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Arriving in Anghiari

Arriving in Anghiari, December 2016



It was a beautiful clear winter’s day yesterday, when I arrived in Italy. On the train from Rome to Arezzo, I thought again about the quality of this winter light, and how different it is from any light-and-landscape in Australia. I find it achingly beautiful, if perhaps melancholy: the hills with that mix of olive, cypress, and late autumnal deciduous tones in a low deep sunlight. I can’t take my eyes off it.

Arriving in Arezzo, I am thrown into a busy Saturday lunchtime, and the slightly chaotic practicalities of the Avis office and manoeuvring a car into Italian city traffic. But it is in the Avis office that I again encounter the sense of welcome that I experience here. Paolo, the Avis man, who lives in San Sepolcro, and who is said to have the eyes of Piero Della Francesca’s San Giuliano, always remembers me. He greets me warmly and, this time, gives me contacts in Anghiari. First, a cousin who is a butcher, and, I note, a woman. (I haven’t been to this butcher’s shop before because it is at some distance, at the bottom of the hill, in the Tiber valley, but I have heard that it is very good. There are at least three excellent butchers in this town of some 7,000 people.)  Second, a friend, an artist who has a shop in the mediaeval part of town. This prompts a conversation about young people, and whether they stay or leave small towns around here. Stay, he says, insistently. This isn’t the common Italian pattern. I want to learn more about what happens in this place.

The final point of the long journey from Australia is the turn into Corso Matteotti, the street where I stay. This is the main Renaissance street of Anghiari, which becomes the straight road down the hill, across the Tiber valley, to San Sepolcro. Suddenly, there is a breathtaking view. And, on arrival, yesterday, the bells were ringing as I turned the corner. Late in the afternoon, the time when the town comes to life again, I headed out to do a food shop. This has become, over the years, my arrival ritual. But, the welcome I received this time was particularly pronounced, perhaps because I have returned after only a year. It did feel like a homecoming.

20161218_094358_resizedI went into three shops and, in each, I had a similar experience. It is interesting that this happens particularly when food shopping. The first shop that I went to is the unassuming ‘supermarket’ that I described in my first Anghiari blog last year. This time as I enter, the elderly couple who own the shop not only greet me with big smiles, but they come from behind the counter to hug me. I am shocked to hear that this is the last evening that they will be open. They are getting on, and their daughter doesn’t want to keep the shop going, so they are selling. Now I see that the shelves are empty. Nevertheless,  there is still some local pecorino and prosciutto to be had, as well as their own delicious olive oil. They press upon me crostini with this oil, and offer me a coffee. I am again struck by their generosity. I am glad to have been able to see them again, even if sad to see the shop empty. Somehow you don’t expect things to change here: I had just assumed that shop would always be there!

Then, off to the butcher’s. Again, the husband and wife who own this shop immediately come around the counter to welcome me with hugs (note that here is another woman butcher). When their son enters a little later, he greets me warmly, but is more formal. I am definitely ‘signora’ to him, which I presume is a matter of respect for age. (This shop doesn’t seem to be in any danger of closing as the next generation is very much involved in the family business.) I learn that the date of the annual pork festival has been changed, and that this year there will be two pigs. I buy some of their homemade ravioli for dinner, taking instructions on how to reheat it, and am encouraged to return at 11 in the morning when they will have roasted quails. As it turns out, it’s not only quails, but duck, pigeon, chicken, pheasant. This is a Sunday ritual. Yes, I return.

And, my final destination is Letizia’s fruit and vegetable shop. It is interesting to note that I don’t even know the names of the people in the other shops, and yet there is a sense of warm connection. This is not unusual in Italy; knowing people’s names is not the priority it is in our culture. In the case of Letizia, we have established the use of the informal ‘you’ between us. She is always very happy to see me (and is also  very encouraging of my Italian). This time she can’t stop hugging me. During my stays, I buy her vegetables on an almost daily basis, as people do here. The vegetables are local and extraordinarily fresh, boxes of purple artichokes, cavalo nero, spinach coming in every day. Food is so important in this culture. And, in all sorts of ways, it connects people. It connects me with this community.

Letizia advises me to buy only what I need for dinner, as I am clearly tired. Afterall, she will see me tomorrow.


Spiders of Newtown

























If you type ‘Australia’ and ‘spider’ into Google, the first pages of results are dominated by accounts of danger. Australia has 2400 species of spider, but pest control companies and tourist guides only want to talk about ‘the ten most dangerous Australian spiders’. They show mugshots and profiles and advise people what to do if they’re bitten. Since I’ve been in Newtown, however, I have seen no spider more dangerous than a huntsman.

This arachnophobic culture has supported the spread of the factoid that, no matter where you are, you are never more than 3 feet from a spider. While this claim is too simplistic,  it is truer than you might imagine. Spiders are among the most common terrestrial animal, found in all environments.  In a review of spider ecology, AL Turnbull reported spider population densities as high as 842 spiders per square metre, for an English meadow.  The average density in the 22 studies he reviewed was 130.8 spiders per square metre.

