Please find below the article (a few of the images may differ) just released in the fantastic On Landscape digital magazine. Thanks as ever to Tim and Charlotte who run an amazing visually stimulating and intellectual read.
Our planet is a paradise of endless, unimaginable beauty and as a landscape photographer, I have been privileged to have been able to visit just a few of the treasures it has to offer. I have gazed, literally mouth ajar, at sites of both natural and manmade beauty, be they an overwhelming wonder such as the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu or an intimate shaft of dawn light shining through a cobweb laden with overnight dew in my back garden. Such sites never fade or dull, each remaining a part of my combined experience. But both my senses and subsequent deliberations were left genuinely reeling following a recent visit to the unimaginable world of the Carrara marble quarries.
Here amongst the towering peaks of the Apuan Alps, man intervenes with nature with apparent disregard in an overtly brazen manner. And yet the consequence is magnetic, staggeringly captivating and eerily mystic. The accumulation of some 700 disused and modern operational quarries – excavated over 2000 years – has left a multitude of deep and seductive, yet horrific, scars across a previously pristine landscape. Our guide consoles us nonchalantly that they are only allowed to excavate 5% of the “hills” as the range is protected by UNESCO. I look around me and ponder the figure, it seems pretty significant in the context of an entire mountain range to me!
We had travelled to Tuscany for a friend’s book launch and decided to return home through the hills. As we exited the tunnel at the top of a pass, I could but stop, stand and stare. The scale of the scene was in every sense simply breathtaking as I looked across a mountain range shrouded in intermittent clouds towards the Mediterranean glistening far below in the distance. Quarries dotted various slopes which have been mined as they provide the source of the purest white (and other) marble on the planet. Michelangelo’s David and other magnificent statues, cities and palaces across the globe have sourced their raw material from this unique place. As you drive up the steep winding road towards the huts of various tour operators, shops selling an infinite choice of marble eggs, chess boards, tables, statues and lights line the route.
I become overwhelmed as our Landrover crawls up the 45-degree incline and I look both down and ever upwards to immense, smooth cliffs of neatly cut rock set into the surrounding natural landscape. Cavernous holes in sheer rock with ignored no entry signs as tourists seek to touch, explore and live this unique environment.
I am in a Tolkienesque scene of fantasy madness – huge excavators and lorries with wheels twice the height of a man appear as Tonka toys against the endless quarry faces which in turn are miniaturised by the scale of the hills themselves. An entire ridge hundreds of metres long simply removed. A hillside of rock sliced away. Tourists as ants against the backdrop. All I can do is reach for my camera and begin.
As we drive away too few hours later and over the following days and weeks, my thoughts begin to reflect on what I have seen and wander in many different directions. I am reminded of the colossal majesty of the 7 year long “Workers” project by the matchless Sebastiao Salgado where he explores the lives and working conditions of the people who dig, mine and excavate for our everyday pleasures such as sugar, gold and oil. I begin to ponder what I have just seen in a similar light against everyday products bought in the shops, where they are sourced and the impact each has on some part of the planet remote both spatially and often in thought. The discord of both immense and yet in the 27 years since Salgado completed that immensely questioning work little appears to have changed.
I wonder what will happen when the quarries reach their 5% limit for extraction. Will the companies tidy up and walk or will they chip away for just a little more. And then a little more again, arguing consumer demand and local economic justification, and they would be far from the first industry to do so. I later even argue with myself over whether I should submit this article and in doing so potentially encourage vanity travel and the carbon footprint of others as they hop on a plane for a long weekend to capture their own interpretation of these remarkable edifices. (I am happy that I did at least think on this and determine the benefits of raising awareness over the potential costs made my actions justifiable though I recognize nothing is perfect).
The quarries have left a profound impression on me. They undoubtedly reinforce many questions on a wide range of issues including beauty, greed, consumerism, society, environment and personal responsibility. They have reminded me to never stop thinking about how I might proactively answer and address such questions both through my work and with respect to my own lifestyle and in questioning others. As a such, they have been as inspirational a venue as I have ever visited, though as I now reflect, maybe not for the reasons I thought as I first drove through that tunnel and looked out in wonder.
