The Carrara Marble Quarries

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 from Joe Cornish and Niall Benvie giving 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.

Pizzo Di Ormea

16km 1100m ascent

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.

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Flower Meadow 1
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Flower Meadow 2

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.

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A Gentian and Three Violas to make up for the missed Clematis

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.

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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.

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Rifugio Valcaira
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Ted and Zed disappearing into

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.

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Azaleas and Boulders
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Bath Number 1

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?).

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A Brief View of our Path
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Baby Crocs?

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.

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Lofty stuff for a vertigo sufferer
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A few more flowers, because why not…

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.

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A Lesser Spotted Ted

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.

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A handful of laburnums
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Two chestnut trees, can you tell we’d moved onto iphone pics by now?

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: