Sunday, September 25, 2011

the butterfly that would sting

The winter solstice, September 23rd, is when the tomatoes get sick. They refuse to ripen wholly and get rot, perhaps due to the wild variation of temperature during the day. The morning is cold enough to need an electric fan heater and a cardigan, mid-day the temperatures are in double figures and one is sitting outside with a drink. Sunsets are watched in comfort from inside. There is a brief, internal debate about whether to light a fire, so pretty, or move the fan heater from the kitchen. Score one to the fan heater for ease of use.
Local tradition has it that, at the winter solstice, one should pull up the tomatoes and hang them, upside down, under the woodshed roof but just where they will be touched by the last rays of the sun. So the remaining tomatoes, the good ones, will ripen. Sometimes it works. The other Mediterranean vegetables have also slowed. Courgettes have come to a virtual stop, the aubergines have ceased to swell but one fruitless but ambitious aubergine is now waist height and flowering. The bell peppers stay green, either that or I am too impatient to wait for them to redden. The basil plants, tomato's best friend, are still vigorous, so it is time to get more pine nuts, check the home garlic supplies and olive oil in order to put up some more pesto for the winter.
The grapes continue to flourish, despite the lower sun that now hits the bunches side on. The parasol has (with difficulty) been withdrawn from the terrace table as food and people no longer need protection from the sun. At lunch, under the awning of vine and wisteria leaves, we notice strange, apparently new things. Very small birds are singing agressively in the palm trees, occasionally in the grape and wisteria cover. There are suddenly a lot of butterflies, mostly fritillaries, hovering around the grapes. Secondly there are a lot less hornets – and not just, I think, because they have finally got the message about the honey trap. Some fools still fall in.
Perhaps the butterflies are prospecting for split grapes to suck out the nectar, taking advantage of the relative absences of the fearsome hornets. Not that butterflies are always shy of hornets. We did, one summer, witness a fight (possibly to the death) between a very large and showy peacock butterfly and a hornet that was insecurely riding a grape. It was rather like a television wrestling bout, except possibly not stage managed.
This particular day in late August initially had nothing to distinguish it from any other day in August until we saw a butterfly stamp its foot. It was a perfect specimen of a peacock, large and showy, perched on the mossy balustrade of the terrace. It silently (to us) stamped its left foot, presumably to frighten. To heighten the aggressiveness of its action, antennae curved forwards, it also beat its large wings together above its slight body.
Its opponent was a large hornet, insecurely riding a prize grape. The hornet clutched the fruit between its six legs, flapping all four wings to help it balance, longwise, on the grape. It buzzed in anger. The butterfly occasionally launched itself into the air and flew at the hornet which buzzed even louder. There was less than a inch between the two when the butterfly came to rest on the balustrade.
The grape was merely one of many that had fallen. It did not look particularly more luscious, more ripe than any of the others. But somehow the two insects had become obsessed with the idea of possession of this particular grape. They were oblivious to everything else, including movement, as we poured out more wine for ourselves. The fight must have lasted a couple of minutes at least. The end came in protracted slow motion. The hornet lost its balance, the grape rolled oh so slowly to the garden side of the balustrade and went over. Hornet and grape disappeared into the iris plants below. The peacock hovered for a while, then took off, presumably disgusted with all grapes, for it did not disappear into the vine canopy above our heads. This September's fritillaries are far more serene.

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