The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History
by a. t. grove and oliver rackham
New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001. 384 pages
Hardback: UK £45.00, US $75.00
Visitors to the Mediterranean, especially those from northern Europe, are usually struck by the barren, treeless nature of much of the landscape. Especially during the parched summer months—the time of year most tourists choose for a visit—the terrain can wear a distinctly desert-like cloak. The usual reaction is to assume that something is “wrong” with this backdrop of browns, whites and greys. All that bare, eroded ground, dotted with grey-leafed shrubs and the odd twisted tree, is seen as a poor relation of what was once a much more lush, tree-covered landscape. Man, with his axe, goats and fires, is held responsible for a “degraded” environment.
The popular notion that the current landscape of the drier parts of Mediterranean Europe is a relic of a much greener past is what A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham set out to refute in their meticulously researched Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History.
As the authors stress, this “Ruined Landscape” theory is by no means the sole preserve of casual visitors to the Mediterranean. The idea has dominated scientific thinking about Mediterranean ecology. It has come to underpin state environmental management policies—often with calamitous results, argue Grove and Rackham.
The two Cambridge University academics offer the counter-proposal that the Mediterranean landscape has, in historical times at least, always been a patchwork of forest, maquis, phrygana and steppe vegetation—much as it is today. Classical Greeks and Romans would have little trouble recognising the modern Mediterranean, they suggest. Only in a few cases can the existing landscape be attributed to a decline from a better-vegetated past.
In place of a fragile environment ravaged by man, the book proposes a resilient Mediterranean ecosystem that has been able to withstand most historic pressures. The authors’ argument, based on carefully sifted evidence from a wide variety of sources, is that the Mediterranean landscape as we know it had largely been formed by the Bronze Age, four thousand years ago. If we look at the overall picture rather than localised changes, it has remained remarkably unaltered ever since, they suggest.
In so forcefully dismissing the “Lost Eden” theory, the authors are sticking their heads above the parapet. But Grove, a geographer, and Rackham, a botanist and ecological historian, are not only well versed in their subject, they also leave no stone unturned in their attempt to prove their hypothesis that little has changed. Using the small concrete evidence available, they try to piece together the ecological past of a diverse region stretching from Portugal to Turkey.
The Ruined Landscape theory is broken down into its component parts, the authors then identifying what they claim are the weak links in the chain, of which there appear to be plenty.
“Debate about Mediterranean ecology is haunted by memories—real or imagined—of the past”, the authors claim (p. 14). Historically, artists played a big, if unwitting, part in the birth and propagation of the Lost Eden idea. They did it by painting scenes from the heydays of the classical Greek and Roman civilisations, or from their respective mythologies. Baroque painters, such as Poussin, set their classical characters in impressively lush forests of deciduous trees. Renaissance poets did the same. Both were assuming the whole Mediterranean was like the France or middle Italy they were familiar with. This created an unreasonable expectation of greenery among European travellers who ventured to the drier parts of the Mediterranean such as Greece or Spain. The notion that such areas had been degraded thus took hold.
The false picture created by artists led to the belief that Mediterranean lands “had been covered with magnificent forests of tall trees” (p. 9) well into historic times. How, then, to account for the current scarcity of such forestation? A degradationist theory arose, deriving from the widespread belief that trees prevent erosion and floods and maintain rainfall rates by somehow generating precipitation. Another contributory element was the observed impact of the arrival of people, goats and pigs on the native vegetation of remote islands like Madeira and St Helena. The authors characterise the alleged process thus:
Men cut down the forests to make houses or ships or charcoal. The trees failed to grow again, and multitudes of goats devoured the remains. Trees, unlike other vegetation, have a magic power of retaining soil. The trees gone, the soil washed away into the seas or the plains. The land became “barren”, and even the climate got more arid. (P. 9)
Grove and Rackham are not so rash as to dismiss all the mechanisms for anthropogenic environmental degradation cited by proponents of the Ruined Landscape theory. They accept that deforestation can lead to erosion and that overgrazing can radically alter the make-up of a stand of vegetation. It is the level of generalisation inherent in the tenets of the Lost Eden idea that they attack.
It is wrong, they insist, to suppose that trees alone can provide effective protection against erosion. A cover of grasses or small bushes can do the job just as well. It is not so much forest clearance as ploughing that leads to accelerated erosion, they claim, adding that disentangling accelerated from natural erosion is no easy task (especially as most field investigations of erosion are limited to the prescribed three-year research period of a PhD studentship).
Again, the authors grant that the ecology of Madeira and St Helena did indeed alter radically following the arrival of man and his animal passengers. But it is a mistake to extrapolate from the experience of these “fragile, unstable oceanic islands” (p. 9) to the Mediterranean as a whole. Goats do browse trees and bushes, but they do not, as is often said, eat “absolutely everything”. For example, cypress, an important Mediterranean forest tree, is avoided by all but starving goats.
