Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.
During the long weeks and months cooped up in our apartment, we were thankful that at least it was spring, that we could sit on our balcony in the sunlight, watch our seedlings grow and listen to the birdsong in the tops of the pines surrounding us. The colour green brought us hope, and it was green – green fields, green hills – in wide open spaces, that called to us when we could finally venture out of the flat and the city.
And wandering, at last, through these green and unenclosed places, we noticed, more insistent, more fervent than usual, the calls of birds – nightingales, cuckoos, chiff chaffs, chaffinches, blackcaps, blackbirds, wrens, warblers, woodpeckers – all asserting their claim to the pastures and trees that had been left to flourish, undisturbed and unpolluted, for so long.
The birds came closer to home. A great spotted woodpecker performed acrobatics in the tree outside our kitchen window. A young hooded crow, thirsty and exhausted from flying the nest, sat eyeing me outside my bedroom door, until I gave it water and a gentle lift up onto the wall. While I taught lessons online, a pair of collared doves cooed at me from the roof of the balcony.
The closest encounter came on a drive in the north of Lazio. Another tired juvenile not long out of the nest, this time a green woodpecker, flopping and flapping by the side of the road. I scooped it up and placed it out of harm’s way. I held, for a moment, a jewel – intricate detail, emerald glow – in my hands.
Green is the colour of hope. It’s where we go to find ourselves, away from the hurly burly. It is shelter and food and life for the creatures we share the world with. Green was given a chance to flourish this year. I hope we will find a way to let that continue.
Nature rarer uses yellow Than another hue; Saves she all of that for sunsets,— Prodigal of blue,
Spending scarlet like a woman, Yellow she affords Only scantly and selectly, Like a lover’s words.
The end of June, and our first big escape from the city (and our apartment) after more than three months of lockdown. We still have to stay in Lazio – borders have not yet opened. But constraint leads to discovery: an area in the north east of the region that feels more Italian alps than urban periphery.
Less than an hour and a half’s drive, and you will find yourself motoring alongside Lago Del Turano. An artificial lake of stunning aquamarine. There are fields and beaches where you can sit and sun yourself, or paddle and swim in the water.
Keep driving and you’ll get to Riserva Naturale Monte Navegna e Monte Cervia. This is our objective: a long walk up a big hill. Unlike many nature reserves in and around Lazio, where your chosen path will often disappear after half an hour’s walk, here there are red and white signposts everywhere. We choose trail 331, which leads us up and up and up, through beech woods and along stony tracks on grassy slopes.
At the top we are rewarded with views over the lake below, and (unlike Emily Dickinson’s poem) an abundance of yellow. The ginestra, or broom, is out and cascades down the slopes, sweetly scenting the air. Wildflowers dot the grass. The sunlight pools around us.
The descent is a challenge for tired legs, but it’s quick at least. We reward ourselves with a drink by the edge of Lago Del Salto, Turano’s twin on the other side of the hill.
The next morning we visit Castel di Tora, an attractive hilltop town nearby. The walk up to the piazza is worth it for the views, and the coffee taken next to a splashing fountain. Down again to the lake, to lie in the shade of a tree before lunch with a view. And it’s only an hour back to Rome and home in the afternoon.
For more information on Lago Del Turano and the surrounding area see:
And tonight the sky would be huge with stars. Tomorrow there would be the distant islands cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain in great veils coming in across the water, the earliest tenderest feathering of green on the trees, mibbe autumn laying bare the birches stark white.
From Favourite Place by Liz Lochhead
A week at Moniack Mhor. Heaven.
A retreat to write, to walk, to spend time in the recesses of the heart.
Up before dawn, and out into cold air that rinses the lungs, scrubs them. The first morning is a walk through a watercolour landscape, a wash of light wetly blossoming in the east. It is not the child’s glitter-covered card of last year. These are subtler delights. Lichen laces tree trunks and wooden posts. A stag lifts his antlers from a tangle of fallen branches. I watch him watch me, a portrait framed by squares of wire. A pony, brown, scruffy, slops and clops through the slush of mud, keeps pace with me on the other side of the fence.
On another day I descend the hill, turn right into the pine forest, follow the track that diminishes, sinks into bog, until I am ankle deep in brown water, socks soggy. The whirr of a woodcock, the sight of it, ridiculous beak and humming wings, makes the climb back to the house worthwhile.
