Gardens and orchards on the edge
From downtown Belluno, in northern Italy, it’s only a short walk before I find myself immersed in a landscape of transition. I soon find myself in an urbanized rural landscape wedged between the valley town and the foothills of the Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi. I quickly leave the hustle and bustle of morning traffic behind as I venture into a neighbourhood where roads are windy and narrow, obviously designed for smaller vehicles and lighter traffic. I walk through what were once lands dedicated to agriculture, but that have increasingly been transformed into residential areas. Here, it is possible to see corn fields bordering apartment blocks, luxuriant flower gardens alongside productive fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, old farm houses alongside new mansions. This landscape – wedged as it is at the margins of urban development and the majestic alpine peaks of the Dolomites – is crossed with paths that urge me to imagine what was once there, and to explore what is there today. What I have encountered is an emerging cultural landscape. Yet, do we think of cultural landscapes as the merging of old and new features, or as the practices that continue to maintain this as a used and lived-in landscape?
Along this quieter route, land-based activities happen year-round, albeit silent and invisible when compared to the busy commercial and retail activities that take place just a few hundred meters away in the center of the town. Through the winter, the hum of chainsaws reveals where people are busy cleaning the forest floor of branches and woody material to burn. Later, tractors pass by carrying the load. In late winter the fruit trees are pruned – mainly apple and pear trees, as well as grapevines – while in early spring the fields and gardens bloom with white and pink flowers. In this season the fields are a treasury for the few women who harvest wild plants to make soups, salads, and, in some cases, medicines. In almost every household, vegetable gardens thrive. Later in the year, patches of tilled soil are covered with a variety of vegetables and berries, and in the larger plots, by tall stalks of corn. In some properties, it is still possible to see the many uses that once comprised traditional rural livelihoods. There are fruit orchard, vineyards, small woodlots of hazelnuts and chestnuts – once important winter food for people but also for farm animals such a swine – and mulberry, the latter used before War World II to raise silk worms.
Yet, what is the meaning of all this in the context of cultural landscapes? All over the Alps, increased urbanization and decreased land-based agricultural and pastoral activities are leading to the expansion of forest cover in the foothills and mountains, and associated urban sprawl in the valleys. Geographers working in the area see this as a loss, leading to an extreme polarization of landscape features and an overall simplification of the alpine cultural landscape. Is this landscape at the periphery of town the remains of what once was the cultural landscape of the valley? Is this the landscape of memory, traces of which only the attentive eye can see? Or, is it also a landscape which holds new possibilities for those that live in it, an emerging cultural landscape? Are fragments of the traditional landscape a window into the past, or a reflection of contemporary changes to the land? It is clear that in landscapes at the edge such as this one – where agricultural land is losing ground when it comes to competing with residential housing – the cultural landscape that I have encountered in northern Italy is not lost, but is continuing in new and old ways.