Tropea, Italy: Resting and reflecting on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea

People are always telling me that a sabbatical is a great opportunity to get a break from your day to day teaching routine to have some time to reflect on what you have been learning.  Surely, I am learning a great deal while traveling across the landscapes of Europe, but with such a busy travel schedule there is less time to reflect than I might have imagined.  Once I was done with the Landscape and Education Conference in Tropea, we moved up the hill out of town a bit for a week to slow down the pace of travel; to rest and reflect on what we experienced so far as we reach the halfway mark of the journey.  The pictures below will give you a sense of this lovely spot to slowdown for a bit and regroup.  Three months on the road can be a challenge if you don’t find such places to hold up and recharge from time to time.

While at the conference we stayed in the old part of Tropea in  a rooftop apartment overlooking the city.  The building itself was built in 1751 and we had the most commanding view in the entire city if we climbed up two sets of spiral staircases to get to the rooftop terrace for breakfast.


A short walk put us on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea at the harbor where an active fleet of small fishing boats and tourist craft came and went each day bringing back fish and patrons to eat them in the many fine restaurants around the town.


The water was amazingly clear and warm enough to swim, you could see so far down into the water and the color was unreal.


Of course we had to go swimming in the sea in the second week of October, so a few days on the beach were salve for the souls of these tired travelers.


The beaches of Tropea, with their clear waters and white sands are consistently ranked among the best in all of Europe and it is easy to see why.  I especially liked the view of the beach under the cliffs that the old city was built upon.


The city itself, clinging to the cliffs for so many years in the shadow of volcanoes only 40 km away, is an engineering wonder.  There is hardly a flat spot anywhere, and every nook and cranny has been filled over the years with more buildings trying to maximize the beautiful sea-front view.


One of the most iconic locations in Tropea is the Church of Santa Maria dell Isola which is perched on top of a rock outcrop that used to be attached to the town by a giant bridge.  The bridge has since collapsed and a series of steep stairs up and down are the only way to get there, but the church itself has stood sentinel for over 400 years guarding Tropea for the sea and storm.


After the conference we retreated up the hill to more “modern” accommodations for a week of catching up on sleep, schoolwork, grading (for Paula) and blogging.  The view from the balcony offers you an idea of how ideal a location it was for such activities.


Of course I worked hard from my office on the road, but I found it a better place for reflection than for detail.


We passed through this doorway everyday on the way to breakfast.


And we even had the chance to commune with the local wildlife who were found in abundance all about the property.


In short, the pace slowed down finally, at least for me, although I remain behind on blogging, I am rich on reflection.  Life, after all, is about balance.  I will leave you, dear readers, with one last picture to remind you to take a moment to appreciate the beauty around you and stop long enough to be grateful for all the many blessings we have no matter how chaotic and busy our lives can become.  It is a calming sunset picture with the presence of an active smoldering volcano (Stromboli)  to remind us that while this was a time to relax and reflect, it is now time to move on.  Back to the road and more adventure. Chao.





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…




Tourism or Pilgrimage: A journey to Assisi

There were not a lot of tourists around when they started to build Assisi in the 11th Century.  This old town in the middle of Italy was home to some very famous people, and a refuge for pilgrims and tourists for over a thousand years.  Perhaps no residents of Assisi are more famous than St. Francis and St. Clare (San Francesco and Santa Chiara as they are know in their native tongue).



Born only a few years at the end of the 12th Century, they grew up in Assisi and the surrounding countryside in a time when the Catholic Church was growing in power and wealth as a result of the Crusades and a monopoly of ritual and spirituality in Western Europe. Francis and Clare were baptized in this very font in the cathedral, surrounded by images of the four gospels.


These gospels were used by the Church to justify the Crusades and the conquest of the Holy Lands in Jerusalem, but Francis and Clare read them quite differently.  They saw in the gospel a call to embrace the poor and the gifts of the earth; not to seek conquest, wealth, fame and forced conversion.  The Cathedral, dedicated to San Rufino, is full of statues of the prophets of the Old Testament including Amos, whose short book calls the powers of his day to bring justice for the poor and the outcast. (He is a personal favorite because he was a fruit and olive grower before becoming a prophet and always makes me think of my in-laws).