And then, what I have wanted all week, a morning of sparkle and silver, as the sun breaks over the hills and lights up the frost covered land. Trees flame. The rattle of a crow, the lonely bleat of sheep.
(Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s creative writing centre, located in the Highlands, not far from Inverness. It offers tutored and untutored writing retreats. This was my second stay there and it was once again a fantastic week full of warm conversation, great food, and lots of inspiration for writing. Highly recommended.)
These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
Emily Dickinson Indian Summer
It has been nearly two months since we ventured out of the city. It is mid-October and I am in need of something seasonal. At this time of year certain images are ingrained into my psyche: the yellow fingers of horse chestnut leaves crumpled around glossy conkers; a lone rose hip, glittering with frost in the first rays of dawn; the solo song of a robin in the gloaming.
In Rome, we are surrounded by an evergreen backdrop of umbrella pines. The weather is so warm the pomegranate tree on the balcony has blossomed again. The lavender and roses have flowered anew. So we decide to go in search of a touch of autumn.
We read about the reserve at Macchiatonda, on the road towards Civitavecchia. The website says the gates will be opened at 10.15. If you arrive late, you don’t get in. We are on time and a man waves us in. We are alone.
Parked, there is a long straight path towards the sea, flanked by fields, dark soil turned and tilled. As we walk, we disturb a pheasant which explodes, screeching, from the grass at our feet. We nearly fall over with shock; it flies away across the field, picking up companions as it goes.
At the beach, a flock of gulls sit, all facing the same direction, on a rock out to sea. Two cormorants keep watch beside them. But these are not the gulls that populate the streets where we live, raiding bins and cackling on our roof. These are Audouin’s gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii). Only sixty years ago it was one of the world’s rarest. Now it has established a colony here, and in other spots. There are still only 10,000 pairs worldwide.
The reserve has a well-signposted path, with several bird hides where we can peek across a series of lakes and ponds. As ever, we have chosen the wrong time of year for any serious birding action, but there are a few highlights. A grebe swims around the legs of a pair of sleepy flamingos; a water rail stalks through the reed bed beneath us. A swooping kite disturbs a flock of larks which flap hysterically up and away. A warbler lives up to its name. Then, a twitching first for me. Flying overhead, long curved beak, distinctive call: a curlew. We don’t get the photo, but it is a memorable sight as it flies and cries, melancholy and plaintive, shrinking towards the horizon.
We didn’t find the autumn I had expected, but the Mediterranean scrubland has its own seasonal personality. Its colours are stripes of soft browns and silver reflections. It is wistful and a little forlorn as it disappears from view into the horizon of the year.
Not Game of Thrones, but Val di Tires in the Dolomites, under the soaring peaks of the Catinaccio.
These ‘Pale Mountains’ have stood, permanent and resolute, since the Triassic era, forever fixed and yet constantly changing. At eight in the morning, as we struggle with our frozen snowshoes in the fresh snow and biting air, the land and sky radiate an underwater blue.
Later daylight blanches the rock, its ashen face frowning down into the valley.
However, it is late afternoon when the real show begins. As the sun descends, a stripe of brightness appears across the monochrome tips, soon gaining warmth and colour.
Stone turns butter and rose, then shocks with a blast of mandarin, acid against the somber sky.
Then, as quickly as it arrived, it is gone. That Pacific blue floods the scene once more. The cold rises, and darkness shrouds the monster from view.
‘The pine tree seems to listen, the fir tree to wait: and both without impatience: they give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity.’ Friedrich Nietzsche
This week someone asked me what I would miss if I left Rome. Surprisingly, the first thing that I thought of had nothing to do with food or wine. ‘The umbrella pines!” I replied.
Pinus pinea, or stone pine, also known as umbrella pine, Italian stone pine and parasol pine, grows all over the city, in and around the ancient ruins from Ostia Antica to the Appian way.
The pines also give a welcome touch of green to our residential areas. On a Sunday morning walk around my neighbourhood of Garbatella, their trunks and branches add a curving, organic counterpoint to the slabs and angles of apartment blocks. The sap-green foliage complements the flaking orange plaster and the cobalt blue of the sky. They are a watercolourist’s dream, the sprays of needles blurred from afar, furred at the edges, crying out for a drop of pigment to stain and suffuse a piece of thick, damp paper.
