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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crisis in the Valley of the Platani

On Sunday we scootered over to Villa Borghese to check out some huge, 400 year-old trees that were being threatened by the use of bulldozers, so the local environmentalists claimed. We found them easily enough, at the north end of the park, just south of the Bioparco (Zoo). About a dozen thick and tall and grizzled veteran platani (plane trees, of a variety that arrived in Rome from the eastern Mediterranean thousands of years ago) thrive in a slight depression in the land--the Valley of the Plane Trees (Valle dei Platani)--with ridges rising gently on the sides. We saw the threatening bulldozer first, perhaps 50 meters from the nearest of the platani, astride a ditch it was digging for a new water pipe. White lines traced the intended course of the ditch, which appeared to more or less parallel the line of the trees as it gradually moved downward toward the end of the valley. According to newspaper accounts, in order to protect the trees the project was to have been accomplished entirely by hand shoveling. But there was the bulldozer. And the environmentalists were concerned that its operators would fail to respect a new agreement to keep the machine at least 12 meters from the trees.

Our impression that day was that the giant platani would be fine, and that the threat to them was overstated. But a story in La Repubblica a few days later thickened the plot. The story featured American Peter Raven, described as "among the greatest living botanists," and his wife, Patricia Duncan Raven, also a distinguished botanist, both in Rome. It seems that Peter sent Patricia to have a look at things in the Valley of the Platani. Based on her photos and measurements, they concluded that some damage had already been done; the partially-dug ditch for the water line would inevitably drain precious water away from the trees. It didn't matter much, they said, whether the trench was dug by hand or by machine. What did matter was that the trench be kept at least 30 meters--ideally 50--from the platani. In a formal appeal to Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, not known for environmentalist sympathies, Peter Raven called the platani "magnificent vestiges of Rome's past, living monuments to a vanished world," and he called for an immediate stop to the work so that alternatives could be considered. "To continue the work even for a single day," he concluded, "could result in permanent damage." Bill

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