Home | Ecology | The Invaders, second part.

The Invaders, second part.

Saturday May 27th, 2023.

Part 2:

Two days later Lenz carried on his hike, taking the scheduled bus to Monchique, in order to climb up to the convent from the village. Half way along he met a guitar player busking by the wayside who stopped him, asking for money. Walking with a slow pace, secure and strong, he placed one foot in front of the other and entered the sparse forest, leaving the musician behind, all of a sudden feeling a little safer again. A few huge trees, smelling of humidity and moss, a view towards the southwest and the cape and the mountain range reaching up and downhill towards the west and north, its peaks standing mighty, serious and quiet in silence, like a dawning dream. Mighty air masses would sometimes rise from the valleys like a golden stream, at other times clouds were surrounding the highest summit of the Fóia mountain and slowly descending down through the forest into the valley, or lowering down and rising up in the rays of sunlight like a flying silvery web. No noise, no movement, no bird, nothing but the sound of the wind blowing across the last eucalyptus plantations flanking the peak, sometimes closer, sometimes further away. That was the summit he wanted to head up to today, and carry on further westwards.

First though he stepped inside the ruins of an ancient monastery where he met a gentleman who wanted to sell him eggs at the entrance. Lenz shooed him away. What was he going to do with raw eggs on his hike? What he wanted to do was visit the large magnolia, the tree that for many hundreds of years had been standing right in the centre of the cloister, surviving all the forest fires. He was reminded of tasting that olive oil the day before. His body had been aching still from climbing Picota, but the olive oil had been a true elixir of life. Over time, nearly all the mills of Monchique had been abandoned. In the last mill in the village however old Oliveira Santos was resisting the zeitgeist. He’d been busy taking delivery of the harvest from the olive suppliers, which he then ground to a pulp between the two big stones, releasing the first watery oil to drop into a steel basin. The press contained round sisal carpets to receive the pulp, and very slowly, the pressed carpets released something like oily water. An ancient centrifuge separated the water from the oil, allowing for new olives to be loaded in to be pulped. Thus it continued, on and on, for weeks on end. After that the suppliers returned and picked up their half share of the virgin olive oil. Up here, the month of November was the time when olive oil was pressed and medronho was mashed. Distilling firewater was good business. The olive oil was delicious. Time stood still.

When he finally stepped out of the ancient walls, the village down below was bathed in bright sunshine, while half the landscape remained in fog. Soon he lost the trail, and up a soft incline found no more trace of footsteps, in a moist pine forest, with the sun cutting out crystals, here and there traces of deer in the soil creeping up the mountains. Wild boar had destroyed one of the terraces. The air was completely still, only a silent breeze, the whoosh of a Bonelli eagle circling overhead, emitting rapt clear low cries to call attention to itself. Then again, silence, and the expanse of trees with their green needles swaying in the deep blue air. After a while Lenz was assailed by a strange feeling, the monotonous vast terraces which he sometimes felt were addressing him with mighty sounds, appeared veiled. He felt a kind of Christmas feeling creeping up on him, at times he felt his mother was about to appear from behind a tree, tall and slender, to tell him that it was her who had provided all this for him. Descending through the portal he saw that a rainbow of rays started surrounding his shadow; he felt as if something had touched his forehead, the creature once again spoke to him. He arrived at the bottom, walked around the monastery, up again, and crossed a street. Did he still believe in God?

Then the forest gobbled him up once more. Steadily he stepped uphill, turning sharply and carrying on, taking a second sharp turn to find himself on the direct path to the summit. Then the forest ended and there was only thicket, coming up to his thighs, full of thorns. Here and there stood a hawthorn bush, gorse was growing along the wayside, one more lone cork oak and plenty of well-trodden path, washed out, with large pebbles and grooves that made it hard for him to walk. The hardly maintained trail was hard work. But he knew the way, walking without consulting his map or heeding the markers lining his path. Soon he heard the first chattering tourists, deliberately giving them a wide berth. He didn’t feel like small-talk. What he was doing was studying nature, counting the trees and their diversity over a ten-metre stretch. Which is where he once again discovered the invaders: thousands of acacias and mimosas, drowning out the last vestiges of native tree species. He had reached the tree line. From here onwards he was counting the rocks and the cows, the sheep and the goats roaming free here, enjoying special status, spreading out everywhere up to the summit. One cow was lying in the sand pit of the playground of Fóia, another was scratching its hide against a children’s slide, while a third was taking a leak. No sign of a shepherd, no herdsman was looking after the animals. Lenz walked around them, attracting curious gazes. Good afternoon to you too. Now he’d completed half of his day’s work he was able to concentrate on the remaining path, leading west past five windmills. The view was breathtaking. The Atlantic to the south and the sea out west gave an idea of the reason why five centuries ago people had left these shores to find out what was waiting behind the horizon. Driven by curiosity, the desire to find something new.

The yearning inside him, the music, the pain, shook him to the core. He felt a deep unnamable ache. Now, a different kind of being, divine twitchy lips bent over him and attached themselves to his own; he carried on walking west, hopped across a mountain brook and found himself alone. Alone! The spring was bubbling, streams broke forth from his eyes, he doubled up inside, his arms and legs were jerking, he felt as if he was about to dissolve, he couldn’t stop; at long last dusk rose inside his soul, he felt a quiet deep pity within, he cried for himself, his head sinking down onto his breast as he sat down under a chestnut tree and fell asleep. The full moon was already visible in the sky in the afternoon, strands of his curly hair dropped across his temples and his face, the tears clinging to his eyelashes were drying on his cheeks, as he sat there, all on his own, and everything was quiet and tranquil and cold, and the moon had been shining all afternoon, hovering seemingly within reach above the mountains.

A signpost confirmed that he still had 3.6 kilometres to go. He passed a paddock where a white horse was grazing, headed once more up to the miradouro, and then back down to Marmelete. He was looking for the council offices and the exhibition where he was planning to learn about distilling medronho. Thus ended his second day of hiking through the mountains of Monchique…

Uwe Heitkamp (62)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123. Translations: Dina Adão, John Elliot, Ruth Correia, Patrícia Lara, Kathleen Becker
Photos: Uwe Heitkamp


Check Also

The Australian acacia conquers Portugal.
The hopelessness of the ICNF’s efforts to rid forests of invasive tree species.

Saturday 20th July 2024. Do you have to love nature to be able to protect …