They shelter birdlife, from the croaking hooded crow, to squawking parakeets, to the goldcrest I saw hopping among the branches outside my bedroom window when I woke today. Beware though, of a walk among the pines that line the Roman forum on a darkening autumn evening: a thousand starlings, noisily home to roost after their sunset murmuration, cover the pavement below, and any passer-by, with pungent droppings. Take an umbrella, at least.
But there is also something comical, anthropomorphic, about these trees, as if at any moment, they could uproot themselves and stalk off towards the horizon. A touch of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps? ‘
“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
Mrs. Bundy in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
Things got a little Hitchcock here a few days ago when the rose-gold evening sky above our apartment block suddenly filled with a swirling monochrome cloud of crows and gulls. Drawn by the cacophony of screeches and caws, we watched the aerial spectacle from the shelter of our balcony, wondering what on earth had caused such agitation.
A few days previously, on my way to work, I had seen one of the local ‘eccentrics’ in the nearby piazza, throwing handfuls of food high above his head, and a flock of perhaps thirty yellow-legged gulls swooping down to catch the scraps mid-air. Of course, I’m all for good karma, and feeding the birds, but the net result of our friend’s activity is that the place is now knee-deep in rotting vegetables and guano. I tried running round there in the evening and it was like an ice rink. Looking at the birds flocking in the sky above our balcony, I wondered if perhaps Birdman had changed the location of his avian restaurant and was serving up dinner in the garden beneath our flat.
After about half an hour things settled down and then I noticed that all of the neighbourhood crows had gathered on the roof of one of the buildings opposite. They were staring us down in quite the threatening manner, as if they’d really taken the whole ‘murder of crows’ collective noun idea to heart. We decided it might be best to go inside and close the doors for the evening.
Whatever the hysterical flocking had been about, it seems that the gulls have won the turf wars for now. There has been an absence of crows, but the air has been thick with the wheezing, whinging calls of gull nestlings, hidden from view on the rooftops behind television aerials and satellite dishes. Until yesterday that is, when, as we were washing up after dinner, the whinging grew even louder and suddenly two young birds stuck their heads over the parapet of the house opposite.
The parents wheeled off to sit in a tree on the other side of the garden, apparently finally sick of the noise and constant demands, while their offspring hopped and flapped up and down and contemplated the fifty-foot drop to the ground below. Then, without any pomp or ceremony – one, two – the youngsters launched themselves from the roof and circled away to try out their newly-discovered wings.
‘Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ Shakespeare, Hamlet
‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
In these lemon-yellow days of a Roman spring, exam season gets underway for my students. Once again, Year 9 have studied Romeo and Juliet, taking it ‘from page to stage’ and practising essays on Juliet’s emotional journey through the play. Once again, we have watched the baby-faced Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes as star-crossed lovers in the film version that never fails to entertain. And once again, I have imparted the occult information that wherefore actually means why, causing my pupils to reassess their entire understanding of the balcony scene.
I wake early every day, and the dawn chorus that filters in through the shutters puts me in mind of those ‘two houses, both alike in dignity’, the ‘enemies to peace’ with their ‘ancient grudge’. On one side, the croaks and caws of the hooded crows that populate the pines around us; from the rooftops instead come the cackling belly-laughs of yellow-legged gulls, who have recently moved into the neighbourhood.
There are various theories as to why the number of yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) is rising in Rome, from the closure of an enormous rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city in 2013, to the overall increase in seabird population in Europe with a consequent need for more nesting sites, to the fact that temperatures in the capital are higher than surrounding coastal areas. Gulls are also attracted by the easy pickings – rubbish bins that are left to overflow in the road, the detritus left behind once the street market has packed up for the day. Outside our apartment block, a well-meaning neighbour leaves food out for the local stray cats. As soon as she turns her back to leave, the gulls muscle in, strutting along the wall and eyeballing the bowls of Kitty-Kat until the wretched felines slink off in the knowledge that they are no match for that slashing blade of a beak.
The hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also a relatively recent arrival in the city, with colonies moving in along the Tiber river in 1996. Like the gulls, they are omnivores – carrion feeders as well as nest robbers and therefore the only natural threat the gulls have in the city. In the umbrella pines (Pinus pinea) that flourish in the gardens around our apartment block, the crows make their nests and then spend their days loudly protecting them. As the gulls are also partial to a freshly laid egg or a plump nestling, this has resulted in some spectacular aerial battles between these two enemies, played out in front of our balcony while I drink my morning coffee. Who needs the Capulets and the Montagues, when you have the crows and the gulls?
(According to the journal Wanted in Rome, there are several measures Romans should take to discourage these birds from invading terraces and balconies, including not leaving left-overs or rubbish outside, never offering the birds food and, disturbingly, not leaving small pets outdoors on their own. You have been warned!)
“Mowgli had never seen an Indian city before, and though this was almost a heap of ruins it seemed very wonderful and splendid… Trees had grown into and out of the walls; the battlements were tumbled down and decayed, and wild creepers hung out of the windows of the towers on the walls in bushy hanging clumps.”
“There was a ruined summer-house of white marble in the centre of the terrace, built for queens dead a hundred years ago. The domed roof had half fallen in… But the walls were made of screens of marble tracery–beautiful milk-white fretwork, set with agates and cornelians and jasper and lapis lazuli, and as the moon came up behind the hill it shone through the open work, casting shadows on the ground like black velvet embroidery.”
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
The citiesof Rajasthan teem with people and with vehicles – filling the air with deafening noise, and pollution you can taste on your tongue. In Delhi and Jaipur’s urban jungle, the roads are a slow river of thick, unending traffic and the pavements stream with humanity. It can be hard to put one foot in front of the other without risk of stepping ankle-deep into a worryingly coloured pool of stinking liquid, while motorbikes, tuk-tuks and overloaded carts bearing curious and precarious loads – flattened eggboxes stacked three metres high, bulging sacks of tumorous tubers – barge past, horns blaring as you jump for safety. Nature is not immediately evident in the face of all this urban chaos.
And yet, look – the family of monkeys lolling above the sign on the jewellery shop; the pack of black kites wheeling in the sky. And human inhabitants live comfortably side-by-side with their fellow creatures, sometimes quite literally: we pass a house in Udaipur where one of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a stable; a white horse hangs his head out of the window while the family prepare their evening meal in the adjacent kitchen. In Agra, pigs root through piles of rubbish and sacred cows wander, miraculously unharmed, along dual carriageways, along with the occasional elephant walking the slow lane. Sometimes there is the surprising vision of a camel, festooned in bright ribbons and daubed in colourful paint, trotting past your car window.
Moving into the villages of rural Rajasthan, nature regains its dominion. People still live in thrall to its caprices, from the unpredictability of the monsoon rains, to the leopards that visit in the night and carry off the family pig or dog. In Rohet, outside of Jodhpur, we visit a tiny, one-family village of Bishnoi people, living in circular huts moulded out of mud and dung with straw roofs. The members of the family are grinding spices and tending the cows and they give us a cheerful wave as we arrive and as we drive away.
The old haveli where we are staying is opulent by comparison. It also affords a great view of a small lake where bee-eaters whirl and swoop like colourful paper kites over the trees, and sunbirds hop and hover in the blossoms of the frangipani bushes.
We are also lucky to spend two nights in Ranthambore national park. Early morning jeep safaris, complete with thick blankets and hot water bottles, take us into the countryside where we see a tigress sated by her kill, parts of which remain scattered around her as she yawns, stretches and sleeps. Above her, the sun’s rays break through the mist, silvering the surface of a lake where wading birds bob and scoop amongst the lilies and weeds. As the light strengthens, the forest comes to life with the sounds of birds and other fauna: sambar deer and spotted deer – both trying to impress the females of their respective species as they lock antlers and fight. Treepies squawk in branches, and there’s the ‘pick-pick’ of bulbuls as they land on a bush. Once, a glorious lesser-goldenback woodpecker swoops past.
