I first thought about the power of water when Bob Coleman, my tai chi teacher and director of works at Neal’s Yard Dairy (there’s always a food connection), was trying to get us to comprehend the force behind one of the moves in ‘grasp sparrow’s tail’. Water isn’t compressible, it doesn’t give when it hits you. We practised sending all our energy to our forearms and not budging an inch.
While I was editing the World Bank’s independent review of the Narmada dam project in India with social anthropologist Hugh Brody, I became aware of the power of water to disrupt traditional communities.
Moving to the valley of the Lima River, a major tributary of the Serchio (pronounced serk´-ee-o) River that flows across the Lucca plain and into the sea just north of the Arno brought me closer to the power of water. As you drive up and down the valleys, you see everywhere the evidence of the power of water to generate electricity through micro-hydro plants.
It’s impossible to imagine what the Serchio was like before dams were built on every tributary and the main river itself, and huge tubes were drilled through the mountains between the tributaries so that water can be shunted to whichever reservoir needs it most. I’ve read that it was navigable, which it certainly isn’t today. One theory for the unequal heights of the arches of the Devil’s Bridge is that the masts of sailing ships had to fit through one of them.
Devil's Bridge, Borgo a Mozzano (photo: Helen Higgs)
In mediaeval times the river (then called the Auser) progressively flooded land nearer and nearer to Lucca. Luckily, the Bishop of Lucca San Frediano, an Irish priest, was also an expert hydraulic engineer, and put a halt to the flooding by moving the course of the river to its present channel in 561 to 589. It takes a long time to move a river, but it did the trick. The Lucca plain is still crisscrossed by drainage canals to stop flooding and create rich arable land.
San Frediano directs works with his rake
Once or twice every winter due to a particularly heavy rainstorm or snowmelt, the Serchio is in spate. The swirling drive of the water is almost intoxicating as it fills the whole river bed and churns the worn river stones gouging out unfortified stretches of the river bank and piling up new pebble islands that will be visible when the water recedes.
Occasionally it floods the main road at the Devil’s Bridge, just upstream from the big dam at Borgo a Mozzano, the last bulwark where the amount of water flowing across the Lucca plain can be regulated. Usually the most annoying damage is a few small landslides (frana in Italian) that either undermine or block the narrow mountain roads connecting the main road along the valley floor to the ancient villages high on mountain ridges.
All those roots yet the wind and rain won
As I write this it’s been raining hard, really hard for five days in the Province of Lucca (probably elsewhere too, but what’s local has most impact). There’s an occasional break of a few hours, and then the rat-a-tat of the drops starts again. The force of the water in streams, rivers and canals is destroying roads, houses and fields. There are many more landslides and trees lose their grip and topple over also blocking roads. Although I didn’t ask for them, my computer gives me FaceBook updates from the Provincia di Lucca. In the last 24 hours they’ve been coming through nearly as fast as the raindrops.
24 hours ago
#maltempo [bad weather]: The level of flow of the Serchio remains constant. The major danger remains the network of drainage ditches on the Lucca plain.
#maltempo: Road maintenance crews from the Province removed detritus from the road at Acquabona (Castelnuovo Garfagnana) on the SR455. They positioned protection blocks. The road is open.
#maltempo: On the strada provinciale 37 of Fabbriche di Vallico (locality Lombardo) in course of removal of detritus and water issuing from an adjacent ditch. Light inconvenience but the road is passable.
#maltempo: In locality Ripa (comune of Seravezza) the eponymous river overflowed because of an obstruction of the river course caused by a landslide. Two houses are flooded. The comune sent its own volunteers to protect the houses and sent the Consorzio di Bonifica [land drainage] Versilia Massaciuccoli to remove the obstruction from the canal.
#maltempo: The water flow at the dam at Borgo a Mozzano at 13.00 was 600 to 700 cubic metres per second.
[I hope the Devil’s Bridge is holding strong. It’s over 1000 years old.]
21 hours ago
#maltempo: Engineers are constantly monitoring the situation of the #serchio.
#maltempo: The frazione of Tereglio is cut off due to two landslides which fell on the SP56 and on the SC Tereglio–Lucignana.
#maltempo: A rise in the level of the #serchio has been registered.
15 hours ago
#maltempo: A night of work for the personnel in the operations room for civil protection in the Province of Lucca. Many and diverse emergencies caused by the strong rain. At daybreak visits to the places are planned to assess the landslides and flooding.
14 hours ago
#maltempo: In the comune of Gallicano, the frazione of Fiattone is reachable only by 4×4. The road was affected by a landslide.
[Just below Fiattone is Podere Concori where Gabriele da Prato makes excellent wine. Are his terraces being swept away?]
#maltempo: SP60 from Pascoso–Pescaglia remains closed due to a landslide. Road maintenance crews are working at the site. Pascoso continues to be unreachable. [A comment 5 hours ago: It’s still closed.]
13 hours ago
#maltempo: Transit barred by a landslide on the comune road Mulino di Burica, in frazione Fabbriche di Casabasciana (comune Bagni di Lucca). At the moment one house is cut off.
[It’s getting closer. That’s at the bottom of my hill.]
#maltempo: A landslide has closed the road to Sillico, comune of Pieve Fosciana.
[How will Ismaele, one of the norcini who teaches my Advanced Salumi Course, get up there to feed his pigs and cattle?]
I feel anxious. What will be next? It feels like the world around me is crumbling, washing back to the sea where it came from.
12 hours ago
#maltempo: The comune road to Bargecchia (Pieve Fosciana) was rendered impassable by a landslide obstructing also the road to Capanne di Bargecchia. The two communities are cut off, reachable only on foot. Work has already begun.
#maltempo: The road to Sillico in the comune of Pieve Fosciana previously interrupted by a landslide has been reopened as an alternating one-way system to ambulances only.
[Will they feed Ismaele’s pigs?]
#maltempo: Worrying the level of Lake Massaciuccoli which has reached 48 cm. It is continually being monitored especially in the vicinity of Massarosa.
#maltempo: In locality Lombardo, in the comune of Gallicano, a landslip is affecting a high tension electrical pylon. ENEL [electricity company] is assessing the situation.
11 hours ago
#maltempo: After the peak flow during the night of 1100 cubic metres per second, the flow of the Serchio at 7.00 am was down to 950 cu.m/sec. The levels are being constantly monitored by the Province’s engineers.
3 hours ago
#maltempo: President Baccelli [President of Lucca Province] inspects the SP56 in the Valfegana.
[That’s the road to Marzia, one of my cheesemakers. Good thing they’re almost self-sufficient.]
We'll have to go back to mules for transport
Gradually the reports bring better news; roads have been partly opened and dikes repaired, but some people have lost their houses. President Baccelli has asked for financial assistance from the Tuscan region.
In one of the gaps in the rain, I go out to investigate whether Casabasciana has suffered any damage.
A gloomy view
I’m relieved to find that all the houses and roads are intact. Mediaeval town planners had the good sense to bed their villages on solid rocky spurs high above the valleys that were subject to flooding. The cobbled streets slope toward the centre where the water gushing from downpipes from roofs coalesces into mini-rivers that flow downhill out of the village.
The main street efficiently drains the rainwater
I think of the people swept away by tsunamis and major floods. We’ve escaped lightly, this time.