Fogo

At the collection point. Gathering donations for the victims of the June fires

Baby barn swallows in their nest in the early summer

Patsy the Partridge, eyeing us up in a friendly way. She (he?) stayed for a couple of weeks, then disappeared

 

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.

 

28 Comments

  1. Wendy

    Thank you for continuing your beautiful posts. I’ve missed them (you).

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thank you, Wendy. We have been thinking of you and John, and your terrible experiences with the fires in California. Many parallels between there and here.

      Reply
  2. BeckyB

    It’s been awful to watch from afar. Glad all our friends are safe but dreadful for those affected. It does feel like this year nature has been trying to tell us something – if only more would listen.

    What a delight you’ve finished with though 😊 thank you xxx

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Hello Becky, good to hear from you. We look forward to your next visit to this part of the world.

      Reply
  3. Belinda Magee

    So lovely to get a post. Your writing is beautiful and it brings a warm sunny breeze from the beloved Algarve and Portugal into my day and makes me smile. The more serious subjects you cover and their relevance to Portugal are informative and written with wisdom and perception, and the stories of local wildlife and nature are delightful. Please don’t stop.

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thank you, Belinda, for your lovely comment and the encouragement.

      Reply
  4. Pauline

    How wonderful to find a new post from you this morning, and thank you for the update of the fires – I did not dare ask and there was little on the news here.

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      I felt the need to write again! xx

      Reply
  5. Janice Bell

    Ah, so good to wake on a Wednesday morning and find a new posting from you but how dreadful to hear of the fires and their causes.

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thank you, Janice. Yes, the fires have been horrific this year.

      Reply
  6. Hazel

    We’ve been thinking of you (and worrying) so much over past weeks with the hellish wildfires blazing. Also worrying about Irish friends after the chaotic hurricane there — different from the fires but devastating nonetheless. Very happy that Wednesday mornings are back to normal with a post from Portugal!!! We missed the weekly update. Great pic of the swallows above! More! Lots of love xxx

    Reply
  7. Edith (Post author)

    Thank you, H. Lots of love in return. xx

    Reply
  8. Fiona

    Lovely to have the blog back and to hear the latest on both sets of swallows!

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thanks, F. Good to see you here.

      Reply
  9. Sue

    Mari

    It was such a treat to get a notification of another blog post I thought at first my email was playing games. Anyway very, very glad you are writing again. I am so sad about what has happened in Portugal. It really hasn’t got the news coverage it warrants over in the UK press.

    Anyway lovely to hear your “voice” again and I always love the photos.

    Sue xx

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thanks, Sue, for leaving such a lovely comment. xx

      Reply
  10. Chris Bosworth

    What a lovely surprise to see a post from you. I was hoping you were not affected in your area but I am sure it is still heart-breaking for you. Take care of yourselves and welcome back.

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Thank you very much. Nice to get your comment.

      Reply
  11. Patricia Roberts

    Lovely to read your blog again albeit sad reading , in parts,keep up your news it helps to hear directly from you love to you.

    Reply
  12. Edith (Post author)

    Hi Mum! xxxx

    Reply
  13. Janet M

    I’m glad that you have decided to write again. Wildfires are horrible, five years ago there was one with 3 miles of my house and it was quite scary. I thin out the scrub oak every year, and hope for the best. It is sad when the non-native species push out the local trees that are suited to the climate.

    And I love the stories of your birds (a Scrub Jay was just giving me the eyeball so I would feed him/her).

    Reply
  14. Edith (Post author)

    Hello Janet, lovely to hear from you. So nice to have you reading my return to blogging. I hope all’s well with you . I’m sure you gave the Scrub Jay some food, and I hope the bird enjoyed/appreciated it.

    Reply
  15. lionel

    oh dear, that nice Mr. T. obviously has not won you over yet!! Careful, he might challenge you to a twitter duel. MY words will be better than YOUR words…. your wonderful words have cheered me up, at intervals, all day. Thanks.

    Welcome back.

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Dear Lionel, lovely to be back on here with you. I cannot promise more than a desultory effort in future, however. Daily life has become so busy that it is harder to retreat and observe and collect thoughts. Let’s see.

      Reply
  16. JerryG

    So glad you’re writing again. The sentence “The gaseous eructations of the festering, twittering man in the White House across the water do nothing to alleviate this feeling of anxiety” has no peers!

    Down here in Australia we are heavily into clearing up the winter detritus before the fire season hits. I only recently learned that the exquisite landscape paintings by Sidney Nolan which feature a heavy blue haze are actually illustrating eucalypt oil in the air. It has a significant effect on wildfires.

    Stay safe (and keep writing)

    Reply
    1. Edith (Post author)

      Great to hear from you, JerryG. Fascinating detail about the Sidney Nolan landscapes. It seems like everyone knows eucalyptus is a fire trap, so why . . . ?

      Reply
  17. Fatma Nedjib

    Wow, a post to make up for all the absent ones indeed! Interesting, disturbing, and beautiful post. I am just returned from Spain, and a small holding I share there with a friend. You will know Edith that we have just been refused planning permission to build a large rain water harvesting tank. I read your post just now with interest. Your description of the Eucalyptus trees, I substituted Pine trees for in Spain. Like the Eucalyptus tree, the Pine is ubiquitous, moisture greedy, and highly flammable. Our little area of land is surrounded by forests of Pine. We have Olive trees and Hazelnut trees on our land. (we took out all the pine when we took up the land!). Burning and use of power equipment is banned from mid March to mid October each year. It does seem beyond reason, that a potential water reservoir, able to be utilised by the fire service, has been vetoed. We were actually advised to appeal and seek assistance in our appeal from the fire fighting department in order to overturn the decision. (Having spent virtually 18 months plus waiting for a decision however, we don’t have the patience for it). I am moved to write of this experience by the observations in your post. It seems the Authorities do not indeed care. Lives and land of little consequence it seems. The dreadful events in Portugal where so many lost their lives bearing witness to this. Our local water delivery man ( who works for the local authority. In what capacity I do not know.) stated as much quite unambiguously. In the event of a fire, homes, belongings, land, were the responsibility of the owners. He advised us to keep the land clear of scrub, root out any sign of returning Pine, and keep the Olive trees well pruned. (our man takes care of many olive farms so possibly a little self interest there!) It’s a mad world.

    Good to have a reappearance of the post. And lovely to hear of the continuing flight, return, and sojourn of the swallows!

    Reply
  18. Edith (Post author)

    Great to hear from you, Fatma. Such an interesting comment. If you and your friend could find a few ounces more of patience, I think it would be brilliant to get the fire department onside to have your rainwater tank decision reversed. It does indeed seem crazy. And well done on those pines! They are an issue across the border too. Much to tell. Must write another blog post before too long. xx

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: