A Climate Of Change In Calabria
By Paul Homewood
The work of HH Lamb and his contemporaries has done a lot to help us understand how climate has changed in the last few thousand years, despite more recent attempts to remove such changes.
But it seems that observers have long known about these matters.
Niall Allsop lives in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and has written several books with Italian and Calabrian themes; he is currently working on a book specifically about Calabria to be published in the spring.
‘Calabria: Travels in the toe of Italy’ is a fusion of Niall’s experiences as a resident in today’s Calabria and those of the other thirteen British diarists and travellers who came to the region since the end of the 18th century and subsequently wrote about their experiences.
The book has a thematic format with chapters on, for example, Calabria’s history, its earthquakes, its brigands and its mafia … and its climate. The latter demonstrates how travellers in the past understood and wrote about changes in climate and were able to look back with clarity and authority at earlier historical periods when the climate was clearly different.
Below are extracts from the chapter on climate:
(Dates in brackets refer to the year of travel. Quotations retain the punctuation and spelling of the original; text in square brackets with quotes are as clarification)
A climate of change
“Passing through magnificent groves of fir, we descended rapidly into another climate, into realms of golden sunshine. Among these trees I espied what has become quite a rare bird in Italy—the common wood-pigeon. The few that remain have been driven into the most secluded recesses of the mountains; it was different in the days of Theocritus [3rd century BCE], who sang of this amiable fowl when the climate was colder and the woodlands reached as far as the now barren seashore.”
Norman Douglas Old Calabria
Like almost everyone else in the known universe, today’s Calabrians like to talk about the weather. Like everyone else too, more often than not they forget what it was like last week, last month or last year.
If it’s very hot or cold or rainy or windy, they shake their collective heads and grumble, forgetting that last month they did the same, and for exactly the same reason. And last year too.
If, in December, someone were to mention that it felt like spring, everyone would agree in a way that suggests it’s a unique weather phenomenon … until, that is, a spoilsport like me chips in to remind them that it was more or less the same last December, and the December before. To which of course they also agree.
And, of course, on no day of the year is the Calabrian weather ever perfect, let alone ‘normal’. There is always something wrong with it; it’s either too this or too that or, if it is actually an all-too-rare ‘perfect’ day, it’s almost certain to be abnormal for the time of year. I suspect the Calabrians are not unique in this.
Talking about the current weather is generally no more than just a means of making conversation, of communicating with friends and neighbours and a means of indulging in vapid or non-confrontational conversation. How many times have you heard people talk about the weather (as opposed to the climate) and disagree? If it’s hot, it’s hot; if it’s windy, it’s windy; what’s not to agree about?
These days, in a region that is essentially rural in character, other than for the few caught up in the infrequent extreme events, the weather impacts less on everyday lives and, in general, people have very short-term weather memories, unless jogged by a scurrilous media.
Because I have had to adjust to an altogether different climate and weather cycle, I generally recall Calabrian weather events better than most of my fellow Calabrians. For example when someone talks of a bad storm in terms of it being the worst they can remember, I am able to remind them of 25 September 2009 and how the ramp to the road bridge over the river Neto was swept away. I remember the dates of such events by linking them to other events or occasions … in this case it was easy as it happened the day before our friend Carlo’s wedding, a day on which the terrible storms impacted greatly on the festivities.
When people talk of the summer of 2015’s exceptionally high temperatures, I can remind them about June 2007 when, though I was not in Calabria at the time, a friend emailed me to congratulate me on having departed at just the right moment … he claimed the temperature was then in the high forties. Very high it certainly was but Roberto was hyping it up a bit … officially the highest temperature at the time at the Crotone weather station was on 25 June when it reached 42°C. Of course it may have been higher (or lower) at other locations in the area.
The highest temperature in 2015 was a full 5°C lower when, on 20 and 21 July, it was a paltry 37°C. Eight years on and people had already forgotten 2007, instead they were coping with—and talking about—the heat of the moment. It just seemed hotter because it lasted over a longer period.
For Calabrian families in the past whose livelihood used to be based more on what they could eke out of the land, their reading of the weather was more than important, it was crucial. That said, people accepted the weather for what they believed it to be—God-sent. They did not linger on its vicissitudes for two reasons: they had to get on with life and work through it or starve; nor were they being continually bombarded with media accounts of their misfortune in finding themselves right in the path of the deluge, the drought or the drama.
Norman Douglas (1911) gave voice to their simple logic:
“On occasions of drought or flood there is not a word of complaint. I have known these field-faring men and women for thirty years, and have yet to hear a single one of them grumble at the weather. It is not indifference; it is true philosophy—acquiescence in the inevitable.
“They have the same forgiveness for the shortcomings of nature as for a wayward child. And no wonder they are distrustful. Ages of oppression and misrule have passed over their heads; sun and rain, with all their caprice, have been kinder friends to them than their earthly masters.”
