Talking about war after more than 100 days of the current conflict in Ukraine is something that seems natural and unavoidable. The devastating event of the war has penetrated the life of the world population through the media and various sources of information, including the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their country, becoming witnesses and protagonists of one of the most violent humanitarian crises in human history.
The local warfare soon engulfed the global scene through unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and substantial military aid to Ukraine. In these tragic days, it can be useful to rethink what the First World War was like. Are there still lessons we can reflect on and continue to learn from the first terrible carnage that befell Europe and the world?
Our attempt to answer this question is divided into two parts. First of all, a reflection on the origins of the WW1; secondly, a closer look at one of the least studied and known aspects of the conflict: the so-called “white war” that was fought on the Dolomites and the Italian-Austrian front.
In the concluding paragraphs, I argue that the time of war belongs not only to human history but also to natural history. Forgetting this reflection is at the origin of the hubris that characterizes human civilization and is increasingly evident in the time we call the Anthropocene.
Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914
Our point of reference in trying to reconstruct the origin of the first world conflict is a book entitled Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012) by Christopher Clark a professor of modern European history at Cambridge. In this book, he maps carefully the complex mechanism of events and misjudgments that led to the war. Its methodological approach is highly innovative and substantive. For Clark, first, we need to consider that the war originated from a very intricate and multilateral political crisis and that we have an oversupply of sources, hundred of thousand pages written on World War 1, most of which are committed to attributing to the enemies the faults of war.
Then, he continues, we need to ask ourselves what is the crucial question to ask: why did the war begin or how it did begin? He invites us to realize that while the “why” question looks for absolute and categorical causes of the war, the “how” question instead looks for the multilateral interaction that produced the war scenario. Moreover, whereas the “why” question is after guilt and responsibility, the “how” question is more oriented toward a broad and open understanding. Even though the two questions can be considered interdependent, for Clark it is crucial that we let the “why” answers grow out of the “how” answers rather than the other way around.
What strikes me in Clark’s approach is the fact that he draws our attention to the “how” question and holds that far from being inevitable this war was in fact improbable at least until it actually happened. In other words, he supports the idea of contingency in the unfolding of the war as opposed to over-determination implicit in the question of “why” the war started. Clark’s approach is highly original as he avoids what most historians do, inserting the question of culpability at the center of the discourse on the war. In this attitude, these historians repeat what was established by the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles in which the victors asserted that German and their allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of the war.
Also, Clark’s approach contrasts the idea held by most historians as they suggest that the pre-war European system had somehow locked itself into a system of alliances from which war was the only way out. This point of view for him is a form of over-determination. On the one hand, the pre-war European system of alliances included the Triple Alliance that was formed in 1882 between German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It was a defensive alliance. On the other hand, there was the Triple Entente (1907) which included Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. The latter was not an alliance of defense as was formed to counterbalance the power of the Triple Alliance. For Clark the pre-war European situation, notwithstanding this system of alliances, was still very much dynamic and open to different possibilities.
The war started after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist. This event triggered the July crisis after, on July 23rd, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. This series of events led to the outbreak of World War One. These events include the complex web of alliances that we mentioned but above all Clark insists on the miscalculation that brought many leaders to believe that war was in their best interest; or that a world war would not occur. This combination of factors resulted in a general outbreak of hostilities among almost every major European nation.
The war started in August 1914 by May 1915 every major European nation was involved in it. Christopher Clark concludes that there is no smoking gun in this story; rather there is one gun in the hands of every major character. The war viewed in this light was not a crime but a tragedy. In the last pages of his book, Clark explains why for him the European leaders in 1914 were sleepwalkers: they were watchful, he says, but unseeing “they were haunted by dreams and yet blind to the reality of the horror that they were about to bring into the world” (562).
