Saturday, July 31, 2021

Mangrove Walk

There is I confess a sense of emptiness this time of year in the back country. In winter the mangroves are covered by winter visitors, snowbirds of the literal kind migrating to spend a warm few months in the Keys. This time of year I depend on clouds and puddles, bodies of waters filled with reflections to keep my interest alive. 
I have learned to walk these trails and spot patches of light and color in what looks fairly drab from a  distance.
I made my shadow fall on the leaves in front of me for an effect:

And then I caught a horsefly in a  compromising position and he had to pay. Horseflies make mosquitoes look benign by comparison to the bite of a horsefly.   They bite hard but they aren't as agile.
Walking and swatting my way back to the car:

Sunset on the way home:

Friday, July 30, 2021

Life And Death On An Umbrian Farm

 September 2013, from the archives.

I haven't been back to Italy since 2018, just before my motorcycle accident and now I am pinning my hopes on being able to take a trip in the Fall of 2022. My nephews' farm and bed and breakfast operation are today surviving the pandemic lockdowns and the swimming pool is built and they are taking reservations. Eight years ago all they had were plans, being observed by the older generation who grew up in post war Italy in an age of hardship:

I woke up Tuesday morning to the sound of a breeze blowing through the cherry trees outside my bedroom window, the air was fresh, the sky a little less gray and the fields stretching south from my I sister's hill top farm were dappled in the weak September sunlight pushing through between the clouds.

Below my bedroom windows my nephews are digging a swimming pool for their plans to have paying guests visit the farm, an ambitious plan that their father my brother in law views with a mixture of pride and apprehension.

This is, I thought to myself, quite the privilege, living the life even if temporarily of leisure amid the hustle and bustle of farm life. I get to see it up close, and as much as I was glad to get away thirty years ago, I was okay with being back here now. My sister Liz is ten years older than I and she is the elder of her twin sister by ten minutes so in some sense she is the matriarch of the family now our parents are dead. She has been a housewife married to the same man for close to forty years. They rebuilt this farmhouse where her husband grew up int their family home, Cerqueti Farm:

And there she is, the smiling face in the bottom left hand window surveying her world as she has for the past many decades, raising two boys and watching her husband till the fields and kill the pigs and raise the cows for market.

Her husband was not considered suitable by our rather snobbish mother and they were secret sweethearts from the age of 15 a full half century ago and despite their public reticence they are as much in love now as ever.

They labeled him a gold digger in the village because he was marrying the heiress of a landed fortune, five hundred acres of extremely hard work and a ton of inherited debt and no prospects. Today, after a lifetime of back breaking work he has handed over plans for the farm to his two strapping boys but he still raises livestock, the thing he has always loved to do as his boys expand and make their own plans for a "modern" farm. Vincenzo's idea of farming is to get up early, feed the animals, take care of the fields feed the animals watch the news and curse the politicians and then go to bed. I am not much of one to get up early on vacation but I did his evening rounds Monday night with him.

He found some wild boar piglets lost in the forest one day a few years ago and he brought them home, hand fed them and built them a pen. They were probably victims of hunters who love to kill these pigs for their rather gamey meat.

He let them out when they were adults but they just kept coming back to their home and one day this one came home pregnant. They know where they are well off he laughs, pouring their ground corn flour into their trough. Wild boar are as intelligent and tough as iguana in the Florida Keys. They are as destructive and lack all natural predators. Hunters are scared of them as thy will turn on an armed human and gore him to death if cornered.

Then it's down to the cow byre to feed the cows his sons don't want to deal with. They dislike the requirement to feed and water the animals every single daily day but he thrives on it. Vincenzo doesn't take vacations, he doesn't drink or play cards, he doesn't smoke, so his only vice is his livestock.

Most of his herd, reduced to three dozen from double that when he was younger he keeps on hundreds of acres of mountainside fenced in and free to come down and get hay and water or to stay on the hillside where he has a trough for them and they can forage as they please. He's says even in winter they frequently prefer to be up on the hill than in the shed that he has built for them at the bottom of the hill. The young ones and the pregnant cows he keeps in the shed.

This one, pictured above gave birth Tuesday night and Vincenzo and I went out in a rainstorm to help the newborn calf get its first meal. The new mother, afterbirth hanging down her hindquarters was kicking the calf away so Vincenzo tied up her foreleg and distracted her with hay while leading the calf to milk. I stood outside the pen holding the rope taut that kept her foreleg in the air and prevented her raising her hind leg to kick away her starving calf. It was all very elemental and satisfying when the calf finally pulled away and burped and the mother, released, started licking him.

The fact is he will go to the butcher in less than two years and will bring in six Euros a kilo, which puts your middle class urge to go "Aww!" in an unfortunate perspective. But that is life on the farm. My sister also called in the vet who spent twenty minutes and twenty five Euros removing a blade of grass from her pet dog's ear... So animal love has its place on the farm. As do tractors, viewed fondly enough that Vincenzo calls this his car.

It's the oldest and smallest in the fleet of five that they have but it's his and he uses it to look after his cows, moving feed around including bales of hay for the outdoor cows, by the light of the feeble glow of the headlamps.

It has been his entire life and my mother thought my sister could do better than marry the third child of a sharecropper who used to cultivate one of her farms. I guess she was wrong.

