Map in cover image from https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC124671?fbclid=IwAR2gJu8Mh2F1BpNzbNxjybtGIvK28pyK6rPQQzvRo73Lur125JlDUPrd4UU
Posted in Facebook by ‘Jack Daniel’ on April 8, 2023, translated by Pina Piccolo.
The natural world we Europeans who were born from the mid twentieth-century on have experienced since our birth is a largely artificial and anthropomorphized world, rendered harmless and domesticated by centuries, if not millennia, of human transformation. Rather than nature, it resembles a giant Renaissance garden, a park in which landscapers (who weren’t called that back then) reconstructed an environment that looked natural, but wasn’t, with hedges, artfully planted trees, groves and pavilions. It was the quintessence of homo faber, of humans building nature the way they liked it, governing it and making it beautiful and, above all, harmless.
Born and raised in this faux-natural environment, we exalt it, consider it beautiful and gentle without realizing that what we praise is not nature itself, but rather that environment that we have domesticated and customized to meet human needs, for our use and consumption. Nature appears to be so gentle and harmless, for the simple fact that, here, in Europe, it is not at all natural, but human.
The map on the cover of this essay shows the presence of primary, old growth, forests in Europe. That is, those spontaneous and natural forests that have never been touched by the hand of man. We can see that they practically do not exist in Western Europe: only a few spots here and there but they are somewhat more present in Eastern and Northern Europe, in the Carpathians, Russia and Finland.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the wooded areas in our own Alpine Arc, are a human product. Centuries and centuries of human intervention have shaped its vegetation: what looks to us like a forest as nature made it, is actually the work of generations of mountain people who created clearings, encouraged the growth of the most desirable trees, and ultimately shaped and cultivated it. After all, before the Romans, the Po Valley was an endless forest, and I forget now which ancient historian wrote that a monkey could climb a tree in Ostia, Rome’s port, and making its way through a canopy of vegetation, it could get all the way to Marseilles.
If this happened with trees and flora, all the more reason to think it has happened with wildlife. The fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood (as well as Peter and the Wolf) tells us about the big bad wolf because the Grimms knew full well that fear of that animal had a grip on children: it was a real fear, complete with the bad wolf good hunter dichotomy -unlike Bambi which, in fact comes later. And not just fairy tales from centuries past-suffice it to read Ignazio Silone’s novel Wine and Bread, written in the 1930s. In Europe, generations of humans, in short, have seen nature, and the forest, as a threatening place inhabited by beings that were anything but friendly and harmless, whether they were real, like wolves, or imaginary, like goblins, sprites, evil witches and various demons, fable-like personifications of real dangers. So much for the gentility of Nature: it was something to be on guard against.
Over centuries, Europeans have intervened especially on fauna: at one time there were lions living in Greece (Hercules and the Nemean lion, but not only that: lions in Greece became extinct after Alexander the Great, and centuries and millennia of hunters have reduced, if not eliminated, the spread of the species that are most threatening to humans, starting with wolves and bears. For their own protection, but mostly for the protection of herds and flocks.
When my generation came into the world in the second half of the past century, the process of anthropomorphizing the European environment had reached its apex. Having caused the disappearance of large predators, having domesticated nature and turned it largely into an ornamental or vegetable garden, we realized that that process of construction had become destructive.
The generations that were born in a fully urbanized setting in the second half of the 20th century then began to juxtapose the concrete and fumes that characterized cities to an idea of Nature which was a completely abstract one as the kind of Nature we found ourselves living in was a domesticated Nature. In short, the Nature that people of my generation sought to oppose by pouring concrete was not at all Nature, but an environment made completely harmless by millennia of hunting. That activity reached its peak in those very years: in 1980, out of a population of close to 60 million, in Italy there were 1.7 million hunters; today there are fewer than half a million (https://tinyurl.com/47dt7yu2 ).
In Italy, conservation programs were created towards the end of the last century. These, in combination with the dramatic decrease in the number of hunters, led to a repopulation of our territory, first and foremost of animals that can be considered prey (wild boars in primis, but ungulates in general). An increase in prey (rabbits), also entails that of predators (foxes). It was a policy to introduce bears in the Alpine Trentino region for that purpose, whereas wolves have multiplied spontaneously, lynx and jackals too have reappeared in Italy after the extinction caused by hunting in the late 1800s.
Accustomed to an idea of Nature that is now entirely gentle and domesticated, therefore, we greeted these returns or re-introductions with great joy, convinced that wolves and lynx were, being natural, as gentle and domesticated as we imagined all of Nature to be, since that is what we knew. But as can be expected, things, however, are not so simple and straightforward.
The bear attack that occurred in April of this year in Trentino, by a female bear that has been identified as Jj4, and that led to the death of Andrea Papi, a runner who was running on a trail in the woods, is a borderline case, which, tragic as it is, will probably remain isolated. But as the number of wolves increases, so do the risks to herds and flocks. Having eliminated predators in the last century, two or three generations of shepherds have become accustomed to taking their cattle out to pasture and leaving them in the care of sheep-herding dogs that are tiny in size but very good at herding and getting the sheep to form rows. Today we are beginning to see the need for other kinds of shepherding dogs, larger Maremma dogs or similar, ones that can stand up to and drive away wolves. But even having such dogs requires a great deal of care, because the risk is that then some of them, if left unsupervised, will create small packs which can, in turn, create dangers, even deadly ones, as happened one year ago in the woods near the town of Soverato, in southern Italy, where a 20 year old girl was mauled to death by a stray pack of shepherding dogs.
For half a century, we had no problem walking in the mountains, letting our dogs loose or going into the woods: the only risk, apart from falls, which can also happen at home, was sticking your hand between boulders or in the brush and getting bitten by a viper. To avoid such danger, all you needed to do was to be careful where you placed your hand, something that children were taught even as toddlers to do. But when you start having wolves, bears or even just wild boars in the woods, you can no longer afford to be lost there. You can’t pretend to be Arcadia; something you could still easily do far back as the end of the twentieth century without dire consequences. Now, instead, care and attention are required.
In short, we are experiencing a sort of throwback contradiction. Our great-great-grandparents (not grandparents, as mentioned) knew their way around an environment populated with potentially dangerous animals. It was a world they felt was threatening and the risks associated to such environments were taught to children (even with fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood). If they could, those generations, certainly did not refrain from hunting predators, large ones like lynx or wolves, or smaller ones like foxes, if only to safeguard their flocks and hen-houses. When this capillary and destructive way of hunting ended, they left an environment that extremely depleted as far as fauna was concerned, but completely harmless, with the exception of vipers.
We were born into this depleted but gentle environment, and to recreate its richness, we reduced hunting and encouraged repopulations. This resulted in the return of the animals that our great-great-grandparents detested but that we, today, do not perceive to be our enemies, having lived in an environment that was devoid of them. On the contrary, we love these animals madly. If one of those great-great-grandparents of ours were still alive today and heard us talking about wolf rights, after seeing a herd slaughtered, they would not hesitate to clubber the wolf defenders. We, on the other hand, do talk about their rights while deluding ourselves that we live in a completely natural environment, populated by bears, lynxes, wolves and other predators, in which, though, we can continue to stroll amiably with our dogs, letting children roam freely and animals live placidly in the pasture without keeping a close eye and exercising strict surveillance. These two things cannot go together.
And that they do not stand together is shown by the controversies that cyclically erupt when there is a case involving a wild animal, whether tragic, as in Trentino, or far less so, such as the multiplication of wild boars. The urbanized generation born last century, who have a tendentially idyllic idea of nature, defend the wild animal and consider those who would like to eliminate and hunt them to be inhuman barbarians. Those who do deal with these animals, on the other hand, tend to espouse the very unromantic views of their great-great-grandparents and consider the urbanized people born last century to be people who have experienced nature in a park, if not on postcards or in some documentary.
The thesis (great-great-grandparents) collides with the antithesis (us). The synthesis is all to be found, and hopefully those coming after us will be able to find it, because I have a feeling that our generation really lacks the ability to do so
Maurizio Vitale, a.k.a. Jack Daniel, is an Italian writer and blogger. His book Plebe can be download from his Altervista blog http://jadan.altervista.org.