Also, memories of serious or prolonged weather events paled into insignificance when compared to the havoc wreaked by earthquakes, seaquakes and tsunamis. Such events in Calabria (most notably those of 1638, 1783 and 1908) resulted in dramatic, almost instantaneous, changes in the landscape—particularly in mountainous areas—and, to some extent, the local weather conditions. Earthquakes radically transformed huge tracts of the mountains and changed the course and impact of rivers and thus the route that rainfall and melted snows took to reach the sea.
Richard Keppel-Craven (1818) witnessed the aftermath of one of the 1783 quakes at Terranova:
‘The luxuriance of vegetation peculiar to all the rents and chasms produced by this extraordinary convulsion, is not the least remarkable circumstance attending it; and the changes which were perceptible in the course of the neighbouring streams, their total failure in some places, and their unexpected appearance in others, may perhaps rank amongst its more immediate causes.”
Not having been primed or influenced by a capricious and torpid media, it is enlightening to view things through the eyes of earlier travellers who had no climate agenda, save just noting their observations and conversations. Such diarists knew about changing climate but hadn’t heard of climate change; they just listened to and recorded what people thought was important at the time. They may not have heard of climate change but most had a deep understanding of history and historical perspectives which told them that the climate was always in a state of flux.
Elsewhere in this book I have quoted travellers’ experiences in Calabria only but, because the vagaries of the climate have no respect for man-made borders, I have included some of their observations from their travels in nearby regions, notably Apulia and Sicily.
Brian Hill (1791) experienced, second-hand, the last throes of the Little Ice Age while across the Straits of Messina in south-east Sicily:
“The last of these gentlemen, who, in other respects, seemed to be a man of sense and veracity, informed us, that the ice had been strong enough this winter to bear an ox, and was a foot in thickness. But such severity of weather is, without doubt, unknown in thirty-seven degrees of north latitude; certain I am, that in latitude thirty-eight, and that at Palermo [in Sicily], the ice in the severest part of winter was never thicker than half a crown, and even that was reckoned very extraordinary, ice in Palermo being as wonderful as an horse in Venice.”
Ten days later in Calabria, on 14 March, at Monteleone (today’s Vibo Valéntia) Hill was still preoccupied with the unseasonably cold weather:
“A sharp frost and ice last night”
He went on to record first-hand how, the further south he travelled from Britain, the colder it became which, of course, was not what he and his group were expecting:
“Uncommonly mild as all accounts from England state the winter to have been, so severe a season through all parts of the continent, where we have been, was scarcely ever felt. While we were in Germany, particularly when travelling through the Tyrol, the cold was intense, all the way from Venice to Rome, we found the weather very little warmer. And all the time we were in Sicily and Calabria, we had several raw bleak days with snow and frost occasionally; so that my brother … heartily wished himself by a good Shropshire coal-fire, being fully persuaded, that there was no country whatever where all winter comforts were to be found more than at home.”
As Hill’s brother had been advised by his British physician to spend the winter in a warm climate, the winter of 1790-91 in southern Europe was not going according to plan.
Richard Keppel-Craven (1818) considered the weather before and after the 1783 series of terrible earthquakes in February and March:
“The summer of the preceding year had been remarkably hot, and followed by violent and continued rains till the month of January. The winter was rather more severe than usual, as may be inferred from the frost on the night of the 5th and 6th of February. It has been observed that this month and the following have in these regions been marked by the recurrence of four several earthquakes of more than ordinary violence.
“A thick fog succeeded the spring, and seemed suspended over all Calabria for some months, obscuring its shores from navigators, and only indicating their proximity by its existence, so unusual in these latitudes. It is difficult to imagine a more extraordinary picture than the appearance of this portion of Italy, during the first few months which followed this awful visitation, by which an extent of territory, exceeding 140 miles, was more or less laid waste, and which can only be assimilated to the dissolution of the human energies and frame under the activity of operation of a violent poison. Here the finest works of nature, and the improvements they had received from the industry of man, were swept away by the same terrible agency which hurled mountains from their bases, and checked rivers in their speed. The convulsion extended from sea to sea, and the wreck throughout was universal.”
Travelling in the south, Craufurd Tait Ramage (1828) also pondered on the changes in climate since Roman times and considered another possible factor—volcanic activity—though he doesn’t seem entirely convinced:
“However picturesque all this coast may be, and interesting from its connexion with world-known recollections, there is a feeling of loneliness and desolation from a want of human beings. It must have been in later Roman times a healthy climate, as the aristocracy had their summer residencies along the coast; and yet, at the present moment, to live here during the hot season is considered fatal. Why it should be so if is difficult to say, unless the numerous eruptions have changed the character of the climate.”
Ramage’s fatalistic reference is of course about the prevalence of malaria in low-lying coastal areas, at a time when the connection between malaria and the mosquito had not been made. Like others before and since, Ramage saw no reason not to go along with the observations of Vitruvius on the subject. The 1st century CE Roman writer accounted for the unhealthy climate that brought much suffering to so many people as mal aria, bad air, caught in the morning breezes which, mingled with the mist of the marshes, caused ‘the poisonous breath of creatures of the marshes’ to be ‘wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants’.
