Saturday, December 22, 2012
Of trees and fortified cities
Alfred E. Baldacchino
Last month was not a good one for trees, not so kindly handled by three contributions to The Times. The director of Mepa’s environment protection directorate was the harbinger (November 13), followed by Mepa board member Giovanni Bonello (November 18), with a past Minister for the Environment completely missing the wood for the trees (November 25).
Bonello’s well-researched, in-depth contribution emphasised the need for better appreciation of fortifications. A very admirable work, though I feel the need to dot some i’s and cross some t’s.
During the Great Siege, the Knights, while defending this barren island, were not in the best of moods to plant trees. It is understandable that paintings of battles do not show any trees in the vicinity of fortifications.
One has to admit that some of the trees, more than 50 years old today, are growing in the vicinity or inside fortifications and some can be of concern. However, one has to accept that such old trees now form part of an ecosystem and one cannot bulldoze the natural heritage to solve an aesthetic problem, creating a more sensitive ecological one.
I would never have planted the Ficus nitida trees in front of the law courts, for example. When the area was dug up, it showed the beautiful hidden magnificent underground arched passages. Today, these accommodate the city’s hidden sewers and priceless, neglected, damaged water cisterns. Some tree roots have also crept in.
Over the years, these trees have become the roost for white wagtails wintering in the Maltese islands. It is an opportunity for a scientific study of such a roost (unless they sought refuge in a walled fortified city for protection). Only a professional plan of action can contribute to a solution, certainly not heavy machinery with men wielding chainsaws. It has to be done gradually with the input of all stakeholders, no matter how “philistine” or “ignoramus” they are in the cultural heritage.
It is indeed surprising how the Ministry for the Environment and its entourage, past and present, are so good at coining adjectives for those who have the environment at heart, the main stakeholders. The November contributions refer to “treehuggers’, “chorus of tree-huggers”, “fifty shades of philistine”, “complete ignoramus on cultural heritage”, “crass ignorance and crasser arrogance of self proclaimed DIY environmentalists”, and “self-anointed custodians of the heritage kingdom”. I know a couple more, not coined this November (for some other varied coined adjectives please see: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121209/opinion/Trees-and-the-fortifications.448816). If the Ministry for the Environment and its chorus were as good at protecting the environment as they are in coining such adjectives, Malta’s environment would be heaven on earth. Such adjectives, though, are of great satisfaction for environmentalists. Drowning men clutch at straws and shun stakeholders’ altruistic hands.
The strongest points of Bonello’s contribution regarding fortifications make me feel very sad, even though historical fortifications are not my battle horse.
“Nowhere in the world are fortifications more extensive, more impressive, more outstanding than they are in Malta.” “It is to be self-evident, that if a nation has something really precious to boast of, it would want its treasures seen, and seen to their best advantage.” “…people would do their utmost to enhance the visibility of anything inestimable.” “Those who still have them, flaunt them, enhance them, try to squeeze every cent of added value from them.” I feel as strongly as Bonello does regarding such a priceless, unique heritage.
“Over the past two centuries many conspired to debase them.” Yes, not even two World Wars managed to indent such majestic fortifications despite the fact that warfare became much more sophisticated. But after Malta gained independence, the jewel in the crown of our majestic walled fortifications was the first to bite the dust. King Carnival (KC) was helped by Maltese politicians to win the fortified city with just one stroke of a pen! One has to be genuinely demented to inherit the works of the best architect who constructed a monumental façade, and replace it with a garage door to let KC go through without a fight. If only the fortified Valletta gate was hidden behind some trees, KC would not have gone through!
A one-in-a-million chance of rehabilitating the fortified Valletta gate was lost when Mepa, the environment watchdog, decided to send such a gate to the photographic album of history, endorsing an €80 million government project.
Borrowing another quote from the learned judge, “Unless they look awesome and frightening, bastions are a joke.” Many will walk through such a joke, be they ignoramuses, tree huggers, DIY environmentalists, all shades of philistines, historians, researchers, politicians, clergy or men in the street. It will be the extension of the king carnival joke, with piano music in the background. This is surely not the way the Knights of Malta intended the bastions to look. Where walled cities are concerned, “we are definitively guilty of lèse majesté”.
Who can now dethrone King Carnival from Valletta, the magnificent fortified walled city? If only KC was a tree, the magnificent Valletta’s fortification gate could still be seen!
Alfred Baldacchino was assistant director responsible for the protection of biodiversity within Mepa.
Of trees and fortified cities – http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121222/opinion/Of-trees-and-fortified-cities.450506