Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Darker Shade of Green

Early spring is beautiful in Umbria. The forsythia and the Siliquastri (Judas trees) are in bloom, as are the biancospini (Hawthorn bushes), those nasty thorn bushes that grow everywhere and are a nuisance to trim or remove but which brighten the landscape in April. Right now the light green of the fields is particularly intense but most of the woods retain a purplish gray tint as the deciduous trees have not yet sprouted their new foliage. The one sad note is that with the woods still bare, the persistence of ivy and other climbing parasites is particularly evident. One might say that this is hardly a problem, that nature will run its course, and that trees come and go. However, the Umbrian landscape is completely shaped by man. Woods are harvested for firewood every decade of so; fields are plowed and divided by linear rock piles, which become covered by blackberry vines and biancospini. Trees grow along the roads to sizes that they would never reach in the systematically harvested woods. Some of these roadside trees, mostly oaks and elms, get to be rather old. They define and shade the roads. When the ivy fully envelopes them, they can be very attractive and they stay green, despite their falling leaves, throughout the winter. Still, it’s only a matter of time before the tree is strangled. It isn’t really hard to prevent this, just a simple matter of cutting off the vines at the base, but the local culture works against it. Our local naturalists, i.e. the hunters, become furious when they see anyone cutting the vines from the trees. A fully vine-enveloped tree is a wonderful nesting area for small birds, and although there are few birds left, our “greens” are thrilled at the thought of trees full of birds waiting peacefully to be blasted into oblivion during the winter hunting season.

There are people, employed by the various levels of local government to maintain the roads, who regularly cut the grass along the margins of the road, sometimes with weed whackers, sometimes with tractors fitted out with large cutting devices. I’ve never seen one of these people touch the ivy on the trees, even though the threat to the viability of the road and to public safety posed by large falling trees is considerably greater than any threat posed by tall grass. The workers may all be hunters but one might expect some responsible person to oversee this activity and get the job done.

Likewise, children are not taught in school that vines kill trees (just as they’re not taught to avoid throwing their candy and ice cream wrappers in the street), so they all apparently grow up to join the clan of hunters rather than becoming custodians of the landscape. Parasites can be beautiful. The Spanish Moss in the swamps of Georgia and South Carolina creates an eerie and fascinating landscape, and likewise, some of our big dying trees are splendid to behold. However, the brief spectacle of these green giants is little compensation for the loss of the fifty or one hundred years that these trees could remain landmarks.