It could be said that unlike the First World War at the origin of the current war in Ukraine, the smoking gun exists: Russia invaded Ukraine unilaterally. But similar to what happened at the genesis of the First World War, before us we have the unfolding of a tragedy of which the protagonists do not seem aware. From this point of view, all the governments involved and the powerful of the world today closely resemble the sleepwalkers of 1914. However, there is a further difference between the two situations that should be noted. Compared to 1914, the destructive potential of technology has grown exponentially, to the point of contemplating the destruction of the planet with the atomic threat. This makes the actual sleepwalkers’ sleep even more dramatic.
The Italian Front
A confirmation of Cristopher Clark’s analysis comes from the study of how Italy entered the war. In July 1914, Italy still had the possibility of not entering the war or entering it otherwise. Italy still was a partner in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary but decided to remain neutral; at the same time, it developed a detailed military plan to attack France preparing to fight on the side of Germany and Austria.
However, the majority of the Italian population did not want the war which was then imposed from above by Italy’s King and political authorities. Before anything else, it was a media war through which an aggressive and violent minority imposed itself on the majority. A prominent figure in the war propaganda was the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His public speeches were meant to create high tension in the country and collective emotions in favor of the war.
Among the most ardent nationalists and supporters of the war in Italy are the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder, and leader of this artistic and literary avant-garde movement argued that war is the only hygiene in the world and used a particularly violent language during the so-called Futurist evenings to endorse the war.
As is the case today, the manipulation of news and the ability to build and disseminate false information has been fundamental in exacerbating the nationalistic climate, carrying out the military plans, and in consolidating the full support of the internal and external public opinion.
For Italy, the decision to enter the war turned out to be a gamble, fabricated on uncertain geopolitical alliances and unsteady military calculations.
During the immediate pre-war years, Italy started aligning itself closer to the Entente powers for economic support; in April 1915, it negotiated with the Entente powers the secret Pact of London by which Italy was granted the right to attain the Italian-populated lands from Austria-Hungary, as well as concessions in the Balkan Peninsula. Subsequently, in May 1915, Italy resigned from the Triple Alliance and declared war against Austria-Hungary.
The will to conquer the status of “great power” in the Adriatic and Balkan area is what drove the Italian King Victor Emmanuel the 3d and the Italian government presided by conservative Antonio Salandra to enter the war. Besides the prevalent conservative forces, there was also a minority of democratic interventionists, like Cesare Battisti, who wanted to liberate” Italian-speaking populations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to emancipate the Danubian and Slavic peoples from what they considered their despotic government. In Italy, the majority of the population and the majority of the parliament were against the war but the opposition to the war was not effective.
The Italian military command (general Luigi Cadorna) rapidly adapts to the new situation which resulted from the fact that Italy had abandoned the triple Alliance in favor of the Triple Entente. However, the Italian army was characterized by unpreparedness, lack of coordination, slowness in carrying out the military plans, miscalculations, especially the idea that the war would last only a few months. The Italian front was called, the Alpine Front (Gebirgskrieg); for the Austro-Hungarian command, it was considered the Southwest Front. For the rest of the world, it was called the Austro-Italian Front.
The strategic plan of the Italian army was based on a defensive attitude in the western sector, where the Dolomites were located, and an offensive in the east, trying to reach the heart of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After occupying the frontier territory, in June the Italians launched their first assault on the Austro-Hungarian fortified positions, lined up along the course of the Isonzo river. The assault was attempted eleven times all of which failed. These are called the eleven Battles of the Isonzo.
In October 1917, the Central Powers carried out their own offense, known as the Battle of Caporetto, in which the Italians were defeated with huge losses. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Driven south after the Battle of Caporetto, the Italian Army was able to regroup and form a defensive line along the Piave River. The Austro-Hungarian Army tried their last offensive of the Great War in June 1918 and failed. In October they were defeated by the Italians in Vittorio Veneto which was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. To conclude, the war on the Italian front was not decided in the battles on the Dolomites mountains. The decisive battles were the battle of Caporetto (1917) in the valley of the river Isonzo and the final battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918).
