Jan
27

Motondoso, Part 4: The lagoon’s-eye view

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Quick review so far:   Who or what  does motondoso hurt?   You’re going to say “Buildings and sidewalks.”  It’s obvious.

Buildings are what people care about — logical, since no buildings, no Venice.   Some Venetians have told me that they don’t believe anything will be done to resolve  motondoso  till an entire building collapses, a notion that once seemed idiotic  until I came to realize that it could happen.   A  building collapsing, I mean, not that  it would lead to any meaningful action, though one can always dream.

So  perhaps some structure really will have to be sacrificed, like an unblemished white heifer,  for the benefit of the tribe.   The idea has a romantic, mythic quality to it that’s almost appealing.

You could also say “People,” about  which I haven’t said much, if anything,  and you’d be right again.   The most obvious hazard that waves present is the risk of capsizing; every so often you read about some tourists in gondolas who have gone into the drink.   There was even a traghetto (gondola ferry that crosses the Grand Canal) that got blindsided by an anomalous wave and the whole cargo of passengers went overboard.   I seem to recall that a small child got caught beneath the overturned boat, but one of the gondoliers pulled him out in time.   Some years ago an American woman  drowned.  Fun.

Erosion caused by the waves continually sucking soil out from under and between stones means the stones collapse, but sometimes  a person collapses with them. It happened to a woman walking along near the Giardini one day — she put her foot on a stone, it gave way, and faster than you can say “Doge Obelerio Antenoreo”  she fell into a hole higher than she was. Nobody in the neighborhood was surprised; they’d been sending complaints to the city for months  to no avail.

Then there was the child playing on a stretch of greensward at Sacca Fisola facing the Giudecca Canal when a hole  suddenly opened up   beneath him.   If a man with quick reflexes hadn’t grabbed him, the child would long since have gone out to sea.   Events such as these — and may they  be few —   no longer inspire surprise.

This satellite view of the Venetian lagoon gives a general hint of the variations in depth. These variations are part of what make it a lagoon and not, say, Baffin Bay.

This satellite view of the Venetian lagoon gives a general hint of the variations in depth. These variations are part of what make it a lagoon and not, say, Baffin Bay.

But what if you weren’t a human?   This question may not often cross your mind, but Venice looks radically different to its other fauna, and not a few flora, as well.   And waves are not their friend.

What really makes Venice so special is its  lagoon, which  covers 212 square miles.   Without the lagoon and its concomitant canals,  Venice  would merely be a batch of really old buildings — beautiful or not, depending on your taste —  which could just as well be sitting on the outskirts of Enid, Oklahoma.

I will be expatiating on the lagoon on another occasion. (A Venetian word, by the way: laguna).    The witness (that would be me) is instructed (by me) to stick to the topic at hand, which is waves.

A more detailed view of the lagoon immediately surrounding Venice gives a better idea of how the area is shaped.  These shallows, though, are not barene.  (Photo: oceana.org)

A more detailed view of the lagoon immediately surrounding Venice gives a better idea of how the area is shaped. These shallows, though, are not barene. (Photo: oceana.org)

The Venetian lagoon is a silent but intimate partner in Venice’s fate.    Not only are the waves undermining the foundations of  the city, they are scouring away the foundations of the lagoon.   And while damage to buildings is certainly important, there is arguably even more damage being done to its waters.   And they’re going to be a lot harder to fix than a palace.

So if you   haven’t got time to watch  what waves can do to buildings, you should take a look at what they do to the lagoon — specifically to  the barene (bah-RAY-neh), the marshy, squidgy islets strewn about out there.   Venice was built on 118 of them.

These are barene.  Looks like lots, but 60 years ago there were half again as many.  That was a real lagoon.

These are barene. Looks like lots, but 60 years ago there were half again as many. That was a real lagoon.

Barene  are the building blocks of the lagoon.   They form  20 percent of its total area, and  are crucial to everything in it: microorganisms, plants, animals, birds, fish and, till not so long ago, also people.

Let’s say you have less than no interest in ecosystems and their inhabitants, at least the inhabitants smaller than humans.   Barene, along with their myriad meandering capillary channels, are perfect for slowing down the speed and force of the incoming tide.    They act as  a built-in assortment of natural barriers which, if they could remain where they were, would already be limiting the force and the quantity of acqua alta in good old Venice.

But over the past 60 years, half of the lagoon’s barene have been lopped away by waves.   The World Wildlife Fund estimated, several years ago, that at the current rate of erosion (erosion caused by motondoso), in 50 years there would be no more barene left.

A cross-section of a barena near Burano.  If you were an endangered bird, or even just a really tired one, this patch of mud would be more beautiful to you than twenty Titians.

A cross-section of a barena near Burano. If you were an endangered bird, or even just a really tired one, this patch of mud would be more beautiful to you than twenty Titians.

Why do we care?   Even if all we’re really interested in is  buildings, we care because as the barene diminish,  the tide can reach the city faster and  ever more aggressively.   The natural brakes, so to speak, are being taken out.

And we also care because, as I have probably said before, whatever a wave can do to a batch of mud it can and will eventually do to bricks and marble.

Part 5: Solutions?

Waves are as destructive to wetlands as they are to buildings, but the wetlands can't even put up a fight.

Waves are as destructive to wetlands as they are to buildings, but the wetlands can't even put up a fight.

The large pilings were put in ages ago, to mark the line between the channel and the barena. As you see, the waves have shrunk the barena, so the large pilings are only sort of symbolic. As a bonus, we see the remnants of the wall of smaller pilings which was installed to prevent any further erosion of the barena.

The large pilings were put in ages ago, to mark the line between the channel and the barena. As you see, the waves have shrunk the barena, so the large pilings are only sort of symbolic. As a bonus, we see the remnants of the wall of smaller pilings which was installed to prevent any further erosion of the barena.

The distance between pilings and barena here is just another of many examples of the very simple effect of waves.

The distance between pilings and barena here is just another of many examples of the very simple effect of waves.

I remember when this channel was only half this wide.  Most of these boats belong to people from the mainland who come all this way so they can just sit.  Lovely, admittedly, but they bring waves and take away part of the lagoon when they go home.

I remember when this channel was only half this wide. Most of these boats belong to people from the mainland who come all this way so they can just sit. Lovely, admittedly, but they bring waves and take away part of the lagoon when they go home.

IMG_2008 barene compIMG_1956 barene comp
IMG_1955 barene comp
IMG_2009 barene comp
Tourist launches of all sizes offer day trips around the lagoon.

Tourist launches of all sizes offer day trips around the lagoon.

Taxis are always in a hurry, especially on airport runs.  (Photo: Italia Nostra)

Taxis are always in a hurry, especially on airport runs. (Photo: Italia Nostra)

Ordinary working barges at Sant' Erasmo on a Sunday afternoon.  Their owners are almost certainly out in smaller motorboats, but tomorrow it will be back to work with all of these.

Ordinary working barges at Sant' Erasmo on a Sunday afternoon. Their owners are almost certainly out in smaller motorboats, but tomorrow it will be back to work with all of these.

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  1. […] history of Venetian athletes but which now barely survives, due to the inexorable increase of motondoso, by eating tree bark and licking dew-dripping leaves.  So to speak. So a national champion from […]

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