And Hosea, whose book calls for an unfaithful Israel to return to God (much as Francis would call a wandering Church to do the same).


They are two obscure prophets perhaps, but I thought it telling that they appear here in statue to remind those making the pilgrimage to the home of Francis and Clare, that the pilgrims must work to bring about justice for the poor and the marginal, and return the Church to fidelity with its God rather than the romance of power and hypocrisy it often drifts into.  This Cathedral was the first of many sacred sites we visited in our pilgrimage to Assisi, the culmination of a life long dream of mine to walk among the hills that inspired Francis and Clare so many years ago to live simply, speak truth to power, love all they encountered, and inspire so many to peace and care for all creation.  They have been two of my greatest heroes in life, and I, like so many before me in the last 800 years, walked the streets that they walked and the fields that they sowed to find some inspiration.  We were not disappointed.

In order to better understand the context, my dear reader, allow me to begin by reflecting briefly on pilgrimage and tourism (I will be writing an essay on this theme at greater length to appear later in the “Thoughts and Reflections” section of this blog).  Francis and Clare were canonized (made saints) remarkably quickly after their deaths in the early part of the 13th Century and the pope immediately called for the creation of a Basilica to be built in honor of Francis at the edge of Assisi.


later another Basilica would be built in honor of St. Clare at the other end of town.


Almost immediately, Assisi became an important pilgrimage site for the Christian world.  By the late Middle Ages it was the fourth most frequently visited site for pilgrims from all over the Christian west (the other three being Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compestela).  We will be visiting all but Jerusalem on this sabbatical sojourn.  People did not travel much for leisure at that time, but a thriving business developed in each of these sites to accommodate the thousands of tourists/pilgrims to arrive every year.  These businesses have continued, as have the tourists, for over 800 years.  The difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation/holiday tourist visit might be difficult to determine from the outside, for it is mostly about an interior disposition.  An orientation to be open to transformation as a result of the pilgrimage.  A willingness to be guided by something more than a travel itinerary and a bucket list.  More on this later in the essay to follow, for now, we joined the stream of pilgrims and tourists who arrive at the train station in Assisi ready to encounter this destination that has seen so many footsteps and dreams over the centuries.


We wander through the narrow streets of this ancient town that seems to always be a hill up or a hill down.


Indeed, Assisi itself sits on a hilltop surrounded by the central Italian countryside which seems to have many small villages and few flat spots.


The landscape is stunning, and it is easy to see how Francis could be so inspired to a reverence for nature from this place.


Assisi is still located in an agricultural region, as it was in time of Francis and Clare. One can imagine long walks to listen to the birds and the quiet among the olive groves that still surround the town.  Indeed, I came to this place, as much to see the landscape that inspired Francis and Clare to become the patron saints of ecology, as I did to see the churches built to memorialize them.


Everywhere the fields laid plowed and ready to receive the rain and the seed that promises new life.  I was reminded as I walked in the countryside of one of my favorite stories of St. Francis.  It is reported that he was once asked while tilling a field for a garden what he would do if he knew he would only have one day more to live.  He responded without hesitation, “I imagine, I would continue to till this field.”


We chose to stay out of town in the countryside so we could experience the natural environment as well as the built environment of Assisi at the top of the hill.  Both, I think are integral to the landscape and to the vision of Francis and Clare, you simply couldn’t understand this place or the people it produced without reflecting on both.  So I spent many hours sitting in front of our room reflecting on the combination by day, and by night, as the moon rose over Assisi.



We arrived too late the first evening to get into the Basilica of St. Francis having started on the other side of town with the Cathedral de San Rufino and a mass at the Basilica of St. Clare.  Even at night, there is a sense of peace about this place as it is bathed in moonlight and the prayers of countless pilgrims that have come before us.


The Basilica de San Francesco is actually two basilicas built on top of each other.  People are not allowed to take any photographs of the inside because it is seen as such a sacred place, but the memory of these two places will never leave my mind.  These are the doors that lead to the lower church where we celebrated mass the next day.


The detail and natural wood of the carvings on the door mark the space as hallowed regardless of one’s understanding or religious persuasion.  They tell the story of a commitment to the poor through the natural medium of wood, even as they are surrounded by ornate pillars.


The next day, pilgrims and priests, nuns and monks, faithful from all over the world gather with us to enter through these doors and celebrate mass over the tomb of St Francis.


I have yet to find the words to express my experience, (and I am not known for coming up short in the area of words), but suffice as to say, it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life (and I have had many of them).  The place, the song, the faith of the people around me was overwhelming.  Enough said for now, I am not sure a blog is a good place to say more anyway on this matter.

We were here at the beginning of October just two days before the feast of St. Francis on October 4th (Clare’s feast is the same as Paula’s birthday which is another reason she is one of my favorite saints), and Pope Francis was coming to town the next day to have “pizza in the plaza” before he celebrated mass on the feast of the saint he named his papacy after.  The preparations for pilgrims and tourists alike was well underway as we emerged from the church.


We walked up to Assisi along a route traveled by pilgrims for centuries.  It is called, fittingly enough, “the pilgrim’s way.”  It is lined with bricks holding the names of past pilgrims who have come here, like we have, in hopes of peace and healing for our world.


The names are mostly unknown to me, but I look down from time to time to reflect on all those who have walked this way before me.  Suddenly I am struck by the names at my feet.  They are some of my heroes of modern time, people who in their own right have worked passionately for peace in our time.


Note the Dali Lama, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Wangari Maathai, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (on the same brick), John Hume and David Trimble (after they signed the Good Friday Peace accord in Northern Ireland), and so many others.  I was standing on the shoulders of great humans who give me hope in the dark times we find ourselves.  Hope that we are capable of peace, and love, and dignity for all others.  Many of these people, like Francis and Clare faced dark times and rather than curse the darkness, they lit a candle for the rest of us.  As the profoundness of my company of famous fellow pilgrims threatened to knock me off my feet, I looked up to see that I was traveling with great hope for humanity indeed.  My fellow traveler, reminded me with her simple presence and her smile, that there is still hope for humanity; and peace and love all around us.  In fact, it is often right in front of us, if we only open our eyes to the people in our own lives that love us.


So I might not have “earned” my brick yet on the pilgrim’s path, but this pilgrimage is a success for the insights I have gained along the way….


Memorializing Slovenia

I have always been intrigued by monuments and memorials.  They embody the way a society wants to be remembered, and what they value.  It is their way of telling their story to generations to come and to strangers who can’t speak their language.  It is the narrative we learn, and remember, and associate with places.  It is the landscape (nature and culture) frozen in stone or paint or some other medium.  I wrote on the Hiroshima Memorial years ago when I visited there, it still is one of the most profound places I have ever been.  The memory of Hiroshima is indelibly etched in my brain from the writing of John Hersey and the monuments and statues I encountered when I visited ground zero.  While, Hiroshima chronicles a dramatic event, most landscapes add memorials and monuments more slowly.  These cumulative images tell the story of a place as it dynamically changes over time and culture.  Through their visual narrative they shape the people who draw identity from the landscape in the future.  There are countless critiques of monuments that can and should be raised at another time in another essay, but for now, I simply reflect on the monuments and memorials of Slovenia for what they told me about the people and the place that make that landscape.

The first thing that struck me coming into the capital of Ljubljana is how much emphasis they give to the poets and authors of Slovenia.  The center square of the city does not memorialize some fallen war hero, but their greatest poet, Preseren.


His figure watches over the square to inspire Slovenians to pay as much attention to human creativity as to human destruction.


Other authors figure prominently throughout the capital, telling of the Slovenian pride in capturing human emotion rather than celebrating the capturing of territory.


Charismatic mega-fauna seem to also be a common element in the memorialized narrative of many places, and Ljubljana is no different in this regard.  There is a story of Jason (from Greek mythological fame) coming to this place to slay a dragon, and so the dragon has become a symbol of the city based on this literary reference.  You see it everywhere from tourist trinkets to man-hole covers.


