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Rock Walls

By Rick Gush, Urban Farm Contributing Editor

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rock terraces

Photo by Rick Gush

Because of the abundance of rock in the soil, Italy is covered with rock terraces, like this one found next door to my studio.

One thing that Italian agriculture has in abundance, particularly here in Liguria, is rocks. Except for the big flood plain called the Po river valley in the area around Milan, Italian farmers can only dream about farming deep alluvial soils. Instead, what they’ve done across the country is collect the abundant rocks and use them to build walls and fill in behind them with dirt scrounged up wherever possible. The resultant rows of terraces climbing up the slopes are probably the single most notable feature of most Italian farms.

In the area next to my new studio, I can see this classic arrangement. In fact, it can be seen all over Italy, from the island of Sicily down south to the foothills of the alps that form Italy’s northern border. Olive trees dominate the terraces and a few other fruit trees are mixed in.

When my wife and I go hiking in the forest behind our home, we see old terrace walls, evidence that poor farmers have been building rock walls here for hundreds of years. Liguria is the northernmost extent of the ancient Etruscan civilization, which thrived before the Roman era, and it’s still possible to see many terraces that were first constructed by Etruscan farmers. The end of the Roman era saw a great flurry of terrace building on the difficult slopes of Liguria, as having one’s farm up in an inaccessible location afforded protection from the Saracen pirates that ruled the Mediterranean in those years. 

The most well-noted protective slope building in this area is the Cinque Terre, which is now a famous tourist zone filled with hiking trails that wind up and through the ancient terraces. It has been calculated that in the Cinque Terre, more rock was used to build the terrace walls than was used to build the great pyramids of Egypt. That may be, but the Cinque Terre is just one small location. I’ll bet, if it could be calculated, that the rock used to build all of the terraces in Liguria would easily supply enough materials to build 10 or 20 sets of Egyptian pyramids. 


Photo by Rick Gush

My old Vespa is like new!

Up until the end of the second World War, all of these rock walls were built without the use of concrete, and those walls are called “dry walls” here. I’ve helped recontruct a few dry walls, and it’s incredibly difficult work to build a dry wall 7 or 8 feet tall that will be sturdy and not collapse under the pressure of the backfilled soil. It’s a testament to the building skill of all those old Etruscans and Ligurians that a great many of the ancient dry walls are still standing after so many centuries.

Speaking of old stuff, I’m happy to report that I just finished the renovation of my old 1978 Vespa. The enthusiasm of the new year inspired me to buckle down right away and fix up the old scooter, thereby already ticking off one of the important items on my resolutions list, and I’ve finished well before the end of January!  I took it all apart, fixed or replaced all the worn parts, then stripped it all down to the metal and repainted everything. I am now patting myself on the back heartily. 

Give us your opinion on Rock Walls.
Submit Comment »
a, Houston, TX
Posted: 8/18/2013 7:37:21 AM
Hi, I read your article with interest! I work as a taxi driver and sometimes I drive turists to the 5 Terre. I always explain them the hard work of our ancient inhabitants.. people can't believe their own eyes...anyway, BELLA VESPA!
simona, International
Posted: 3/24/2013 11:59:51 AM
That is a lot of rocks, There in Livermore we load the rocks into train cars and send them off to points unknown, maybe we could send a few train loads your way. Love the walls.
Carl, Livermore, CA
Posted: 2/25/2012 10:38:42 AM
I love the look of rock walls and their longevity if built correctly. Alas here in Nebraska the heart of the midwest farming country not many rock are to be found. Although there are many flat rock retaining walls in my neighborhood that must of been popular in the 1960s slowly they are being replaced with the concrete cast retaining wall blocks. They are nice but lack some of the character of the true rock wall. Italy looks to be such a lovely country to absorb. It must be enriching to be able to actually contemplate how those walls were built and think about the lasting monument the people that built them generation ago. That just doesn't happen here in Nebraska. You are truly living in a wonderful place.

Have a great walking day.
David, Omaha, NE
Posted: 1/29/2011 5:29:10 AM

About the Blogger

Rick Gush

Rick Gush
Rick Gush has long been a staunch organic gardener. While a student at the University of California at Davis he worked at local tomato and sugar beet farms and continued in the agricultural and horticultural industries for many years. A career move in the 1990s led him to design computer games, but no matter how much of a techie he’s become, gardening and farming remain his principal passions.

In 2000, Rick moved to Italy, where he writes to you about his cliff garden and other experiences in Italian urban agriculture.

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