Destruction: Rural Portugal's Loss \ Álvaro Domingues

Álvaro Domingues
Records on the trauma of Rural Portugal's loss

It is said that an act of destruction is an act that makes something to disappear. If one doesn’t ask anything else about the circumstance and reasons of that disappearing, there will be few clearing up. It can even be pure illusion, or are not the illusionists themselves the real specialists on disappearance.
In a martial view, destruction is the enemy’s annihilation..., but there are other meanings much more positive where destruction is a necessary condition for rebirth and creation. So has thought the good God when He warned Noah that He would destruct mankind with a flood that restarted everything, like the Sun in each dawn, and the creation reconciled with the creator, once for all. It came to nothing, judging by what happened meanwhile and by the results of multiple floods and catastrophes that occurred. 
The fragments of image/text that are presented belong to “Vida no Campo” [Life in the Countryside] (Domingues, 2011, Dafne, Porto), an essay about the destruction or, in a more psychological record, about the loss of Rural Portugal. Vida no Campo is, therefore, a metaphor about the loss of that Rural Portugal and an antidote against this bad living about depopulation, abandonment, or, in an another record, the deep metamorphosis that is ploughing throughout the (ex)-farmers country, the loss of their ancestral practices, ways of living, territory and landscapes. Ruins, in many cases.
It is not a minor matter. Like Language or History, landscape is a powerful identity mark, a common house. Yet, there are no eternal landscapes. Landscapes are a record of the changing society and if the change is so big, so deep and accelerated, there will be a record of it and few time and plenty of space to understand and digest every marks and the way, either relics either disposals, mutually run-over.
At the same time, if we change the landscape, the stable referents that the landscapes images produce fall into a mess, in a speeding up of differences where, frequently, it is more recognizable what is lost than what it is gained and the way that this gain is evaluated, because it seems weird or exotic, non-belonging, non vernacular like the Romans said about the slaves that where home born by counterpoint to those who were recruited somewhere.
This is why it’s so common to talk about the destruction in course, the de-characterization, the loss of supposed authenticities that after so much mystification seem to have belonged to a primordial time, with no history or any other referent except this pluperfect past where life in the countryside was the image of Paradise and of the wise good People, poor but honest, that lived in its simplicity, joy and communion with Nature and praying to the gods.
The marks and memories of that Rural Portugal are decomposing with the de-ruralization and its track of collateral effects: depopulation, ageing, abandonment of fields and agricultural production, disappearing of certain lifestyles, knowledges and cultural practices – the interior, in the more frequent words about these matters. The few that stay live from an assisted economy between pensions, subsidies, savings, family's helps and those who can, leave because employment is rare, and the bucolic mirage and the lost paradise image is much more from  those who are out (of that interior) and think that the rural and nature are places for vacation and tourism.
In a different record from this one – when abandonment of agriculture doesn't mean the abandonment of people –, rurality transforms itself from inside or it's absorbed by what it is usually named urbanization. This post-rurality is so strange that there is no way we can adjectify the landscapes it builds. Transgenic landscapes, new territories that like GMO's (genetically modified organisms) combine and reproduce distinct genetic references and remix them in an unusual way. Those who usually look don't understand, and because they don't see in there the beautiful cities or the good and pretty villages, become sad and call it ugly. Let us leave the aesthetics for later on; people say that one cannot love what they don't know and, in this case, what's most unknown is the most present thing. A paradox.
Vida no Campo is about all of this: myths of the last rural country in Europe that persists in inscribing in the collective imaginary (and at the same time), the bucolic images and the disposals of that lost world, variating between calamity and fires, resorts for all tastes with lots of grass and green space, rural tourism, desertification or, on the contrary, houses and roads everywhere like in the NW of Portugal. If 97% of the economy is not rural, the country, the society and the territory, are urban (by default and as while as we cannot leave this dichotomy). It seems baffling, but to write an essay it is quite enough.

‘Was’ is the past of the indicative of the verb to be. ‘Had been’ is the pluperfect past, of a primordial time where the rural had been a time out of time. It was in fact a stone house with inscriptions on the door lintel which probably had met other times of prosperity and abundance. Meanwhile, since long ago there's a vineyard where before there was the first floor pavement or the oak wooden ceilings; an interior vineyard like the garden of a convent cloister.
Today it is just one more real estate product commercialized by an international business network: local products in global commerce, like it is common in almost everything. In this case, what would be for some the disgrace of a ruin, for others is the charm of the ruin itself. The theme is not from the present.  Since the aesthetics of the antiquity, disposals were produced and fed in European Renaissance, until the Romanticism (that amplified its senses and poetics), and the ruin kept its museum patina and aura of sacralised things. It’s difficult not to feel a certain nostalgia, the same that is able to feed the interest and raise of cost of this and other ruins. Greater than the loss, is the conscience of the loss that truly matters.

