Tree Time, among history, art science and documentation

Daniela Berta
Museomontagna director

Tree Time seems to have arrived right now.

Over the last year, a number of natural and media phenomena have refocused public opinion more than ever on environmental issues and forests, in particular: Storm Adrian, the massive fires in Siberia, the Amazon and Indonesia, Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg to mention but the most momentous presences in the global public imagination.

We have always known that trees are essential in order to preserve biodiversity, fertile ground, a hydrogeological and climatic balance, air and water quality, and for the survival of the animal world yet only now are we seeing a pressing urgency for the idea that the strategic utility of the forest ecosystem requires us to safeguard its peculiarities and act to care for it if we are to restore the equilibria threatened by the most recent agent to shape the environment and mountain areas: mankind.

Forest eco-systems form part of an interconnected system and its complexity is the scientific, cultural, ethical, political, economic and social issue at the heart of Tree Time.
Plants constitute 82.5% of Earth’s biomass, bacteria 12.8%, fungi 2.2%, the animal world 0.4% and humans just 0.01%. There are three trillion trees on Earth and Italy has 12 million hectares of forestland, i.e. 39% of the country, and although the nation’s wooded areas have halved in the last 150 years Italy is still considered one of the principal centres of biodiversity in the world.

Distribution on mountain slopes has always featured great variety – thanks to the differing exposure, altitude and climatic conditions, and terrain types – historically characterised by the shared management of common assets: forests, water, pastures and so on. The current need for forest planning led to the publication in 2018 of a Testo Unico Forestale to provide national legal guidelines on a subject that falls under State and regional jurisdiction and to activate a strategy centred on reviving the timber sector, employment in marginal areas, active management planning, fire-risk prevention, countering abandon, non-cultivation and plot fragmentation, providing support via management partnerships and disciplined redevelopment. All this while maintaining the core focus on production potential and the forest in terms of a “resource” – mountain, peri-urban and urban woodlands, therefore, that are seeking to balance care, forestry and landscape/ environmental protection.

While reporting these new sensitivities, Tree Time forges a link to the past via several experiences that marked the evolution of ”green thinking”. The first was the founding, in 1898, – within the CLUB ALPINO ITALIANO formed 35 years previously – of the ASSOCIAZIONE PRO-MONTIBUS PER LA PROTEZIONE DELLE PIANTE E PER FAVORIRE IL RIMBOSCHIMENTO. This resolved to guarantee respect of forest legislation, facilitate the improvement of alpine pastures, support the creation of mountain gardens and arboreta, protect alpine plants and flora, support the development of all the farming, alpine and woodland industries and favour the conservation and propagation of birds beneficial to farming and of the fish populating mountain rivers. In September of the same year, the association organised a conference and, for the first time in Italy, a Festa degli Alberi (National Tree Planting Day) was celebrated at the Monte dei Cappuccini – home of the Museomontagna.

“The conference was held outdoors in the woodland enclosure of the Monte dei Cappuccini, all decked out, before an admirable panorama and on a splendid sunny day. The guard of honour was an armed picket of forest rangers and music by the brass band of the Military Engineers entertained all with merry concerts [...]. The public entered the woodland below where a splendid specimen of Abies pectinata lay its roots down in a hole dug for the occasion. There, the President explained the highly noble concept of the ceremony, in which the tree was dedicated to His Majesty the King, honorary president of Pro-Montibus [...]. The Association purposefully plants this comb-like silver fir come from the Fort and Cavalry of Pinerolo, and more specifically from Perrero in the San Martino valley, on this lovely elevated hill in Turin from where, also for the repopulation and expansion of the vegetal realm, it is right that inspiration should come and it is tradition, and proper therefore, that the initiative and example of the propagation of trees that will turn today’s bare Italian slopes green again should start [...]. The President then first with a shovelful of soil, followed by all those present, anchored the tree forever in the ground, a living symbol of the purpose for which the new association was formed and the first specimen of the numerous alpine progeny that, in keeping with a Conference vote, shall in the future cover the slopes of that mount.”

The works of the Conference resumed the following day and the lawyer Conte Luigi Cibrario and Dottore Cavaliere Filippo Vallino, vice-presidents of Pro-Montibus, stated that the Turin Section of the CAI was studying the replacement of the woodland enclosure on the Monte with an arboretum and an alpine garden, a project that would be entrusted to Ubaldo Valbusa and submitted to the City Hall. In 1900, Valbusa described the works in the monthly CAI magazine:

“To increase the already rich and varied collections that the Turin Section, with the perseverance of 26 years’ work, has amassed in its Museo Alpino at the Monte dei Cappuccini in that same city, we are currently working on the creation of a garden and alpine arboretum on the woodland annexed to the premises of its Palestra. More than 150 plant species grown in pots were already amassed in a small clearing of the woodland last year, 1899. After the test of a first winter in situ, happily weathered by most of them, at the start of spring this year we began building the actual garden, felling some decrepit and rotting trees and removing huge quantities of debris that over many years, and for the numerous uses to which the spaces now occupied were put, have covered and obstructed, rendering the slope of the mount sterile, demarcating beds and paths, constructing walls and embankments, some dry some in concrete, as well as a tank for watering, a waterfall, a bridge, etc. etc.

