For the last few months we’ve woken up to the sound of harvesters felling trees over a large tract of forest above the village. Thousands of eucalypts cut, shredded, piled up and taken away. What’s left behind is a scene of post apocalyptic devastation.
The annual timber season upset me when I first moved here. The crack and crash of huge trees echoing down the valley sounded so final and destructive. I’ve gotten over it now. We are in the heart of timber country and it’s not like eucalypts are native, carefully tended or even very old. The variety grown here, Eucalyptus globulus isn’t particularly well-suited to Portugal (it doesn’t even flower here), is left to grow inefficiently in awkward clumps, not resembling at all the majestic Triassic trees of home. Eucalypts grown anywhere but Australia will strip the soil of water and nutrients at the cost of every native plant around them, eventually causing irreversible erosion. They don’t belong here.
But I don’t begrudge the loggers and land owners from earning their living. Most of my neighbours own slices of the forest and fortunately not all of it is being replaced by the fast growing gum tree which fetches a higher price than pine. Once upon a time the pine tree’s partners in this forest were oak and chestnut – trees which continue to fertilize and enrich the soil and are indigenous to Southern Europe. There are a few varieties of oak which are specifically native to Portugal (including the cork oak, an enduring major commodity) and the Romans probably introduced chestnuts to Portugal, as they did in most places, as a food source. What depresses me is the loss of these great timbers in favour of the spindly, super-combustible paper-making eucalypt. Strange to think there is still such demand for paper, when paper was clearly the loser in the great paper/scissors/data storage contest of the late 20th century.
Just as the last tree fell from the hillside, a hundred tractors descended upon Cu de Judas to collect firewood. Now every village around here has a huge pile of stumps at its gates. The scavengers, us included, came in every evening and all day on Sunday in industrially organised teams – one truck we saw carried 7 men and about 5 tonnes of gnarly stumpage. All and sundry seemed to understand the rules – that it was ok to scavenge (even though the land is privately owned by a guy who lives nearby) and the designated times that scavenging would take place.
I’ve been a bit put off by the huge scar looming above us. So when I went up there at dawn, only a day or two after The One and I became like locals and filled the kangoo with next winter’s wood, the sight of newly planted tree-lings was an inspiring sight. Just a pity they’re not noble, or maple… baobab… a field of sunflowers… lavender?
Just being up at dawn is inspiration enough. Watching how the weather for the day is taking shape. The cool crisp air. The silence. And the wookie possessed with fun and freedom. It’s been too long since I’ve done this.
The day before, I had a long chat with an old friend who said ultimately that she didn’t understand why I had moved to Portugal. Why Portugal? The financial crisis has had me by the throat for so long I have forgotten why. I’ve even been planning to go back to Sydney to work just so I don’t have to watch every bill that comes in. This tedious self absorption with money makes Poor in Portugal no different to Successful in Sydney.
So the clouds dancing around our little village at 7am meant something. And then my 8am superb coffee and sticky, still warm croissant, plus a loaf of bread and an extra croissant for the sleeping husband all for €3… that meant something too. Stopping for a long chin wag with Tia Maria, who’s now a little older and grateful for the help carrying buckets of feed to the ducks and chickens. Waiting to rest with her and admire her healthy, feathered, free range crew all destined for the table. All that meant something too. The time to linger.
I asked Tia Maria what she knew about the current crisis in Portugal. She wasn’t bothered by it because it’s not effecting her (graças a Deus) and she gestured towards her field of cabbage and potatoes. Does she remember at time when things were worse? Her old eyes went glassy as she talked about her post-war childhood, when all they did was work – the olives, the vines, the wood, the fields. All the time working and nothing to eat, just turnips all the time. And no flour for bread – she still hates corn bread. How one time they walked to Entroncamento. She can’t remember how long it took, maybe a month?
What a whinger am I! We eat like kings, the pets are happy, we have no major debts and we sleep in until 10. Why Portugal? Why anywhere else?
beijinhos to tessa and virginia