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!)
‘…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.
“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.