Ghostly Forest Histories


An anthropologist guides us through forests in northern Tuscany to show us what ancient ceppo and fungi can tell us about humans’ entangled histories, parasitism, and evolving symbiosis with the plant world. Learning to trace ‘ghostly forms’ in landscapes, he argues, might allow us to envision more liveable futures.

Words below by Andrew S Mathews.


The pine and chestnut forests of Monti Pisani, only five kilometers south of Lucca, in central Italy, feel very far from the tourist sights of the city center and from the industrial sprawl of paper, furniture, and shoe factories that spreads across the plain. As in many Mediterranean places, mountains and valleys are near each other, but they are in many ways different worlds. These are certainly not the landscapes that most people think of when I tell them I am working in northern Tuscany, nor do many people come here. The few human visitors are mushroom pickers, hunters, and the occasional mountain biker. Although these forests are often empty of people, they are empty in a particular way; evidence of former human use is omnipresent. This is a place where people, trees, and other nonhumans have been entangled for a very long time. Traces of these past relationships are visible in the forms of trees, of areas of forest, of drystone terrace walls and of drainage systems. Through my practices of walking, looking, and wondering, I have been tracing the ghostly forms that have emerged from past encounters between people, plants, animals, and soils. These ghostly forms are traces of past cultivation, but they also provide ways of imagining and perhaps bringing into being positive environmental futures.

I find walking through these abandoned chestnut (Castanea sativa) and pine (Pinus pinaster) forests a little sad. It is the feeling of lack of care that makes these places somewhat melancholic. The forms of remaining large chestnut trees are fragments of cultivated chestnut orchards (selve). Large ancient stumps (stools/ceppi) from which multiple pole-sized chestnut stems grow (coppices/cedui) tell a story of peasant firewood cutters or perhaps of more recent industrial biomass cutting. Ancient terracing and drainage systems are covered in a thick scrub dominated by Ulex europaeus or Erica arborea regrown after forest fires. On lower slopes, pine trees loom over the sprouts of ancient chestnut trees, testifying to the abandonment of chestnut orchards and to the stubborn resilience of chestnut trees in the face of neglect. In other places, chestnut smoking sheds recount the complex agro-sylvo-pastoral systems that formerly linked peasant chestnut growers, premodern Italian states, upland sheep and goat grazing, and lowland farmers in need of fertilizer.


‘This is a place where people, trees, and other nonhumans have been entangled for a very long time.’


The forms of individual trees, the age and size structure of forests, the physical structures of terraces and buildings, are evidence of longue durée encounters between humans, plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and soils. This is a story of the relations between capitalism, state formation, and plant colonization; of the lively capacity of nonhumans to escape human imaginations; and of the ways that different forms of human politics have emerged from encounters between particular humans and particular nonhumans. Over the last fifteen hundred years, peasant agriculturalists across Italian mountains have tried to sculpt chestnut, oak, and pine trees into the particular forms that produce nuts, timber, fodder, and fuelwood, while also providing sufficient pasture for sheep and goats, linking mountain wood pastures with lowland or valley-bottom agriculture through the fertilizing dung provided by the animals. Over the last one hundred and fifty years, industrialization, rural outmigration, the arrival of alternative forms of fertilizer, and the arrival of successive epidemic diseases have undermined chestnut cultivation and transhumance, leaving a ruined landscape that is haunted by material and linguistic ghosts.

As we come to study complex Anthropocene landscapes, where the ruins of past landscapes of cultivation remain ghostly presences, I suggest that the fieldwork practices of natural history, and historical ecology, are helpful in showing how we can pay attention to the partial and historical relations between plants, animals, soils, and politics. This is a historical ecology where the forms of trees are emergent from partial relations between multiple actors and where the actors themselves are constantly changing as a result of relations with others. These relations are partial, because they emerge from the texture of particular interactions and could be a different kind of relation at another moment or in relation to another kind of being. A farmer who grafts and prunes a chestnut tree is not as interested in the form of this tree for firewood. A subterranean fungal mycorrhizal associate is not interested in the form of the tree above the ground but in its relations with the tree roots. Each relation has a particular texture and gives rise to particular reactions from both parties. The tree may take a certain shape; the farmer may claim a certain tax exemption from the state. Such relations are partial because they are not exhaustive of the forms that each actor might take; an alert practice of natural history is my way of attending to such relations.


