Portugal Centro Region - the front line of climate change?

 Quite a lot of the region now looks like this. Fire damage plus the results of centuries, even millennia, of soil erosion.

Quite a lot of the region now looks like this. Fire damage plus the results of centuries, even millennia, of soil erosion.

You want to know what impact climate change will have on landscapes? Come to the Centro Region of Portugal and take a look.

Having spent some months in the region, I really feel on the front line of climate change. I have blogged before about the devastating fires the area has suffered from (see here and here). These however are just the latest in a series of destructive impacts that go back a long way historically, which make the landscape of this area a particularly alarming example of what can happen over long periods of time, with contemporary climate change contributing a final blow.

One of the odd things that one notices around here is the areas of bare ground, not just solid rock but gritty bare 'soil'. Rainfall is pretty high here (at least September to April), so this apparent 'desertification' is a bit of a mystery. There are places where it seems entire hillsides are bare of vegetation. In other areas, such as around the village where Jo and I are currently living, the fires have revealed more bare soil beneath the blackened trees. Unpacking what has happened has taken some time.

 The Alva Valley. Much of what you see here is actually bare - eroded rock.

The Alva Valley. Much of what you see here is actually bare - eroded rock.

Much of the region is granite, which produces gritty infertile soils. But the climate is mild and rainfall plentiful so human populations have always been high, with some areas having remarkably high densities of villages even in the pre-Roman period. Lots of people meant deforestation plus lots of grazing animals, so tree cover began to be lost from pretty early on, to be replaced by heather, gorse, broom and other low woody plants. Grass, the most thorough protective skin for soil, does not grow particularly well as the soil is simply lacking in sufficient phosphorus and nitrogen. Soil erosion, driven by heavy winter rains, gradually stripped hillsides of anything the grass could grow on anyway, dumping it in the valleys (which at least helped peasant cultivators). The remaining grit, almost entirely stripped of humus or finer soil particles can now only support thorny shrubs (mostly pea family) or annuals. This is the situation on much of the Serra da Estrela, the highest hills in the region: once high pastures, now looking like semi-desert.

 The Serra da Estrela. A lot of bare rock plus low semi-desert shrub flora. And this gets very high rainfall.

The Serra da Estrela. A lot of bare rock plus low semi-desert shrub flora. And this gets very high rainfall.

 Notice, the burnt eucalyptus upper left and the mostly unburnt oak in the valley

Notice, the burnt eucalyptus upper left and the mostly unburnt oak in the valley

Many overpopulated European landscapes were saved by the safety valve of emigration to the New World in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was relatively little emigration here though, so the pressure of deforestation and grazing built up. By the mid 20th century, the government (the Salazar dictatorship) recognised the problem and began to promote reafforestation, but not with the original oak and chestnut, but quick growing pines, and then eucalyptus. As with so many other hilly places in western Europe, rural depopulation emptied the countryside. Here the climate made the industrial planting of eucalyptus an increasingly attractive investment both for the corporate sector and anyone with a few hectares who wanted a reliable pension fund. Given that the landholding system is such a mess (ownership of something around 20% of the countryside is disputed), 'guerrilla planting' of eucalyptus is rife.

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Eucalyptus globulus is a tree which evolution has designed to burn ferociously, scattering red hot embers for kilometres downwind. Whereas strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) resprout impressively from a burnt stump and cork oak (Quercus suber) from all over the branches, this particular eucalyptus sends out vast numbers of new shoots all the way up the trunk, and surrounds itself with its seedlings. The tree is able to generate a cycle of burning which eliminates pines, its main competitor, and over time would eliminate any remaining oaks or chestnut, which do not burn but grow much more slowly.

It was interesting to go to Tasmania in the spring and see Eucalyptus globulus in the wild. Australia's landscape history saw eucalypts gradually displace other slower-growing tree species as the Aborigines used fire as a landscape management tool; assisting the mass extinction process which tribal hunter-gatherers caused all over the world during the Stone Age. There the process took millennia to complete; in Portugal it is taking just a few decades to go much further and completely degrade the landscape. Wild eucalyptus in Tasmania grows quite sparsely, in multi-age stands; in Portugal, even-aged plantations pack the trees in as densely as possible, so the amount of highly inflammable biomass is concentrated far more than would ever happen naturally.

