Olive trees are synonymous with the Italian countryside. But in recent years, they’ve been the victims of the Xylella contagion, posing a threat to the landscape we know and love. Photographer Stefano Gio Semeraro has captured the change in this series titled Living Sculptures, which acts as a tribute to olive trees and the people trying to save them.
Words and Photography by Stefano Gio Semeraro
My hometown Apulia was once home to about 60 million olive trees, considered historical, economic and landscape heritage not only in this region, but the whole of Italy.
In recent years, however, the olive tree has been the victim of the unfortunate Xylella Fastidiosa contagion, a phytopathogenic bacteria that affects plants from within, blocking their hydration and drying them to death. The infection spreads in olive groves through insects, such as the Philaenus Spumarius, which can transport the bacterium from one plant to another, promoting the transmission of the infection.
After many years it has been found that the only solution to eliminate Xylella is the removal of trees to create buffer zones where the insects cannot proliferate. Many trees have been cut down to contain the rapid spread of the infection in healthy areas, but the slow implementation of this strategy has not stopped the growth of infected areas.
“Many areas have already become something that I no longer recognise in my memories.”
Besides the huge economic damage, the landscape heritage, which has characterised the Apulian territory for centuries, has been severely affected. The places where I grew up could change drastically in the coming years, and many areas have already become something that I no longer recognise in my memories. Huge empty fields now extend for kilometers and give people the impression that they are in a dry desert. These changes will also have serious consequences in other fields, such as tourism to Italy.
The olive trees, these peculiar elements of my homeland, may no longer occupy many of the territories where they have lived for so long.
“I wanted to portray these living sculptures in their majesty – undisputed protagonists of the Apulian countryside.”
For this reason, I felt the need to document the landscape that has been the background for most of my life. I wanted to portray these living sculptures in their majesty – undisputed protagonists of the Apulian countryside. Among the many images were captures of piles of stones built by man, placed under branches or trunks at risk of breaking. The human intervention helps, in this way, to avoid the structural failure of the trees and to control their growth.
It is the work of man that comes to the aid of nature and creates a symbiosis between natural and artificial elements. This clearly shows the love, respect, and sense of responsibility that locals have for olive trees, considered part of the family by their owners and who have the longest history as inhabitants of Apulian lands.