On his long, arduous trek across the summit of Montalto, the highest peak in the Aspromonte mountains, Norman Douglas (1911) reflected upon the paucity of wood-pigeons compared with Roman times. His conclusion (quoted at the beginning of this chapter) was based on what he, and his contemporaries, knew about the climate 2300 years earlier when it was known to have been cooler than it was in the early 20th century; indeed cold enough for Rome’s river Tiber to freeze. He also knew that, between the two, the European climate was to get warmer before the onset of another cooler period during the Dark Ages, then rise again during the Medieval Warming Period and fall again as the Little Ice Age heralded another cool period.
What Douglas was inadvertently demonstrating to his readers (now as then) was an example of the real climatic peaks and troughs—an understanding of which was second nature to him and his classically-educated contemporaries—that somehow were omitted from the smooth-shafted hockey-stick graph that influenced so many towards the end of the 20th century.
When Douglas talked of how ‘woodlands reached as far as the now barren seashore’, he was merely illustrating how nature adapted—and will always adapt—to a changing climate: when the climate subsequently warmed up, the woodlands receded as part of a natural cycle. In concert with the trees, other wildlife—not solely the wood-pigeon—will have come and gone, found new habitats, adapted, migrated, evolved; this is what has always happened and will continue to happen; the humble wood-pigeons worked it out to their advantage and did so by themselves without any input from the panicking tendencies of mankind.
Just as the wood-pigeon adapted when its habitat and food sources changed, any Calabrian communities relying on the wood-pigeon for the evening meal would also have adapted and even migrated towards the shore and into areas previously uninhabitable because of malaria.
The fact that some areas were at times malarial and at times not is no more than the cycle of a changing climate which in turn sometimes went hand in hand with how—and if—the land was cultivated.
When Douglas (1911) was in Calabria the relationship between mosquito and malaria had been established but the disease was still endemic in many areas and sometimes its spread could be aggravated by artificial irrigation. Referring to this practice, Douglas related the then need to water the land at all to changes in the climate:
“It is doubtful whether the custom goes back into remote antiquity, for the climate used to be moister and could dispense with these practices. Certain products, once grown in Calabria, no longer thrive there, on account of the increased dryness and lack of rainfall.”
Travelling in southern Italy around the same time as Douglas, Edward Hutton (c1913) mulled over how things had changed in nearby Apulia:
“Whether of old it was covered in its high places with forests now destroyed or whether the climate has changed from other causes, Apulia to-day is no longer the fruitful land of which we read of old: it suffers everywhere from an aridity and a lack of rain that often threaten to make it utterly desolate.”
Travellers such as Hill, Keppel-Craven, Ramage, Douglas and Hutton did not need computer models to tell them that the climate was changing for they knew it had always been so. They were brought up on a diet of classical history and literature and knew all there was to know about the ancient and medieval worlds and, with it, the vagaries and consequences of the prevailing climate. What’s more, their experience of their own contemporary time told them that nothing had changed, the same old cycles were still being played out; the natural world, man included, had and always would respond to the prevailing climatic changes and played no discernible part in their cause.
Not surprisingly, it was Norman Douglas (1911) who succinctly put everything in its historical perspective; and to him the last word. Well, almost:
“These Calabrian conditions are only part of a general change of climate which seems to have taken place all over Italy; a change to which Columella [Roman writer on agriculture, 4–c70CE] refers when, quoting Saserna [Hostilius Saserna, agricultural writer, 1st century BCE], he says that formerly the vine and olive could not prosper “by reason of the severe winter” in certain places where they have since become abundant, “thanks to a milder temperature.” We never hear of the frozen Tiber nowadays, and many remarks of the ancients as to the moist and cold climate seem strange to us. Pliny praises the chestnuts [presumably horse chestnuts] of Tarentum; I question whether the tree could survive the hot climate of to-day. Nobody could induce “splendid beeches” to grow in the lowlands of Latium, yet Theophrastus, a botanist, says that they were drawn from this region for shipbuilding purposes. This gradual desiccation has probably gone on for long ages; so Signor Cavara [Italian botanist Fridiano Cavara, 1857–1929] has discovered old trunks of white fir in districts of the Apennines where such a plant could not possibly grow to-day.”
As I have observed more than once, from birth, these travellers were immersed in everything that was written about the Italian peninsula. The literature of the Mediterranean—from philosophical treatises to grand tomes about great wars and charismatic leaders—is full of clues to the prevailing climate and how it has changed since man put pen to paper; and before. It is an important source that surely must call into question some of the hysteria currently prevalent around a changing climate, hysteria that gives the impression it is all something new, something mankind has created as opposed to something that has always occurred and has been documented many times over.
The historical record clearly says that highs and lows, hot and cold, peaks and troughs, have always been the way of things, long-term and short-term; it says that flora and fauna, including man, have usually learnt to adapt; it says it will happen again … and again.
It says that no Calabrian, no Briton, no American, can do anything to avoid or circumvent this. It says that climate changes are as uncompromising as they are inevitable and will not succumb to ineffectual tinkering.
It reminds us that, in Britain, King Canute was the last to try.