24 Jun 2010

Walled Gardens in Stone Silence (Part 1)

In my Land of Labour/ Land of Leisure post, I touched on one of the features of Corsican landscapes: the old stone walls and stone terraces. Of course, these features are not solely restricted to this part of the world; they will be found anywhere that is mountainous, hilly, rocky, from the Peak District of England to Madeira, via Tuscany, the sweet potato fields of Nerja (Spain) and much further afield. They didn't only act as boundary posts, their purpose was to contain soil and level land to make it cultivable, and prevent natural erosion...

My dad has always commented on those walls that we would spot by the roadside, or boldly erected on desolate hillsides and inhospitable mountains. He is fascinated by them, by the difficult and hazardous feat of engineering and logistical challenge they would have represented at the time of construction. But neither harsh topography nor primitive tools hampered builders' enthusiasm, it seems! Huge chunks of rock would have been hammered into more manageable pieces that would have been transported by cart, on mule-back/ donkey-back, or by hand to hard-to-reach places, then laid out into those dry-stone walls.

Today it is so easy to ignore those humble walls, to see them without giving them the time of day, no second look or a mere mention in a tourist guide, yet I would ask you to pause for a second and think of the thousands of man-hours they would have swallowed, and the human toll even. These walls facilitated agriculture, pastoralism and peasantry. By providing anchorage, they provided boundaries, enclosures, shelters, land division and soil retention. They allowed the local population to survive, live off the land, prosper to an extent and stay on the island as a result.

Walls were also found in the fertile plains, on flat terrains, sheltering cultures against the winds and providing welcoming shade for the more delicate crops. Stone structures were not solely aimed for cultivation. Some pictured here epitomise civil engineering: roadside parapets (sturdy stone walls built to reinforce mountain roads and to buffer traffic against lethal skids), minor stone features strengthening mountain paths, and stone bridges that linked river banks and enabled roads to bypass the deep curvature of mountains.

The build material used for the walls is also a good indicator of local available resources. A rather peculiar example will be the well-camouflaged WWII German blockhaus built by the roadside in the Ponte Leccia area. A more classic example will be the proximity to a waterfall, a river, a brook. They will have provided a readily-available source of pebbles and polished stones, some of them incredibly decorative.

Talking of the more recently-built walls (probably 100 to 150 years' old), the mortar used for their construction will have been based on sand from the river banks, and you will notice small white stone incrustations (see above picture as a perfect illustration of plant intrusion). Likewise seaside proximity will have enabled our ancestors to build walls using pebbles, as seen in La Marana seaside area, nearby the beautiful cathédrale de la Canonica, an imposing country church. (to be continued)

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