Man Made Nature

Yes, I used the “n” word. Me, Alma, the big proponent of saying environment instead of  nature. I use it because “man-made nature” is one of the best ways to describe a fascinating slice of the Czech Republic, an area of streams and shallow lakes that comprise one of the most important wetland environments in Central Europe. And most of the environment was created by humans, starting almost a thousand years ago.

A bit of geography and background: Most rivers in Europe, once they leave the mountains or other highlands, were meandering, wide, and surrounded by broad sweeps of marshy lowlands. The rivers had filled in their valleys over the aeons, aided by the sediment turned loose by the various ice ages, and as a result shifted position, creating wetlands and bends. And certain areas, like Germany north of the Hartz and Eifel Mountains, and the Carpathian Basin, are flat. Really, really, table-top flaaaaat. Martian flat-cat flat. So the rivers had nothing to constrain them, and merrily divided and rejoined, wandering this away and that, turning almost impassable for large parts of the year, and nourishing millions of acres of waterfowl, fish, mosquitos, and reeds, while discouraging human activities such as agriculture.

And so it remained for quite a while, until (in Central Europe) the Romans, then the Cistercians and Benedictines moved in. The Romans drained small areas and introduced canals and water supply projects into their settlements, such as Caernuntum (near Vienna) Vindobona (Vienna), Aquincum and Contra Aquincum (Buda and Pest), and Solva (Esztergom). But they did not settle within what is now the Czech Republic. Instead, monks in search of barren wilderness and waste land moved in after around A.D. 1000, establishing monasteries and setting up farms, vineyards, and fish ponds.

Untouched wilderness or man-made habitat? http://www.geo-praha.cz/ironcurtain/luznice_river.jpg

Untouched wilderness or man-made habitat? http://www.geo-praha.cz/ironcurtain/luznice_river.jpg

The 12th Century saw the start of landscape modification in the Trebon Basin, an area in the southern Czech Republic. It is a catchment for the surrounding hills and low mountains, and to this day has numerous peat bogs, small streams and rivers, and the tendency to become waterlogged if a cloud passes over. First, monks and their lay brothers moved in and began channeling some streams and deepening some low spots for mills and fish ponds. Then, in the 14th century, the Rozemberk (or Rosenberg) family took over the area as their feudal land. Pond building increased, because the market for fish had developed along with the Catholic Church’s teachings about fasting and eating fish on Fridays. (See Fish on Fridays by Brian Fagan for an excellent history of feasting, fasting, and fishing in European history from the 500s through 1900). Fish in this area meant carp. They are easy to raise, tolerate still water, eat anything, fatten easily, and can be caught without fancy equipment because they eat anything (bait, dough balls, slow-moving tourists . . .)

In the 16th and 17th century, carp became an enormously important crop, and aquaculture spread in the Trebon Basin, strongly encouraged by the Rozemberks. Carp became a regional delicacy as well as a religious necessity, and carp for Christmas is as Czech (and Polish) as turkey is for Americans.  Their “carp ponds” spread up to 489 hectares, with a dam over 2400 meters long. That’s over 1200 acres, or just under two square miles of “pond”.

The series of “ponds” became a vital flood buffer and wetland area for wildlife increasingly crowded out of other areas by draining and straightening of river channels for commerce (and flood control). When you look at a map of the region, you see hundreds of small water features, canals, streams, and a few rivers. It looks very much like the pothole prairies of the Dakotas in some ways, all the interconnected small water spots and wetlands. And all managed and crafted, maintained and monitored by humans.

There are legends associated with the ponds, including an engineer’s ghost who still checks on the largest ponds, riding in a carriage pulled by black cats. Carp festivals are important, and the draining of the various lakes to harvest the carp is a major occasion for celebrations and traditional festivals. As one drives into the city of Trebon, a large statue of four carp greets you at the first roundabout. Carp restaurants are all over, and you can buy fresh, canned, pickled, and other types of carp. it is anything but a “trash fish.” And the ponds and their water systems and peat bogs are a Ramsar Wetland of Distinction and on the list to become a UNESCO heritage district, protected for the future. All because of the need for fish on Fridays. (And the Rozemberk family’s desire for income, but we won’t mention that.)

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One thought on “Man Made Nature

  1. “And the Rozemberk family’s desire for income, but we won’t mention that.”

    Hey now, no need to be crass.

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