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A pass for tree-seekers and free people in Italy

If a man desires to walk along the coast of a region such as Liguria, a thin, long strip of hills on the Mediterranean, most of it is private and it is quite impossible to go and look at the sea.
Tiziano Fratus
24 November 2010

Looking at myself, some years ago, I remember asking: What were you made for? I have long reflected on possible answers. In the meantime I have written and published twelve books of poems in my native land Italy, and some further anthologies in other countries as I toured north America, Europe and South East Asia.

I have been committed to the creation of what I call ‘environmental poetry’, writing that can transfer me directly into a different style of life, or even better - into a new way of breathing and of stepping out. I begin to look at the countryside as if it were part of me, or I of it. I become again what I was before starting to learn or to think, a living being in a landscape: nothing more, nothing less.

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Carob Sicily

In my travels I have begun to sense the voices of trees, the old and monumental trees living in our countryside. I have started to practice again my childhood gaze, special glances dedicated to the wonders of the nature, such as insects, animals, frogs, dragonflies, tritons, mole-crickets, butterflies, beetles, etc. But not only in these wild parts of the world. I began to wander across streets, the parks, the expansive avenues of cities, looking at the beauty of the trees you can find anywhere, trying to recognize their species, their age, the forms of the leaves, the proportions and geometries of the trunks, of the barks. How much incredible beauty is breathing around us in these cities while we are rushing for meetings, money, sex, career, traffic, cement.

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Cedrus Libani Varese

So I visited the American open spaces, and the upright Asian metropolis, such as Singapore, touching trees with my hands and taking them in with my eyes. I visited the Italian regions in the north, centre, south and all over our two main islands, Sardinia and Sicily, looking for trees, taking notes, pictures, walking, eating, smelling and dreaming. In this way I’ve sewed together my guidebook, Homo Radix: Appunti per un cercatore di alberi, or, in English, Notes for a Tree Seeker. It’s my experiment in a form of writing new for me, a new nature-writing genre that draws on some of my favourite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin, Frost, Carlos Williams, Moore, Giono, Leopold, Murray, Prevert, Berry, and the Italians - Carlo Cassola, Dino Buzzati, Mario Rigoni Stern, Francesco Biamonti, Mauro Corona.

Roaming and seeking trees, I am frequently reminded of one particular passage from Walking, by Henry David Thoreau: 

«At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, - when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds

Now this future has arrived. In my travels I come across so many obstacles, everywhere you find these ‘pleasure-grounds’, private limits, gates, bans, prohibitions, no entry, no passing, no walking. So many old trees are situated in private gardens and parks. And you have to be very lucky to be able to talk with the right person who will give you permission to walk to that point in the landscape where a three hundred year old oak is living. In my country, Italy, the situation is sometimes really complicated: if a man desires to walk along the coast of a region such as Liguria, a thin, long strip of hills on the Mediterranean sea, most of it is private and it is quite impossible to go and look at the sea. Think what has happened to countryside that only half a century ago was populated mainly by peasants, fishermen and petty artisans.

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Ficus Donna Fugata

These are some of the troubles you face, thanks to private property. Imagine, then, how it fills me with admiration to discover that in the UK, ten years ago, a law was passed dedicated to the free movement of persons: the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. This is the second article of the deposition:

2. Rights of public in relation to land access.

- (1) Any person is entitled by virtue of this subsection to enter and remain on any access land for the purpose of open-air recreation, if and so long as –

he does so without breaking or damaging any wall, fence, hedge, stile or gate

In Italy, one cannot imagine a politician or a party proposing such a law. In a country where every sector is corrupt and private affairs dominate the daily agenda, crowned by a Prime Minister applauded for being the richest of men, a philosophy of freedom is too anarchic to be understood. Today a man, a modern Italian man, is free only to earn, to advance his career, and to make more private property his own. He is not free to respect such laws as these. 

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Celtis Australis

Enter any public space, such as a park, a castle, a country house, even botanic gardens and you will encounter nothing but barriers. You have to request permission to take pictures of a tree, if you propose to show these in an exhibition or put them into a book. They – directors, managers, secretaries – imagine that your sole purpose must be to earn buckets, (since everyone knows how popular books about trees are in the martketplace – don’t they just fly off the shelves in their millions?) Persons paid by the government request that you, a tax-paying regular sort of citizen, pay them for permission to evaluate and promote the beauty of nature as it is protected by that same government. A simple writer may be requested to prove his or her status. Are you really a Writer, beginning with a capital letter, or only a writer in small letters? You know, we cannot give permission to all!

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Platanus Occidentalis

I have come to the conclusion that it will be worthwhile to start a campaign to give persons who lay claim to any of the declensions of the word “tree seeker” (similar to “tree hugger”), a right to roam in private and public areas, to walk around old trees and to take pictures without any limit of use. These are treasures of humanity not to be placed in the same commodified category as a painting, say, or a statue or a personal document. Above all, if these trees have lasted for two hundred, five hundred, twelve hundred years old – we cannot let them be relegated to the sphere of private property. 

Roger Deakin, the British environmentalist and writer, as he pursued his wild swimming through the lakes, and rivers of the UK in the 1990s, advocated open access to the countryside and waterways. The outcome was his book Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain. It echoes similar ideas in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, in which the journalist describes the life of Chris McCandless, the young man from Virginia who toured that country and also Mexico for two years before ranging the Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, where he died from starvation. (In 2007, the book became a wonderful movie directed by Sean Penn and acted by Emile Hirsh).  Touring the country McCandless learns how to overcome some ridiculous laws and limits placed on his movement, such as whether you are allowed to cross or surf a river nine, ten, or twelve years after making a booking to do so. The owner of one big specimen of Cedrus libani in my own region of Italy once asked me to wait ten years before visiting it!

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Quercus Novi Ligure

What is necessary is a general right. In the meanwhile, perhaps it is sufficient to extract permission for Tree Seekers to book visits to trees without this somehow depriving the owners of their rights of privacy and ownership. A Tree Seeker is not an enemy of the State, or of the status quo, even though he or she could be highly critical of many aspects of the present situation. Maybe such a thing could be organized through regional websites managed by a local administration that maintains relations with the relevant owners, institutions and the people involved.

Man has to be free to touch nature, to demonstrate this aspect of what a man is: part of nature, a living being, a creature. For believers this is a divine architecture: for nonbelievers, it is the natural scheme of Mother Nature.

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