It is also prominently displayed on the main bridge across the river in town.  They are very proud of their architects as well and this iconic bridge celebrates not only the mythological dragon of Ljubljana, but the architect, Jurj Zaninovic, who designed and built the bridge in 1900.


Indeed, there are an unusual number of famous architects from Slovenia, and they are quite proud of them.  When we took the standard tourist train (all electric) through the city to see what they wished to tell the world about this place, every single building was introduced first by its name, then the architect (almost always Slovenian), then they would tell the history and function of the building.  It is noteworthy that they order the presentation in this way.  It says a lot about the value they place on the creative, constructive human spirit.  Below is an example of the Ljubljana Opera House built in 1892 by the Czech architect Jan Vladmir Hrasky.  Granted he isn’t Slovenian, but the fact that they still give credit and list the architect on every plaque around the building is telling.


Even when the memorials were not celebrating the creativity of humanity, they often still required a knowledge of the cannon of western literature to appreciate the imagery.  In the case of this statue, there are no plaques to indicate the story, but the image is clear even if the public purpose is less so.  It is a statue of Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden in shame.  A provocative choice for public art on the bridge leading into the central market area, but what are we to take from it?


It was at this point that I realized that landscape, like literature, is often best when it is left suggestive in many directions.  It invites the viewer to become a part of the narrative, to add to the story and the meaning of place with their own experiences and understandings.  If the plaque had been there to explain what I was supposed to think of this statue, its theme and placement; then I would have lost the agency I need to enter into the landscape itself.  Like Verity, it requires conscious participation to derive meaning for the viewer.  The artist clearly had a purpose in making the sculpture, the city planner in placing it here, but every person who passes by also has a role to play in the creation of meaning for a place.  In this way, the landscape remains a conversation rather than an object or location set in stone (or bronze).  I have been studying the European Landscape Convention (2000) while here, trying to gain insight into the “European” understanding of landscape and how to plan and manage it.  I am reminded at this point of the definition of landscape they offer to guide the treaty.  Landscape is “a certain part of the territory, as perceived by the populations, whose character derives from the action of natural and/or human factors and their interrelations.”  In other words, landscape is in the active participation of a perceived connection by those who encounter it.  It is dynamic and participatory in this regard. It is grass roots often unplanned as well.  Across Europe a pop cultural landscape phenomenon includes placing locks on bridges and other monuments (perhaps to signify the coming together of two lives in love, perhaps a commitment to some action) but it adds to the character of the landscape in an “unplanned” way.  The bridge behind Adam and Eve is one of the best examples of this spontaneous landscape I have seen so far in Europe.


Moving beyond the capital to Lake Bled, we see that memorials are not just the narrative of national capitals, they are a part of every landscape.  These images of the City Hall in Bled are a message to anyone who sees them of the value of workers in the area.  There are pictures here celebrating agriculture, logging and mining.


There are also pictures of sports that are popular in the area (including my personal favorite, curling).


Churches are also another excellent place to find the values and narrative of a community on display as in this scene of the Last Supper in a Catholic church in Bled just below the Castle.  The iconographic style of Byzantine influence reveals the history of the area that stands at the crossroads between eastern and western Christianity.


A close up of Judas on the far left reveals that he not only lacks a halo that the other apostles have, but he also bears a striking resemblance to Vladmir Lenin (this was pointed out to me by an historian and life-long resident of Bled) reflecting the tension between two very different approaches to communism at the time this was painted in the early twentieth century.


This type of political commentary is not uncommon to anyone who knows the history of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s portrayal of many prominent church authorities among the damned in his Last Judgement scene.  I found a Last Judgement scene in this church as well, I wonder whose likenesses are among the fallen here.  I wish I knew my Slovenian history better, I am sure this would be revealing.  As it is, I find it interesting from a spiritual formation perspective that they chose to include such an image so prominently in this church.  How it must have shaped generations of young minds sitting in the pews as those minds that wander to it for meaning and identity drifting from following the sermon of the day.  Passing through this door, I am reminded of the words of Dante above the door to hell in the Inferno, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…”  Or the words of my father when we misbehaved in Phoenix in the summer, “you think its hot now….”  Either way, these words and images are sobering and inspiring to shape up.


