Joan Marble Cook died in Rome on 30 April at the age of 84 after a short illness. In international gardening circles she will be remembered most for her two best sellers "Notes on an Italian Garden" and "Notes from a Roman Terrace." The latter of which was published in paperback edition just a few weeks before she died.
For many in Rome she will also be remembered for her series of articles on Lazio gardens published in Wanted in Rome in the 1990s. That decade was a golden age for the development of new gardens in Lazio and much of the popularity that many of them now enjoy is in no small part thanks to Cooks writing. Her enthusiasm for the Russell Page-designed La Landriana garden, near Tor S. Lorenzo, certainly helped to give it the boost it so badly needed in its early years.
Her descriptions of the new generation of Lazio gardens were a delight to both professional gardeners and to ordinary weekend amateurs, and they inspired many a horticultural tourist to visit the places she mentioned. Although she always wanted to publish a book on Italian gardens, she became increasingly involved in her own endeavours at Canale-Monterano north of Rome, which then became the subject of "Notes from an Italian Garden".
Before coming to Rome in the 1950s she wrote for United Press International in Washington and then continued to freelance for "The Herald Tribune" and many other United States publications. She was married to Robert Cook, the sculptor, and they had two children, Jenny and Henry.
Below we re-publish a piece she wrote for Wanted in Rome in 1998, with kind permission of Robert Cook.
The banner event on our spring calendar was the arrival of one small sparrow on our new bird feeder. We had hung the feeder up soon after Christmas, but no bird came near it for three long winter months. Then precisely on Easter morning we woke up to see the brave sparrow pecking at the seeds.
Our interest in feeders began last summer when we rented a house in Sag Harbor to discover that the feeding station in the back yard was the most popular bird rendezvous in all of Long Island. But the Audubon bird feeder we brought back to Canale-Monterano (near Bracciano) did not prove so attractive. We hung it up on a long iron pole which jutted out from our dining terrace and in the month it hung there not a single bird went near it. We then moved it down under the magnolia tree further from the house, hoping it would make the birds feel more secure. No soap. In the end we moved it to the grape arbor and it was there that I saw my first client, the sparrow.
This behaviour pattern, I believe, reflects the general attitude towards birds in our area. In our early days the hunters used to barrel out from Rome every Sunday morning to shoot at everything they saw from birds to cats to TV antennas. But gradually we and the birds began to get the upper hand. For one thing a lot more Romans started building second homes in Canale so, instead of one angry family screaming at the hunters to go away, there were now a dozen. In addition, we all started to plant fruit and nut trees and we also planted Monterey pines which grow at a terrific clip and provided safe and stylish nesting space for our feathered friends. Our biggest contribution was a stand of bamboo which seems to be irresistible. This more hospitable attitude has created a new bird-friendly environment in Canale-Monterano, and many locals say some birds are coming back that have not been seen around for 50 years.
In the early days we had to satisfy ourselves with mostly resident birds: the magpie, the blackbird and the local hooded crow, but now we are getting more variety, especially among the migrators. The bird year actually starts in April with the departure of our little friend, the European robin, pettirosso, who comes to us from England in early November. He is one of the few birds who sings cheerfully all winter and for a few days after he leaves in the early spring we miss his bright twitter. But then during the first weeks of April we hear the first strained note of the cuckoo, and we know that spring has really arrived.
The arrival of the cuckoo is followed in a very few days by the swifts and swallows. We may be pruning olives or weeding the roses when we look up into the southern sky and there dipping and swooping over the horizon are the early swifts advance scouts, checking out the area before the whole clan arrives. Then after a day or two the rest of the gang comes soaring in from Africa and by evening they are filling the country air (and also the air of Rome) with the shrill high-pitched scream which remains our traditional evening bird call until they depart in late August.
The Lega italiana protezione uccelli (LIPU) reports with alarm that the number of swifts and swallows migrating to Italy has dropped by more than half in recent years. Some say this drop has been caused by pollution and pesticides but another theory blames conditions in Africa, especially the increasing desertification and the resulting decline in the insect population.
The next two birds to return are not seen so much as heard. The first are the nightingales with the pretty Italian name of usignolo, which start singing in the olive trees late in April and continue all summer. It is not true that they sing only in the evening.
Another sound of spring is the shrill fluting whistle of the European oriole, a pigeon-sized yellow bird with black markings on its wings. I wish I could speak with affection of this golden beauty but in all honesty he is a pest. He is a compulsive fruit eater and especially partial to our cherries and figs. Another very loud caller in this season is the green-headed woodpecker. We very rarely see him but for several seasons we were electrified by a maniacal laugh from the woods that started high and slowly descended. Our friend Aristeo assured us that it was the love call of a picchio pollastro (chicken-like woodpecker) which we identified as a green woodpecker.
Other spring arrivals include the stunning hoopoe, who calls out "hoop hoop hoop" from nearby bushes and seems to be on the increase in our area, and numerous finches, including the melodious green finch and the pretty little goldfinch who twitters all summer. During summer, we are also entertained by the soft noontime cooing of the turtle dove, and the nighttime calls from our resident owls, the great white barbagianni (barn owl) who makes a call that is a cross between a sigh and a squeak and the civetta (little owl) whose terrifying shrieks once convinced local farmers that he was an evil spirit returning from hell to haunt them.
We were always told before we moved to Canale that our area on the fringe of the Maremma was an ideal hunting ground for some of the big Mediterranean birds of prey; it offered rocky hills plus a mixture of forest land bordering on open scrubland where small and medium-sized animals, especially lizards and snakes, provided plenty of food. However, when we settled the farmers told us that most of the big birds had become extinct.
We used to see an occasional kite or buzzard flying high in the sky, but then one summer morning last year as I was driving back from the market I looked up and there was a big reddish hawk-like bird with a very forked tail flying overhead. It was a lovely vermillion colour with dark stripes and it had an air of silent majesty. This beauty turned out to be, as I suspected, the red kite known in Italy as the nibbio reale.
Energised by this close encounter, I went off on two bird walks in the wild Tolfa hills with a group of LIPU enthusiasts. After hiking for an hour they pointed up above the trees to a large reddish-brown raptor with cold yellow eyes whom they identified as the falco pecchiaiolo (honey buzzard).
The pecchiaiolo, I was told, is mad for both bees and honey, and has a weak spot for the paper combs which wasps make in the forest trees.
While we were watching the honey buzzard near Tolfa, we were surprised to see an even bigger raptor who soared across the valley in a menacing way. This turned out to be il biancone (big white bird) a huge pale brown and white eagle. The biancone is known in the books as a "super predator" as it feeds primarily on animals at the top of the food chain, especially large snakes, and is known world-wide as the snake eagle or the short-toed eagle. This last name takes notice of the eagles unusual feet and ankles which are covered with scales, perfectly designed to protect it from the bites of snakes.
This discovery of three great raptors in the hills near us in Canale has given us cause for considerable rejoicing. But oddly enough, the most heartwarming development of all has been the Easter appearance of the lone sparrow on the feeder. If this little bird had the courage to try, surely others will follow.