‘Each relation has a particular texture and gives rise to particular reactions from both parties. The tree may take a certain shape; the farmer may claim a certain tax exemption from the state.’


How to Read Ghost Forests

Walking through the forest with my botanist assistant, Francesco Roma-Marzio, I do what natural historians have done for hundreds of years and historical ecologists more recently. I deliberately walk across an ecological transect, from the valley bottom near Lucca, across the top of the Monti Pisani at nine hundred meters elevation, and then down the other side to the plain of Pisa. I note down what tree, shrub, and understory plant species I see and what forms they have, and I wonder what past histories might have produced these particular shapes. I look at the texture of tree bark for the evidence of disease, of grafting, or of fire. I note down what plants are flowering; I look closely at the textures and forms of walls and ditches, of houses and ruins. This is hard work; it requires constant attention to form, texture, and color, constant speculation as to pattern. I walk with a dozen speculative possibilities in mind, some of which strengthen into impressions, many more of which I soon dismiss or remain speculations. Is this tree like that one, this house like that one, this wall like that one? Do all the trees on this valley have fire scars on their base? Does that color of lichen grow only on oaks or on other trees also? This is mentally exhausting work that requires close attention, and yet, paradoxically, it also contains an element of speculation. It reminds of nothing so much as participant observation or ethnographic interviewing, with its constant tension between here and elsewhere, accompanied by close attention to the indeterminacy of what is going on in a particular encounter. What kind of thing is this person telling me? What kind of thing is this tree? Curiously, ethnographic field notes and natural history field notes are quite similar. I keep mine in the same black notebook. As a poor artist, I take numerous photographs, but I cross-index these with sketches, where I summarize what the key features of the photographs are and why they matter. A few pencil strokes can summarize the patterns that I noticed when I took a picture, whereas photographs are notoriously less helpful for highlighting key features of a complex plant–landscape assemblage. If you know how to see, you can see fascinating stories of human–animal–plant communication embedded in the forms of living and dead trees. Let me show you a stump that tells a story (Figure 1).

Figure 1.    An ancient ceppo, Pizzorna, Lucca, 2014. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.

Figure 1. An ancient ceppo, Pizzorna, Lucca, 2014. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.


This image may not be very imposing. Certainly nothing to remark upon if you walk by something similar on your next walk in the countryside. For me, primed as I was by talking to small farmers, by my training as a forester, and by many walks across similar landscapes, this particular stump told a fascinating story. Let me tell you a bit more about what you are looking at, as you may not have walked through this forest or other forests like it. Perhaps this brief account may help you see something different the next time you go for a walk.

This picture is of an ancient chestnut stool/ceppo, and it tells me a story of centuries of careful grafting, pruning, and cultivation of an ancient tree that was more than ninety centimeters in diameter and was probably at least two hundred years old when it was cut. In the 1950s, perhaps because chestnut cultivation began to be uneconomical or perhaps because of the arrival of the fungal chestnut cancer Cryphonectria parasitica, the peasants who cared for this tree decided to cut it down and sell the massive trunk to the tannin factory at Bagni di Lucca, about fifteen kilometers away. Cutting the tree did not kill it. On the contrary, cutting caused a sudden wild flourishing of dormant buds that had lurked as potential growing shoots in the cambium layer beneath the bark. Cutting the main trunk removed hormonal signals from the dominant meristems in the upper crown and shed a flood of sunlight on the bark, triggering the emergence and rapid growth of shoots near the stump. Gradually, the number of shoots/polloni diminished due to competition that left perhaps half a dozen stems of about ten to fifteen centimeters in diameter, allowing the tree to change form to become a coppice/ceduo. The circular structures on the stump are the remains of pole-sized stems from the successive cuts that have taken place about every twenty years. Older cuts leave more textured and eroded circles. If you look closely, on the top left of the image, you will see a new round of shoots emerging: this tree is not yet dead. Or perhaps it is dying—there are no shoots on the near side of the stump. Certainly such chestnut stools/ceppi can persist for centuries, in places where they are not outcompeted by other tree species. This could be a new landscape where beech (Fagus sylvatica), oak (Quercus cerris), or black locust (Robinia pseudoacia) gradually displaces chestnut but where bikers and hunters are quite happy.

