Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Window on Alentejo

The first impression you get of Alentejo is that there are many trees. Cork,pine and eucalyptus grow right up to the edge of the road, often giving blissful relief from the sun, their roots raising the road surface into interesting undulations. And beyond the trees are the rolling plains, planted with wheat and sunflowers, melons and green peppers, all shimmering in the intense heat. Small white-washed villages seem to crouch in the folds of land, by dry riverbeds, dominated by large delapidated churches. Old women in black sit in the shade of their doorsteps watching the passing traffic. Tractors and pickup trucks roar past, full of men in plaid shirts and working trousers, straw cowboy hats and leather boots.
The closer to the coast you go, the cooler the air becomes, and the landscape also changes. There are more hills, covered in cistus and cork. Small farms, of just a few hectares, with one house and a few stone outbuildings, where chickens scratch in the dusty yard. They keep a few cows, maybe some sheep, a pig, a mule. They grow enough potatoes and maize and onions and garlic to keep them through the year. They farm in the old tradition, growing things that they know will do well. Their children live abroad, or in the cities in the north, the farming life is not for them. It is the end of the line. There are many small farms for sale, and they are being bought and turned into holiday homes. Electricity has now become more widespread, making life a lot easier.
The land along the coast is mostly flat and sandy, and here, large salad companies have hectares under plastic, growing salad and strawberries for the north of Europé. These farms provide a lot of work for the women who live in the villages nearby.
By the sea are small villages and growing towns that are now becoming popular holiday destinations. Vila Nova de Milfontes, Porto Covo, Zambuzeira do Mar, are all expanding. Rows of apartments and villas, with very little charm, are mushrooming out of the dunes. Norfolk pines and water towers are redefining the horizons. During the holidays these towns fill up with people who want to shop, sunbathe and go out in the evenings. The takings in the two months in summer keep a lot of people going for the rest of the year. The beautiful, white sand beaches and the cliffs and dunes which stretch all along the coast, fill up with people. After August the beaches are empty, but for the local fishermen and the occasional dog-walker,and sometimes riders take their horses for a romantic stroll on the strand.
There are huge plantations of eucalyptus throughout Portugal, and Alentejo is no exception. These forests are a real blot on the landscape. Thousands of hectares of fantastic mountains and valleys have been scraped of all their topsoil, and contours of trees planted. Nothing else grows in their shade, and very little wildlife survive there. It is like a tree dessert. The trees are highly inflammable and recently there have been many fires, some of which are rumoured to have been started on purpose. Vast areas lie charred and blackened until the machines can get in there and replant. Luckily, there are subsidies for farmers to plant cork oaks and pine, and in the Natural Park area you cannot get a licence to plant new large areas of eucalyptus any more.
Now that the roads and the general amenities are improving, there are more people moving away from Lisboa, and other European cities, to live and work in this lovely province. There are big changes going on. The local schools have German, Dutch, English, Ukanian, all mingling with the indiginous Portuguese, all speaking the common tongue. It is hoped that the new generation of Alentejanos can speak up for this beautiful province and help to keep it a special place to vist and to live in.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Teatro ao Largo

I spent the day working for Teatro ao Largo, helping make the backdrop.  They have this brilliant space - an old primary school.  It has plenty of space and it is set quite near the sea, so you can sea the blue line of it on the horizon as you are working.  Very nice.
I think Teatro ao Largo is a great asset to Alentejo.  It has been going for years, with the help of Odemira Council.  Steve Johnston does nearly all the music, and writes most of the plays.  They have at least two different shows a year which they tour all over Portugal with, and give free shows to the villages in Alentejo.  The actors, Ricardo, Nuno and Ines, plus Steve, do a grand job and Helen sings beautifully and paints amazing scenery and designs the costumes.  Altogether pretty cool.  I go and do some sewing for them now and then and enjoy the atmosphere.  Makes a change from permaculture and all my other lovely things in my life... like making bread...
 Here is a bread oven that I'm not going to use tonight...

And here is a picture of Ricardo, Ines and Nuno, wearing the costumes we (Helen and I) made last year.

I bought an electric grain mill, made in Germany.  It's a beautiful object which works a treat.  I've just ground flour and made the dough, now it's rising in front of the fire.  Soon I will pop it in the oven.  Just have to be strong and not eat any hot bread and butter before going to bed....

Friday, February 24, 2012

 Here is the ruin.  It's a shame it was built from hollow clay bricks, as they are all crumbling to dust.

 And here is our first 'Thai jar'.  It's made from chicken wire and cement, and I think it looks like an elephant.  Hopefull, when it ever rains, we will be able to collect some of it in here.

I love to look at the clouds, and since we are so high it feels we are surrounded by sky.

And now I proudly present the compost loo!  Made using iron bar, builders old cling film from the rubbish, and shade netting.  I've planted a honeysuckle and a rose to climb over it and so you really can go and smell the roses when nature calls.

And here's me resting, looking at the sky/view, listening to A History of the World in 100 Objects.  Heaven.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Maneli's board game

Maneli was my neighbour.  A very special man and a great farmer.  Here is a phot of him and Balbina coming back from the village.