I do not know the density in my Newtown garden, but on any day I will see many spiders, and over a couple of weeks I will see many types of spider. I’ve seen leaf-curling spiders, long jawed spiders, tent spiders, jumping spiders, garden orbweavers, golden orbweavers, and many that I cannot identify. Some have bodies that are two centimetres across, some are so small I have trouble photographing them, and there must be many that I have not seen because of their size or inaccessible habitat.

Continue reading Spiders of Newtown

Striped Marsh Frogs













In our area of Newtown, the basic house block is only about 5 metres across.  Neighbouring yards are separated by high wooden fences, and the gardens, traditionally, have been small and rough. The local council warns against growing vegetables because of concern about lead and arsenic in the soil. And there is a large dog and cat population.

This might not seem a promising environment for frogs, but even before we put in our first fish pond, sixteen years ago, we had striped marsh frogs passing through our garden, sometimes even coming indoors. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going, but, since we built the ponds, many seem to have stayed.

Continue reading Striped Marsh Frogs



I am often struck by the different ways we use words.

Rereading a favourite book of mine recently I found myself marvelling at the author’s ability to evoke particular experiences and emotional states. Her unusual choice of words drew me into her world, but equally, caused me to consider their meaning. I had to read slowly and in reading slowly found myself consciously appreciating the craftsmanship of her writing. Continue reading greetings

This is not a grasshopper












the force

of what lives us

outliving the mountain.

John Berger


Last week I was delighted to come across this animal.

Part of my pleasure was that I thought I could identify it. Even though it was now in the front herb garden, and no longer among the camellias at the back, I presumed it was the same fine grasshopper with which I began this series of blog posts.

I don’t think this recognition was at the heart of my response though. The best clue to this  are the words I said to myself at the time. If my response had been recognition of the same individual, I would have thought ‘Oh, it’s that same grasshopper‘.  But this wasn’t my response. The delighted thought that came to me was ‘Oh, it’s you‘. Why did I say You? What did I see that made this a You and not just ‘that same grasshopper’?

This isn’t a minor grammatical quibble. There is a world — an ecology — of difference between the two utterances. Continue reading This is not a grasshopper

Birds of Newtown












I am fond of this photograph, because of its poor quality.

I find it difficult to take good photos of the birds that frequent the garden. They move fast, they move often, without regard for garden fences, and I don’t own a telephoto lens. But a family of noisy miner birds moved into the back yard during autumn, with a demanding fledgling, and I was determined to take their picture. Several times a day, whenever I heard them being especially chatty, I’d go out with my camera. But they were always too high and too fast for me.

One day I saw a docile pigeon on my neighbour’s TV antenna. Pigeons aren’t exciting, and it was too far away to get a good shot, but here, I thought, photographically speaking, was a sitting duck. I took three images of the distant pigeon surrounded by too much blue sky. As I pushed the shutter button for the middle image, I heard a whooshing noise, but only when I enlarged the photo did I realise that the noisy miners had photobombed me. There they were, tiny figures about to depart the top right corner of my shot. To show their disdain, they had glided past, not even bothering to flap. Continue reading Birds of Newtown

The fungal underground













By Stu's Images, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Honey fungus. (Picture: Stu’s Images, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 Honey fungus is a popular culinary mushroom, praised by Antonio Carluccio.  And one particular honey fungus, found in Oregon, is said to be the world’s largest organism, covering 890 hectares and measuring 3.8 kilometres across. At 2400 years, it is also one of the oldest living organisms. The mushrooms that Carluccio eats with spaghetti are the fruit of an underground behemoth, which is made up of vast networks of mycelial cords or rhizomorphs.

I love the idea of these secret organisms, and it delights me to know that some thrive, just below the surface, in my own garden. That is why I’ve had so many fungi sprouting recently. In fact, the stinkhorn that I wrote about last week was the fruit of the rhizomorphic network pictured in the photo that leads this post. And an intriguing form of life it is. Continue reading The fungal underground

A riverine environment


28th May, 2016











When we decided to have a stream built in the backyard,  the landscape gardener asked two questions. What sound did we want from the small waterfall? Did we want moss on the rocks? He returned with metres of pvc pipe, rolls of pool liner, and truckloads of bare bushrock  and river pebble. He was finished in three days, and at first his stream looked as artificial as a water feature in a shopping centre.

‘Now you wait’, he said.

And we did.

Continue reading A riverine environment




26th May, 2016











In our garden there are seven plantation pink sasanqua camellias along the back fence, five dark pink hiryu camellias down the side fences, and there is one prostrate hiryu which will eventually reach across the pond. We planted most of the plantation pinks over 25 years ago, telling ourselves that we’d prune them every year. These trees are now up to ten metres high, taller than the peppercorn tree, the Chinese pistache and the jacaranda which complete the canopy. Each has a trunk circumference of 60 centimetres. Continue reading Camellias