Figure 2.    Healthy ancient cultivated chestnut orchard/selve, Fosciandora, Lucca, 2013. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.

Figure 2. Healthy ancient cultivated chestnut orchard/selve, Fosciandora, Lucca, 2013. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.

Figure 3.    Mature chestnut coppice/ceduo, Monti Pisani, Lucca, 2013. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.

Figure 3. Mature chestnut coppice/ceduo, Monti Pisani, Lucca, 2013. Photograph by Andrew Mathews.


What Shape Is a Chestnut and How Long Will It Live?

The forms of trees, as of other beings, emerge from relations with others. As Oliver Rackham pointed out long ago, individuals of the same tree species take a particular shape depending upon where they are growing and upon their history of encounters with animals, fires, and diseases. This is certainly true of sweet chestnut trees in Italy, where cultivated trees (selve) look dramatically different from coppice/ceduo (see also Figures 2 and 3).

During what we might call the golden age of chestnut cultivation in central Italy, very loosely between about 1000 and 1800 c.e., sweet chestnut was tightly integrated into an agro-sylvo-pastoral system of cultivation. Figure 2 shows what such a cultivated chestnut selva looks like. In such a selva, desired chestnut varieties are grafted onto the wild root stock. Grafted trees require continual care: peasant cultivators describe how shoots emerge from the root stock below the graft scar and have to be continually pruned if they are not to displace the grafted variety. When you see an imposing ancient tree with a graft scar, you should also imagine centuries of patient peasant cultivators cutting away at shoots every year or two, cutting off dead branches and grafting new ones every twenty years or so, perhaps even cutting down an entire tree and regrafting the stump if the crown lost vigor. Chestnut orchards are also shaped by pastoralism: goats and sheep are used to browse grasses and fertilize soils; leaves are raked up and burned or (formerly) used for stable litter. Where chestnut husks have been burned for centuries there are areas of blackened soil, perhaps with different plant species growing on them. Additional actors in this shifting multispecies assemblage are mycorrhizal fungi that allow the tree to absorb mineral nutrients; the tree reciprocates with gifts of carbohydrates and other chemicals. The edible Boletus mushrooms that are gathered in chestnut groves are also a sign of collaboration between trees and fungi. Finally, it is worth lingering to consider the nonliving actors that are part of this story. The forms of the stone walls have emerged from relations between trees, soils, and water; chestnut trees require moisture and root protection, so in some areas, peasant cultivators built different kinds of stone retaining walls to trap soil and moisture. Centuries of cultivation also transform soils, although modern soil science is rather reluctant to acknowledge this. It is also worth remarking that although chestnut trees can live for a very long time (perhaps two thousand years), they are ecologically rather particular, and that extensive chestnut forests are usually replaced by other tree species when human cultivators are no longer willing to work with chestnuts.

Capitalism and international trade have left a mark on these forests through the arrival of exotic fungal diseases, first with the arrival of the “ink disease” (Phytophthora cambivora) in the 1850s, then with the arrival of chestnut cancer (C. parasitica) in the 1950s. These diseases were complex actors; in some areas they caused devastating mortality, making cultivation for food no longer feasible and pushing peasants and foresters to see chestnut trees as a source of firewood for coppice or of wood for tannin production. In other areas, trees were more disease resistant (perhaps as a result of local soil, water, and cultivation conditions). In the case of chestnut cancer, the disease agent Cryphonectria has acquired its own viral disease that causes the fungus to become hypovirulent (less virulent), allowing affected trees to scar over and enclose the diseased area.


‘The loss of common knowledge of the full richness of this linguistic field is a sign of the changing relationship between people and plants.’