World War I historiography on the southern front has recently progressed over the bleak picture painted by Christopher Clark. Of course, the commonplaces and negative myths that the conflict’s protagonists have conceived towards their enemies have remained. For example, to the Italians, Austria-Hungary was represented in terms of the eternal oppressor enemy during the conflict. Conversely, to the Austrians, Italy had been designed as an unfair ally and morally condemned. These two stereotypes continue to re-emerge in narratives and reconstructions of the war. Just as the idea spread by Italian propaganda that the opposing troops were in numerical dominance and always better fortified than the Italian ones is hard to die.
However, today there is a historiography that wants to be transnational and overcome the nationalist propaganda extremism that reached the point of arguing that the enemies were completely alien, not even human. A noble example of this kind of transnational, more objective historiography is the volume curated by Nicola Labanca and Oswald Überegger, La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918).
The White War
From 1915, the high peaks of the Dolomites were the area of the widest and most extreme mountain warfare. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater.
Austrian soldiers entrenched themselves first in the highest mountains, leaving only the lowest positions to the enemies. For the strategic conceptions of the time, the highest position was erroneously considered an advantage; the valleys were believed dangerous as exposed to shelling and unfavorable to carry out assaults. This concept was in fact contradicted by the battle of Caporetto in the valley of the river Isonzo, won by the Austrian soldiers.
Italy had hoped to gain the territories of the Dolomites with a surprise offensive that was carried out too slowly to be effective. The Italian front soon was transformed into trench warfare, a war tactic that was commonly used everywhere in WW1. In trench warfare, the two sides fighting each other dig trenches on a battlefield to stop the enemy from advancing. Barbed wire fences became part of the landscape very everywhere.
The living conditions in the trenches were terrible. The area between opposing trench lines (known as “no man’s land”) was fully exposed to artillery fire from both sides, creating a situation in which it was possible to die even for friendly fire. Hundreds of deadly assaults on both sides produced no substantial change in enemy positions due to the extreme hardships that the mountain opposed to the advancement of the troops including the landslides that killed thousands of soldiers.
The war transformed dramatically the mountain landscape. For the first time in history, men brought modern technology up the highest mountains building roads, cableways, telephone and electric lines, and accommodations for thousands of troops. Supplying the mountain outposts would prove challenging for both armies. Much of the equipment had to be carried by hand with the help of horses and mules. Delivering heavier loads required mechanical improvisations. Sometimes even mules could not make the trek. Indeed, the destruction of the war affected not only human beings but also animals whose sacrifice is not always reported in history books.
In the winter, the trenches were built with snow and into the ice. The Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, was the site of a year-round “ice-city” where both sides dug into a glacier. The Austrian Corps of Engineers dug an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms—out of the glacier. Soldiers had to drill holes into the ice to place explosives and begin the massive task of digging a tunnel under enemy lines.
A unique element of mountain warfare was the gallery, a man-built cave in the mountain rock serving as a place of relative protection. Variations in the design could turn the gallery into a partly shielded observation, artillery, or machine-gun post. Both belligerent sides had to adapt to the mountain, soon realizing the impossibility of conquering these inaccessible sites. A stalemate soon arose whereby the war then moved inside the mountains, turning into an exhausting war of mines with unprecedented violence that deeply affected the Dolomites landscape, leaving indelible marks. The opposing armies used mines to dig tunnels and galleries.
I briefly recall a famous example before concluding: the Lagazuoi mountain (2,835 meters; 9,301 ft), in the heart of the Dolomites. While the Austrian troops had occupied the crest of the mountain, the Italians attacked from below. From the end of February 1917, the Italians had begun to dig the first tunnels in the solid Dolomite rocks with the intention of surprising the Austrians on the summit of the mountain by blowing up a mine. They had occupied important positions on the side of the Piccolo Lagazuoi including a thin ledge renamed Cengia Martini after the name of Captain Ettore Martini.
