18th February


i.m. Vernon Robertson

We were undertaking a major study of the Upper Diyala that year. In Kurdish its name means ‘shouting river’, presumably because of the noise it makes going through the narrow gorges. The river valley is an ancient trade route between Iran and Iraq. Everything is ancient in those parts, or was back then. I’m talking about the late 1950s, a lifetime ago.

We were looking at irrigation, land use and conservation, and so Duncan was invaluable. He was an ecologist when most people had never heard of ecology. Even then, some of us could see what was coming, that the price of progress would be devastation of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. And we had no illusions, we were part of it. Our survey work would inform the decisions of governments, but at least we could warn them in advance of the possible effects of what they wanted to do.

Well, Duncan and I took a weekend off and drove up into Kurdistan, through the Rawandiz Pass to Haji Umran near the Iranian border. It was late spring and the flowers were magical. On the way we stopped at the little town of Shaqlawa, in the centre of which is a huge plane tree, said to be the one under which King Xerxes rested. An unlikely story – the tree would have to have been thousands of years old – but when we saw its great spreading branches we could almost believe it.

Duncan and I were opera buffs. We stood under that plane tree and sang the aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Handel’s opera Serse, in which the King praises its shade. All the local people stopped what they were doing and watched us, these two white Europeans in shorts. They must have thought we were insane, but we did not care.

The weather was perfect. We got to Haji Umran that evening, ready to spend the following morning searching for alpine flowers. However, it snowed heavily overnight, and it was pretty chilly, botanising in the snow in our shorts, and not very rewarding. But what I remember is not that, but the plane tree, the aria, and Duncan and I singing it.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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