CALL TO ACTION
Carrara represents my current “Voice”, thoughts and reflections on consumerism and climate change and the dilemma of my own carbon contributions vs my work as a landscape photographer. In this, as some will already know, following much soul searching Morag and I will stop running all our flight based photography workshops at the end of current commitments and will cease flying wherever possible as part of our own contribution to take personal responsibility.
This has been a very difficult decision to make and how each of us responds will always differ but I am sure I am not alone in recognising the urgency to act. In this regard these pages have already seen the excellent articles on this subject fromJoe CornishandNiall Benviegiving very different personal perspectives on the subject. Personally I think we have to each take responsibility for our own actions and together bring politicians and “corporates” to account, I believe that images can have a profound effect in helping to raise awareness and to change attitudes and would like to thank Tim for giving us all a forum to commence the widest possible discussion on the subject.
I am very excited to see what “Voices” come forward and invite everyone to contribute their own Voice, together with any ideas as to how we can take the discussion forward.
After far too long away from the mountains cabin fever was starting to set in so, having dropped the menfolk off to help out on a friends new roof, Zed and I set our sights on Monte Monega, a hilltop we’d skirted on a couple of occasions but never summited.
Our starting point was Case Fascei, high above Montegrosso Pian Latte, by way of a road we hadn’t travelled before. The weather was looking a bit patchy with possible cloud covered tops but we were really desperate for some altitude so pushed on anyway.
The path starts of as a track at the end of the tarmac road from the village of Casa Fascei – which looks to have been completely renovated and using the original materials making it very cute.
We pass a very impressive potato field, being tended manually by a local guy who no doubt keeps very fit hoeing his vegetables. From here we turn right and wend our way up steeply through the trees on a fairly well signposted path which we only lose on one occasion due to daydreaming and soon pick up again. We make heavy work of this but eventually pop out into the open, a very well kept rustico with an impressive solar array and cow herd on our left and grassy banks to our front and right, covered in wildflowers giving off a heavenly scent.
Afraid the cloud was about to engulf us we quickly scampered up to have a peep over the edge and were rewarded with beautiful clouds and Monte Guardia peeing out intermittently.
We’d reached another track by now – the Via Marenca – and we followed this for a short time until we got to the signpost which pointed us in the direction of Monte Monega. It was an easy hike up a grassy slope from here and aside from a strange dizzy spell (maybe from having a big dslr with a 100-400mm lens slung around my neck) we were quickly up at the top. There were remains of what were probably old fortifications and a metal cross, typical of many peaks in the region, and what has to be one of the best views we’ve come across so far, and let’s face it, the bar was already set pretty high. (It was so good in fact that we went up again two days later to show Ted and Joe and were rewarded with very clear views of the mountains, giving us some great ideas of where to go next).
Although we would have loved to linger longer the clouds were building fast and we didn’t want to get risked getting caught in a storm (which we did manage to do two days later, thankfully just after we’d dropped off the summit ridge). We headed back along to the Passo Pian Latte where the mist came up and surrounded us briefly, nothing to concern us given the size and quality of the track. The occasional fleeting flash of light lit up the landscape in verdant green.
From here we took the track down as opposed to retracing our steps through the trees, it made for a longer circular walk and took us through some very beautiful flower meadows before arriving back at the car. A thoroughly rewarding and uplifting hike, and one I would recommend to anyone who’s good for an hour and a half slog up.
We hadn’t completely run out of energy though and on the road down we passed a sign saying the Cascata d’Arroscia was only half an hour away, and although we were a little pushed for time it was far too tempting to ignore, having heard about these legendary waterfalls. We fast walked/ran the route and managed to get there and back in about 35 minutes give or take the odd stop for a quick iphone snap – there were some fantastic trees besides the path. The waterfall had it’s charms, and reminded me of being in the jungle in Sri Lanka, but compared to the waterfalls we’ve got used to in Scotland, Iceland and the Faroes it was a bit of a whippersnapper in truth.
