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48. January-March 16
Quarterly Newsletter of the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia
 
THE OBSERVER
 
l'Observador
 

Preserving Landscapes

Marta Tafalla
Coordinator of the Philosophy Degree at the Autonomous University of Barcelona

Every year, when everything relaxes during the summer holidays, the media tend to bombard us with images of the Greek islands, Southern Italy and other Mediterranean paradises. Villages that care and retain their traditional air, fields tended like gardens, panoramic roads that extend to the horizon under the intense light of infinite afternoons, and the waves of the sea, tirelessly sharing children's games. In the popular imagination, the holidays appear to have become embodied in certain specific places, which transforms them into landscapes where everything passes more slowly, between long midday naps and carefree strolls.

This last summer however, some of these landscapes became a place of refuge for people escaping war and terror. And the way in which these people perceived the Mediterranean coast also allowed us to see it in a different light. As they were not allowed to enter Europe safely or legally, they were forced to cross the Mediterranean in fragile boats, and on doing so, the holiday ocean became an abyss that separated danger from hope. Thousands died in the attempt. Those who managed to reach land abandoned their lifejackets on the beaches, transforming a summer vacation landscape into a route marking the escape from horror.

As the refugees enter Europe their long marches on foot, their fatigue, their fear, contrast eerily with the idyllic landscapes they travel through. The majority have never been here before, but they guide themselves through the geography of the continent with their smartphones and know where to head for in order to request asylum. Before them, the frontiers open and close with the doubts of politicians, while criminal gangs seek strategies to slip through them. I wonder how they perceive those landscapes they pass through on the first days of their arrival and how they will remember them years afterwards. I also wonder, for those who are lucky enough to gain asylum, how they will get used to these host landscapes, how they will interpret them, to what extent they will reconstruct their identity within them and how they will contribute to modify and enrich them.

However, those people who have to take up life in what for them are new landscapes, have been forced to abandon their own. A landscape is a manner of perceiving and evaluating a territory, a way of inhabiting it and of weaving in and with it one's own personal identity. Being prevented from living in one's own landscape means losing a fundamental part of oneself. In many cases, their landscapes have been destroyed and they survive only in the memory of those who have managed to flee in time.

Migrations around the world continue to increase. Human beings who are victims of wars, terrorism, neo-colonialism, deforestation, pollution, famine and injustice, trace routes of loss and hope over the surface of the Earth. For those who flee, the landscapes are perceived in another way, stained by the memory of a lost home and from the desire for safe, fertile places of welcome. The climate change that we ourselves are causing will also bring transformations in territories and new migrations. Rising sea levels will redefine the coasts and increasing temperatures will affect plants, animals and all living beings. I only wish that we could be responsible and guarantee all human beings, animals and plants a peaceful existence, but if we look at our history, I find few reasons to sustain this hope.

Landscapes, the places where our way of life takes shape, are incredibly fragile and we could lose many of them during this century. We should look ahead and in those cases where we are not able to save them, we should at least conserve their memory. If we can collect images, sounds, smells, tastes, maps, scientific documents, the testimonies of their inhabitants, artistic representations, and so on, we will be able to preserve at least a part of what they meant for the people who once lived in them. In this sense, the work of the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia and of other similar initiatives will be essential. Sometimes, unfortunately, the only place left for many landscapes is our memory.

 
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