Sunday, 3 February 2013

Mediterranean landscape (Μεσογειακό τοπίο)

What does it mean to live in a Mediterranean landscape? Wikipedia sums it up nicely:
To the peoples of Northern Europe the Mediterranean landscape represented an ideal that has to be admired, sketched, painted and visited. From the beginning of the nineteenth century on, the Mediterranean landscape functioned as a promotional objective of the nascent tourist industry. The presence of celebrities and highly effective publicity campaigns in combination with the work of many artists turned the regional geographical landscape into a tourist landscape, a dream space for the twentieth century. Luginbühl (1992) suggests that tourist publicity posters that appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century were used to represent the Mediterranean landscape and to reinforce the selective view of that landscape held by an elite stratum of society. Characteristic of these posters is the emphasis on the ‘exotic’ in the Mediterranean landscape. Plant life especially is used to symbolise the ideal tourist scenery whilst constructing a landscape that retreats from reality:
The Mediterranean landscape is replaced with a landscape in which the only thing that is Mediterranean is the stuff of the tourist promotion: a beach, a palm-tree, and a couple browning their skin in the sun or letting their hair blow in the wind. The Mediterranean landscape no longer exists, because it has been made palatable to all (Luginbühl, 1992, 227).
Living slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean,I can vouch for the beaches (they were clearly intended for tourists when they were first 'invented'), the palm trees (they were nearly all introduced, as a way of creating the effect that tourists wanted) and the couples browning their skin (pre-WW2 Crete, only men swam but never sunbathed). Coincidentally, living near the sea was never highly regarded until the post-1950s because the coastal soils were not fertile and the climate was too humid/damp with increased flooding. People lived in towns and inland villages, but the coast was seen as the place where a hazardous unpredictability began: the sea has never been taken lightly since ancient Greek times.
The sea of trees on the hills looks quite different to the shrubby landscape of the taller mountains.  The different shades of green denote different tree species, which can now be identified using GIS technology. Note the latest 'species' to sprout from the ground: photovoltaic boards (they aren't swimming pools).

World geographic distribution of olive tree
(Luchetti 2002)
The Cretan landscape  these days is looking more than ever like a green patchwork blanket. The different green shades and hues are clearly delineated by unnatural oblong arrangements, some of which have straight lines, while others are curved, forming the areas planted by trees. But the sea of olive (and to a lesser extent, orange and vineyard) fields that we are used to seeing in Crete is misleading. Crete was never so heavily cultivated by olives until the Venetians began planting orchards around the 15th century. The rapid - almost uncontrolled - growth in olive groves only came in relatively more recnt times, driven by the very high CAP subsidies that farmers received: a high number of trees, and therefore yield of crop, all subsidised by the EU, created an 'olive-rush' period in Cretan agriculture:
The Mediterranean Basin was settled by humans very early. Consequently, Mediterranean-type landscapes have long ago experienced human impact (Naveh, 1998). Until 1980, the dynamic equilibium between humans and the Mediterranean environment resulted in a remarkably rich landscape. However land abandonment, tourism development, population concentration along the coast and the extended transportation networks have characterised the last two decades of the 20th century (Arianoutsou, 2001)... In Greece, the area of olive groves has increased constantly during the last quarter century. Groves for olive oil have expanded in many semi-mountainous and coastal areas (mainly in Crete and the Peloponnese) (Beaufoy 2000). [Text from MSc thesis by Youmna Achkar, "Distribution and patterns of olive groves across an altitudinal gradient", MAICh, 2012]
An example of the rocky nature of Cretan mountainside - olives and aromatic shrubs grow here.

If we take a look at the Cretan landscape where I live, we find a great diversity of extreme features in a very restricted area, making up a highly complex landscape covered in highlands and lowlands, coastal lands and inlands, intensively and extensively cultivated agricultural lands, very old and very modern settlements, abandoned and overpopulated areas (as described by Papanastasis et al., 2004 in Achkar 2012). A typical  geological feature of the area is the appearance of displaced rocky landscape caused by faults, and massifs caused by uplifting through plate movements (aka earthquakes). The rocky parts of Hania are characterised by phyllite and quartzite. This all forms the rocky hilly landscape of the villages where my parents were born. Although one village was located in a mountain, and the other inland with close proximity to the coast, both areas share many features, steep hilly rocky paths being one of them.

The shrubland in the photo lies directly above our olive grove. From this point on the hill (approximately 200m above sea level), no more olive trees have been planted (although they grow at higher altitudes). This kinf of land is called μαδάρα (ma-THA-ra). It is sectioned off here, which tells us that it's being used for animal grazing. In the past when there was no fencing, goats would come into our grove, scrape the bark off the olives and eat the lower lying leaves.

The Cretan hills and mountains have always been covered in some form of vegetation, mainly low shrubs and  short trees, collectively known as macquis. The higher the altitude, the more diverse the varieties of macquis; various species grow at different heights. This kind of landscape has largely been displaced in modern times by the ease of access of landscape machinery, changing the function and nature of the land, usually from a natural wild area to a tamer cultivated landscape. Agricultural practices have changed the area drastically over the years, especially in recent times. This is not necessarily a negative aspect of modern life: more areas are protected these days, leading to the rise in forested areas.

"Hunting is forbidden within the fenced-off area." 
Apart from the road, the area has a more natural look to it than the area planted by trees.

The main problem with modern agriculture in Crete is the sharp increase in the need for water resources which have always been limited on the island. Although Crete doesn't import water supplies, like many other Greek islands, Crete is subject to a desertification process due to water pressures from tourist needs and home-gardening/landscaping. Lawns for example are a ridiculous waste of both water and money resources. The best way to maintain a pretty garden in Crete is to incorporate the idea of xeriscape, which means using local species of plants that do not require a great deal of water needs.

Arbute (also known as the strawberry tree), carob and fig - all varieties of Cretan xeriscape.
Below: a close-up of the arbute - the red berries are ripe enough to eat; we ate them, which is why they are missing!; a fig tree. Fig and carob grow large, but they can be trimmed for landscaping purposes.

The changes in the Cretan landscape are nowadays constatnly being tracked with the use of GIS technology. Aerial photographs over a period of time tell us that more and more trees are being planted than there ever were in the past, while GIS technology is now close to the point of being able to correctly guess the tree species, even from photos taken so far away from the air, where the tree trunk is not visible. Black and white as well as colour photography can be used in conjunction with GIS technology, which separates the different shades and hues of grey or green, being able to pinpoint very closely what tree species is found in each patch of that blanket. This has helped in curbing false claims by farmers about how many and what kind of trees they planted in the fields, which used to get them subsidies (although these subsidies are now due to stop). The eventual aim is to do this for all plants, including seasonal crops like tomatos and cauliflowers. Although we will have to wait a while for that to happen, technology has developed at such a rapid pace, that we can guarantee it will be in our lifetime.

All photos taken on Boxing Day, 2012, in and around our olive grove.

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