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Italian Landscapes in the Anthropocene: Oral Histories of Leaf Litter Raking, Fire, and Pastoralism

Andrew S. Mathews, University of California, Santa Cruz, Project Grant, 2018–2019

Old land use practices have present-day consequences. The abandonment of litter raking, firewood cutting, and sheep grazing, which were formerly ubiquitous in many mountain landscapes in the Mediterranean, have produced fire-prone forests that are becoming still more fire-prone with climate change. In this project, I explored the impact of agricultural abandonment on the Monte Pisano in Central Italy through a combination of oral history interviews, botanical surveys, and interviews with community leaders.

Location map of Monte Pisano
Fig. 1. Location map of Monte Pisano

The Monte Pisano is typical of hilly areas across much of the Mediterranean. Centuries of terrace wall building, chestnut and olive cultivation, firewood cutting, and leaf litter raking have made this a profoundly anthropogenic landscape. With industrialization and urbanization these practices have been abandoned, but cultural and material legacies remain. As the generation that knew these practices is now departing, we wanted to record what kinds of agricultural, pastoral, and forest care practices had structured this landscape. The ecological and physical inheritances of that era turn out to have immensely important consequences in the present day.

This project was particularly seeking to verify the extent and intensity of leaf litter raking (raccolta di strame, raccolta di lettiera). Litter raking has been documented in Switzerland and central Europe, but there is no scholarly record of litter raking in Italy (although it is found in peasant landscape practice from central Europe to Nepal and Japan). As a peasant practice it has been almost totally ignored by officials and researchers. Oral history was the only way to find out about this important practice. In March of 2019, I carried out interviews with former peasants (seventeen interviews) and shepherds (three interviews), among which eleven women and nine men ranging in age from mid-sixties to ninety-one. I carried out interviews with the assistance of anthropologist Fabio Malfatti, who speaks the Lucchese dialect, and was able to clarify and redirect questions when my own dialect confused my interlocutors. Many elderly people were delighted to talk about the details of rural life and to recall their youth. These interviews have been transcribed by Malfatti, and will provide an important baseline for past cultivation methods and landscape conditions. This record shows how oral history can demand a rethinking of the response of European forests to climate change. Future efforts to model carbon absorption in European forests should assume that the abandonment of litter raking has been an important factor in recent accumulation of dry biomass.


Interview Findings

People were unanimous in recounting the almost daily activity of walking uphill to rake leaf litter from forests, to use as stable material in sheep stalls and then spread as fertilizer at the base of olive trees. Women particularly remembered taking on “traditionally male” tasks of cultivation and forest work, and recounted forests as intensely social spaces that were safer than present-day abandoned landscapes. All farms had five to ten of their own sheep. Professional shepherds told us that perhaps 5,000 sheep were grazing on pastures across the Monte Pisano and nearby plains as late as the 1960s. Litter raking and grazing combined to produce what people called a “clean” (pulito) landscape that was much less fire-prone. Since the 1970s, ever larger and more intense wildfires have consumed broadleaf forest, transforming the landscape into fire-prone pine forest (Pinus pinaster) and Mediterranean scrub (Ulex europaeus, Arbutus unedo, Erica arborea).


Botanical Survey and Qualitative Landscape Description

I had hoped to accompany botanist Alessandra Sani to survey vegetation alongside my own qualitative description of traces of former land use. Unfortunately, our work schedules did not coincide, so I asked her to record plant communities at points I had already described in fieldnotes and drawings in 2013–2014 and 2016. She documented the increasing transformation of broadleaf forest towards more fire-prone species, with relatively little diversity in the herb layer. In contrast, in survey plots at the crest of the mountains she found that in areas of prescribed burning, meadow species had come back. If maintained, prescribed burning could produce biodiverse pastures that would also act as firebreaks. Such meadows give us some idea of what mountain pastures looked like until the 1960s. 

Meadow on firebreak produced by prescribed burning. Monte Lombardona, August 2018. Photo by Alessandra Sani.
Fig. 2. Meadow on firebreak produced by prescribed burning, Monte Lombardona, August 2018 (photo: Alessandra Sani)

Valley of Calci, October 2018. Photo by Fabio Malfatti.
Fig. 3. Valley of Calci, October 2018 (photo: Fabio Malfatti)

Recent Fires

Landscape transformations caused by fire were particularly on people’s minds in the spring of 2019 because a large forest fire in September of 2018 burned 1,300 hectares of forests and destroyed 12 houses.

Where this fire passed, decades of accumulated leaf litter were removed, revealing even more extensive terracing and drainage systems than I and others had realized.


How Pasts Open up Futures

A final element of the project was to find out how landscape history might contribute to thinking about what kind of future landscape might be desirable. I conducted six interviews with officials from communities surrounding the Monte Pisano. All were concerned about the impacts of abandonment, and wanted to bring people back into the landscape by building a sustainable rural economy. Some wished for more government resources to nudge forests from fire-prone pine toward less flammable holm oak (Quercus ilex). One older official suggested reintroducing sheep grazing so as to produce firebreaks, while firefighters wish to expand prescribed burning to produce firebreaks. Recent events have made people aware that abandonment has made these landscapes vulnerable to fire, but they also know that climate change has made these fires much more dangerous and unpredictable than in the past. History does not predict the future, but it can help people imagine a more diverse set of methods for addressing the landscape impacts of climate change.