The Roman Catholic Church is an important part of the Slovenian identity.  They have less of a hang up associating church and state in the modern nationalist Slovenian narrative as evidenced by the prominent displays of flags at every church.


There are roadside devotionals all over the countryside put up in every little town by the local populations to remind the passerby of the importance and presence of spirituality in the landscape and the identity of this landscape.


And often the moments of greatest national pride are given the blessing of proximity to the churches as is the case for this graveyard for partisans killed during WWII as they fought to keep Slovenia (part of Yugoslavia then) free of German occupation.  It lies here between the Church and the setting sun over Tiglav National Park.


Ultimately, although the narrative of a place is written on the memorials and monuments, the art and architecture of a landscape; it is kept alive in the minds and hearts of the people as they remember and retell that narrative.  We had the great honor to sit for a few hours with the mayor of Bled, Janez Fajfar, and hear the stories from a lifelong resident of this magical place.  He is quite a student of history having once worked as the curator of Tito’s Villa in Bled.  He talked of the challenges of sustainable tourism, the changes he has seen in his 64 years living here, the politics of Slovenia, but most passionately of the heroic deeds of the Slovenian partisans as they worked to save the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust.  It was one of the most delightful and eclectic conversations I have had in a long time.  Here I am with my new friend Janez in his office.  He is as much a part of this landscape as the pictures of mountains and lake and castles I have compiled in the blog picture gallery that follows this.  Enough of my wordy reflections, enjoy the images (in the next blog post below) of the gift that is, Bled, Slovenia.




Ljubljana, Slovenia – a commitment to sustainable living

If Venice is an unsustainable city because of the throngs of tourists and other issues I raised in the last blog post, its neighbors to the east offer a different approach.  Just over the border is the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, which seems committed as a city to low waste and sustainable living in transportation, waste and food.  It is a remarkable contrast.  We flew into Venice to get to Ljubljana, and took a shared shuttle ride 2 hours  to arrive in one of the most livable and sustainable cities I had ever been in.  The city center has been closed to traffic (except for a few hours in the morning for deliveries to the stores) and the result is a pedestrian friendly place where walking people have reclaimed the urban landscape.


The tourist train that takes you around the city to show the sites is electric powered and claims zero emissions since it is largely charged by alternative energy systems.


They have a well developed “borrow-a-bike” system throughout the city with stations where you can enter a code, “rent” a bike (free for the first hour and minimal charge per hour after that), returning it to any other station around the city when you’re done.


Whether they use the rent-a-bike program or provide their own, biking around the city is a form of transportation for young and old alike.


Where cars are allowed, outside the pedestrian zone, there are ample places to recharge an electric car, if you have one.  This makes the possibility of electric cars far more practical as a commuting vehicle in and out of the city.


Waste, which can be such a problem in other cities, is carefully managed through an extensive network of recycle bins that can be found anywhere in the city and throughout the rest of the country as well.  Every waste barrel in a public area offers at least three choices for solid waste, plastics and papers.


Usually, they offer instructions as well on how to determine where trash should go in the various bins.  They are uniformly color coded throughout the country to develop a consistent message that is easily distinguishable for the residents and visitors alike.


The results of this effort are clean streets and a reduced waste stream heading to the landfills.  More and more material can be reused through this effort.  The garbage collection for most city neighborhoods is not the standard affair of hauling a large bin out to the street for pick up on a specific day each week by a trash truck willing to spirit away your waste problem so you no longer have to think about its impact.  Rather, there are sets of bins located throughout the city that offer a different bin for each of the different types of waste.  There are bins for plastics, paper, glass, organic materials, metals and all that’s left over goes in an “unsorted” waste bin.  Only the later ends up in the landfill.  Residents haul their waste to these bins in the street and sort them into the appropriate bin in an effort to create a zero waste/emissions city by the end of the decade.