 Eucalyptus re-sprouts AND re-seeds!

Eucalyptus re-sprouts AND re-seeds!

'Desertification' is not an exaggeration to describe what is happening. The firestorm of last October, the worst landscape fire globally in 2017, was a qualitatively new experience for Europe, an event which was almost certainly climate change induced and which is now far more likely. Although fed by eucalyptus, I could imagine conifers feeding a similar event in the right set of circumstances (high wind velocity after a long drought). What has happened to this region should be a warning for other places.

This is of course the era of conspiracy theories and fake news, and so of course a variety of paranoid fantasies have unfortunately taken hold, which do nothing to help target the blame where it belongs: the corporations who produce chipboard and paper pulp from the eucalyptus and promote its growth and the ineffective government. There is a group called 'Ceus Limpos' (clean skies) which is propagating the daft idea that drones and planes spread the fire deliberately. As if the region does not have enough problems already!

One further impact is a psychological one. We have lived for several months this year in a devastated landscape. It quickly becomes the 'new normal'. Local residents still talk about good walks in beautiful places as if they are still there. After being here a while it is almost a shock to go somewhere undamaged, even to take a walk in an ordinary pine forest with a bit of heather on the ground seems so refreshing.

A way forward? Really only the replanting of native oaks and chestnuts, from the evidence around us, it would seem that decent stretches of these trees would be very effective as fire breaks, and would do more to build up the soil than plantation eucalyptus. There are some organisations working around this. https://criarbosques.wordpress.com/ Paulownia is being touted as an alternative to eucalyptus for smallholder plantations; though an invasive itself in some parts of the world, it is at least deciduous and doesn't burn too badly. Ultimately though this is a political problem, to break the stranglehold of the pulp and chipboard industry over the government, an industry it is worth pointing out, that brings in a declining proportion of national income compared to pretty well every other timber producing country in Europe.


If you read Portuguese the following are useful sources:

Paleo história e história antiga das florestas de Portugal Continental − Até à Idade Média Carlos Aguiar e Bruno Pinto. Available here.

Portugal em Chamas - Como Resgatar as Florestas, João Camargo, Paulo Pimenta de Castro, Pub: Bertrand.

Available here as an e-book, as well as conventional.

Also see MAAVIM as an example of local action.


And even if you don't read the language, this is a good and powerful photo-essay, more about the human impact, and at the end a very good map that gives you an idea of the scale of the disaster of last October.



Louisiana, Denmark - a perfect synthesis of sculpture, archictecture and landscape

Louisiana, a contemporary art gallery north of Copenhagen just has to be one of my most favourite places. Not for the contents so much (I am no great fan of contemporary art) but for the extraordinary and quite unique synthesis of art, landscape and architecture it offers. It also has an atmosphere of immense calm, almost a healing atmosphere. I think I have been there six or seven times now and every time I walk away quite mesmerised by it. Louisiana link here.

I once went to an exhibition there about the design of museums, which made the point that western museums tended to be macho statements that put the building first whereas in Japan many museums are designed to melt themselves into a landscape; oddly enough I don’t recall the exhibition having made the point that this was just what Louisiana was doing. My only experience of Japanese museum culture has been the Adachi Museum, and that does the job amazingly, as you don’t actually get to see the outside of the building at all.

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Louisiana offers an experience of a restful parkland landscape, its sculpture collection, and views over the Øresund to Sweden. You are either in the garden, or you are looking at it from carefully framed vistas inside, or you are getting snatches. Or indeed underground, as many of the galleries are below the surface. A journey around the museum takes you down below, then up again, along light corridors with trees, and shrubs on either side (including one of the biggest beech trees I have ever seen) or just throws you snatches of greenery, and then down again into another underground bit. You are hardly ever aware of the building from the outside; it is all about being in, and looking out.

Not surprisingly, orientation is completely unlike that of a conventional gallery building. In fact it is very easy to get very lost, but not to worry as you just find and exit into the central lawn area and dive into another door. There are also lots of little paths down around a lake and down to the coast, all with judiciously-placed sculpture on the way. Children everywhere, and that is one of the wonderful things about the place; this is Denmark after all, it is very child-friendly, so it doesn’t have that precious-pretentious air that so many galleries have.

