‘Killing the goose that laid the golden egg,’
Toscana is exquisitely beautiful. Everyone seems to agree on the point, whether Italians, or the hoards of foreigners who swarm the gorgeous landscapes, gushing their praises, falling in love with the place. Many stay, like me.
Little wonder then, that Tuscons are so proud of their land. So why is it being trashed? ‘Killing the goose that laid the golden egg,’ is an English expression that aptly describes the situation. As I move around Tuscony, my heart cries out in pain to see so much environmental vandalism taking place, generally by the same proud Tuscons.
But surely Toscana is a model of ecological good management. Green politicians are active in local government, and Legambiente is a strong and respected environmental watchdog. I repeat again – environmental vandalism, on a grand scale!
Vast areas of land are in a state of mass movement, with thousands of hectares of agricultural land literally sliding down the hills, heading inexorably to the sea. During heavy rains, the situation is of course, at its worst, with tons of precious topsoil colouring every stream and river siena red. The blood of the land.
The official response is to pour millions of euros into grand schemes to channel and get rid of the water as fast a possible, to speed up the process of losing the precious water and all the topsoil it contains. Then lamenting the dry times when they inevitably arrive. Flood or famine.
If this were ONLY an aesthetic theme – in these times when appearance seems to hold the highest ranking – then the consequences may not be so desperate. In any case, aesthetic degradation would probably draw a more immediate response.
This is much more than appearance though; it is our future, the basic quality of life and our capacity to feed ourselves that is at stake, seriously threatened.
If Tuscon pride has substance beyond self-posturing, there is indeed plenty which can be done to reverse the trend and confirm its reputation for sensitive pragmatic environmental awareness. And to maintain the beauty for which it is so famous.
The world has lost over 50% of its agricultural topsoil in the last century, largely due to the ‘industrialisation’ of agriculture with the introduction of mechanisation and extensive use of synthetic chemicals. This was exacerbated in Italy by the breakdown of the mezzadria system of land tenure. While this may have had social merit with the disbanding of an unjust serfdom of tenant farming, the ecological impact was to transform large tracts of farmland divided into small packets of mixed landuse, into large swathes of broadscale monoculture farming. Perfect for a market encouraging the economies of scale reaped by huge machines for ploughing, fertilising, dispensing chemicals on single crops, and harvesting the resulting spectacular bounty.
This is the land of the Grand Tour by artists and aristocracy of northern Europe. I daresay they would lament the Toscan landscapes of today, a skeleton of the beauty they must have enjoyed.
How many times I have heard locals extol the virtues of the local wine, as if it is the only fine wine on this planet. And that wine has been grown here for two thousand years. Good wine, yes. And certainly these hills have supported vineyards for millennia. But equally certain, it has been only in the last 40 years that it has been cultivated in such an industrial art, with vast acreages of vines all lined up down steep slopes that ensure the departure of topsoil is hastened, that guarantees the development of erosion lines between those symmetrical lines. If we continue with current methods of landuse, there is litle possibility that in even 200 years (surely much less) this Tuscony will be able to support a fraction of the vineyards of today.
Our relationship with our landscape has changed radically in the last century, in Tuscony as elsewhere. And definitely not for the better. Permaculture offers an alternative possibility, in which the old harmony between people and place can be restored, revaluing the best of the traditional wisdom farming in the context of modern awareness and needs. And in doing so, applied Permaculture can regenerate the beauty of the Grand Tour days while ensuring long-term higher productivity and sustainability.
We should not be asking simply how we can exploit the land, how we can make a profit from it. First we should ask what the land is offering us, what it can support without being degraded. If it is only possible to cultivate land by creating vertical rows, then clearly the land is too steep to be cultivated, to be constantly ploughed. It must instead be used in other ways, either through terracing or similar horizontal land patterning, or by perennially vegetated agriculture, with an emphasis on tree crops.
Rather than encouraging the water to leave the land and be channelled as fast as possible into conduits racing to the sea, we should be holding it back, spreading it out on the landscape so that it can be absorbed more slowly, deeply, replenishing the aquifers. This would have happened in years gone by, with the land pattern was so much different, so much more complex and diverse. Water is rapidly becoming as precious as oil, and the quality and lack of it is inevitably becoming the greatest threat and challenge to our continuing civilisation.
So cultivation of steep land should be halted, resculpturing the landscape instead through creating horizontal banks (‘swales’) that redistribute the water more evenly over the land and away from the gullies. Water then has time to be absorbed into the soil where plants can use it and its suspended fertility. We would then have the possibility of growing a much greater diversity of plants otherwise unable to survive in land that is so dry. At the same time more perennial plants would be cultivated, covering the naked land, protecting it from soil and water loss, preventing the current situation in which ploughing ensures the oxidation and loss of soil nutrients, the death of vital soil micro and macro-organisms, the destruction of soil structure.
With the industrialisation of agriculture, we have gained the capacity to plough the land as never before, with huge tractors able to pull equally over-sized implements through the landscape. Every time we expose the soil, oxidisation of many nutrients takes place, and are lost to the air; many more are washed away in the first heavy rains; and still more are simply locked up in the soils themselves, in crystals or clay particles where they are inaccessible to the plants that would use them. Soil needs to be nurtured, not raped. In healthy soil there is a constant balance between abundant oxygen and a lack of it, and this balance is maintained by many soil macro and micro-organisms. Ploughing completely breaks this, flooding the soil with oxygen, encouraging unrestricted multiplication of plant pathogens, and destroying the soil structure.
Witness the great clods of clay in Toscana. The only long-term means of transforming the clay into a receptive medium for plants is through massive inclusion of organic material, and minimum ploughing. The improvement can only be achieved over a number of years, but if it is not commenced, it can never happen and we are condemned to relying on a system (ploughing and chemicals) that is not only ecologically disastrous, but economically unsupportable. This at a time when agricultural subsidies are being consistently removed.
In Permaculture (and, I insist, in any truly sustainable approach to landuse) we seek to re-use and re-cycle all local resources as many times as possible, to slow down their movement through our lands (water, soil and organic materials spring immediately to mind), to create systems that are more autonomous and self-supporting. Not just in the words of politicians and theorists, but in practical application through the wise decision-making of the people most intimately involved with the land.
Let’s Permaculture it!