Sustainability in a city starts with the dedication of space within the city to produce food for the inhabitants to avoid creating “food deserts” in the inner cities (a problem that plagues most current US cities of any size).  Such a lack of fresh local produce in these “food deserts” forces those cities to use more fuel to bring in food, in turn rising prices, and adding to the emissions from the trucking.  As an added challenge, without local gardens in the city, the citizens can become disconnected from their food source and the knowledge of what it takes to bring that food to them.  This is not the case in Ljubljana.  Just across the river from the city center is a neighborhood that grows most of the fruits and vegetables that supply the open air markets and provide food for the people living there.


The market in the center of the city is open every day of the week providing a rich, healthy and diverse source of food; locally produced and fresh.  The ability to talk to the growers at this market adds to the sense of community and connection to the landscape.


You can even buy milk from a vending machine which allows you to bring your own bottle and fill it from a refrigerated compartment filled daily by local dairies located at the outskirts of town.  This avoids the need for every grocery store to create a refrigerated space to manage such basic needs by trucking in milk from farms far away from the point of distribution.


The sustainable efforts of Ljubljana are by no means perfect, but they show a conscious effort on many levels to reduce their impact on the environment while raising the health and quality of life for their residents and guests alike.  What a difference a few hours travel can make from Venice to Ljubljana!

Speaking of travel, we have been trying to do our part to tread lightly across the landscape while on this sabbatical sojourn.  In this last picture (below) on the banks of the Ljubljanica River flowing through Ljubljana, Paula and Erin model our efforts.  For this three month trek, we have limited ourselves to a backpack (no bigger than the one Erin is wearing) and a carry on suitcase (all three at their feet) for each person while we move across Europe from the shores of the Mediterranean to the tundra above the Arctic circle.  So far so good…but of course, the key to sustainability is making it last.


Venice – case study in (un)sustainable tourism

As we have been traveling across Europe it is clear that the discourse of sustainability is alive and well here.  Everything is about sustainable development, or sustainable tourism, or sustainable living, or sustainable ___________ (fill in the blank).  It is refreshing to hear this discourse in something other than an academic context.  To be fair, my optimistic environmentally oriented students have named their club the Sustainability Council, and named me their advisor (so much for their sense of judgement).  But they are constantly having to educate the 99.6% of CMU students that don’t belong to their club about sustainability and if they didn’t have it in their title, I am afraid I would only hear of these concepts in my reading and my classroom.  Europeans, however, use it a measure of so many things, and I wish the trend would spread.  The one place in Europe where sustainability stretches the imagination is the tourism in the streets of Venice.


Every street, every alleyway is crawling with a flash flood of humanity.  It is shoulder to shoulder bodies, especially the closer you get to the tourist destinations like St. Mark’s square.


I long for the solitary experiences in the backcountry of western Colorado when encountering just a small slice of the 7.6 billion fellow planetary inhabitants I see in this place.  The architecture is, of course, amazing and it is a world heritage site, so it belongs to the legacy of humanity.  I can’t fault them for coming, but I wonder how long these streets (and canals) can sustain such traffic day in and day out.  To be fair, Venice has been dealing with crowds for a long time.  This was a major launching point for several crusades heading out to “retake” the Holy Lands over 800 years ago, and it remains a first stop on the tourist conquest of Europe today (although the traffic is moving in the opposite direction for conquest).  Still, it shows signs of wear, and we are hitting it on the “off season.”  I don’t want to come back in the “on” season.  I fear the sheer weight of the tourists is likely to sink one of these 108 islands before the sea level rise does it for them.

I have always had an eye for the infrastructure that keeps a city like this afloat (puns are always intended with me – or at least welcome).  Some people look at this city and see endless opportunities for shopping, selfies and romance.  Others the history that layers on this ground like so many Victorian petticoats.  I think about trash, and water, and supply routes.  There is only one road in, it stops at the bus station next to the train station and from there everything that goes in and out, is done by hand (or foot or boat).


Tourists complain (and we did) about schlepping their  luggage through narrow streets, crowds of other tourists, and up and over dozens of bridges that span the canals (no ramps just stairs up and stairs down).  There is cause for such complaints, but this guy has to make the same trek dozens of times a day, usually hauling food or fragile Murano glass or some other souvigners to deliver to the hundreds of stores and restaurants that line every inch of each lane.  Bricks to rebuild the walls, and the scaffolding needed to put them up on the third or fourth floor is hiked the final stretch in the same manner.  They are delivered as close as they can get it by boat through a network of canals, but they have yet to develop a substitute for human labor on the “final mile”.


