Women of the Wildfires

In Monte Pisano’s shadow
women tread,
silent stewards
to the leaf
and flame.
Their hands rough
as the bark they skirt,
a patchwork quilt
for earth’s unmade bed.
Beneath their fingers
memories stir,
through groves,
through vines –
every unturned blade
a sunken spark.
They move like ghosts
amongst the trees,
their legacy
a faded collage
of presence
and loss.
And still
the setting stands,
voiceless witness
to its quiet keepers –
a ritual unspoken,
a fire tamed,
a disaster unbirthed.

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that women and shepherds historically reduced wildfire risk in Central Italy.

When we look at the Mediterranean countryside, we’re seeing a landscape shaped by centuries of farming and herding, known as agropastoralism. Yet, the wisdom of these age-old practices, which once kept the land less prone to wildfires, has been largely overlooked. Indeed, a general disinterest in the science community has left a gap in our knowledge about how these activities influenced fire risks.

In a revealing study focused on the Monte Pisano area in Italy, researchers turned to a blend of sources – including stories passed down by word of mouth, agricultural literature, walking surveys of the land, and insights from both fire control experts and local folk. What they uncovered was a rich tradition of managing the land that made it less likely to catch fire. A key part was played by women, who diligently removed dead leaves from the forest floor, while others collected wood and managed controlled burns. Such practices have been largely ignored or misunderstood due to a longstanding bias against traditional methods and the underappreciation of women’s rural work. Nowadays, as many Mediterranean regions and other similar areas around the globe face increased fire risks partly due to fewer people working the land, recognising and understanding these traditional methods could be vital. The specific activity of clearing leaves, which has received little attention beyond Central Europe and tends to be a task undertaken by women, could have significant environmental benefits. The findings of this study could illuminate new pathways for managing fire risks in rural landscapes worldwide, highlighting the need for a deeper appreciation of traditional knowledge and the role of women in preserving our natural environment.

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