Maneli's Board Game
A litre of seed is thrown onto a wooden tray. Seed by seed his nimble fingers pass and push the chosen ones to the other end of the tray. The wild seed is then picked out. For hours, for days, for weeks. For two weeks he sat in the doorway of his cow barn, while the rain drummed down and the ground became sodden. Too wet to sow, but time enough to sort the seed.  
I went up one one morning and sat with him. He was surrounded by fourteen sacks, and he had cleaned half of them. One by one, seed by seed, he scanned and screened his future harvest. A board game for rainy days. When I asked him about the work, the time it took, he shrugged and waved out to the field. To pull out the wild grass later would take more time, and since he had to wait for the rain to stop before he could plant, then he had time for this . 
We sat in silence for a while as I helped him sort the grains. His eighty year old hands lightly shifting the unborn corn. The wood of the tray shiny and smooth .  A patina of years of peaceful, patient work. The rain drummed on.

The Pig Man

I was out driving on an old dirt track, in the summer, exploring, discovering new short-cuts and old ruins, when I came across the pig man.

The Pig Man
The pig man walks his pigs through the cork oak forest. He lives with them. Eats his bread with them. Tall and gaunt, the clothes live on his body, black and brown. I pass and wave from the car. At first he doesn't react and I think I'm being snubbed, another bloody foreigner.  But glancing back, I see him slowly reach for his worn-shiny cap and raise it from his worn-shiny head. He swings it round in an arc, an all-embracing wave. A beautiful, courteous movement from the dark ages, of chivalry and serfdom. I am honoured and humbled by his expansive grace, his acknowledgement of my passing. Then I am gone, the dust settles, the noise fades, and he is left with his pigs in the heat-beaten clearing.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Meditation and other meandering thoughts

I sometimes get asked what do I do when I meditate and it's really hard to explain that I try to do nothing.  But the other day I came up with the word 'streaming' as in computer-speak, when you can be downloading and watching at the same time.  I think that word describes the action.  It works in two directions in meditation. input and output. 
I was looking at some small plants I have transplanted into huge pots.  They are Mexican berry cucumbers and they have thin tender feelers bravely pushing out into the unknown.  It made me think how some part of that plant which is so delicate is leading the way for the rest of it.  Tender tendrils.  That's my thought for the day. :)

Friday, February 17, 2012

pick axe

I spent the morning weilding a pick axe and shovelling mud into the wheelbarrow and then pushing it uphill to dump it.  Phew, talk about a work-out!  That kind of work tones your whole body.
The compost loo is now available, in working order.
Oh where is the rain?  The garden is just surviving, but there is no dew in the mornings and I think I'm going to have to water some plants.... more lugging... water is heavy, but if I want peas to form in the pods...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I'm mad about building!  It's the idea of making a new space that excites me. 
This week I'm making a semi-permanaent bender to house the compost loo.  Today I put up the basic structure and then started to weave cling film, taken from builders' merchants, where it is used to protect pallet loads of cement and all sorts of other stuff.  Anyway, there is a lot of it and it can be tricky and sticky, but it's beginning to take shape...
It felt warm in the shelter of the brambles and olive trees.  A blackbird kept me company.  Oh, and Ginger, who is always nearby, snoozing.  It has been so cold and dry that I get electric shocks from the car.  (Must be the fleece, creating static.)
Here is a photo of the first bender I made, a shelter from the sun and a place to store the tools.
The new solar hot water system is working a treat.  We have had non-stop hot water since it was installed.  Since it has been a very sunny winter there is no shortage of solar energy, but we have had no rain for months... Not good for the farmers and gardeners.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Ruins

There are many ruins in all the deserted valleys around here.  I love to explore them and feel the past.
In the autumn I met Ilidio training his cows to plough. Wow, I love it!
The Ruins (After “Dead Fires” by George Mackay Brown)

The big, mud-built barn
Cornerstone of the farm
Stands empty, roofless.
Bees perforate the walls,
Lizards accomodate the stalls
Rubbed smooth over aeons
By animals,
And Children's bare feet,
And straw,
Passed over to feed
The precious beasts.

A house the size of a shoe box,
Toothless, grinning dorway.
Once the home of many
Round the fire
Where the pot stood.
Eat what they could.
No one went hungry
Unless they all did.

(For sale to the highest bidder,
Old ghosts for new dreamers.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

some pictures

Here are some photos to savour.  The first is a picture of our first swale.  The second is a view in the early morning from the windmill... And the third is of the sea at Malhao. These photos were all taken in the last couple of weeks.

A blogging virgin!

As this is my first attempt at having a blog I am feeling a little bit green and aprehensive.  But I intend to write down thoughts and ideas that crop up as I work, digging, building, or just wandering the lovely place I call home.  I also hope to put in some of my writing.  I have finished my novel and must get on with the next stage... ie publish!  I hope that anyone who's interested will read and respond to my wandering wonderings. Enjoy