The Austrians had already tried twice to blow up the Lagazuoi in order to drive away the Italians, without succeeding. At this point, the Italian soldiers dig a corridor over a kilometer long inside the Piccolo Lagazuoi, working day and night for the construction of a tunnel, two meters high and two meters wide, proceeding at a rate of six meters a day. At the end of June and early July, this unprecedented enterprise was completed and the mine was detonated without producing any substantial change in the war of position between the two armies.
But the mine war had devastating effects on the Dolomite peaks. The most powerful of the Austrian mines detonated May 22, 1917 blew up a part of the wall of the Piccolo Lagazuoi 199 meters high and 136 meters wide; while the mine of 32,664 kilos of explosives detonated by the Italians on June 20, 1917 caused a gigantic landslide still identifiable along the side of the wall just to the east of the cable car that climbs from the Pass to the top (Marco Avanzini and Isabella Salvador). A beautiful 1931 film by Luis Trenker, Berge in Flammen (Mountains on Fire), immortalized the memory of those destructive explosions in highly effective images.
The Lagazuoi Gallery is today the longest gallery of WW1 among those preserved in the Dolomites. The Italian tunnel, 1100 meters long, has been totally restored and equipped with ladders and steel rope.
The excursion going down the tunnel not only represents an exceptional experience due to its particular characteristics but also offers an immediate synthesis of the extreme difficulties in which the soldiers of both armies operated.
Never before had a war been photographed and represented so systematically through the photographic image. The Italian Army Photography Service included 600 photographers that produced a total of 150,000 negatives. The images were filtrated by the censorship that allow only positive representations of the Italian soldiers that were then published in newspapers and magazines such as l’Illustrazione Italiana.
The images of dead soldiers were prohibited by censorship and self-censorship but death was a daily reality in the trenches and among civilians on the Italian Front; ultimately counting hundred of thousands of deaths on both sides out of the total number of 10 million dead soldiers of WW1.
The traces and remains of some of these dead are inscribed in the Dolomites landscape and even today, when the ice melts, some corpses of dead soldiers re-emerge like the ones you see in this picture.
The White War was a period of history frozen in time until the 1990s when global warming started to reveal corpses and relics of WW1. Thousands of soldiers have been killed by avalanches, falling down mountains, or hypothermia. Dozens of corpses, some still in their uniforms, have emerged from the melting ice over the past decades (Leander).
From this point of view, the signs that can be read in the Dolomites landscape are exemplary in communicating the essential fact that the violence done to the environment is destructive and deadly for human beings as well. Their life in wartime does not belong only to human history but to the natural history, to the history of the earth. This is what the images of soldier corpses emerging from the mountains suggest: over time humans remain literally inscribed and buried in the landscape like any other natural element. This is a lesson that must be learned today, in the presence of a war that risks turning into atomic war and global warming that seem to jeopardize the survival of human life on earth.
War, what Leonardo da Vinci called “beastly madness,” highlights precisely the natural and animal elements of humans, their being subjected to the landscape which they claim to conquer. The emergence of anthropogenic residues from the mountains on the one hand makes them available for the historical archive and museum, on the other hand, it helps to recall the existence of an immemorial, geological, and biological past, which precedes the very formation of the human landscape, museums, and archives as we perceive them today. The bodies of the dead soldiers and their opposing uniforms before entering the historical archive belong to the mountain, the landscape, and its geological time that remains looming in the background.
The nuclear risk and the destruction of the planet had already emerged in the consciousness of human beings at the end of the first great world conflict. In those years the Trieste writer Italo Svevo wrote at the end of his novel Zeno’s Conscience, that human madness and disease would disappear from the earth only with the destruction of the planet made possible by a more powerful bomb than all those seen in the first world war:
Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness. (437)
Beltrame, Achille. Domenica del corriere 23-30 maggio 1915 Anno XVII n. 21, Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44184004
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Internet resource.
Labanca, Nicola, and Oswald Überegger. La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918. Bologna: Il mulino, 2014. Print.
Leander, Roet. “Global Warming Is Thawing Out the Frozen Corpses of a Forgotten WWI Battle.” Web. Motherboard. January 15, 2014.
