Monday, February 20, 2017

From Farm to Forest

Back to Nature

registry map of Le Ripe

When we first arrived at Le Ripe we invited an 'arboreal archaeologist' to examine our trees. We rather fancied that some of the old apple trees might have proved interesting and we thought she could advise us on how to proceed with new plantings at Le Ripe. 

When I showed her the dense woods, full of brambly undergrowth, trees reaching for the sky through thickets of blackthorn and juniper and said something cheerful about it all having gone back to nature she stopped my ramblings with a curt: 'This is land which has degenerated'. 

Although at the time we were shamed into silence, we now have a different perspective (see the post on Monks and Forests) on the fate of forests. 

However, paying respect where respect is due: Le Ripe was once a fully working farm where the native woods provided fuel, forage, fruits and timber for tools; where grapes, cereal crops and fruit trees were cultivated; where livestock grazed; where bamboo and certain trees were planted for their agricultural usefulness. Since it was abandoned in the 1950s or even earlier, the land has been steadily reverting to its pre-agricultural state, 'degenerating' in a sense, although regenerating in another sense.

Until recently, apart from a detail in a neighbour's family shot from 1946 (see below), we had no documentary record of this process, but now, thanks to the internet we have found aerial photographs, starting in 1954, which provide a striking testimony.

2013: for the purposes of comparison with 60 and 70 years ago
The entire area captured in these aerial photographs is of great interest, but for the purposes of our exercise, the Le Ripe property comprises the central area of the photograph, bordered to north and east by the Pesa river, to the south by creeks and to the west by the crest of the forested hill (see map at top of post).

Le Ripe 1946, from the Pesa river (the houses in the foreground belong to Casanuova delle Ripe, a hamlet below Le Ripe): note the terracing, the tracks, the sparse vegetation. these were pastures, grape terraces and fields for growing cereal crops to which the large ricks of oats and wheat bear witness.

1954: the extensive land cleared for farming is most evident here, with the lines of terracing for crops, pasture and vines; the forest is at its most sparse, thanks to timber harvesting and possibly charcoal production. The farmhouse, visible near a whitish area at 2 o'clock from the centre of the photograph, where five tracks converge, stands in the middle of arable land.

1978: here the land has been abandoned for some decades and the encroachment of trees and bushes is evident although not overwhelming; in the 70s a shepherd brought his flock to graze here each winter which would have kept the vegetation under control to some extent.

1988: the vegetation creeps inward: the house itself is now surrounded on three sides by trees and bushes, the hill is reforesting, the fields are disappearing.

1996: 8 years later the fields are still decreasing in size, except for those near the farmhouse: this was perhaps when the previous owners did some clearing.

2007: around about the time we arrived at Le Ripe and began restoring the first building, the former barn. The farmhouse is totally surrounded by vegetation (some was growing inside the buildings) and the arable areas have all but disappeared again. When we first set foot in the fields near the Pesa river they were smothered in a thick hedge of brambles.

2013 again: our clearance of old tracks, fields and boundaries; the forest on the hill is as thick as ever, as is the growth along the Pesa river.

We don't know whether a return to the farmlands of the 1940s and 50s is either desirable or feasible, but it is inspiring to be able to see the extraordinary mastery the farmers of the past had over the land that fed them and how with the changing times these priorities have altered.

We have these precious documents thanks to the Land Registry of the Region of Tuscany.

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