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.
“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.
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.
To catch, as in to capture on film – of course. To put one of these neon blue light-lasers in a cage would be like trying to own the beauty of a butterfly by pinning it to a board.
25 kilometres outside of Rome, by the coastal town of Ostia, lies a small nature reserve. Run by LIPU, the Italian equivalent of the RSPB, it contains a small lagoon and a few trails with three hides for observing the variety of aquatic birds and passeriformes that either nest in or visit the area.
As per usual, it’s a spur of the moment thing and we pick a day right in-between what are generally considered the right seasons to go birding here. The bee-eaters have already left and it’s still too early for the flocks of migrating birds resting on their way to Africa, or for those species that choose to overwinter in this temperate zone. Still, we pack the binoculars and the camera and head along the trail.
We pick the hut nearest the water, creak open the wooden door and enter into the gloom. There are three other figures already inside, lined up along the observation hatch. Their photographic equipment is very impressive and for the first time I understand why Cannon cameras chose the brand name: they are weapons waiting to fire – enormous expanded cylinders poised at the ready. Quietly my husband unpacks our camera. Until now I’d thought we could acquit ourselves quite competitively in the lens department, but his just doesn’t compare, poor guy! We manage to refrain from laughing at the scenario (this is a serious pursuit), and get down to the business of trying to spot some birds.
Immediately there’s a flash of preternatural colour, electric turquoise and vivid orange, and a kingfisher lands on a branch right outside the hide. Shutter sounds fill the hut with whirrs and clicks. The kingfisher pipes his reedy song once, twice and darts away.
‘Did you get it?’ I mouth. He checks the screen and then looks at me guiltily.
‘I hadn’t set it up. The exposure’s all wrong,’ he whispers back.
Indeed, the screen shows mostly black with the hint of a bird-like shape in the centre.
I say nothing.
After that, we try and try but it’s impossible to catch them in the viewfinder, to anticipate their flight patterns or keep up with their speed. I can almost hear the camera’s auto-focus laughing at me for being fool enough to even consider it feasible.
In the end we just take to watching these fantastic creatures through the binoculars. They flash and dash, skimming the water, or diving from branches to grab a silvery fish with needlepoint accuracy, tiny jewelled jet crafts captivating us with their capacity for aerial manoeuvres and precision plunges. We capture their activity only in our mind’s eye. But that’s enough, and as I drift into sleep later that night, they continue to dance into my dreams.
Back at work and adjusting to city life after five weeks of being outdoors and at one with the elements in Greece. The balcony, despite the best intentions of a neighbour, had shrivelled to a brown tangle of dried-out twigs. I thought it was done for. Yet, with a generous daily dousing of water, the lantana is back in flower, the hibiscus unfurling new blossoms and the clematis clearly thinks it is spring all over again. The gecko looks happier now he has some foliage to hide in once more. The only plant that has continued its advances unaffected by any changes in temperature or atmospheric conditions it seems, is the chili-monster. What am I going to do with yet another kilo of chilli peppers?
At school the students all returned (eventually) tanned and, for the most part, smiling and happy. The weather remains hot and very humid and this has contributed to a marked increase in the population of another inhabitant of the school – the common black cricket. Last Monday I began the day by chasing out sixteen of these beauties from my classroom.
Followed by another ten or so an hour later. While I believe that learning should be for everyone, these chaps are quite disruptive, breaking out into ear-splitting song at any inopportune moment during my lesson. Threats of staying in at break or visits to the principal have no effect on them. Plus, my students (who all seem to live in hermetically sealed apartments far away from any contact with earth, plants or wildlife) only have to see one of these Gryllus assimilis scuttling away behind the skirting board to set up such a cacophony of shrieks and screams you’d think I’d introduced a slavering grizzly bear into the room. So I adopt my most sensible, Victorian governess tone of voice while explaining that these creatures are completely harmless and they perform a useful job of eating other annoying flies and insects.
I’m sure, when the weather cools, they will disappear. And at least I had some sort of response – albeit high-pitched and musical – when I asked the class, ‘Which Shakespearean character could hear “the owl scream and the crickets cry?”‘
(Gryllus replied correctly by the way – turns out he’s a good student after all. So, what was his answer?)