There are currently 35 beds, some on the flat and others sloping, containing more than 300 plant species, mostly already perfectly acclimatized and growing and flowering lushly. Among these, many are true rarities from very limited areas of our alpine range. Nor are they all herbaceous, indeed there are numerous small shrubs and trees with long trunks that will, in the future, replace damaged and disfigured trunks in the woodland. Some were transported alive from the mountains and some grown from seed in the years 1898, 1899 and 1900. The plot currently being cultivated will be fully restored over the coming year and expanded annually from then on with the addition of new portions, if the financial resources allow fine new guests to come and adorn that strip of land with ever more numerous flowers. The alpine garden will be called “Allionia” in homage to the memory of Carlo Allioni, the father of Piedmontese botanists and a contemporary and friend of the great Linnaeus. Allioni was a pioneer of mountaineering on his numerous scientific alpine explorations, at a time when the Alps presented many difficulties and were more feared than loved and studied. Each bed will commemorate other Piedmontese and Italian botanists, scientists and gatherers. The material and, hence, the financial difficulties were and remain serious, for the conditions of the first planting site and for an urgent need to bring the drinking water pipe up to the garden, this in itself will enable the serious development of our Allionia.”

The works continued in the following years, as narrated in more reports by the landscaper who, in 1902, published a list of the herbaceous and woody plants present. These included birch, hornbeam, apple, beech, willow, Swiss stone pine, European spruce, cypress, yew, juniper, olive, common myrtle, pomegranate, fig, peach, almond, Judas tree and plum
. Provided with a funicular in 1884, the Monte dei Cappuccini subsequently saw its appeal boosted by the garden joined to the Museo Alpino. The garden, abandoned from 1905 on for its high running costs, and the funicular, dismantled after WWII, left the association and city a few signs of their layouts but, most importantly, the memory ‒ albeit by then vague ‒ of an example of the integrated management of a valuable landscape, environmental, civic and visitor site on which it is worth reflecting again in these early years of the 21st century.

In the exhibition, the core theme, leading from stories narrated via the Museomontagna collections to contemporary times, passes via Vittorio Sella’s photographs of the Rwenzori mountain range, Walter Bonatti’s of Patagonia and the Sierra Nevada, Craig Richards’ of Uganda and Jiří Havel’s of Czechoslovakia. There is also a special focus on the extraordinary experience of the businessman Ermenegildo Zegna in the Trivero hollow (Alpi Biellesi), between the 1930s and 1960s, and the planting of 500,000 conifers and flowering plants, still to be admired in the Oasi Zegna established in 1993.
The connection with the present is forged both by the presence of works by 20 international artists, including some site-specific ones, and collaboration with bodies that have in recent years developed virtuous practices for environmental protection and regeneration, such as Legambiente, Giant Trees Foundation (its Let us Grow a New Forest initiative was established following Storm Adrian to collect funds for the creation of experimental woodland plots in the affected zones in Carnia) and IPLA, Regione Piemonte’s ISTITUTO PER LE PIANTE DA LEGNO E L’AMBIENTE, the CENTRO DI COMPETENZA PER L’INNOVAZIONE IN CAMPO AGRO-AMBIENTALE AGROINNOVA OF TURIN UNIVERSITY and the FONDAZIONE EDMUND MACH in Trento.

Tree Time, in continuum with the previous Post-Water and Under Water projects, reflects the Museomontagna’s desire to respond to today’s challenges and play an increasingly significant role as a social player and activator via an informed structuring of its cultural function. Early in 2019, the world’s largest museum coordination body, ICOM - INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF MUSEUMS, embarked on a revision process – confirmed by the 25th General Conference held in Kyoto last September – to reformulate the very definition of museum. The aim is to absorb the latest solicitations that have emerged in the sector’s thinking: as well as respecting its essential functions (acquisition, conservation, scientific research, exhibition of tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment), a museum must operate with an awareness of the urgency of issues such as inequality, discrimination, unequal opportunities, the environment and climate change, rethinking the role of nature in relation to humans and helping develop visions of sustainability with a sense of ethical, political, social and cultural responsibility towards the community. And a renewal of the shared descriptive and prescriptive paradigm will aid museums to construct and consolidate serious connections with the complexities of the 21st century and the capacity to absorb the needs of society in management strategies and policies will help make the museum a place of encounter and learning, exchange and development of critical thought, an open, inclusive and shared platform, and a plural knowledge system.