Rivers Running Dry

The Tagliamento River in North-Eastern Italy is often referred to as the last “wild” river of the Alps. It seems a bold claim in view of the thin white and turquoise trickles making their way through the vast gravel bed of the river for part of the year. It is only after prolonged heavy rain fall and the ever rarer periods of melting snow on the southern side of the Alps that a raging, frothing, spinning, violent river comes to the fore, uprooting trees, sweeping along whatever gets in its way, and dramatically reshaping the earthy, sandy, gravelly riverbanks. But after a few days, at most a week, the flood will recede and the river retire into a redrawn map of narrow channels meandering through the wide bed that divides East and West Friuli.

The Tagliamento, coming from the eastern outposts of the Dolomites and flowing into the Adriatic sea, is not wild by temperament but simply defined as such due to the unusual absence of constraints and regulation -with the exception of its final stretch which is hemmed in by concrete walls to make the swampy hinterland of crowded beach resorts more manageable for tourism. From its source it flows unimpeded from west to east and then, after the confluence with the Fella river, south towards the sea.

Northeastern Italy is very much defined by water: lakes, rivers, estuaries, lagoons, the sea. The rivers have always been carriers of myth and lore, witnesses to the tragedies of war, dividing lines between diets and dialects, and reference points for very locally defined identities. The reliable sequences of high and low water shaped the cycles of agriculture, favoured early industries such as silk spinneries, and have sustained a fragile balance on the liminal zone between inland and sea with their specific flora and fauna. Much of this is in danger now. While the Po basin further west is even more dramatically affected, the new unpredictability in water levels and rainfall throws an entire ecosystem that stretches from the mountains to the sea into confusion and disarray. Three consecutive springs have seen rivers run dry at a time when there never used to be a shortage of water, while heavy rainfall in the summer has brought unprecedented flooding and erosion of the parched land.

Artist Esther Kinsky - Aussicht auf Berge und Fluss im Tal
Artist Esther Kinsky – Aussicht auf Berge und Fluss im Tal

My photograph is taken from the hill of Ragogna, one of many landmarks associated with WWI, in the spring of 2022. It shows the stretch of the river between just below the confluence with the Fella down to the Ragogna strait, at the foot of the slope where the photo was taken. Typically, the two rivers run alongside each other for miles, the turquoise Fella from the north and the white Tagliamento from the west, and only mingle just before the strait. In “normal” times of melting snow and spring rain the two courses would have been easily identifiable from this vantage point, while now the Western side of the river bed, that of the Tagliamento, seems almost entirely dry.

Ecological changes develop in chains reminiscent of biblical lineage –one misstep begets another, and at the beginning and the end of the chain are humans acting as perpetrators and as victims. The falling water tables and unpredictable weather cycles have persuaded farmers to give up crop rotation and instead plant robust colonial intruders such as American soy bean year on year for animal feed to meet the demand for affordable meat. Poppies and wild mallow disappear, elbowed out by the ubiquitous yellow rapeseed, another undemanding plant and cheap ingredient in industrial food production. Arriving in the company of the soy bean plant were new insects and fungi which have no natural enemies in this environment. A new kind of plastic netting had to be devised and is now produced en masse to help shield fruit trees from the newcomer stink bug which no bird wants to touch. In the flatlands towards the sea the precarious balance of saltwater and freshwater levels are threatening to collapse, the characteristic rice fields of Northeastern Italy with its vast swathes of estuary land are on the point of becoming unsustainable, and more than one aquatic species will perish when salt levels change. Meanwhile, in the absence of long harsh winters olive trees have begun to thrive in this region and remain untouched by the blight that has been decimating olive groves further south for decades.

The most famous son of this landscape is Pier Paolo Pasolini who spent formative years of his childhood and adolescence in Casarsa on the Tagliamento and lovingly referred to the region as the “land of primroses and thunderstorms”. In his childhood summers the Tagliamento was deep enough for boys to dive in head first from the river bank. Fifty years ago Pasolini wrote a scathing essay lamenting the erosion of peasant culture and tradition in Friuli. Few decades after ousting the feudal landowners, peasants had again become slaves, now beholden to the masters of industrial agriculture and a ruthlessly capitalist system. He cursed the blueish eye of TV sets flickering behind a window in every house while the characteristic fireflies had become collateral damage of pesticide use. These days, in the summer and autumn layers of stink bugs cover the windows on the outside and obscure the brighter and more garish flicker from ever larger tv screens indoors. It makes one wonder what Pasolini would say today, looking at the glaring white expanse between the banks, with nothing but a murmur of underground streams rising to the surface of the pebble field.