It was definitely time to call it a day after this so we headed home, just pausing for a refreshing dip much lower down this same river, in Borghetto D’Arroscia.
You can see both the routes by clicking on the links below:
Who could resist the thought of a lunch date with a wild clematis? Not me, that’s for sure.
Zed and I got packed up and headed up the road through Nava and Ormea before climbing up to Chionea to start the walk. The first section unravelled pretty much the same as last time we were in these parts, a steep burst through the top village, flower meadows and vegetable gardens. The path forms a kind of small gully between two walls here, which seemed like the designated meet up spot for all the butterflies in the area.
We turn up onto the rocky and tree covered ridge and see the vibrant orange lilies are out in force. I’m sure this is where they belong but it’s still startling to see such a showy flower out in the high mountains.
A little further up as we come across the first pasture I’m chuffed to bits to find some arnica, for someone who manages to hurt themselves as much as I do it’s a brilliant ally. I leave this in the ground though as it’s not abundant.
The roses are just starting to appear too, in numbers, although they are no match for the azaleas (yet).
(A lizard has just scampered up to the window to watch me while I write, tapped his foot a few times and then buggered off. No, me neither).
Legs are a bit tired today and its slow going, the top of the hill looks ominously cloudy though, although it’s a bit brighter when I take my shades off so we push on.
This time we manage to find the ridge top path straight away which leads along a spectacular rocky stretch and I’m immediately on the look out for more clematis patches. I’m certain I’ll find the one I saw last time (how difficult can it be to find one particular plant on a whole mountain top?) but I’m curious to know if there will be more. Also I’ve decided I’m having lunch with the first clematis I find, and I’m bloody starving.
A flash of blueish purple catches my eye from under a rock and we’ve stumbled upon our first clematis of the day. Not having learned any lessons from the last time, I take a crappy iphone picture of it, knowing that I’ll find the larger specimen further up the track. Or not, as it turns out.
We stop for a clematis-less lunch with fine views over Liguria, we can even see down to Albenga which is our nearest coastal town. With the cloud lifting we decide to push on up to the mountain lake, it’s a steep grassy path with an impressive drop off to the right. As is often the way, as we reach the signpost to stop climbing and turn to the right, the cloud makes a swift and fulsome descent. I decide it’s best not to tangle with the next phase of the path and we turn and retrace our steps.
We’re overtaken by a mountain biker not long after and Zedboy gets his hopes up that he’s still a trail dog, we both miss our biking days.
We make a brief stop at the unmanned rifugio, which is open today as there’s a family with a couple of kids staying there – what a wonderful way to spend the weekend. We fill up with water and have a general nosy inside – no dogs allowed inside unfortunately, so Zedboy frowns at me from the porch while I inspect the accommodation.
The views from here are spectacular, last time we passed the visibility was about 10 metres and we could only guess at the surroundings.
Striking out along the high track we extend the walk by another 5km or so, returning by way of the lower track.
(At this point Ted phones me and says he’s about to take off from Milan and I’m truly boggled to receive a text from him as I arrive back at the car saying he’s landed – the time passed for me so differently than had I been on that flight.)
There are a couple of interesting abandoned buildings, one of which has a stream running right out of the front door, I’m assuming it won’t be standing for too much longer. We linger for a while to enjoy the birdsong.
We’re also very taken with a couple of little grotto type spaces that have formed around the banks of a burn by the track.
Heading down at what can only be described as a dawdle, stopping to photograph flowers and insects on the way we descend towards Chionea and a promise of a gig (The Fantastic Blue) and unlimited pizza for 8 euros at the Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia.
Having been out for a gentle stroll from Carnino to the Rifugio above Viozene on Sunday with Ted, Zed and I decided to tackle the route high up into the craggy peaks today.
Climbing out of Viozene on the steep path amongst the trees it wasn’t long before we had to navigate our way through a free ranging herd of cattle, with their usual jangly bells. Not much further and the path crosses the edge of the high pasture before climbing steeply through more mixed deciduous and pine woods, plenty of funghi and wildflowers here.
