Local History, History of the Alps, Environmental History: a Place-Based Path

In this blog, Giacomo Bonan, whose book, The State in The Forest will be published by The White Horse Press next week, writes about his journey from his childhood in the Italian Alps to becoming an environmental historian

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Feltre, my hometown, with the mountains in the background. Photograph by my elementary school classmate Antonio Zaetta.

As is well known, one of the frequent pitfalls of historical analysis is that of reducing articulated phenomena to the logics of environmental determinism. In this respect, environmental history, which focuses on the relations between humans and ecosystems, can be one of the fields most subject to this risk; and, at the same time, one of the most effective remedies, when it is able to show how these relationships are complex, changeable and far from unidirectional. For this reason, perhaps, it may seem strange if, in order to explain the set of reasons and coincidences that led me first to discover and then to become involved in environmental history, I begin with an aspect that I could define using the expression ‘historiographical determinism’ (although in a paradoxical way).

From my earliest memories I have always been passionate about history, while I developed an interest in historical research more recently. If I had to place a date on this shift, my matriculation as an undergraduate historian was scarcely relevant (indeed, some of the best historical research I have encountered has been written by people without a degree in history); rather, I would point to the period when I started to working on my thesis, since it was then that I began systematically to frequent archives.

When the time came to decide on the subject for my thesis, I had not many fixed ideas, but those I did have were well rooted: (a) I wanted to study the nineteenth century, since it was – and is – the period that fascinates me most; (b) I wanted to undertake a research thesis rather than a compilatory one; (c) I preferred to focus on regions that were already familiar, so that the events I read about in the archives were set in places that were known to me or, if not yet known, that I could easily reach to make a personal inspection. My choice fell on a region that for simplicity’s sake I shall define according to its current administrative borders: the province of Belluno. Here I was born and brought up; and here I spent the vacations between periods of academic activity.

In defining a relationship of familiarity between a person and places, I think that the fact of birth is scarcely relevant, while the association of those places – more or less directly – with childhood and adolescence is crucial. If then one also has an interest in historical research and was born in the province of Belluno in the 1980s or later, there is further reason to focus on this area, since here are set some of the writings that effectively show the link between the historical knowledge of a given territory and the ‘daily experience’ of that territory (I refer in particular to the works published by Gigi Corazzol in recent decades).

From the institutional point of view, the province of Belluno is a fairly recent creation. It dates back to the Napoleonic period when, for the first time, certain territories, which until then had not been linked administratively, were united. From the geographical point of view, it corresponds almost entirely with the upper basin of the Piave river and is considered an alpine province. It has a decidedly mountainous upper part, in which several municipalities are situated almost entirely at an altitude above 1,000 metres, and a prealpine lower part, consisting of a main valley (that of the Piave) and other lateral valleys. In the latter, the urban centres keep to the valley floor, but their municipal territories often extend to an altitude of more than 1,000 and sometimes 2,000 metres.

Given these circumstances, I believe that my encounter with environmental history was inevitable. Obviously, it is possible to write the environmental history of any geographical context. For example, currently one of the most vibrant fields of research concerns urban environmental history. However, it is relatively easy to write an urban history that does not take into consideration ecological aspects in any way, while it is extremely difficult to find research devoted to the Alpine area that does not also concern itself with environmental history (for reasons that I believe emerge clearly in J. Mathieu’s The Alps: an Environmental History).

For my degree thesis, I looked at some conflicts concerning the management of the Alpine commons. In particular, I studied a series of protests that took place following the enactment of a law in 1839 that favoured the privatisation of common land. These had their epicentre in the northern part of the province (in the Cadore region). Within the Italian historiographical tradition, the theme of the commons was the focus of important agrarian and social studies between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Only after I had begun the research, once I had become more familiar with the international literature on the subject, did I realise that what I was doing was considered environmental history research in a large part of the world.

The commons that were the object of the most acute conflicts in the events I studied were the common woodlands, which alongside pastures constituted the prevailing typology of Alpine commons. The common woodlands had a central role in the life of the communities of the area, with important implications also at the cultural and institutional levels. The wood obtained from these forests, which greatly exceeded the needs of the population, was mostly marketed; and this involved a series of activities that guaranteed important employment opportunities and made it possible to compensate for the chronic deficit in the area’s agricultural production by purchasing foodstuffs with the proceeds of timber. At the same time, the control of forest resources was considered key in the governmental sphere, since timber was the most used raw material and the principal energy source, and its importance grew during the centralisation of state power in the nineteenth century.

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Works in a coppice woodland. Source: H. Duhamel du Monceau, De l’exploitation des bois (Paris: H.L. Guerin & L.F. Delatour, 1764) Vol. I, p. 250.

I therefore decided to place the events I had begun to study in a broader context, that of the ‘great transformation’ that affected the European continent during the nineteenth century, and to analyse the changes in the rural world using the Cadore case study, from the point of view of the management of forest resources and the associated conflicts. The main outcome of this research is my book, to be published on 1 July by The White Horse Press: The State in the Forest. Contested Commons in the Nineteemth Century Venetian Alps.

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Cover of The State in The Forest
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Location of Cadore in the North-East of Italy. Cartography by Nieves López Izquierdo.

Currently I am engaged in research that is, in some ways, a continuation of the previous project and has emerged from similar motivations. Before the advent of rail transport, the timber trade was conducted essentially by river, and a crucial factor for the exploitation of the Cadore woodlands was the presence of the Piave river, which extends from the eastern Alps to the Venetian plain until it flows into the Adriatic Sea north-east of Venice. As soon as the river became navigable, the trunks obtained from the Alpine forests were tied together to form rafts which, besides themselves being commodities of great value, were also one of the fastest means of transport to reach the urban areas of the plain. What was one of the busiest communication routes in the region until the end of the nineteenth century is today considered one of the most artificialised river basins in Europe. For long stretches, the main riverbed remains almost without water due to the numerous irrigation and hydroelectric diversions. The sense of estrangement in experiencing the gap between the river that I was reading about (a great communication route) and what I saw and crossed daily (artificialised and/or intubated) pushed me to study the process linking these two extremes: the industrialisation that has transformed the Piave and many other rivers over the last two centuries.

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Wood transport in the Alps (1829), engraving by Ludwig von Martens. Source: Private archive (B. Pellegrinon).

As is well known, currently the most favoured historiographical perspective, in the field of environmental history as elsewhere, is the global one. After all, the problems confronting us today are increasingly global issues, starting with climate change. Personally, I hope to encounter works that study these global phenomena through a local perspective; that are able to show the concrete effects of these great changes on well-defined territorial and social realities, but also to bring out the active role played by social actors in these changes. I believe that a good starting point for this kind of research is precisely that feeling of familiarity which often develops between people and places, and which I spoke of at the start of this paper. Such a feeling can be the driving force that feeds the curiosity both of the historian exploring particular events and places, and of readers, who are often not historians but still trying to understand better the places in which they live through their history.

Naturally this feeling alone is not enough, and I do not know the best recipe for writing this kind of history, though my forthcoming book represents my first attempt. Some time ago, I was very struck to discover that William Cronon, one of the most important and innovative figures in the field of environmental history, who has made major contributions to the development of this discipline, runs a course for his students which, from its title, is a clear tribute to the tradition of English local history and to its most famous exponent, W.G. Hoskins (the course is entitled The Making of the American Landscape). I hope to be able to attend this course in the future and perhaps I shall find a more precise formulation for this feeling of mine that is still somewhat confused.


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