28 Apr 2014

The Raw Deal

Indeed I do live in a dreamy location off the hustle and bustle of mainland France and Italy. Hand on heart, can you beat living the Mediterranean lifestyle? Sat here on the sandy beach of my Corsican coastal village with a 360° view to die for that pans across the Toscan Archipelago to the rolling countryside made up of lush scrubland and alpine pastures, I do feel like I'm sitting on top of the world.

As Exotic as Canes and Olives Can Be!
I will never cease to be amazed by the beauty and diversity of this island, despite its troubled past. I admire its proud resilience in the face of constant, consistent and persistent speculative adversity that is trading on its pretty looks, ressources, panoramas and acres of unspoilt land, and the layer cakes of underground economy fuelled by the Don Corleones of the world that are putting pressure on the land and marine environment... Need I explain more?

What motivates me here is purely and solely to do with land protection, and especially the diversity of wild plant species (over 2,500 in Corsica including strict endemics). I'll never cease to be saddened though whenever I witness how the wild vegetation is being perceived nowadays by most of my peers (those my age group, my parents' generation and the younger generation to me). The wild vegetation is taken for granted and considered sub-standard, redundant, invasive, useless, worthless, unrespectable, unlovable and unwanted - despite botanists the world over flocking to the island to marvel at its wild wonders... Such an irony!

Wild Fig Tree
Local councils and residents will go out of their way to mutilate and/ or eradicate trees, bushes, shrubs, grasses ('arba cumuna'), flowers and other macchia (srubland) components because they deem them of no value as those came with the land - i.e. were not planted in the first place! Some will even go the extra mile and make Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto proud by spraying their Godforsaken poisons onto the local greenery. There's this neighbour across the road whose garden looks 'so neat': understand the soil has been killed off any wildlife and is used as mere substrate to support fruit and vegetable cultures.

I am fighting a losing battle trying to change local people's perceptions about the wild flora. I am faced with lack of interest, reluctance to change, scepticism and snarky nasty snappy remarks. I did have an intelligent conversation with one sub-contractor who sporadically maintains roadsides and pathways on behalf of the local council and he assured me that he tries whenever possible to keep Myrtus (myrtle), strawberry trees, Pistacia lentiscus, heather, viburnum, bux, wild Olea europa, green oak and Genista (etc.) intact or just lightly and sensibly prune them if necessary. Unfortunately the dimwits directly employed by the council do not have the same inclination as they prefer to hack to the ground any wild roadside bush even if said bush isn't causing any obstruction whatsoever. They hack the bush so that the hacked bush will give them some respite for a good couple of years at least! They operate along the lines of: the less countrylike the countryside looks, the easier their job will be and the paycheck too.

Stump of a Mutilated Myrtus
And hacking is the word. No clean, intelligent, selective shaping/ pruning. Just savage reckless hacking, made worse in recent years by the use of specialist mobile mowing machinery (see below) that leaves nothing but carnage in its wake (whoever patented such gross equipment technique?)! While the vehicle moves in slow motion, its articulated vertical mower arm savagely twists and pulls a sway of over 4 foot deep worth of branches off the trees and bushes into a claw device that sucks and crushes the branches until they finally snap off the tree/ bush. The hacked branches are turned to pulp to saw dust and spewed out there and then. This barbaric technique is nothing to do with sensible land maintenance, it's all about butchering bushes, in such a way that they are left shapeless, disfigured, deeply wounded, with raw exposed core, severely gashed bark, which leaves them weakened and prone to parasitic diseases and abnormal cancerous growth patterns.

The Path of Destruction Starts Here!
I don't collude with the cavalier senseless approach to land management that disregards the value of a plant because it is not cultivated, and my reaction will be the same wherever in the world I stand, not just in Corsica. Meanwhile councils and residents have been giving macchia a raw deal, the bad press it certainly doesn't deserve. In fact, macchia has been part and parcel of our elders' livelihood since the dark ages. Macchia should be rediscovered, celebrated and praised for its diversity and its scientific and anthropologic importance. Let's note a few domestic uses of yesteryear:
  • Herbal Medicine (mint or dried fennel seeds infusion for digestion; Parietaria officinalis decoction as diuretic; Umbilicus rupestris leaves used as wraps to treat foot ulcers) 
  • Cooking (Myrtus berries or strawberry tree fruit processed into preserves or liquor; marjoram, thyme, oregano, rosemary, dill, wild garlic, to flavour fish dishes, ratatouilles, hotpots, pizzas etc; candied Angelica added to panettone)
  • Gardening (Inula viscosa extract against greenfly; fermented nettle as soil enrichment)  
  • Home (dried heather branches tied together into brooms or entertwined into garden screen panels; dried-up asphodel sticks as fire lighters; myrtle, rush, oleaster and clematis woven into baskets; lavender as moth-repellent; elderberries as tincture)
  • Skincare (Saponaria officinalis to make soaps; Calendula arvensis as soothing skin ointment; Helichrysum italicum as potent aftersun care). 
Wrecked Pistacia lentiscus
We owe this planet some respect. Respect starts at home, then across the local communities, down the roadsides to the local beaches, the wetlands, the fields and the forests. I will carry on giving a voice to the voiceless for the rest of my life, for even though I might be fighting a losing battle, I will stand by my principles and maybe one person out there will hear my plea and echo my monologue with their own resonance, and choose to live respectfully alongside nature. It only takes one person to change the world, one word at a time, and I'm not about to give up on the mammoth task. Will you join me?

Cheer Up, Buttercup!
June 2014 Update: Plantlife, the UK's leading wild plant conservation charity, issued a petition earlier this year to raise awareness via their #SayNoMow campaign. Plantlife is urging local UK councils to preserve road verges as wildlife habitats rather than go for mow. This is an encouraging echo to my local advocacy campaign! Well done, guys!

December 2014 Update: Find out about France's venerable trees (list in progress), via Krapo Arboricole (a French website that shares its passion for remarkable trees both in France and abroad).

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