Leoni, Diego. La Guerra Verticale: Uomini, Animali E Macchine Sul Fronte Di Montagna : 1915 – 1918. Torino: Einaudi, 2019. Print.
Map Europe alliances 1914-en.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 1 Jun 2022, 20:34 UTC. 6 Jun 2022, 04:47 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg&oldid=660669963>.
Photos from the Historical Museum of War in Rovereto
Rusconi, Gian E. L’azzardo Del 1915: Come L’italia Decide La Sua Guerra. Bologna: Il mulino, 2005. Print.
Svevo, Italo, and Weaver, William. Zeno’s Conscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.
Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. London: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Vedere la Grande Guerra. Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano. https://www.movio.beniculturali.it/mcrr/immaginidellagrandeguerra/it/
This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.
The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being somehow accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.
Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.
In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”
The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?
These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.
At the beginning of the precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values amid the collapse of European civil society during WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946, “when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.”
Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.
In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,
“of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.”
Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds. Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …
The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality
Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.
He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:
The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.
In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,
According to historian George Duby, the contemporary situation in the Mediterranean appears to be characterized by two trends that are the result of tendencies already established in previous centuries. On the one hand, there are the consequences of European colonialism that make the difference between the North and the South, between Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world, more evident than ever. The imbalance persists and worsens in a worrying manner. The countries freed from colonialism live in growing poverty, partly linked to exuberant demography. Europe appears increasingly wary and closed to the Southern part of the Mediterranean world. The dramatic social and economic problems of our time, together with all the fundamentalist identities both cultural and religious, originate from this situation. On the other hand, our time appears to be characterized by the moment in which tourism takes a “pathological form” both from a social and cultural point of view (30). European tourism, argues Duby, is the bearer of a closed and contemptuous sub-culture that produces serious and negative effects on local cultures.
The human signs have “civilized” the highest peaks and most remote parts of the earth. Consequently, the mountain no longer offers itself as a unified and sublime image. Contemporary artists tend to emphasize this new dimension of the mountain landscape and the breaking of its magic. Here are two photographs by Andreas Gursky that represent the extreme human possession of the winter mountain landscape. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he is famous for representing the places of vacation and entertainment favored by tourism. The long queues of ski tourists draw the back of the mountains with serpentine waves that use the mountain as a writing medium.
The people represented in their swarming look like a row of ants. In these photographs there is no shadow of a human personality, only a movement of nameless multitudes.
But there are artists who are still able to rediscover the wonder and charm of the mountains even and despite the consumerist wave of mass tourism. Georg Tappeiner, the photographer born in Merano in 1964 who lives in the Dolomites exposing himself to their magical beauty, has proved capable of catching the breath of their majestic sometimes disturbing presence on earth. In his photographs the Dolomites emerge with the force of an archaic epic poem as if they were the “heart stone of the world” that pulsates in the sky in the infinite movement of light and clouds.
The Dolominites have recently been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage for the beauty of the landscape and the importance of their geological history. This fact has led to an increase in mass tourism in these mountains. The problem therefore arises of making this new tourism sustainable to avoid what Geneviève Clastres has recently called “the tourist paradox” that produces overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets. This problem is common to all UNESCO World Heritage sites. For sure, tourism brings money, growth and hope, but at the same time can have negative consequences because visitors tend to “destroy the sites they admire wearing away the soil around the standing stones at Carnac, causing gully erosion in the Puyde-Dôme, damaging the cave paintings at Lascaux, trampling over Machu Picchu” (Clastres).
Clastres article based on the French situation closes with a pessimistic note because France does not have an independent tourism ministry since 1995 letting the commercial aspect of tourism to become very much dominant. The Nepal article on the unsustainable tourist treatment of Mt Everest also ends with a pessimistic note. He underlines that the Nepalese government earns US $3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty and is “not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted.”
