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  • The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History
  • Brian Fagan
The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History. By A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001) 524 pp. $75.00

The simplistic notion that the world of Mediterranean antiquity was a Paradise on Earth of magnificent forests and lush pastures destroyed by destructive later civilizations dates back to at least the eighteenth century. This kind of environmental determinism has been fashionable in archaeological and historical circles for generations. Today, we know that reality was much more complex.

The Nature of Mediterranean Europe is a synthesis of environmental data collected from many sources, summarized in twenty closely argued chapters. The authors first assess the uses and limitations of different sources of environmental evidence, everything from historical records and statistical data to landscape research. They survey present Mediterranean climate and weather and discuss the geology and geomorphology of what they call a "restless region" (37). A valuable discussion of the properties of plants and of grazing relative to "desertification" treats plants not as "part of the scenery of the theater of historical ecology," but as actors in a continuous play. Thus, browsing by domesticated animals can be self-limiting, with plant communities adapting to specific levels of browsing. The authors urge environmental planners to listen to shepherds, who often know more about plant communities and landscapes than they do.

Grove and Rackham argue that people had already transformed most parts of Mediterranean Europe 4,000 years ago. This "humanization of the landscape" overlapped in time with the appearance of the present Mediterranean climate. Thus, humanization cannot have been the cause of climate change. Mediterranean vegetation is so diverse and resilient that it cannot be described as simply tall forest, or by some other universal categorization.

The greatest changes have come since World War II; rural populations throughout the Mediterranean region have abandoned traditional subsistence economies based on fields and flocks. The rural landscapes of the Mediterranean no longer result from the activities of people whose lives depend entirely on the produce of fields, pastures, and trees. They are no longer homes and surroundings of local communities; they are "one of a host of scenes that the traveler speeds past in a journey" (362). Since this process of abandonment, the great diversity of Mediterranean landscapes-natural and constructed-has given way to monotonous, large-scale formations. Only continued occupation by people gaining their livelihoods locally can maintain the man-made diversity typical of Mediterranean Europe.

The Nature of Mediterranean Europe places landscape ecology and the study of short-term climatic change at the center of any historical endeavor in the Mediterranean. This beautifully illustrated and clearly [End Page 454] written book lays out an interdisciplinary canvas with rich possibilities for those scholars open-minded enough to take its lessons to heart. [End Page 455]

Brian Fagan
University of California, Santa Barbara


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pp. 454-455
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