On 17 June, Portugal experienced its worst forest fire (fogo) in fifty years. Sixty-four people died, in the centre of the country. It wasn’t the only fire, just the worst. Forest fires are part of life here, and they always have been. What is cork, that famed Portuguese product, but natural fire protection for the tree? The indigenous cork oak, Quercus suber, comes with its own fire blanket. But the number of fires is increasing all the time and never have they been so wildly out of control, so deadly, as they were this summer.
We were lucky. We were never in danger, never close to a fire, though one day a change in the wind sent suffocating smoke down our valley as a reminder of how things could be. Then the end of September brought a close to the official ‘fire season’. Contracts for air support were terminated and other means of private-sector fire control were stood down. The weather, meanwhile, had other ideas. Hurricane Ophelia blew hot, dry, fast-moving winds into north and central Portugal and on 15 October fires raged again. This now became the worst day of the year for blazes, and it wasn’t even the fire season. Thirty-six people were killed, bringing the full death toll to over a hundred. Murky skies over London and other parts of England were said by some sources to be caused by the ash and dust from all the blazes, carried northwards by the hurricane.
Climate change is one piece of this story. We are accelerating climate change; we are doing too little to stop it. A terrible, close-to-the-precipice feeling burns in the pit of the stomach when you pause to think about this. The gaseous eructations of the festering, twittering man in the White House across the water do nothing to alleviate this feeling of anxiety.
But for now let’s look at the other pieces that make up the puzzle. Arson is one: there is much speculation, much theorising about this, with the fire chief even claiming the fires were started by a ‘terrorist organisation’.
Uncared-for land, covered in dry, flammable scrub, is another piece of the puzzle, and seems to me a kind of blame-the-people approach, a way of thinking evidenced by the secretary of state for Internal Administration, who declared that ‘communities have to be proactive and stop waiting for the fire fighters and aeroplanes to come and solve their problems for them’. (People in desperation trying to put out the fires themselves is what led to many of the deaths.)
And then there’s another piece. Eucalyptus, and to some extent pine, but mostly eucalyptus. Eucalyptus: a non-native tree that grows rapidly, sucks moisture out of the land, is grown in vast monoculture plantations, and, in the right conditions, – i.e. every summer and, as we’ve now seen, some of the rest of the year as well – goes up like a row of torches, projecting flaming missiles of bark across great distances and igniting everything for kilometres around. When you see those horrifying black and red images of the fires, with row after row of poker-straight charred trees, those are eucalyptus. Portugal has more eucalyptus, as a percentage of its landmass, than any other country on the planet, according to journalist João Camargo. More even than Australia. This country is 9 per cent eucalyptus trees. Diverse, fire-resistant native trees have been grubbed out, especially in the centre and north of the country, and replaced with vast plantations of eucalyptus to supply the paper-pulp industry. To make, among other things, toilet paper. Innocent people whose houses have gradually become surrounded by eucalyptus plantations find themselves living in a bomb with a fuse that just awaits lighting. All for toilet paper.
It is calamitous.
And yet the world is still so beautiful.
It has been a long time since I wrote a post. I hadn’t intended to continue, but it seems I haven’t been able to stop.
Our swallow factory was productive this summer. The barn swallows raised two clutches, the first with five young, the second with three. By the time of the second clutch, the nest, which was fairly shoddy and open to all gazes even at the outset, was crumbling. Some mud landed on the floor; other bits were held by the straw with which the birds reinforced the structure, and swung in the breeze. Muddy claw prints covered our washing line. Droppings piled up high on the cardboard I’d placed on the floor below the nest as protection. Sometimes the excrement was removed by the parent birds at the moment of production – the baby bird turned its rear end to face the parent, who removed the parcel as it emerged and flew off with it for disposal. When the parent bird wasn’t available at the right moment, which was often, the baby birds stuck their rear end out over the edge of the nest instead and shat on the floor. Out of this general slovenliness and over-crowdedness emerged beautiful birds, who took to the air with grace.
Their neighbours, the red-rumped swallows, luxuriated in their finely built, private nest, into which no one could see. Parcels of excrement were carefully and invisibly removed; very little ever landed on the floor. The exact numbers of young we couldn’t tell. It seemed to be one clutch only. All was discretion.
The two birds, with their very different styles, occasionally clashed wings in mini-fights in front of our house. Mostly they got along all right, or at least ignored one another, occupying different stretches of the telegraph wire.
The birds gradually left, the barn swallows at the end of August, the parent red-rumps a couple of weeks later. Three red-rumped youngsters were the last to leave our veranda. They accompanied our early evenings until late September, returning to the nest to sleep as the sun set. When we weren’t looking closely at them and weren’t too near to the nest, they would fly straight in through the narrow tunnel, moving in a horizontal line with wings tucked back as though inhaled into the interior by suction. When we were too close for comfort, they played diversionary games, pretending to be about to go into the nest, then ducking and flying off again. Eventually they’d get used to us, or give up on our ever leaving, and return to roost. A little burst of analogue radio-tuning once they were all together, and then silence. If you were up at daybreak, you’d see them leave. One day in late September, they left the nest for the last time this year. We look forward to their return next year.