The planting is very Danish, i.e. quite minimal. This is not a great gardening culture, but one where a limited number of plants are used to great effect; hedges in particular. The simplicity adds to the sense of calm and of course does not compete with the sculpture.

End of an era as Piet Oudolf closes the garden at Hummelo

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So, you have until October 27th to see Piet and Anja’s private garden at Hummelo. After that, sorry, but its no more visiting. All of who know Piet and Anja have been rather shaking our heads for some time wondering how they cope with the visitors and the stress it must involve. Well done them for keeping going so long.

An end of an era, eloquently summed up by Tony Spencer in The New Perennialist blog. Time to cast my mind back to August 1994 when I first visited with Eva Gustavsson, a Swedish teacher of landscape design. I think Piet had probably decided he’d entertain two unknown foreign guests on one day; it was good as we all bounced ideas off each other and with Henk Gerritssen who we visited on the same day.

I don’t suppose Piet and Anja had any idea of how popular the garden would become when they came here in the 1980s. The idea was to grow plants for Piet’s growing garden design business, and sell a few on the side to keen gardeners. The front garden with the famous yew hedges was a nursery bed and trial plot initially; when I first saw it in 1994 it was still relatively new.

The Oudolfs were always very social and used Hummelo brilliantly as a base for promoting Piet’s ideas through plant sales and the famous Grass Days. For visitors outside the garden world, it was Anja you met, always hospitable and welcoming. Piet would tend to go off and hide in his office, so speaking with him became something of a privilege; but then if it was him who was doing the meeting and greeting I suspect we would long ago have seen our last new Oudolf garden.

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A pic of how it used to look, the late 1990s. Yes, really! I think that those of you who only know Piet as the prophet of perennials are in danger of overlooking his intellectual and artistic roots, in a more modernist-formal style. The occasional flooding tended to see these yew hedges and columns off, which I dare say speeded up his decision making process, but I think he was getting tired of them anyway. They may have seemed fresh and contemporary to us in Britain who have almost never seen clipping done in anything other than a cliched classical way, but to the Dutch they were part of a look that had been around some time. (courtesy of Piet BTW for these older image - mine are still on old transparences - remember them!).

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Again another winter’s pic, giving a good idea of all that structure, and lawn! A reminder that the perennials gradually crept in towards the end of the century. This image I think should make us aware that behind what appears to be soft, naturalistic planting, is actually a very strong graphic sense.

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I shall never forget getting an email from a rather pompous colleague who wanted to know all about the history of the hedges that used to be at the very back of the garden, and made such a theatrical backdrop, ‘what did they mean?’ he wanted to know, were they symbolic, were they a quotation? I had great pleasure in telling him they were an accident, the result of failing to see some rows of yew seedlings, rather than dig them up, Piet trimmed them into shape. And the rest is history. Until the winter wet began to get to them too in 2011, and off they went.

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I always used to love these pillars of silver pear which used to adorn the nursery area, removed about six years ago, to make way for the very successful perennial meadow. They were a reminder of how we could be so much more inventive with clipping if only we tried.

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And this was the bit below the nursery area which for a few years seemed to be a place where seeds lodged and germinated and made some amazingly chaotic combinations, I particularly remember the forests of Digitalis ferruginea, that amazingly narrow foxglove relative.

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Most of us loved it when the perennials and grasses really began to take off; by the early 2000s all that lawn had gone and we had this kind of planting. What’s interesting about the way Piet has worked, as I understand it, is that he plants and then apart from basic maintenance, does not replant. So some borders are really old, 25 years plus even; a great opportunity to see what has survived over the years and how it has spread and seeded.

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For me, the most interesting of all the experiments that Piet did here was the perennial meadow on the site of the old nursery area. I was so sceptical about it at first I must admit, but for some reason it took off with a good balance between meadow grasses, wildflowers and perennials.

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I always learned new things on every trip to Hummelo. One year it was Piet enthusing about these self-sown Mertensia virginica sprounting in the middle of really dense clumps of Panicum grass that made me realise how possible it is to combine plants whose physiologies mean that they grow at different times of year. Panicum is an incredibly competitive grower and yet in April is still dormant, so the mertensias can do their thing and then go dormant for the summer. This was a picture I took the weekend that Piet planted the first perennials in the new meadow bed.