Walking steadily up and out of here we found ourselves on a detour (ahem), what is it about mushrooms that mesmerise you right off the path you’re following. We traversed around the hill for a while, through lots of lovely stingy nettles and ended up at a dead end snow shoot. Good excuse for a spot of lunch, and thanks to Mapout and a gander at the compass we could see we needed to retrace our steps before turning back up the hill again.
The landscape became increasingly wild and we stopped briefly to watch a herd of deer make their way up an impossibly steep snow field before heading back on up the sharp ascent.
Finally reaching what I thought might be the top, only to find it was a plateau we soldiered on thinking there couldn’t be much between us and the summit. Except – as it turned out – a craggy high altitude landscape made up of scree and snow packs. Initially we thought it would be impossible to path but the path navigated the hazards surprisingly well for half an hour or so. Gingerly crossing some snow, glad of the walking poles we made progress. Not for long, we eventually came across snow lying on a 45° gradient and I decided my trail running shoes weren’t exactly the right footwear choice for continuing on.
Zed and I did make a half hearted attempt at scrambling over the top of the snow but several cuts later decided it probably wasn’t our best course of action given how remote we were and the pack I was carrying. The top of the pass and the lake beyond will have to wait for another day. Perhaps an excursion right across to the Rifugio at Mondovi on the other side of the mountains would be a good excuse for a second attempt.
Bailing half an hour earlier than our designated turn around time did give us plenty of opportunity for dawdling on the way back, and stopping to appreciate our surroundings.
We startled a very large marmot but he got away before I could whip the camera out, and we were accompanied by the noise of what I think were young crows learning to fly for a while.
Still plenty of wildflowers, including the gentian, which today the sky was giving a run for it’s money, one of the first really hot and sunny walks so far this year. As we reached the trees again the flora changed a little and the welcome smell of thyme underfoot became strong again.
We took a look at the Rifugio on the way back – it had been packed at the weekend but was quiet now with some renovations going on so instead of stopping for a drink we followed the track down to the road. Happily instead of turning onto the tarmac at the bottom we found a small path running parallel just a few metres higher up. The path meandered down and eventually reached the town, we passed through an area of really lovely looking summer cabins, most of which were still unoccupied. One last bit of road to do and we were back at the car. Happy and hungry.
If you’d like to see the animated map on Relive, click here:
Climbing out of Chionea and Tetti Soprani we are almost immediately stopped in our tracks by an outstanding flower meadow, progress is halted for a while as we attempt to get some shots but mindful of the weather that might come in later and wanting to avoid any possible storms on the high open tops we tear ourselves away, vowing to return and do it justice on another occasion.
The track turns up and along a ridge, and is quite rocky in places, the sun and gradient making for sweaty work. Before long we catch sight of a porcini patch in our peripheral vision, some makeshift bags are prepared from coats and waterproof camera covers and we’re back on our hike with an few extra pounds of weight in the bag (Ted’s not mine by some stroke of luck).
After following a track for a while we realised the path we’d been trying to join was now above us, we must have been so excited by the ‘shrooms that we lost concentration, nothing a quick cut up the hill couldn’t fix so we traverse across the vegetation until we’re back up on the ridge. It’s here I spot the first wild clematis I’ve seen in the mountains, a real treat and I wish I’d stopped to photograph but thinking there would be more ahead of us, and with the cloud coming down we kept moving. Not for long it turned out: not a hundred metres further along we looked down to our right and saw a sweeping expanse of wild azaleas – bright pink and impressively puncturing the mist swirling in the valley.
After a happy interlude with the flowers we stopped for a snack lunch, jackets on now the sun had disappeared for good. A quick review of the path forward and we opted not to go to the highest summit with visibility being less than ideal.
Traversing around the hill we came across the Rifugio Valcaira (an unmanned site) and immediately decide we need to go and stay there for a week, we could only guess at the view but it was bound to spectacular. From here the route started to follow a track and flattened out across a plateau before we came to a crossroads where we began our descent in the direction of Quarzina.
