Once a year, during the summer, I get to travel back in time. It’s about 5,600 miles from California to Portugal, and about 60 years from the life style in Irvine (or Lisbon, for that matter) to the life style in my mother’s house in Mangualde. Give or take another 60. Time travel is not evenly distributed. For example, my mother just installed high-speed wireless Internet in the house. Time is also not linear in one’s mind, as every time I come to Mangualde I find myself re-experiencing the feelings of my childhood and teenage years, during which we clearly had a life style that was, in comparison to modern days, quite ancient. Despite those flash-forwards and flashbacks, and because of my mother’s (and others like her) resistance to change, life here happens in a style that is quite different from the life style of the cities we live in, and is more similar to the life style of her ancestors. It’s lovely, and makes me wonder whether the economies of scale in which we live in the future are really sustainable or just a blimp in history that is about to burst… Here is a report from the past.
My mother’s backyard looks like the produce area of a modern supermarket, except that it’s alive and fresh. There are green beans, red beans, cabbage, potatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, tomatoes, onions, apples, pears, prunes, peaches, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, figs, grapes, lemons, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and a few more that I fail to remember — all of this in a relatively small area and with a rose garden in the mix. The production is more than my mother can consume, so she gives it out to my siblings, to the couple who actually works the field, to her friends and, occasionally, sells it to local merchants and the local cooperative.
My mother never knew a life without chickens in her backyard. Compared to the ease of buying a piece of chicken in the supermarket, growing chickens is completely impractical, but she, like so many, continues to do it. The quality of these chickens’ eggs and meat is far superior to that available in the supermarkets. Chickens are killed at some point for their meat. The killing is done outside, in front of the kitchen, and it’s always a fascinating spectacle for all the family kids that pass through this house. In the future where we live, the narrative surrounding the meat we eat is missing the part where the animals are actually killed — the slaughter houses that feed us are not a pretty story. Here in the past, that part is not only not hidden, but it’s openly shared with kids — not because of any particular rite of passage, but simply because there’s nothing to hide, not even the fact that animals die so we can eat them, and somebody’s gotta do the killing (usually the person who helps in the house). It looks like some young Silicon Valley billionaire has discovered this recently.
Mind you, times have changed here in the past too. The most radical changes happened during my teenage years in the 80s. When I was a kid, besides chickens, we used to have cows, rabbits and pigs. For the first 10 years of my life, the milk in the house was from these cows. Many local people came to buy their milk here. Rabbits were adorable, except when you realized the rate at which they reproduced… A pig was killed every year, and its parts were used for preparing presunto, chourico, and farinheiras, foods that take a few months to mature but that last for a long time — and that have a long history. Sometime in the 80s, the farm animals were gone, just the chickens are left.
During those years, I witnessed the effect of the proliferation of unsustainable products. When I was a kid, before plastic and other junk materials became pervasive, all the trash in the house was naturally recycled. Food leftovers were consumed by dogs and cats; organic trash was consumed by pigs; everything else was piled up in the far corner of the backyard, and burnt periodically. As plastic containers became ubiquitous, the burns weren’t that effective, they stunk, and became a hazard because of the chemicals released into the air; also when the farm animals were gone, there was no outlet for the organic trash. Eventually, Mangualde started having a waste disposal infrastructure similar to that in modern cities. Unlike in the old days, where trash disposal was an explicit activity, no one now knows what happens to the trash collected by the trash trucks — it’s invisible, like the slaughter houses.
Many more radical transformations happened during those years. While I was partying to the sound of Cheap Trick and Duran Duran, a whole class of independent working women — the seamstresses — saw their income suddenly disappear, as mass-produced affordable retail made its way through, like an unstoppable train.
My family were/are not farmers as such. They own land, farms, vineyards; for centuries, people in this region have had local economies through interactions at small to medium scales, like the gears of an engine. On the smaller side, that included paying local people, directly and indirectly, for their work in the farm or in the house or in local services; on the larger side, people took risks dealing with more distant markets, like Lisboa, Porto or even Brasil and Africa. Nothing was ever too big or at the global scale. Those small scale interactions are still going on today. At times, it seemed like the entire regions’ young people were going to desert to the big cities, but thankfully that didn’t happen. There are still capable local people available for working the fields.
For the vast majority of farms I know in my region and throughout the North of Portugal, water is a local resource. And when I say local, I mean right there, underground. In my mother’s house there are a couple of wells that have water all year, and that are used to water the fields. Up until early this year, that water was also used in the house, but it had become another hazard due to the possibility of chemical contamination.
Life here in this uneven past still happens at the beat of natural cycles related, one way or another, to food. There’s the seasonal produce in my mother’s backyard: there are specific times of the year for every vegetable and fruit, even tomatoes! There’s the harvest of apples and pears in August/September. There’s the vindimas (harvest of the grapes for wine-making) in September/October. Also in October, after the vindimas, there’s the making of marmelada. Chestnuts are in November. There’s the olives harvest and subsequent olive oil production around Christmas — I’ll save another blog post just for the olive oil…
This past that I’m visiting again today is not just about being close to agriculture and Nature; it’s primarily about the scale in which that happens. Here in the countryside of Portugal, the scale has always been small — family size, community size, or, at most, small commercial size. Everyone with a backyard grows fruits and vegetables; our neighbors used to buy milk from our farm; people still harvest olives from their 2 or 3 olive trees and take them to the local olive oil factory to transform it in olive oil for their own consumption during the year; etc. During the push for modernization of the past 30 years, this scale has been seen as an nuisance, something to be bulldozed over and replaced with larger-scale projects. As far as I can tell from visiting once or twice a year, that strategy has been a complete failure in many dimensions — neo-liberal politicians, swept by unrealistic and irresponsible promises of bankers with questionable intentions, have basically placed the entire country, its people and their children in a dump of debt, ruining local economies in the process.
(Interestingly, this debt problem is not affecting just small economies of ancient times like countryside Portugal; it affects modern giants like California. Greed is timeless and universal.)
The past is still very much alive in certain places of the world, like here in Mangualde. I’m glad many things of the past are now extinct. But when it comes to sustainability, the past can teach us quite a few lessons: sustainability is primarily about people’s life style and the scale of economic interactions. I’m so glad that people here have been able, one way or another, to preserve that life style… Seen from Irvine, it’s luxury!
Text and images © Cristina Videira Lopes.