Linguistic Forms as Ghost Forests

Italian, like English, is rich in technical terms for tree and landscape forms, but these terms are now known mainly to old people, to some foresters and biologists, and to those who study landscape history. These terms are a sign of the capacity of particular plant and landscape forms to elicit language; the loss of common knowledge of the full richness of this linguistic field is a sign of the changing relationship between people and plants. Words are an index of the degree to which people and plants are entangled. The fact that for this essay I have to carefully define a few words from this rich linguistic array is a sign of the distance between historic rural peasant practitioners and present-day urban audiences. In rural Italy, a few important terms are ceduo (coppice), ceduo con matricine (coppice with standards), alto fusto (high forest), selva (cultivated chestnut forest), and bosco (wild forest). These classifications of forest forms are embedded in state forestry regulations as to when and how trees may be cut. These terms are not merely a curiosity; they tell us something about what happens when humans become intensely involved in relationships with particular multispecies assemblages and about what might happen to us if we engage in a practice of looking at ruined landscapes. A practice of reading landscapes helps us see plants and landscapes differently; knowledge of changing landscapes gives us words for describing how forests have been used in the past and how they might be used in the future. These words are resources for contemporary environmental politics and for producing different visions of livable futures.

What Ghost Forests and Natural History Have to Say to the Anthropocene

In this essay, I have described my empirical practice of reading forest landscapes around Lucca, showing how I look for and record evidence of past land use, of particular cultivation practices, and of histories of partial encounters between humans and nonhumans. This practice of reading ghost forests is also a practice of paying close attention to the ways that attending to landscape requires a close and speculative attention not only to the emergence of patterns in what I see in the landscape but also to the categories through which I see and describe these things to other people. I can perhaps offer a few provocations that emerge from this practice.

First of all, historical ecology and natural history should be understood as a practice not of describing the relations between pregiven entities but rather of attending to the multiple forms that emerge from partial relations between different plants, animals, and people. As we have seen, chestnut trees take different forms depending on where they have grown and what other beings they have encountered along the way, and I could tell a similar story for pines, oaks, and other plants. A chestnut is not one thing: it can be a gnarled ancient tree that is in a set of partial relations with goats, people, sheep, and terraces; a chestnut can also be a dense forest of pole-sized stems of “wild” coppice/ceduo, cut repeatedly to produce firewood for local household consumption or perhaps to produce woodchips for biomass energy plants that produce electricity. New diseases may change social relations, but these diseases may themselves change, as in the transformation of chestnut cancer into its hypovirulent form.

My outline of how we might cultivate an attention to the coemergence of plant forms and of the words we have for talking about these forms has clues for how the social sciences and humanities might engage with the Anthropocene. I suggest that one way of looking at the Anthropocene is to pay attention to the coemergence of material forms and linguistic terms, of causal accounts, and of histories that can multiply our ways of thinking and acting in the face of overwhelming environmental change. Social scientists have rightly pointed out that the Anthropocene, as it has emerged from earth systems modeling, has produced a strikingly singular and impoverished language of politics. It is clear from this essay that reading ghost landscapes in Lucca does not lead to this singular vision of Anthropocene politics and that the stories of disease and economic change might give modelers pause. I prefer to think of “Anthropocenes” as irreducibly multiple rather than of a singular “Anthropocene.” We can remember the sustainable Anthropocene of peasant chestnut cultivation over the last fifteen hundred years or the less hopeful Anthropocene of chestnut abandonment in the wake of industrialization and globalization over the last two hundred. Both are Anthropocenes; each gives rise to a diverse set of political imaginations and causal accounts of how the environment might change in the future. In Italy, popular responses to climate change policies draw on imaginations of both of these Anthropocenes and might come up with still another form of landscape cultivation. Paying close attention to the ghostly forms of past histories in present-day forests allows us to consider the many forms of political and economic life that these forests are or might be connected to, including imagining multiple possible Anthropocene futures. The texture and form of our material surroundings are full of speculative politics and causal accounts, not only in forests but in other places, if we can only attend to them. ▫


This essay "Ghostly Forest Histories" appears as "Ghostly Forms and Forest Histories" by Andrew S. Mathews in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (2017) and is reproduced here by permission of Andrew S. Mathews and the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2017 by the Regents of the University of

With a background in forestry, anthropology, and philosophy, environmental anthropologist Andrew S Mathews invites us to take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the micro-macro links between forest minutiae and broader historical, cultural, and political phenomena. His recent book Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests studies the cultures of state forestry institutions and of indigenous forest communities in Oaxaca; it won the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award of the International Studies Association. He is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.