In Narlai, another village between Jodhpur and Udaipur, grey langur monkeys stare back at me from the other side of the window when I open the shutters in the early morning. We go down into the still dusky courtyard of our haveli and climb into a jeep that takes us out into the countryside to look for leopards. Farmers in their huts are starting their day’s chores, lighting fires; the women walk out – pots balanced on heads – to get water from the pump, or go to visit one of the many temples that dot the landscape. Woodsmoke rises from the huts and mingles with the still dawn-grey sky. Peafowl are everywhere, perched in trees, on top of temples, or running down the road while Indian robins hop up and down in the branches next to us.
A gazelle gazes at us from the safety of a screen of trees; a wild boar charges behind a cactus hedge. A large moving blob on a distant rocky outcrop provokes excitement, but it proves to be, not a leopard, but a very large mongoose. Minutes later, a family of three more run across the road in front of us and a honey buzzard surveys us regally from a tree-top. As the sun appears, pink and rosy over the horizon, we stop and drink hot chai and eat sweet biscuits. A tiny temple, high on a rock, is surrounded by peacocks, one of whom is dancing a sun salutation, tail feathers fanned behind him as the peahens look on, unimpressed. No leopards, then, but a very special, peaceful way to see the land and wake up with its inhabitants.
I made a mistake. I really should have paid more attention to detail, and in particular size, when it came to choosing which plants to grow on my mini-balcony this year. I blame the bees.
I discovered this lovely company www.realseeds.co.uk which sells heritage and heirloom vegetable seeds. Of course, I bought a selection, including bicolour sweetcorn, physalis, yellow podded mange-tout, cherry vine tomatoes and borage, forgetting for the time it took me to order that I do not possess acres of land around a country house, or even a substantial allotment, but rather a balcony that measures 1 metre by 2.5 metres. Ah well.
Still a week or so later, my package arrived and I commenced the process of planting seeds (lacking proper seed trays, I found plastic egg boxes make a good substitute) and soon our bedroom (the only sunny room in the apartment) was full of sprouting shoots and tiny leaves. The peas and the sweetcorn were the first to get going, unfurling and growing as fast as a time-lapse video. The tomatoes followed suit, and the borage and finally, after a delay of two weeks, even the physalis started to show.
That was a couple of months ago. Since then, the sweetcorn has grown man-sized, although whether we will actually get any cobs remains to be seen. Still, its foliage is beautiful, waving in the Roman sun like translucent green ribbons trailed by a rhythmic gymnast. The mange-tout didn’t make it, victim of a minor heatwave when I was away for a few days. The tomatoes are just starting to fruit and the physalis are very slowly growing a new leaf every week or so. But the borage…
I had read about borage and it sounded interesting firstly because it is a salad flower, so I thought it might be entertaining to pretty up our side dishes with some edible blooms. Secondly, it is known for attracting bees – one of its common names is bee-bread – and considering the current plight of our melliferous friends, I thought supplying them with dinner if they happened to be in the area would be the decent thing to do.
While reading about borage I noted that you could do fun things like this with the flowers…
…as well as add them to salads. The flowers are so small and delicate I assumed the plant they grew on would also be of a reasonably diminutive scale. I happily planted out my many seedlings in and around my existing plants: under the bougainvillea, around the hibiscus, in between the rosemary and the marigolds. And they grew.
Noticing the rapidly diminishing space in my pots, I tried a recipe for young borage leaves, which you can fry up in a pan with some oil and a little garlic. The taste is delicious, but even the young leaves have a hairy surface which doesn’t entirely disintegrate with cooking. Appealing as the flavour was, I couldn’t get rid of the sensation that I was eating fried fibre-glass. So I let the plants continue to grow.
As the stalks grew taller and the leaves grew wider, and we started to lose the light in our once sunny bedroom, I thought I had better thin a few of the plants out, but not too many – I was doing this for the bees, remember. Still no flowers appeared. The large, bristly leaves started to scratch at the windows at night in a most disconcerting way but I let them continue to grow. Remember the bees! Finally, as the vegetation began to reach prehistoric stature, and all available space in my vases and containers had been consumed, a spray of those tiny, fragile flowers uncurled and opened up at the top of each stem, utterly out of proportion with the rest of the plant. And finally today, I saw bees.
There can’t be many bees in my immediate neighbourhood of traffic-heavy roads and densely constructed, eight-storey apartment blocks, but there are some. And for the next few weeks at least, they are welcome to have their meals on my balcony.