Since childhood I have found solace in two things: nature and books. Now I live in Rome, Italy - beautiful but frustrating, glorious but chaotic. I'm learning to appreciate the details, to see the natural world that still survives and even thrives in the city around me. And when I feel like staying in then, as the saying goes, 'a book is like a garden carried in the pocket.' A myriad other places to discover and explore through the written word.
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.
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?...
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow...
Extract from Toads by Philip Larkin
It finally feels as though spring is unfolding here in Rome. The sun is strong today as I plant out a few seedlings on the mini-balcony. Work and weather have conspired to keep me fairly house-bound of late, so touches of nature have been few and far between. I did enjoy finding a baby gecko inside the classroom clock yesterday as I went to wind it on in preparation for daylight saving, but I feel I have been out of touch with the pleasures of the natural world of late.
This time last year we were preparing to go on a trip to Bonaire. This small island, not far from the coast of Venezuela, is more arid than its Caribbean cousins – although in its favour, it is a world class windsurfing spot.
We had one of the best days ever birding while we were there. Looking at these photos and reading the extracts from my journal has certainly helped to put that toad work back under its stone for today.
22nd April 2014:
“We hire an enormous pick-up truck for the day which is the only vehicle available. I’m glad I’m not the one having to steer this cruiser around the tricky island roads. First we head into the small town of Kralendijk to stock up on picnic supplies, and the bird spotting begins. An Orange Troupial perches in a cactus tree on the road out of the resort and in the supermarket car park a Bare-Eyed Pigeon peers down at us from a tree.
Then it is onwards to the Slagbaai National Park in the north of the island. The road snakes along the coast for about half an hour before turning into a single track next to the shore-line. Red triangular road signs, adapted for purpose, warn us of the existence of divers crossing the road – a common hazard here.
We enter the national park and it is soon apparent why all the rental cars are high clearance pick-ups: the roads are rocky and pot-holed and the going is slow. Along the west coast the landscape is harsh. To the left, a cliff rises up, ledged and carved out by the elements, indicating the previous level of the sea. The water is deep blue and whipped up into crashing waves. We stop the truck and a blow-hole forces the spray up high as we walk towards the edge.
Then, a great spot. A Caracara eating a lizard not too far down the road from where we are standing. As I approach with the camera, it flaps up onto the rock face above and regards me with suspicion. It is a young female, large and with light brown plumage.
We continue along the road and veer inland from the coast towards a fresh-water pond. Parking the truck, we walk down a path through a crackling, dry forest. Giant iguanas crawl away in front of us. All around are birds: warblers, flycatchers, bananaquits and doves.
At the water-hole we sit on a fallen tree trunk and wait. We hear a rustling in the dry scrub and see a Caracara stalking down to the well to drink. It is a real Discovery Channel moment as he dips his head, throws it back and then eyes us up through the branches.
On the way back to the truck, I spot a humming bird, emerald and blue, tiny and impossible to photograph. An iridescent gem hovering in the branches overhead.
The road continues round the north of the island. We stop at a beach, descend steps to the wet sand below and don snorkel and masks. In the sea, fish appear immediately – large blue sad faces lazily swimming past
We dry off and drive to the last bay for lunch. It is a fantastic landscape: salt lake, a scree of ochre stone, thousands of cacti and the moody hills of the interior. In the shallows of the lake, flocks of flamingoes stalk and dance a ballet, then launch into the air with a racket of cackling calls.
We have our picnic accompanied by a pair of Mockingbirds staring at our food.
The abandoned buildings on the beach are painted bright egg-yellow, complementing the blue of the sky.
Many photos of flamingoes later, we get back on the road. Exiting the park, we drive through the one-horse (one-donkey) town of Rincan and back down to Kralendijk for a welcome cold beer on the pier outside Karel’s bar.
A day immersed in the natural world that I will always remember.”
‘…come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.’
W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire
‘How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!’
The morning sun greeting the peaks on a mass of dolomite rock is a fine sight on the first day of the new year.
We take a path in frozen early shadow that climbs beside a descending stream cast into sculptures of ice as it pours over boulders that have journeyed from the same needles and chimneys that rise before us in the distance.
Later, a sunnier route beside sparkling soft cushions of snow, the click click click of the poles on the icy path seeking out friction and a footing across the stilled stream that has been stopped in its track down the slope.
These are savage mountain tops rendered sweet by a sifting of confectioner’s sugar; snow has fallen into crevice and gulley, resting on stone, bluff and precipice so that we say ‘Oh, how pretty’ and stop to take a photograph as, for a treacherous moment, we forget our sense of awe.
The gloaming arrives early here. A blue light issues from the ground, creeping up the glowering rock to extinguish the rosy alpenglow still lighting the tips and jags until all is gloom and frozen shadow once more.
A stroll down the Appia Antica on a very warm (t-shirt weather) end-of-October day in search of some autumn colour. What I found wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but colourful none the less.
Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are a common sight in Rome’s parks. They are called an invasive species, but that’s a rather negative viewpoint to take, I think. They are very noisy, approachable, love hanging out in big groups, race at breakneck speed from place to place – in fact, very similar to many of my neighbours. They are a perfect Roman bird.
Back in England for a few days and, despite the drizzle and gloom, the garden was turning into a mosaic of bonfire tones. The flame at the heart of it was the robin eyeing me from the fence. He’s very territorial, curious – although he keeps his distance, but you can rely on him to be around when you need some company doing the weeding. Certainly more the English country gent.
“Two had seen two, whichever side you spoke from.
‘This must be all.’ It was all. Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour
Had made them certain earth returned their love.”
From Two Look at Two by Robert Frost.
Unusually, we are up and out before the crowds, and the day is just unfolding itself across the softly wooded hills in front of us as we set out along the track. We soon leave the sunlit open land behind, where a fox is running from scrub to boulder in the meadow, and enter a cool tunnel of branches accompanied by a rushing stream and the calls of a nuthatch. The oaks and copper beeches are just about to turn; green edges catching fire in yellow and orange. Then, in the shadows on the path ahead a shape appears, grey and silent. A doe has stepped out from the forest. She stops and stares and we return the gaze. Minutes go by and we remain fixed. Well,that must be all, but no – there is more. Another grey shape appears, stops behind her. Stares.