These examples make it clear that it is very difficult to find a balance between ecological and commercial needs in the absence of a precise orientation in this sense from public authorities. From this point of view, it appears remarkable that the Article 9 of Italian Constitution states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” Regarding the Dolomites a first step in this direction has been taken through the process of candidacy and the consequent enrollment in the World Heritage List. The Italian State that was part of the Convention along with the regional, provincial and local administrations involved, committed to ensuring the protection, conservation, the presentation and transmission to the future generations of the Natural Heritage. In other words, they committed to develop sustainable tourism not only in the core and buffer areas of the Dolomites UNESCO, but also in the surrounding areas.
The Management Framework of the Dolomites Heritage UNESCO, document elaborated a series of indications on the sustainable tourism management of the site. Among the main objectives the document highlights that of the “promotion of a gradual transition
from mass tourism to forms of quality tourism and responsible hiking” (Province of Belluno, Autonomous Province of Bolzano – Alto Adige / Autonomous Province of Bozen – Südtirol, Province of Pordenone, Autonomous Province of Trento, Province of Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region 2008, cited in Elmi and Wagner, 13).
Interventions and state and local government awareness in favor of responsible tourism are very important, as well as the conscience and action of each individual citizen. Similarly, the work of artists who re-create and re-invent the mountain landscape is significant, as it goes beyond pure preservation to renew its vitality in a creative way. L’Echo (2003), the video installation by Su-Mei Tse, the artist born in Luxembourg city in 1973, gives us a sense of wonder in front of a mountain landscape that also appears distant and impenetrable but at the same time responsive.
The artist and her cello are near the edge of a vast mountain canyon. She is still and silent then plays, pauses and listens. The echo of the mountain reverberates establishing an intimacy between the artist and the landscape in the common musical breath. But the intimacy is only momentary and interrupted by a sublime silence.
Clastres, Geneviève. (2019, 07). “Overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets; the tourist paradox.” Le Monde Diplomatique English ed.; Paris [Paris]01 July 2019.
Duby, Georges. Los Ideales Del Mediterráneo: Historia, Filosofía Y Literatura En La Cultura Europea. Barcelona: Icaria, 1997. Print.
Elmi, Marianna and Wagner Matthias. Turismo sostenibile nelle Dolomiti. Una strategia per il bene patrimonio mondiale Unesco. Bolzano: Accademia Europea, 2013.
Sanjay Nepal. “Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems.” The Conversation, April 9, 2014.
Su-Mei Tse, L’Echo (2003), Video installation. Web. Preview from “https://vimeo.com/edouardmalinguegallery”.
The following is a partial translation of Hermann Hesse’s beautiful essay Über das Reisen (1904, On Traveling).
About the question of how modern man should travel there are several books and booklets, but among these I do not know any good ones. Anyone who is leaving for a leisure trip should still know what he does and why he does it. Today, the traveling citizen does not know why they do it. They travel because in summer it is too hot in the city. They travel because by changing air and people and environments they hope to find some rest from the hard work. They travel to the mountains tormented by dark nostalgia to return to nature, the land and plants; they go to Rome because it is a cultural journey. But above all, they travel because all their cousins and neighbors do it, because then they will be able to talk about it and boast about it, because it is fashion and because later, at home, they will feel so pleasantly again.
Traveling should always mean experiencing, feeling deeply, and you can experience something precious only in places and environments with which you establish a spiritual relationship. A beautiful occasional excursion, a cheerful evening in any tavern, a boat trip on any lake, these are not in themselves real experiences capable of enriching our life, if they do not instill in us strong and lasting stimuli.
Before leaving travelers should inform themselves, even only on a map and in passing, about the essential characteristics of the country and the place where they are going to go, and of the relationship in which these places are located, in terms of position, territory, climate and population, with respect to the home and places familiar to them. If they go abroad they should try to empathize with what is characteristic of the region. They should contemplate mountains, waterfalls and cities not only in passing and as attractions, but learning to recognize them as necessary and appropriate to the places where they are, and therefore, beautiful.
