures new, and left her sitting on a rhubarb plant. Some hopes. On Day Two she was on the rail of the third terrace; Day Three on the wall of the second terrace; Day Four on the step at the top, and on Day Five she was found sitting on the back of a chair in the kitchen! Like the spider in the Alvis, she was persona non grata as far as my wife was concerned, and out she went. There is nothing like a female scorned, and she sat in the rosemary bush giving me the evil eye – all five of them – for the rest of the week before taking herself off.
The philosophical words of the famous Sicilian author, Lampedusa, are not quite true. “Everything must change, but everything stays the same.” Looking back you can see that the evolution in the making of a garden changes the habitat of certain species and they generally vanish. Hence I make no specific mention of the Scorpions that once appeared to live under every loose brick in the garden. I quite miss the little rogues, worth cultivating for their exotic character, if not their charm. Reputed to be one of the oldest creatures on earth, they are apparently, quite immune to a nuclear fall out.
As for others, some stay and some don’t. In this case two quite alarming flying insects illustrate the phenomena. The species that became a permanent resident, living in a dead tree or garden shed nearby, is a pitch black territorial solitary bee of the family Apidae, which flies under the title ‘xylocopa violacea’, though flying is not one of its best tricks. In the summer they can appear a shiny dark blue, which is a useless camouflage for an insect as you can see it coming a mile away. The Carpenter Bee, to give it its colloquial name, is a ‘proper bee’ of about two inch wing span (5cm), and might represent the jumbo jet of the family. This is unfortunate as they seem to be blind and launch themselves, somewhat in the manner of a missile, at break neck speed to wherever they may land. As they fly in a straight line, and cannot steer, you must duck, or take a pitch at them with a squash racket, if one is handy. This may be unfortunate if you miss, as you can’t tell the sex, and it’s the female that stings.
The other is the Hornet, a social wasp living in a colony, and not at all aggressive unless you sit on it. It’s family is about two hundred democratic souls, but in the manner of the ancient Greek colonies, when things become a little crowded someone has to go. So every year, across the once arid desert of our non existent garden, a large group followed a new queen, like a tight formation of Lancaster bombers, straight as a dye. God help anyone who got in their way. No longer. I suspect they must have thought they were going in the wrong direction, trees and shrubs not being on their road map.
One flying bug that gets little ‘shrift’ on the home front – that is between seizure and execution – might be described as a flying oil derrick on account of its long spindly legs that dangle down below in flight. Aerodynamic it is not. My wife, more prosaic than I, describes them as flying ballerinas, yet most intent on giving them the coup de grâce. Known locally as the ‘Muratore Fly’, (muratore being the Italian for a builder) it constructs a nest like an igloo in clay that is, in its own way, a little work of art. It consists of three internal cells, in two of which it stores dead insects for little junior to build up its strength, and break out. Its great sin is that it has no preference whatsoever in where it builds this mezzo-mausoleum. Anywhere will do, and thereby lies a tale. At a time before we had installed wardrobes, my wife chose to hang her dresses on a temporary clothes rail, with a dust cover. Very wise with builders knocking the place about. Putting on one of these dresses, and feeling decidedly uncomfortable, considered she’d left the coat hanger inside. On taking it off, discovered a neat line of clay nests constructed where the hanger had been, and used as a convenient former by the muratore fly. The lady was not pleased. Enemy number one made its debut. Needless to say, I was blamed!
It would be remiss not to mention the Crickets, and they are probably not what you imagine. In Florence there’s an annual ‘Festa del Grillo’ where once children could purchase a Bush Cricket in a little cage, nowadays it is just another excuse for a vulgar annual commercial fair. Bush Crickets, which rather resemble the English Grasshopper, are not the minstrel that transforms the Tuscan evening and night-time with its melody. The ‘True Crickets’ that do, consist of one or two families, including the mean and anorexic looking ‘Italian Cricket’ which might pass for a stick insect. We’ll ignore that one. The characters who are responsible for your evening and night-time serenade are the ‘Field Crickets’, trilling from summer to autumn, and known just about everywhere in Tuscany as ‘Grillo’.
They are not beautiful, and might resemble one of those thugs, rather than a bug, yet they are much loved for their melody rather than their gruesome looks. The Cicada, a difficult to spot tree dweller, and quite as ugly, is not a cricket but a different order altogether, providing day time overtures to the Grilli evening concerts. Though the Grillo can tune up during the day, it’s fairly unusual in the hilly parts of Tuscany. Between them they’re a noisy bunch. Never mind, their mother’s love them.
The grasshopper’s vegetarian relative, the large Migratory Locust of biblical note, is not so lucky if it gets blown off course, and lands in a Tuscan orto or allotment. There it will be dispatched very rapidly with the spade. It would far safer if it landed on a superstrada. No one would have a good word for them, even if they could sing like a Grillo.
One enormous bug is the Terry Thomas of the insect world. There’s no doubt the Monechamus Scutellatus would frighten the unwary, unless they were a biologist. Not a native of Italy, probably originating in the arboreal forests of North America, it’s still earned the title of The Tuscan Devil.
Given its ferocious looks it’s not a carnivore, preferring pine and spruce trees – especially those that have been burnt down. As some motorists have a habit of throwing cigarette ends out of car widows in Italy, they are assured of a decent habitat. Although you come across them every now and again, they never seem to appear in pairs. Still, after meeting one of these, Stag Beetles, et alia, seem a prosaic lot.
The expression “fairy’s at the bottom of my garden” is an appropriate expression that takes place from about June onwards in Tuscany. To see these floating candles serenely dancing in the darkness brings back childhood memories, and if you have an olive grove abutting, you’re in with a chance. It is a favourite haunt of the Lucciola or Fire-fly though, like the Cicada, may disappear for a number of years before popping up again. Perhaps batteries aren’t what they used to be! Don’t ask me why, but you should keep an eye out, for when they do, it’s another little bit of magic to be experienced during those balmy Mediterranean evenings.
Oh well, they’re almost over. Better open another bottle!