I really needed to redirect this guy to our hotel around the corner, or at least distract him.


The more tourists, the more materials that need to be hauled, the more repairs that need to be done, the more wear on these tired streets and walls.  Sustainability stretches the imagination thinking of doing this day in and day out.  Only a ready supply of able-bodied young workers keeps the whole thing moving, and they wear out far sooner than nature might allow under such strain.

Sustainable tourism probably also should consider accessibility for tourists.  I don’t see my mom making it very far in Venice anymore,  The whole time I was here, I thought also of my godson whose mobility is severely limited on the best of days.  There is no taking his wheelchair up and over every canal, or asking him to hike them; and yet I know he has walked these streets as well.  I was in awe of the effort it must have taken him and his ever-faithful parents so he too could experience this world heritage site.  A common complaint by Off Highway Vehicle users about Wilderness designations back in the states, is that without allowing access by motorized vehicles, the government denies the disabled the right to see such treasures first hand.  A valid point, perhaps; I wonder what they would say of Venice and its inaccessibility.

With millions of visitors in Venice every year, there will be billions of pounds of trash produced every year.  Travel often requires one to throw out unused materials you “can’t take on the plane” or haul to the next spot.  We carry metal water bottles that are both reusable and durable to minimize at least some of our impact, but we produce a waste stream of our own that I will have to karmically balance someday. Where does all that trash go?


In the case of Venice, it is GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) on the backs of the working class.  This lad optimistically (or ironically) encourages people to think about the litter and trash they produce as he hauls it off to the next canal, another boat and off to a landfill on the mainland or a dump in the sea.


So, as another gondola full of tourists floats by (powered again by human labor), I sit and wonder about how sustainable it is to subject such an amazing place to such human driven, unsustainable pressure.  I am reminded of the words of noted environmental writer, Lester Brown, when asked a question after a talk about how he can study such depressing issues day in and day out (he studies the unsustainable appetite of the world’s growing population who eats far more than our world can produce – if you convert everything to the grain it takes to make it – meat being very grain intensive).  He smiled and said, I use yet one more grain product – whiskey…  Failing to have good whiskey handy this far from Ireland, and wanting to truly experience the Venetian tourism I was contributing to by visiting, I did the next best thing.


Here’s to our world, may our calculations of the limits to is sustainability always be underestimates.  (The wine in the glasses is a lovely Rofosco, locally produced, of course) .Slainte.

Heritage on the front lines of Climate Change

Venice is old, at least by human standards.  There is evidence that people have been living here since the 10th century BCE, and they are still here today.  The city was in its prime hundreds of years before Columbus “discovered” the New World.  You get the sense of layers of history in this most famous landscape with every step you take.  The city has always been on the edge of the sea, but it stands as one of the most iconic locations in the western world, a true example of a World Heritage site because it resides in all of our collective consciousness.


Who hasn’t dreamed of a romantic gondola ride along the canals of Venice, past architecture that unites all the cultures around the Mediterranean.  It is the heritage of all of us and it is tragically on the verge of almost certain destruction as a result of rising sea levels from impending climate change.  Indeed, it is already happening.


The canals of Venice are its “streets” and as you can see, there is little room left for the sea to rise without taking out restaurants and historic buildings alike.


People continue to stop for selfies in front of architecture that is at once timeless and now very much time bound.  Its time is about out.  There is a distinct lack of any margin of error on sea level rising, even as every major model predicts sea levels will rise dramatically in the next 50 years as a result of thermal ocean expansion and melting icecaps.  The sea is already rising, the effects of a changing climate are already encroaching on this space.