If they develop this good will they will discover for themselves the simple secrets of the art of traveling. And (…) they will not travel to foreign countries without knowing, at least a little, his language. They will not judge landscapes, inhabitants, habits, cuisine and wines on the meter of their country, and they will not want to see stereotypes like the fiery Venetian, the silent Neapolitan, the gentle Bernese, the sweetest Chianti, the coolest riviera, the steepest lagoon coast. Instead, they will try to adapt their lifestyle to the customs and character of the place where they are; they will rise early in Grindelwald and late in Rome, and so on. And above all, they will try everywhere to get close to the local people and understand them.
The poetry of traveling does not consist in refreshment from the monotony of one’s country, from the fatigue of work and contrasts, not in the company of other people and in the contemplation of different images, nor in satisfying a curiosity. The poetry of traveling is in experience, in inner enrichment, in the organic assimilation of the innovations experienced, in the growth of our ability to understand unity in the manifold, the great intertwining made up of earth and humanity, in finding ancient truths and laws in completely new situations.
Who in foreign regions and cities, not only chases after the famous and most surprising things, but wants to understand the truest and most profound reality and grasp it with love, will notice how casual encounters and little things will appear covered with a special glow. When I think of Florence, the first image I remember is not the Duomo or the ancient Palazzo della Signoria, but the small pond with the goldfish in the Boboli Gardens. There, during my first Florentine afternoon, I happened to talk to some women and their children and I listened for the first time to the Florentine dialect; and it was the first time I really felt the city –that so many books had made me familiar– like something real and alive, like a city with which I could talk and which I could grasp with my hands. And this did not make me miss the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and all the monuments that made Florence famous. I actually think I lived them and made them my own in a better way and with more passion than many scrupulous tourists with their good Baedeker travel guide; these monuments come to mind in a clear, unitary way, from small marginal experiences. Even though I have forgotten some beautiful pictures of the Uffizi, I remember the evenings spent chatting in the kitchen with the landlady, or the nights spent in small taverns talking with men and boys (…). These trifles often become the fulcrum of the most precious memories.
But we must not forget, beyond the fortuitous, the essential, or beyond the romantic, poetry. Being carried around and relying on good luck is certainly a good practice, but every journey, if we want to live it with satisfaction and as a profound experience, must have a very specific content and meaning. Strolling through boredom and dull curiosity in countries whose intimate nature remains foreign and indifferent, is sacrilegious and ridiculous. Like a friendship or a love that is cultivated and for which sacrifices are made, like a book that has wisely been chosen, bought and read, so every journey of pleasure or study is an act of love that involves the desire to learn and spirit of sacrifice. Its purpose is to make a country and its people, a city or a region, the spiritual heritage of the traveler, who with love and passion must scrutinize a reality that is foreign to him and strive with perseverance to understand the mystery of its being. The rich merchant of cured meats, who for ostentation and a misunderstood sense of culture travels to Paris or Rome, does not achieve any of this. But who in the long and ardent years of youth has cultivated within himself/herself the dream of the Alps, of the sea or of the ancient cities of Italy, and has finally managed to put together some time and money, will take possession of each landmark with passion, of every wall of a monastery illuminated by the sun and covered with climbing roses, of every snowy peak and of every stretch of sea, and will not let them escape from the heart before having understood their language, before it has become alive what was dead, and gifted with speech what was silent. He/she, in one day, will infinitely enrich his/her experience and will try many more things than a fashion representative in years of travel, and will carry with him/her for life a treasure of joy and understanding, a sense of happy fulfillment .
From the lazy contemplation of a golden summer evening and from the comforting contact with the pure and light air of the mountain to the intimate understanding of nature and landscape, there is still a very long road. It is wonderful to lie down and lounge for hours on a sun-heated lawn. But full enjoyment, a hundred times more profound and noble, is granted only to the one who is perfectly familiar with this landscape, with this meadow, with its land and its mountains, the streams, the alder woods and the chain of peaks soaring to the horizon towards the sky. To be able to read in this piece of land its laws, see the necessity of its conformation and its vegetation, grasp the bond that unites it to history, to the nature, architecture, language and customs of the inhabitants: all of this requires love, dedication, exercise. But it’s worth it.
