Well, we’ve nearly made it through the first two months of the Roaring Twenties, even though it was touch and go sometimes. From swarms of locusts to a virus of plague-like proportions, from monstrous storms churning across the northern Atlantic to catastrophic fires in Australia, from earthquakes to volcanoes to floods – it seems that every day brings some new menace, some biblical pestilence raising its ugly head somewhere in the world.
Indeed, there is so much of the news cycle given over to these catastrophes that nobody seems to have noticed that over 800,000 people have been displaced from their homes by the latest carnage in northern Syria; that the World Bank projects there will be an additional two million Venezuelan refugees and migrants between October 2019 and December 2020; that the western Pacific islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and others are rapidly being inundated by rising sea levels.
And it’s still February!
In the face of such a maelstrom of chaos, what is one to do? Some say that we must make sure we are properly informed, that we should turn our attention levels “up to 11” [thank you, Spinal Tap], that we should seek multiple perspectives and cross-correlate what we are reading. There is less chance, perhaps, of us being taken in by ‘fake news’ if we are subscribing to the CBC, CTV, BBC, Sky News, CNN, and Al Jazeera, to name a few, than if we simply relied on one source. Some go further and suggest we also sign up for Fox News and CCTV, for the sake of balance, but personally I think that would be too much information altogether.
And when it comes right down to it, how will being more aware stop the storms, the fires, the locusts, the waves of refugees fleeing conflict and catastrophe? How will knowing the various political influences and machinations of the world stop the manic behaviours of those for whom power is absolute? It won’t, really.
The only answer, I believe, is to run away. My first thought was to go to my garden and hide in the studio-shed, but the wind was howling, and my snowshoes kept breaking through the top layer of crusty snow, plunging me down through two feet (60 cms) of powder to the next ice-layer. So, I went with my second thought, and I am writing this blog from the Douro valley in northern Portugal.
It’s my first time in Portugal and I must say that it is a most interesting country. We’re staying in a small town called Peso de Regua, which gives us access to most of the wine country of the Douro, an area which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The scenery is stunning, vast terraces carved into the hills, olive groves marking the edges of vineyards or in designated fields. I hadn’t realized that the olives are kept separate from the vines because the olive leaves leach a fatty residue into the soil as they decompose, and the grapes react badly to this compound. I also didn’t know that although the Romans produced wines here, and the valley was the primary source for port wines from the sixteenth century until the present day, the ‘modern’ red and white table wine industry is only about 30 years old. We’ve been to various Quinta, the estates where the grapes are grown, and have learned an amazing amount about port, table wines, and olive oils. I’m not sure how useful this knowledge will be, except to bore people at dinner tables. Be warned!
Even in this quiet little valley, though, the issues I mentioned in the first paragraph are top of mind. People are worried at how dry and sunny it has been, so early in the year – there should be rain through March but instead the cherry blossoms are already out. There is a concern that there might be fires again, as there were a few years ago, when even the grapes which survived were ruined because of smoke damage contaminating the juice.
The growing number of tourists is impacting the cost of living, especially as people buy property and establish holiday homes. Labour shortages develop as young people travel to France, Germany and the UK for work, leaving labour-intensive industries like grape harvesting having to recruit from transient or senior populations. Apartments which used to provide affordable housing to low-income workers are now being upgraded and turned into short-term holiday rentals. In the bigger cities like Porto and Lisbon these issues are of even greater concern, with municipalities imposing tourist taxes to try to mitigate against the overcrowding and residential outmigration experienced by Barcelona and Venice.
We’ve been told that food prices are rising as production and transportation costs increase. Portugal is known for its seafood, and there is an astonishing array of fresh fish at the supermarket. But we have heard that there is not the quantity or the variety that there used to be, and that new species are being caught in what were traditional fishing grounds for cod, mackerel, and hake. Today at the store I saw something called the Black Scabbardfish, Aphanopus carbo, a metre-long black fish with fang-like teeth that apparently is found in deeper waters (200 to 2000 metres) in the eastern Atlantic. However, when I looked it up, I discovered that its range is moving north and west, and it can now be found off Canada and even into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. According to Robins et al., 1991, this is an “important and fabled food fish in Madeira”. One wonders how it would go down in Charlottetown.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the prevalence of single-use plastic bags. They are everywhere. On Prince Edward Island these have been banned, and plastic wrapping of any kind is discouraged. Many Island shoppers take their own refillable containers to the store, and all take their own carrier bags. Any plastic that is acquired is immediately separated for recycling, as are bottles, cans, jars, newspapers, cardboard, and so on. Here, everything gets tossed into a black plastic bag and, presumably, taken to a landfill. There are a few recycling bins on some street corners, but not many, and certainly not enough to make a difference. We have accumulated a drawer full of plastic bags and hope to find an elusive bin before we leave.
Portugal has proven a fine haven from the storms and madnesses of the new decade, but it is not a new Eden. It has its own issues, its own crises to manage, and it must learn to function in our rapidly changing world. As must we all. Like all havens, the Douro valley will soon banish us from its heart. It will be time to return home, to get the grow-lights mounted, and to start planting the seeds that will be transplanted to my garden once the snow has gone. By the time May comes around, hopefully I shall have a new haven in which to hide.