Spring in a time of Covid

Spring has surged upon us in the last few weeks.It rose like a wonderful embrace after a sodden January. Week after week of rain and damp, threatening to dissolve the hills themselves, with clinging mud in all the tracks and trails. After the damp came a burst of cold. Intense. Freezing the mud, but at least giving the animals something hard to walk on again. Giacomo (Spalding) and Mania rugging up the horses every night, and cracking the ice on their water every morning. Then one icy morning, at sunrise, Giacomo found a tiny newborn lamb shivering on the hard ground, with Lucy, his mother standing over – we didn’t even know she’d been pregnant.

Snow fell and settled, everywhere but here it seemed. We could see it on the rooves of Siena, on the hills of Chianti, on the distant Apennines to the north and east, and on Mont Amiata way off to the south.

But then everything changed. The woodpeckers started drumming in the woods – a rolling drumbeat echoing from territory to territory, marking boundaries and calling for company. In the lower valley, verdant sprays of hellebores, after keeping a solitary floral vigil since Christmas, were joined by the first of the primroses. On drier woodland banks the first crocus emerged – corpulent chalices of an extravagant purple.

La Strada delle Tolfe is a wonderful little road. It rises out of San Miniato, up a steep rise, arched over with old twisted oaks which seem to be doing their utmost to protect their travellers from the views of concrete suburbia below them. At the crest of the hill, the little road takes a sharp turn to the right and the views soar away to infinity. This little road is a cut-through to precisely no-where. It follows a long ridge, gently twisting and rising and dipping with the land. So close to the city, but in the rural heart of Tuscany.

And on our little road spring has touched the people too. Many people come to walk here in all seasons, but this spring it has become a flood. It feels sometimes like there must be an event somewhere that they are all heading towards, or perhaps they are part of a mass sponsored walk. There are of course the regulars. The two old gents who never stop talking (what do they have to say that they haven’t said already?); Lucia on one of her highly energetic runs (leaving me out of breath just watching!); two ladies who always stop to say hello (but I’m too embarrassed to ask their names). But add to them the couples; the older families with

teenagers; the students, the dog-walkers, the solitary thinkers, the mothers plus pushchairs; occasional groups of lycra clad cyclists.

They all pass me when I’m working in the “orto” (vegetable garden). All happy to share a greeting, some with a question or a piece of advice. To be honest I’m always slightly nervous that my cover will be blown – not only as a non-native, but worse as a non-gardener. Growing your own veggies is in the blood of the people around here, while I’m just taking my first steps and making so many mistakes on the way!

                                                                            Covid, of course, is really starting to wear everyone down, but Le Tolfe is a place of space. The air here is so pure. Sometimes its so clear I almost start to question whether there’s any air at all. I get a touch of vertigo just looking at the view. So, of course our “camminatori” all have their awful obligatory blue masks. But for the most part these are tucked under their chins as they drink great draughts of the freshest of air.

Its far from over I fear, but spring will back Covid into a corner and summer will keep it at bay. I pray. And as the sun sets and I make my way back from the orto, the walkers are gone, but I’m not alone. The bats have begun their skittish crazy flights, and owls are calling everywhere – the polite rising toots of the scops owls in the hedgerows, the high screeches of the little owls down in the trees below the villa and, the wild haunting cry of the tawny owl from the great cedar tree in the villa garden. Filling the darkening night with the hope of spring.

Mark Spalding


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