In a country that thanks to your loving attention has become familiar to you, every meadow, every rock on which you have paused, reveals all their secrets to you and gives you the energy that is not given to others. You say that not everyone can study the piece of land on which you have chosen to spend a week as geologists, historians, dialectologists, botanists and economists. Of course not. It’s about feeling, not knowing names. Science has not yet made anyone happy. But whoever feels the need not to walk in the void, to feel constantly living in the whole and to be an integral part of the fabric of the world, spontaneously opens the eyes everywhere to what is peculiar, authentic, tied to the earth. Anywhere in the soil, in the trees, in the mountainous profiles, in the animals and in the humans living in a particular land he/she will be able to perceive a common element, a fixed point on which to concentrate all the attention, instead of pursuing the chance. One will discover that this common, typical element is also manifested in the smallest flowers, in the most delicate colors of the air, in the slightest nuances of dialect, architectural forms, dances and folk songs. Depending on one’s disposition, a popular saying or a scent of leaves or a bell tower or a small rare flower will become the formula that safely and concisely encapsulates all the essence of a landscape. And it is a formula that cannot be forgotten.
But that’s enough. Only one thing I would like to add: I do not believe in a particular “talent for travel”, which is often spoken of. Those who travel and are soon able to become familiar with a foreign country, who are able to grasp what is authentic and precious, are the same people who have been able to recognize a sense of life in themselves, and who know how to follow their star. The strong nostalgia for the sources of life, the desire to become familiar with everything that exists, work, grows, is their key to the mysteries of the world, which they pursue enthusiastically and happily not only during their journeys to distant lands, but also in the rhythm of life and everyday experience.
“Über das Reisen”, in Hermann Hesse, Betrachtungen Und Berichte I: 1899-1926. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 2003. Print, pp. 28-37. Translation by Massimo Lollini.
What do trees and poems have in common? What do they teach us? How can we listen to them? Here are some enlightening reflections from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature.
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.
When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” (Herman Hesse, Wandering, 56-59)
Seeing a tree and listening to a tree means at the same time being seen and listened to by a tree that teaches us to recognize the radical intimacy hiding the unitary meaning of life and revealing who we are. The eyes of the tree and the eyes of the poet –Emerson adds– meet and reflect each other in comprehending and integrating all the parts of the landscape including ourselves.
“When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet.
The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape.
There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 9-10)
in our time, with the emergence of Ecocriticism and Environmental studies, there is a tendency to define the poetics of trees by emphasizing the interdisciplinary perspective from which to observe and contemplate trees. Tiziano Fratus coined the term dendrosophy: s.f. (from the Greek δένδρον, “tree,” and σοφία, “knowledge, awareness, love”). He defines dendrosophy as a field that unites different typologies of knowledge about history, biology, botany, forest studies anthropology, literature, etc. as they relate to trees and woods.” Moreover, Fratus’ imaginative etymology suggests that the person who practices dentrosophy is called a dendrosopher, from σοφός, ‘sage’, and that dendrosophy may also indicate “a practice of meditation that calls for immersion in a natural environment, such as nature preserves, mountain landscapes, ancient forests, deserts, in order to nurture inner peace” (“Walking Roots”, 238).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Bode, Carl, and Cowley, Malcolm. The Portable Emerson. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1981. Print. Viking Portable Library.
Tiziano Fratus, “Walking Roots: Weaving Past and Future through Italy’s Woods” in Italy and the Environmental Humanities : Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies. Eds. Serenella Iovino, Enrico Cesaretti and ElenaPast. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2018. Print. Under the Sign of Nature. 235-241.
Hesse, Hermann. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. London: Triad Paladin Grafton, 1988. Print.