Zed had the first of two run-ins with a husky here, luckily it’s owners were on the case and they called him back before any swords were drawn. All of this while we’ve stopped to photograph two old enamel baths up on the hillside, presumably at one time there as water troughs, although their current placement – one wedged end on in an impossibly small gap in the rocks and the other upside down suggested those days were past. More spectacular azaleas up here amongst a boulder strewn Tolkienesque landscape before we round another small peak – Monte Castello di Quarzina – and turn east again to head back to Chionea along the lower track.
Not far along and we happen across a bizarre boulder and barbed wire combo – it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Tate and we could only ponder it’s reason for existence as there were no old fences around suggesting it was abandoned materials from an old field boundary. We took some photos anyway, it was an interesting juxtaposition, especially surrounded by wildflowers.
The signposts were soon promising a lake, which was getting me quite excited, it was easily warm enough for a dip. We arrived to find it very small by Scottish standards but it was tempting enough for me to strip off and dip the feet in, before deciding to beat a retreat having found it occupied by hundreds of very fierce looking newts (or were they baby crocodiles?).
The husky owners had also advised us to steer clear of the pastoral dog further down the hill (at least I think that’s what they said, my Italian not being quite what it could be). On hearing the jangle of cow bells lower down we decide to make a detour to avoid their pasture, missing out on a church en route, but it’s always good to leave something for another day.
More mushrooms and an set of abandoned farm buildings peaked up out of the mist, grabbing Ted’s attention for a while, Zed and I pondered where the twenty or so horse riders had arrived from, their ranks being swelled by a steady trickle coming up the track to meet them, at a canter.
We were well out of high mountain territory by now and seeing more signs of civilisation, the path lit up by dozens of laburnum trees in flower. There were also some gigantic chestnut trees, they must have been hundreds of years old and very impressive.
Passing through another couple of remote villages with little or no car access and in various states of abandonment, and our weary legs were glad to see the rooftops of Chionea come back into view. We were both buzzing from the day, agreeing wholeheartedly it was one of the finest walks yet.
Stopping off to verify the mushrooms with Antonio who runs our local bar (Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia – highly recommended by the way) meant we were easily lured into staying for a primo – gnocchi with trombette and pancetta washed down with some delicious rosé. A fitting end to a truly grand day out.
If you would like to see an animation of the walk on a map, click on this link:
Sometimes when I head out on a shoot potential pictures or subjects are jumping out left, right and centre, at others my camera stays resolutely in the rucksack – either I’m too engrossed in my surroundings to want to take pictures (there are occasions when it’s important to experience what’s going on without the complication of trying to achieve the perfect composition and exposure scenario) or nothing catches my eye as a possibility.
This particular photo was taken on one of the latter occasions. We were on a snowy hike up Cascade mountain in the Adirondacks – if you haven’t been I can thoroughly recommend a visit – and had crested the rocky plateau following the arrows painted on the rocks to get to the summit. While the vista was undoubtedly spectacular we’d missed the peak of the autumn colour and the light was somewhat flat for capturing the “big view” in my opinion.
I sat there regardless, enjoying soaking up the last warm rays of sun I was likely to experience for the next six months and revelled in the ability to be sitting on a mountain top without a coat, something rarely achieved in Scotland even in midsummer.
Letting my eyes and mind wander I started picking out some of the smaller details on what was essentially a smooth rock surface, a small plant, some rock features, grasses dancing gently in the breeze and came to settle on a cluster of tiny ice formations under some of the larger rocks, hiding in the shadows from the sunlight that would surely melt them. This was clearly going to be a job for the macro lens – the formations were smaller than my hand, and I was soon down on my belly, face flush with the rock trying to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to capture this hand held. Needless to say after a few checks of the LCD review screen I was off, barely moving over a couple of metres for the next hour experimenting with capturing these delicate first whisperings of winter.
Typical that having climbed for a couple of hours to access an incredibly view, I come away with a photo of a couple of square inches of ice peeking out from under a rock, but that’s what keeps photography fresh and exciting for me – being open to the unexpected.