Then & Now

The pillars of Hercules are the ancient gates of the Mediterranean. Carthaginian sailors coming out into the south Atlantic would watch them fade just before arriving at the Cadiz gulf, turning right into the Guadiana delta. They would come to trade in olive oil, dried fruits,

wine, copper and iron. The river was their way to get inland and cross the difficult and dangerous highlands. 

 

Being the place of the first Mediterranean doors it was an obvious place for traders, farmers, dwellers and scholars to gather and conduct their business, be it trading products, exchanging knowledge, practices and eventually some stayed in an attempt to conquer and rule. Roman, Muslim and northern Europeans gathered to bask in and profit from the rich, lush and fertile nature of the land. When the first Portuguese monarch King Alphonse I decided to advance south he was just one among many that preceded him. The municipalities of Silves and Mértola during the XII century were thriving with trade and activity, scholars covering areas such as astrology, mathematics, poetry, music and philosophy. Unlike the rest of Europe at the time, there was much tolerance between different religions. However, the pursuit of wealth and control saw the occasional death and plunder to conquer or make disappear independent voices like Ibn-Qasi, sufi master & opposition political leader. Local people, hardened by centuries of occupation and resistance (Caesar’s most beloved generals came from campaigns in Iberia after dealing with the untamed Tartessic people), spoke at least two different languages and were used to dealing with a stream of invaders, traders and created the environment for exchange.

The River Guadiana (nowadays a natural border between Portugal and Spain) was the first door in the east; the west of Al-gharb (Algarve) was the most western point of the known world, a sacred place full with circular stone formations, wind and echoes of the eternal cycle of life and death coming along every day at sunset and dawn. Today that place is called Sagres, a derivation from the latin promontorium sacrum or simply the sacred cliffs. A fortress was built overseeing the continuous lines of surf arriving to shore and now heard through the installation of Pancho Guedes "voice of the sea". Flocks of cattle and their herders would roam alongside with Henry the Navigator crowd, learning eagerly with the sailors coming from the Mediterranean, their tools and knowledge a priceless gift that allowed Portugal to expand quickly towards the Atlantic throughout the XIV century.

 

In current days Algarve richness is still here, it is still heard although less visible to the unseeing eyes. Having a semi-tropical climate where Mediterranean meets Atlantic, there is a unique range of biodiversity, fauna, flora, gastronomy, practices & craftsmanships that connect directly with long gone traditions, either from the invaders and more important, coming from the ones who were always here. Their main enemy is called human greed. Having such a regarded climate meant there was profit to make leading to all sorts of environmental, cultural and landscape atrocities. The cement years during the 80´s and 90´s literally buried several coastal villages. With little ability to resist dodgy politics and the egocentric decisions of a few, who had little respect for history, environment, culture, millennial practices and the fate of the ones who lived there severely altered much of the costal landscape forever.  

 

Algarve is nowadays a multicultural cosmopolitan region full of oddities. During winter it’s void and most part of what it houses closed. Retired Dutch, German and other north Europeans stroll around in deep contrast with an impoverished local population where most young people flee, looking for education and jobs elsewhere, sometimes never to come back. Unemployment rates are huge and most work is seasonal and related with tourism. For most of the people I know, Portuguese included, only remember Algarve when it’s summer, never imagining that behind its sandy shores lay all these things I’ve been mentioning. In most parts of Portuguese school books the references to Algarve history are full of misconceptions and dogma. The horde of summer tourists never imagine that during winter the land is green and full of blossoming flowers, that there are old men harvesting salt and salt flowers in artisanal methods, pruning the fig trees that produce the first figs in Europe, and working on the land in what we now call organic methods. It’s been inbred since the dawns of time. 

 

Resilience is a word that is well understood here. Without it how to endure the relentless harshness of sun, drought, stupidity of man, jobless and hopeless future, plagues like low quality fish & ships tourism? How to endure the ignorance and blindsided vision of many that still consider Algarve as a holiday resort that can be “colonised” for a short period of time – in a vague kind of way of people dreaming with sunny holidays, where inhabitants become part of that dreamed world but cut from the postcards. But things are changing with significant contributions from foreign and national artists, farmers, chefs, historians, designers, inhabitants and mainly practices that understand the thin balance between land and people. Practices that understand the value of sustainability for men and land, that have a full time vision of labour and the importance of local economy. All these examples are creating dots of good practices where more and more people with the same awareness are starting to gather, to learn, share, produce. The dream that lead to the Beekeepers included this vision of working together towards a common good, a place where dreams jump into reality. Years ago I sat in a studio room in London with mates and fellow practitioners and talked of becoming. Collaboration without ego or hierarchy, done towards a common and individual good, where there is no need to set boundaries into possibilities, gatherings or alone time - or where the only validity comes from money. Creation speaks the same thunderous language as nature. Now that we have created the conditions for other people to come and live this land with us, this biodiversity, unseen places, tastes and odours that open doors towards awareness of oneself and the world around.

 

When I first saw the derelict ruin where I now live, I thought that there was a place that I’ve always lived without ever being here. The possibility to start again, from the roots, echoes and practices of the past, to act on the present with the confidence and tools of what can happen when we, humans, decide to act towards our beliefs. In this personal process of remembering and acting that happened since I’ve lived here, I sometimes feel in front of mystery - flames lighting darkness with primeval paint in hand, landing in the rugged surface of a cave. Collaboration means that there is a us in the several I's and here we are, being part, reminders of the secrets of the hive, allowing it to function and produce multi shaped honey. The Beekeepers are, for myself, a manifestation of that human mystery, loch ness tail at the water surface, the moment of scream and silent, shared by all, enriched by all with their different métiers, tools, interpretations.

 

It is happening, and it is now.

 

By Pedro Leitao