Grove and Rackham conclude that Mediterranean vegetation is highly resilient. Removal of tree cover is not the beginning of a slippery slope to desertification. Maquis scrubland is more than capable of reverting to forest if pressure from grazing, fires and woodcutting is lifted. Soil loss does not necessarily make it impossible for trees to return to a cleared site. All trees need is a crack in the rock into which they can sink their roots. Evidence for this is found in Crete, where trees often grow on bare rock while grasses dominate on adjacent soil-covered areas.
More fundamentally, Grove and Rackham dispute the idea that forest is the ultimate, the “right” cover, for any landscape. The conviction that any other form of land-cover is second best, they say, is a prejudice imposed on the Mediterranean by visitors from more northern climes. It is a bias encouraged by foresters everywhere.
The authors also dispute the relevance of the “standard” ecological theory that all vegetation communities will, over time, tend towards a climax state of forest. These models are more suited to North America—where such succession ideas developed—than to the highly variable Mediterranean. The Mediterranean environment has never been stable enough for long enough to allow succession to a climax plant community, argue Grove and Rackham. It has instead always been a mosaic of forest, maquis scrub, open phrygana scrub and grassy steppe vegetation.
The authors insist that, from a conservation point of view, it is folly to regard forest as superior to habitats with less tree cover. For example, they hail Mediterranean savannah, a man-made landscape of large trees dotted in grazed grassland, as vital habitat for endangered vultures and Imperial Eagles.
Many components of the degradationist theory are criticised as wholly lacking in scientific support. The idea that trees generate rainfall is a good example. Hard evidence to back this up does not exist. Accounts of forest growth bringing the rains are matched in number by accounts of forest-felling leading to more rain.
Another sore point for the authors is what they see as unreasonable extrapolation from scant evidence. The writings of ancient Greek and Roman historians and philosophers are often cited as providing evidence of a greener past. But, argue Grove and Rackham, ancient philosophers had a “tantalising” habit of theorising from insufficient data, making it impossible to verify the facts. Language and its use can be another trap: “The fact that many rivers of Antiquity now often do not have water in them tells us more about how the ancients defined a river than about changes in the rivers themselves” (p. 141).
There are also many ancient writers who describe Mediterranean landscapes very similar to those of today. Some even provide evidence that the region has become more tree-covered since antiquity, describing as treeless, areas that are now forested.
Throughout, Grove and Rackham stoutly defend humankind’s traditional role as shaper and maintainer of a diverse, distinctive and healthy patchwork of Mediterranean habitats. They argue that even intensive use of a forest or scrubland has rarely led to its demise. Italy is cited as an example of a country that has, since Roman times at least, used wood coppiced from forests as a major fuel source, and done so in a sustainable manner.
Shipbuilding in antiquity is often blamed for the disappearance of tree-cover, but Grove and Rackham argue that the forests of the Mediterranean survived the demand for wood created by the industry. In modern trials, wooden ships have been built solely from timber harvested from non-forested Mediterranean landscapes. These trials indicate that the construction of the fleets of ancient seafaring nations, such as Crete, need not have involved the destruction of forests.
Shepherds, so often hounded out of areas by governments intent on maximising tree-cover, are defended as generally careful managers of grazed environments. The idea that grazing animals are allowed to eat a habitat to death is dismissed. Shepherds have a vested interest in ensuring that grazing and browsing habitats are not degraded. Cyprus is cited as an example of a Mediterranean environment in which the removal of browsing pressure has backfired. Forests have grown well in the absence of munching goats, but have become dominated by highly combustible pines. The absence of grazers has led to the accumulation of dead plant litter on the forest floor. The net result is that Cypriot forests have become ecosystems dominated by large, highly destructive fires.
State-imposed fire control measures are lambasted. Banning fire as a tool of forest management only encourages people to “light up and get out” (p. 239), resulting in uncontrolled blazes. Likewise, the firebreaks gouged out of forests are totally ineffective in preventing the spread of fires. Far better to accept fire as a natural part of the forest ecosystem and concentrate on preventing huge destructive blazes by eliminating combustible vegetation.
Humanity’s historical impact on the Mediterranean environment is depicted as largely benign, or even beneficial, but the authors express concern about more recent changes. Overdevelopment in coastal areas and the abandonment of mountainous regions, and hence the way of life that has shaped and maintained the landscape, are identified as being of particular concern. The widespread use of the bulldozer to carve out erosion-promoting mountain roads and terraces (the latter often for tree planting) is lamented.
A thought-provoking and challenging scientific study, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History is also a treasure-trove of information about Mediterranean ecology, geography and culture. It is well illustrated with colour photographs, diagrams and drawings, and will be of interest to all those concerned with the region’s history and environment.