I rode shotgun on the tractor, an extremely uncomfortable place on the incredibly torn up road we had to take to his other stable of animals and there he went through the same routine twenty minutes later. Sweep the dirt, put out ground flour and hay and make sure the water drips are working.

He put out some pasta for the guard cat,

And admired his pigs which he himself will slaughter in January for his rather excellent home cured prosciutto and dried sausages, of which I am eating as much as I can while I am here. He told me the story of the European Union inspector who came by the farm to take blood samples of his animals to see if they were being fed artificial hormones. "I wanted to give him some artificial hormones up the back side," my brother in law said with a grimace. Damned government regulations.

He used to slaughter pigs in winter for money but new European regulations put a stop to that. Vincenzo, like everyone else I have talked to is fed up with the over reach of government in Italy. There are regulations for everything and it makes me laugh as I think back to the US Tea Party people who think we have too much government interference in the US.

It has been days of eating and talking, telling stories and thinking about the past which I find quite exhausting but rewarding. And it gives me much to think about and be thankful for. It's good to get off the rock and remember how most of the rest of the world lives.

Raising food, killing it and eating it. It doesn't get more elemental than that, agro-tourism and swimming pools notwithstanding.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Casa Marina

Casa Marina is the area of Key West, not usually well defined, that surrounds the Casa Marina Resort, hence the name. The hotel was a destination built by Henry Flagler's railroad company to give passengers  a place to stay at the end of the line, unless they were taking a ferry to Cuba. Usually the hotel is displayed from the front with all it's pomp but I as usual had other plans on my lunch break.
The hotel has a great long beach front, long by Key West standards, as do all the big hotels. Guests like to feel they are having a proper seaside vacation. The back of the hotel is less glamorous:
The public access to the little beach has been closed off by an attractive chunk of cement...
....and some cardboard and ever useful duct tape! In retrospect I wish I had tried to pick up the cement, maybe it was a Hollywood prop made of Styrofoam! I have no idea what this is all about:
You never know when you walk Key West what kind of buildings you may find and this administrative and employee housing structures behind the Casa Marina are an example of random faded beauties:
And the modern structures "in the Key West style" across the street:

And always, wherever you are you need never be too far from an ocean glimpse:
At Seminole and Alberta.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Hunt The Lobster

Lobster mini season they call the next couple of days, and the pursuit of lobster is one of those divisive events that sets some peoples' teeth on edge. Other people see an influx of people as bearers of cash and that's all to the good.
It happens that commercial lobster catching starts in August and continues into the winter with tens of thousands of licensed traps scattered through the Keys by commercial fishermen and I should note they are all men for reasons I don't know, good sense possibly or intelligence.  Lobster fishing is one of those trades people do out of desire and consequently they get screwed by the middlemen who raise and lower prices depending on supply so that fishermen never make the vast sums of money they earn by hard labor. 
In the bad old days summers in the Keys were lean times when summer vacationers weren't trained to vacation in the beach-free Keys, so after the snowbirds left there was less and less money circulating. So they invented ridiculous reasons to try to attract tourists, blowing Conch shells, eating fish at festivals, imitating Hemingway, you name it, all culminating in Fantasy Fest in the leanest of months, October, at the height of hurricane season and with maximum humidity. The thing is: these crackpot ideas worked brilliantly and nowadays the Florida Keys have a ten month tourist season with some slight pause in September into November with one hair raising week for the dress up street party.  
Thus the original motivation for the Lobster Mini Season has pretty much been forgotten.  It was a way to offer a perk to locals sticking out the low tourist season and allow the population that isn't fishing commercially to have a go for a couple of days to catch  the much desired lobster. Nowadays so-called mini season leads to a massive influx of tourists hauling the Queen Mary on trailers behind their armored pick up trucks as they plan their battle orders for predawn raids on unsuspecting lobsters.
None of this cheers up commercial fishermen who are poised to start  their own harvests on the water in the next week. People ashore like myself who make no tips from the battle hardened anglers, look askance on the chaos while the shopkeepers' union, the Chamber of Commerce, cheers the whole process along, as they should.
The rules are pretty simple: Lobster Mini Season Rules. Basically you can take six lobster that aren't too small and you can only take them from open water without oxygen or spears. Of course there are idiots who can't follow simple rules and law enforcement is all over the Keys on land and water like a cheap suit. 
I don't particularly enjoy eating lobster and I don't enjoy angling and I can't stand crowds so you might imagine I have no interest in or love for mini season. That last sentence goes a long way to explaining why I'm taking off in a van next April. More to the point I find mini season tedious but it's over almost as soon as it  began so the pain is minimal. Long live lobster mini season. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sunset Clouds

I am starting to expect spectacular skies on my evening walks. That is a bad thing as not every evening delivers.

The birds have migrated for the hot season except for a few blackbirds and pigeons and a couple of waders.
The dragonflies are out though I fear I need some more powerful laser guided camera to draw out their beauty. They are strange creatures and I find myself staring at them as they balance their impossibly long bodies on tiny sticks like miniature blimps anchored to the ground.
Some evenings the sunset is so over the top I can't get enough pictures of the nuances and I have to edit with a heavy hand.

Sometimes Rusty gets bored and sits sniffing the air glancing back at me occasionally as though asking what am I thinking.

By the time I get home the day is done and it's time to get ready for tomorrow.