It is sad, really, that all of this architecture is facing  significant structural impacts when the seas rise even a little.  Monuments, historic buildings, sanctuaries and ordinary homes all face a similar threat, that continues to grow like a slow tide.  There are so many other communities that are facing more dire, direct and permanent changes.  Millions of climate refugees will begin to move across the planet from Bangladesh to the Maldives, from the Philippines to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  The difference, of course, is that the rich rarely visit those places and their stories are not from those “far-flung” corners of the world; but they have been to Venice.  Venice holds charm and memories for the elite.  If they see that going, perhaps then they will wake up to the need for sane climate policies aimed at slowing the generation of atmospheric greenhouse gases while we prepare for the adaptation needed to adjust to the changes already happening.


Buildings in Venice undergo face lifts, but perhaps the adaptation should be more than cosmetic.  We face a real challenge to avoid this scene in the streets of coastal cities around the planet.  Parts of Miami are already seeing water where once there was dry land, they are spending millions each year pumping the water out of a major city in a state where the governor has banned the mere mention of the threat, climate change.  The Europeans I have met on this sojourn are not in denial about the challenges, or their responsibility to address the issue.  Recycling is everywhere, there are wind machines in every landscape we have moved through and solar panels in almost all of them.  They drive small cars when they have to, but more likely ride the bus or train to get from one point to another.  The planet is warming, the data is clear.  The only question is whether the future holds oceans in our streets or an arid overheated inhospitable planet such as Mars.  Standing on the Rialto Bridge gazing out at Mars rising over the “streets” of Venice, the question seems less theoretical.




Living Venice and dreaming of Sandstone Canyons on the Colorado Plateau

I suppose at some point you would expect that a traveler might get a little homesick, and I am sure that it will happen at some point on this trip, but the story I am about to tell is not your average home sickness after a month of travel.  At least I think that isn’t what happened in Venice.  We landed in Venice, a city completely surrounded by the sea, built in a lagoon and facing eminent threat from the rising seas.  It was crowded, highly developed, and few conversations in English or Spanish could be heard.  In short, it was about as far from my home on the Colorado Plateau as I could be, and yet, in a strange way, it reminded me more of home than most of the landscapes I have encountered thus far.  In separate blog posts, I will address the issues of its unsustainable tourism and threats from climate change, but my first and strongest impression was how unexpectedly and delightfully it reminded me of the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau.


The narrow high canyon walls are not made by eons of flash flooding and the slow trickle of intermittent desert streams, but deliberately built up over 800 years to conserve space on these islands built for human habitation.


Perhaps it was the color of these human-made canyon walls that sent me back to the canyons of my own landscape.  The picture above was a street on the way to a water ferry stop and the building on the right is the famous Ca d’ Oro museum, but you would never imagine this to be a main street in the maze of buildings.


Some of the streets widened out a bit, but the textures and the colors brought me home again.  There really aren’t many places anywhere in Europe that look like the landscape I have spent most of my life living in and studying.  There are certainly places that look like Ouray in the Alps, like Breckenridge in Germany, like Kansas in Poland, like the coast of Oregon in Ireland; but there are not many places that have high mesas, vast open desert and so many colors of dirt that it boggles the mind.


This was the street our hotel was located on.  Actually, the street is so small, the hotel was on both sides of the street, but sitting in the window of our second floor room, I couldn’t help but think of the ravens perched high above the canyon walls waiting and watching as the world passes by.


Turn upon turn, the maze of streets brought me back to the slow meander of the canyons of my home.


It is a challenge to take so many pictures in Venice with so few people in them, but an early morning stroll before the city woke up from another late night festival left me as close as I would get to solitude until I return to my high desert plateaus in the four corners region.


Maybe I was lost too far in my dreams of the deserts of western Colorado and southern Utah, but when I rounded the corner at the end of the walk, I looked high up the red brick (sandstone?) wall to see a hoodoo (or tower) reaching up into the sky at the mouth of a canyon.  Hoodoos are an amazing geologic phenomenon that show the signs of a divine sculptor using wind and rain and time to erode the rock into a monument.  This tower has also been shaped (or at least inspired by the divine) and it has stood the ravages of storm and time for longer than any human-built structure on my plateau.  A sentinel that brought me home, if only for a moment and a dream, in the most unexpected way.  As the sun broke over the canyon walls of Venice, the crowds returned and I was left with but a memory and a blog post…