Landscape and Education: a workshop in Tropea, Italy on the European Landscape Convention

In the first week of October I attended another international conference in southern Italy on landscape and the way we educate people about the landscapes around them.  It was a workshop actually, put on by the Council of Europe, to discuss the progress that was being made in over 35 European countries implementing the European Landscape Convention (2000), which is one of the guiding documents to manage public and private lands across Europe.  (I have written more on the document in the “Thoughts and Reflections” section of this blog.)


It was a smaller conference than the first one I attended in Scotland (only 189 participants this time), but the format was to give every country an opportunity to make a presentation (or three) about how they are combining landscape and education at all levels and even with adult education to the general public.  What a gold mine for my research here!  I have been trying to run around Europe finding out how they handle landscape management in different countries, and in this three day conference they all came to me!


The facilities were very old by US conference standards, but more than adequate to hear from these delegates.  The largest number of presentations came from the Italians as they were hosting the rotating annual meetings and wanted to show off their efforts.  There were three official languages of the conference (English, French and Italian) so everyone was given a headphone set and you would slip it on if you didn’t happen to speak the language of the presentation at the moment.  I thought I would be out of place as the only American at the conference with our country’s well-earned monolingual reputation, but no matter who was speaking there were always some people with translation devices working.


It was fascinating to see how differently countries consider landscape issues and even how differently they think about what is of value in education.  I wrote notes non-stop, and made several great friends across Europe to follow up with in person when we visit their countries, or through e-mail correspondence if we won’t make it that far.  It is going to take me quite a while to absorb everything I heard and learned in those three days, I think that is always the sign of a great conference.  Because it was on education, I gained a lot of practical ideas about how to incorporate landscape into teaching when I get back home, as well.

I love these landscape conferences for many reasons.  Because they are international in scope and membership, you hear so many different perspectives on the land around us and the role of people in that landscape.  Additionally, they always save a day for field trips to go out into landscapes and learn first hand what is happening on the ground.  The third day of this conference was dedicated to a field trip through the Calibria region of southern Italy.  The night before the field trip we were hit with violent lightning storms and torrential downpours.  (I later had conversations with many locals about how unusual such storms were in the past and how common they were becoming).  The storm triggered massive mudslides that destroyed homes and roads in the region, but that didn’t stop the field trip, it just changed the itinerary.  We began in the village of Zungri where people have been living continuously for well over 1500 years.  Like so many small villages in Italy and elsewhere, the church is the center of town and the center of the village landscape, so we went there first to better understand the place that shapes the people of Zungri.


The church was the only place in the village large enough for the conference participants to all gather for a presentation, so we sat in the pews and were treated to more greetings from the local politicians, as well as, a background description of the local archaeological site which consisted of an entire “city” carved into the hillside like Petra in Jordan or Cappadocia in Turkey.  Of course all of the presentations by locals were in Italian, so we had a translator on hand to try to give us a gist of the fast conversation and relevant information.  This picture reminds me of the start of a joke.  An archaeologist, a translator and a politician walk into a church…


It was great fun to hear people tell the story of the landscape that has meaning to them in the language that they use to manage that relationship to the place, even if I don’t always understand the language and miss the nuances.  Truth be told, we are the same way with the landscape itself;  we often don’t understand the subtly of the land either and miss the nuances there as well.  Throughout this conference I was continuously reminded of my favorite quote from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.  ” Children should learn to read the land, like they learn to read a book.”  This landscape literacy could be extended to language as well, we should learn to speak the language of place like we learn (or don’t learn) to speak another language of conversation.   Seen in this light, I don’t feel so hopelessly mono-lingual as I am in international conversations and it gives me comfort.  Imperfectly, I do speak the language of landscapes.

The site was very impressive, mostly for how old it was (at least 1500 years), and how it grew over those years in size and purpose as the need arose. Sometimes it was a storage place for food, others for animals, other times dwelling places, places of worship and even refuge from the bombing in WWII.


I was struck by how much the interior of these caves looked like the interior of the conference hall we were in for the previous two days.


Carved out of stone cliffs, and worn smooth by the feet of residents, worshipers, livestock and tourists, these archaeological treasures of a changing and dynamic landscape are largely unknown to the world beyond people who happen to visit Calabria with time on their hands.  It makes me marvel at how many “hidden gems” there are in the landscapes all around us, the vast majority of them we will never know or put on our “bucket list.”  Nonetheless, I am grateful for the chance to have learned about this one place, and to hear it in the words of the local guides who were so enthusiastic to share with us the landscape that is so much a part of their identity, their heritage and their pride.


The field trip and the conference ended at a Norman castle that looked like it belonged more to the landscapes of England or Ireland than of southern Italy.  However, this land knew the Normans as well during the Crusades. The start of this castle was laid down almost 900 years ago on their way to conquer even further lands beyond the sea.


Like so much of the landscape and architecture that we are encountering across Europe, it was re-purposed and changed over and over again throughout the centuries.  It was a castle, a palace, a prison, an orphanage, a country estate and a museum to name just a few of its manifestations.  In the US, we really don’t have many very old buildings, and the few that we do have, we often set aside to be preserved just as they were 200 or 300 years ago.  That is not how heritage preservation takes place over here, and I think about my archaeological friends back in the states who must record in detail (by federal law) anything they find on federal lands that is older than 50 years (they are now lamenting the endless recording of soda can tabs).  I wonder what they would do with the abundance of treasures throughout the ages “piled” on display in the museum inside this castle.


As I left the castle at the end of the field trip, I was struck by the juxtaposition of this old heritage with the modern legacy of communication towers across the street.  I am thinking quite differently about landscapes these days, not as natural, pristine parks, or static tributes to days gone by; but as dynamic, evolving sites of a relationship between people and place, nature and culture that give meaning to the world around us.  I think I will use those new towers in the background to write to you about the towers in the foreground…




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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

One thought on “Landscape and Education: a workshop in Tropea, Italy on the European Landscape Convention”

  1. Liked your joke set up…. fascinating pictures. I know you will keep them coming. I need to go back to the one on Assisi but alas, another late night different than this late night.


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