Shepherds' ears burning again...

The Nature of Mediterranean Europe
September 6, 2002

To mention the Mediterranean landscape is to invite a veritable treeful of old chestnuts on stage. Voracious goats, irresponsible shepherds and thoughtless fire-raisers (often the same thing), incompetent farmers, incendiarist armies and the timber-devouring demands of ship-building, mining and pyrotechnological industries have all been seen as the cause of the present, supposedly "degraded" state of Mediterranean landscapes. Over all hovers the concept of "the ruined landscape" and the spectre of the "tragedy of the commons". The facts are supposed to speak for themselves: because closed-canopy forests, the natural vegetation of temperate Europe and North America, are remarkably rare in Mediterranean lands, it has, from at least the 18th century onwards, regularly been considered proof positive that the landscape has been wrecked by one or more of the agents or agencies listed above. In fact, these factoids have become so entrenched in the literature that on occasion it is thought, even by supposedly reputable scientists, to be unnecessary to support them with evidence: "The proclivity of the Mediterranean shepherd for burning the forest... is too well established to require documentation." (Reference withheld, to spare the writer's blushes.) As the authors of this volume note, there has been a pattern since the Age of Enlightenment of scientists announcing a theory holding out grave threats or bright promises for the region. This commands the attention of governments, which then command that it shall be so. The theory thus develops a life of its own, regardless of whether the science is sound. The pattern of government action based on unconfirmed science or pseudo-science has intensified in the 20th century.

The Mediterranean environment has become the natural academic habitat of a diverse fauna, including scientists, pseudo-scientists, political ecologists, forestry experts, archaeologists and historians, many clearly identifiable as doomsayers, "improvers" of various types, or closely related species of the genus Punditus . It is an ecosystem in which the cries of "experts" engaged in short-term research projects drown out the voices of indigenous groups that know their environments intimately and depend on them. Even the BBC has been known to jump on the Mediterranean-as-ruined-landscape bandwagon. For many of the above-mentioned, this volume will not be comforting reading.

The book emerged as part of a series of Medalus (Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use) research projects set up by the European Community from 1991. Nevertheless, it is anything but limited to discussion of Mediterranean deserts: the chapter combining discussion of Euro-deserts and karst landscapes is one of the shortest. Its findings are, however, characteristic of the careful scholarship to be found throughout. The authors identify areas of desert that are shrinking as well as others that are expanding. In one example of the latter phenomenon, they admit their uncertainty over the cause or causes, while pointing out the possible effects of post-Little Ice Age warming and of human activities. Above all, they note that "deserts are among the wonders of the world, full of beauty and delight and biodiversity. The few in Europe should be appreciated and cherished." They recommend conservation by not attempting to make them "blossom as the rose". On the other hand, such old-fashioned cultivation as exists should be encouraged.

Mediterranean Europe has an unusual environment, not easily understood by those familiar with more temperate climates. It combines winter rainfall and summer drought with tectonic instability - a regime shared only with southern California and middle Chile.

Under these circumstances there is nothing abnormal about abnormal events: deluges, fires, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can change the landscape overnight. The authors emphasise especially that deluges and fires, though sporadic in occurrence, are essential "givens" of Mediterranean landscapes.

They also emphasise the integral and dynamic nature of human interactions with these landscapes over thousands of years. Attempts to understand shorter and longer-term histories of such landscapes cannot ignore these essential factors.

Many of the key findings of this work are important counter-balances to much of the received wisdom on Mediterranean environments. Perhaps most crucial is the observation that climax forest, as recognised by, say, Scandinavians or Americans, has always been limited in the Mediterranean. Many Mediterranean tree species are extremely resilient even under the heaviest grazing, wood-cutting and fire regimes.

Moreover, apparently discontinuous ("devastated" for some) shrub communities (maquis or macchia ) and undershrub communities ( garrigue ) in conditions of thin soils and low soil moisture may actually be closed plant communities. Their extensive root-systems fill all of the soil space to supply the scattered plants with moisture. In substantial areas of the Mediterranean, savannas of widely separated trees can be considered natural for much the same reason. Mediterranean vegetation should be understood in its own terms, rather than expecting it to emulate northern European forests. Shrub and undershrub communities must be seen as characteristic, and beautiful in their biodiversity and adaptation, not as indicators of human mismanagement. Likewise, traditional ways of exploiting these plant communities should be seen as frequently prolonging the lives of individual trees and reducing the risk of a build-up of plant material, which would fuel a major conflagration.

Other conclusions include the observation that erosion is a natural, though often episodic, process. Its ultimate cause is tectonic, rather than human, action. Mediterranean badlands contribute especially large amounts of erodible material, but these seem to be ancient, determined by geology, not humans. The most potent force for humanly induced erosion is the bulldozer, many of whose environmentally destructive activities stem directly or indirectly from European Union programmes supposed to benefit the environment. Much of the erosional record seems to have been caused by a relatively few massive deluges: ordinary rainfall rarely has much effect. In addition, it would seem that during the Little Ice Age, deluges were significantly more common than during the 20th century.

The discussion of fire as a natural environmental factor, to which many plant species are adapted and on which some depend for regeneration, is especially important. Programmes that discourage goat-grazing or wood-cutting raise the risks of huge uncontrollable conflagrations. So do schemes that claim to improve the environment by planting readily combustible species such as pines - often combined with profligate bulldozer-derived disruption to soils on planted slopes.

Reading this volume for review was a joyous experience. Quite apart from the clear, straightforward prose, I would point to three highlights. One is the authors' first-hand experience and deep appreciation of many landscapes. Crete and several parts of Spain loom particularly large in discussions. Numerous parts of the Greek mainland and Aegean islands, parts of northern and southern Italy as well as Sardinia, sections of the south of France and of southern Portugal are also discussed from direct experience.

The second highlight derives from the first: the illustrations of Mediterranean landscapes. Virtually all were taken by the authors. While their primary function is to inform, many also delight the eye. Whether illustrating a veteran tree or a ground-hugging plant, a spectacular land-form or a cork-oak savanna, they draw the reader into fascinating and little-known aspects of the Mediterranean.

The third aspect is the breadth and depth of scholarship. Symptomatic is the authors' insistence on using their own translations of ancient Greek and Latin sources, thus avoiding any environmental misunderstandings of standard translations and reaching meanings other scientists cannot reach. They are at home dealing with the archaeological record, historical documents, geology, palynology, phyto-sociology and historical ecology, as well as ethnographic factors such as traditional cultivation or wood-cutting practices, and the place of terrace systems in landscapes.

The authors are refreshingly honest about their ignorance. They admit when their data are inadequate, or when their conclusions are at best equivocal. Such honesty reinforces the authority of unequivocal statements.

Finally, they inject humour into their work. Goats, pigs, cattle and incidents of apodendrosis enliven some line drawings; Poseidon waves from an otherwise empty patch of sea. The text features tongue-in-cheek neo-hellenisms such as "aegophobia" (fear of goats). Concluding sections of chapters on fire and on erosion, headed "Seven ways to promote conflagrations" and "Eight ways to encourage erosion", emphasise the destructive role of Homo pseudo-scientificus . The latter section includes the advice: "Buy a bulldozer and keep it busy"!

Hamish Forbes is senior lecturer in archaeology, University of Nottingham.

The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History

Author - A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham
ISBN - 0 300 08443 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 384

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