The Voo do Arado [Flight of the Plough] is the name of a 1996 exhibition at the Museu Nacional de Etnologia [National Museum of Ethnology] and also an indispensable book to understand the fading out of traditional agriculture in Portugal from the 1950's decade. (1)
Transmuted to a condition of flying object or decorative adornment of padiment of the entry of the house, the plough jumps from reality and from the museum to the ready-made world and the symbolic programs of architecture and domestic space. With the , plough an object that constitutes a strong symbol of the civilization process itself, everything that comes from arts and crafts of agriculture – wheels, cars, millstones, jars, pipes, barrels, granaries, etc – converts into an object whose symbolic record unfolds simultaneously into relic, exorcism, identity, memory,...

How it is beautiful my village
It is so beautiful my village, the place where I was born
Under the light of a candle, I remember the land where I lived in
It is so beautiful the dawn, the sun falls on the farms
There you couldn't live, today you cry that loss
In the Holy Mary time, when the bells are ringing
It has arrived the end of the day, our people will pray
At that time of joy, soon we prepare the meal
At the Holy Mary it is beautiful my village
Oh olive trees garden, guard your beautiful wheat fields
You're the true hope, you're my parents land
It is so beautiful the dawn, the sun falls on the farms
There you couldn't live, today you cry that loss
In the Holy Mary time, when the bells are ringing
It has arrived the end of the day, our people will pray
At that time of joy, soon we prepare the meal
At the Holy Mary it is beautiful my village (2)

This thing of an art of the field and of a field of art has plenty to be said: without understanding the field of art we don't understand art, or the field, or anything else (3). Bourdieu says that the field of art is like any other social field, a private arena where each one plays the game rules to stand a position face to face to the players that legitimise the authority from who are the artists, the arts and the properties of  those symbolic goods. Marcel Duchamp knew about the iconoclast weight of his Fountain, refused by the Independent Salon, 1917, New York; to increase its (counter)power at the Salon, he plotted with a wealthy friend of his to offer a good amount of money by the Fountaine of Richard Mutt (the company that produced the urinal). It was just the beginning of a long story about art and its narrative power, for those who see and for those who give to be seen. ‘Is it possible to do works that aren't art?’ questioned Marcel of the fields [Marcel Duchamp] while installing this readymade train of troughs to some meanwhile mad cows.

“It is urgent to help the villages – tomorrow it will be late, tomorrow we'll have railroads, the disordered invasion of new ideas, the new uses and habits; tomorrow there will be fashion (…), obliteration of pure kinds, ruin of homemade industries, pottery, textiles, embroideries and canvas, kept with some much care”. (4)
It is urgent to help the villages is an expression that could be from our present days, in the set of many nostalgics that don't see in the villages the old typical villages that they still think that exist. Some locals – those who live in villages but are not any more real villagers in the real sense of the word –, build these miniature replicas of their own churches and chapels. It is not to override the loss feeling of the real chapel; it is to recharge and celebrate the existence of the chapel itself; to highlight its feeling of identity and self-esteem; to detach from the reality that which is beyond that reality. It's like this, sacred things.

From my village I see how much from the land that can be seen from the Universe...
So my village is as big as any other,
Because I have the size of what I see
And not my height...

In the cities life is smaller
Than here in my hillside house.
In the city the big houses close down their view,
Hide the horizon, push our look far away of all heaven,
Make us small because they take us what our eyes can give,
And make us poor because our only wealth is to see. (5)
1 – J. Pais Brito; Oliveira Baptista; Benjamim Enes Pereira org. (1996), O Voo do Arado, Museu Nacional de Etnologia, Instituto Português de Museus, Lisboa
2 – Roberto Leal, Canto a Portugal, 2003.
3 – José Olaio Correia Carvalho, O Campo da Arte segundo Marcel Duchamp, Departamento de Arquitectura da Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade de Coimbra, Coimbra, 1999. Pierre Bourdieu, La production de la croyance. Contribution à une économie des biens symboliques, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n° 13, 1977, p. 3-43. Pierre Bourdieu, Les règles de l’art : genèse et structure du champ littéraire, Ed. du Seuil, Paris, 1992. J-François Lyotard, Les Transformateurs Duchamp, Ed. Galilée, Paris, 1977.
4 – Joaquim de Vasconcelos, 1882, cit. Em J. Leal, Metamorfoses da arte popular: Joaquim de Vasconcelos, Vergílio Gomes e Ernesto de Sousa, Etnográfica, Vol. VI (2), 2002, pp.251-280, p.261.
5 - Alberto Caeiro, s/d, O Guardador de Rebanhos. In Poemas de Alberto Caeiro. Fernando Pessoa. (Nota explicativa e notas de João Gaspar Simões e Luiz de Montalvor.) Lisboa: Ática, 1946 (10ª ed. 1993), 32.
Álvaro Domingues (Melgaço, 1959) is a geographer and Professor at Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto (FAUP).
Photos taken by the author