Terraces, terraces everywhere on the Cinque Terre’s vertiginous slopes. (And believe me for yours truly they are sickeningly vertiginous.) Sick, but impressive, as lines of terracing snake along the contours around the hills dropping away into an azure sea. The terraces allow crops of grapevines, vegetables, olive and fruit trees to be grown on slopes that would otherwise be far too steep for cultivation. The stone walls that comprise the terraces date back to the BC when Roman soldiers were rewarded with land to farm as a pension for their service to the conquering generals who happened to make Rome great as they built their political careers on conquests.
Just why the soldiers would go to the trouble of covering these massive hills with stone walls when there was equally good agricultural land waiting to be conquered and cultivated on easy flatlands remains a mystery to me. But build the walls they did, and generations of peasants have been adding to them for over two thousand years since.
Clambering up and down these steep hills overlooking the Mediterranean, I am deeply inspired by what has been achieved here. These stone retaining walls sit on slopes as steep as the Bronte Gully where I have been labouring for two decades with other Bushcare volunteers turning tip into rainforest. Our plan is to establish a bit of wild nature on what was once the council tip in a crowded bit of Sydney. While much of the harbor city has retained a high proportion of bush, in the bit where I live, they paved Paradise, literally. At the bottom of the gully there’s a concrete drain, where once a lively little stream splashed and sparkled over sandstone rocks and pools. Bush now accounts for a tiny fraction of 1% of our suburb’s land area.
Really, we need to manage our cityscapes far better if we are to live in them sustainably. We can no longer afford to follow the Roman town-planning model of relentless bricks and mortar relieved only by grand marble monuments to the alpha-male ego. We need to bring wild nature back into the city, and the best way to do this is to lend nature a hand by cultivating a natural ecosystem until it becomes self-sustaining. As with any form of gardening, this involves nurturing plants we want and eradicating those we don’t. We have to remove coral trees planted on the dump as revegetation but which have spread widely through the gully. This is a greedy, woody weed, that blocks out light and sucks moisture from the soil, severely retarding the rainforest species’ growth.
The height of those slopes at home may be miniscule compared with these Italian hills, but the steepness of terrain is just the same, as is the challenge of cultivation – how to level and stabilise the steep ground, prop it against gravity’s relentless embrace, so that we can cultivate our chosen plants.
Here, the crops are grapevines, olives and vegetables for human consumption. At home we are cultivating rainforest trees that will replace habitat lost to a barbaric model of waste disposal. And one day those plants will take over the job of stabilising the slope themselves. But until the roots get a good hold on the steep slopes, the plants are vulnerable to gravity. Each time we come through clearing the weeds that compete with the young trees for water, nutrients and space, our every step creates a little avalanche pushing soil down hill.
Furthermore when it rains heavily, as it is want to do in Sydney, the damage is much worse as precious soil is washed away. Our local council decided to carry out a bit of their own landscaping above the gully last year, effectively turning a large area of paving and grassed parkland into catchment draining into our land rehabilitation site. No sooner had they finished than a cloudburst cut a canyon through our most recently rehabilitated slope, washing out new plants and dumping half a ton of soil and mulch at the bottom of the slope. In amongst that lot was a mass of weed seed deposited into an area of established rainforest that had been free of weeds for eight years. Thanks guys!
The sandy soil here is precious because there is so little of it. Mostly the ground is building rubble: bricks, chunks of concrete and sandstone from houses demolished to make way for a shopping mall 40 years ago, in the good old days when a developer could just dump his rubbish in the nearest convenient bit of bush. Our site is effectively a landslide of building rubble covered in weeds.
The only effective way to prevent the further land sliding down this slippery slope, as the Roman legionnaires realised is to terrace, little walls damming the downward flow – lots of them all the way up the slope. This way, soil, mulch and water accumulate in the pockets behind the walls, and we gardeners can tend the plants on level ground without adding to the problem, and heavy rain soaks into the ground instead of racing downhill washing all before it.
What I find so inspirational here in Italy’s Cinque Terre is the rock walls. Just as at our site at Bronte, the ground is mostly rock (well brick, concrete and rock at Bronte). We have been using treated pine poles to build our little terraces at home. But these are toxic and costly, and we have very limited financial resources. But if I can use the abundance of bricks and stone in the ground to build dry-stone walls, we not only get our retaining walls for nothing, but we also clear the ground of the excess of brick and stone. I have done this in a few places in the past, but have been put off because it is so time consuming. I guess I just need to change perspective. Just as here in the Cinque Terre, the walls (and the resulting rainforest) are going to be around for a long, long time.