‘The past is a different, strange place; it helps pull us out of the obviousness of the present.’


Fields in Fields: What first compelled you to study trees and forests, and what led you to research the forests in rural Italy in particular for this essay?

Andrew S Mathews: During and after college, I worked as an agricultural laborer in Italy. I got to thinking a lot about landscape. One of my pleasures was to learn a little from old peasants who knew a lot about land, olive trees, and caring for grape vines. I also loved learning to see a landscape from different places, by walking around and looking. This led me to forestry school, to working as a forester in New Hampshire, and then to going back to graduate school to do a Ph.D. in forestry and anthropology (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies/Anthropology Department).
My Ph.D. and first book were all about Mexico; when I finished that, I was planning to work on climate change politics in Mexico but I decided that I wanted to do something new and different. So, I started a research project in Italy. The work in Italy was, in many ways, a re-discovery for me — I knew a lot more about ecology than I did twenty years before, and I knew a lot more about social theory. The final element was that, being more senior, I felt more comfortable writing about my way of walking through and noticing landscapes.
Italy is interesting and beautiful, but it is also very helpful for thinking about the Anthropocene because of its very long human history. In Italy, literally every scrap of land has been cultivated for thousands of years, so all conservation, all environmental action, is clearly historical, political, and ecological at the same time. In the US, we often imagine that nature can be protected by removing humans from the frame. In Italy, pretty much no one thinks this is possible, so the discussion there becomes: "Given the past, how can humans push things in a better direction?" Of course, people argue just as much about what to do as in the US, so that is not a solution, just a different kind of problem.

Fields: The way you describe your research process feels like a dynamic tension; you are requested to draw deeply from the past whilst often producing entirely new theories, each finding inseparable from its locale. However, have recurring themes presented themselves in surprising ways within the forests you've studied around the world?

ASM: I like that you pick up the tension between observation and speculation. I think that the world is quite strange and mysterious, and the more you pay attention to it, the stranger it gets. For me, the art of noticing is to be open to the strangeness of what you see if you look closely. You also have to accept the incompleteness of what you see and learn — so all knowing is speculative, in a way. For me, not knowing is not at the edge or at the limit of knowing, but right in the very heart of knowing. Perhaps that sounds too mysterious, but I mean this in a very practical hands-on way — you only know that you know something by recognizing that there is a lot that you don't know.
Thinking with the past really opens up your imagination to how different societies and environments can be, which also opens you to noticing traces of the past in the present, and to thinking about alternative futures. In that sense, the past is a different, strange place; it helps pull us out of the obviousness of the present.
Recurring themes. Well, people love to talk and think about forest fires but they often don’t recognize how fires have transformed landscapes in less than destructive ways, or even in positive ways. People’s time-depth of landscape memory is quite short. You have to do your own research to figure out how landscapes used to be. This means trusting your eyes and senses. Officials and scientists often know very little about the past. Another theme is that people care about long-term environmental change, but they understand the environment through care for particular non-humans — plants, animals, soils — in very concrete ways. Climate change is vague, hard to imagine, but forest fires and gardens are things people know how to care about.

Fields: By studying humans' relationships with natural landscapes, do you think this practice can inform or inspire contemporary studies of future built landscapes as well? If yes, in what ways?

ASM: I strongly support using these methods in built landscapes, and I do this myself in a routine, daily way (although not yet in structured research). I learn more through my students who do work in urban areas (for example, right now in Jakarta and a new project on earthquakes in Mexico City).
Cities are often built on swamps and near rivers. Land subsidence, coastal retreat, and sea-level rise are huge problems. You need a way to think about the relationship between geomorphology, land use, and architecture to understand how flooding can increase and what we might do about it. For example, learning where mangrove forests used to be might help us imagine that planting mangrove forests could address coastal retreat. Bringing back swamps and wetlands could be positive in the USA.


Cover image courtesy of British photographer Neil Burnell. "Turn" belongs to Mystical, a collection of photographs taken in one of Dartmoor’s most remote and ancient woodlands, Wistman’s Wood, a site also notable for its epiphytic mosses and lichens. Burnell writes: “Mystical is a project where I wanted to portray the fairytale like atmosphere that exists within Wistmans wood.” He lives and works in Brixham, Devon.