This is the sixth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
The afforestation of common land in Portugal has recently reemerged as a central pillar in the social and environmental history of fire and wildfires since 1950.1
Aquilino Ribeiro’s When the Wolves Howl [Quando os lobos uivam, 1958]offers insight into this period, and the intersections between governance, fire, and resistance in rural Portugal. The book was written during the fascist dictatorship in Portugal (1926-1974). As many of his other writings, When the Wolves Howl was inspired by Ribeiro’s emotional geography and birthplace: the Lapa and Leomil highlands (Beira Alta, Portugal). The local community from the “Milhafres highlands” is its collective main character. “Milhafres” is a fictional name (the plural form for kite, birds of prey from the gen. Milvus). Village place-names are also fictional, and mostly bizarre, as part of the writer’s strategy to create spatial ambiguity at a time when state censorship threatened the freedom of Portuguese authors. Ribeiro’s work stood in contrast against the idyllic descriptions of rural life favoured by the fascist government.
Both in the real and the imagined landscape, villagers lived around an extensive plateau, here dotted with granitic boulders, there unobstructed and fertile. The territory was freely accessible and used in common by locals, compensating for the scarcity of pastures and firewood. People grew rye or millet small cropped plots in the vastness of the scrubland that characterised Leomil highlands.
Ribeiro followed his fictional character Manuel Louvadeus at a time when a coercive policy of afforestation imposed by the central regime was being locally implemented by the Forestry Service in collusion with municipal authorities. When the Wolves Howl depicted the circumstances triggered by the Afforestation Plan (from 1938 onwards) realised by the so-called Estado Novo, the New State. In fiction, the legal representative of the villagers, a lawyer and activist, asked for information about the commons’ future occupancy in an audience at the town hall:
“The villages cannot agree to the afforestation plan – and they have good and sufficient reasons. What are these reasons? This is the question in which you gentlemen, as officials of a Government service whose duty is to look after the common good, should be interested. My clients want, above all, to know what part of the highlands you’re proposing to take and what part you’re proposing to leave to them…”2
The [Forest Service] agronomist walked toward the drawings on the wall:
“The State says to the villages: I am going to take over a portion of the highlands from you – let us say, fifty to seventy per cent. Where only brush wood grows today, where the sheep come and nibble the buds, where the farmer has to spend an entire day bringing back his cartload – in fifteen years’ time there’ll be pine needles. And you’ll have the brushwood from the thickets as well as all the undergrowth that grows in their shade. Then flocks can go back and graze on the slopes and in the plantations.”3
The people who depended on the land were not satisfied. “In Parada da Santa we use timber from the highlands for fuel,” said a villager, “we haven’t any fields or woods.” “In Corgo das Lontras,” added another one, “all the heather comes from the hills. That’s how we fertilize our fields.”4 Manuel Louvadeus took the floor:
“For all of us, and especially for the poor, the highlands mean that we can make up a bundle of heath and fill up a cart which will be fetched by a friendly and pitying farmer. They mean freedom.”5
Village protests did little to dissuade the state, and its afforestation plan was carried out. A police force was installed in the region to monitor shepherding and wood harvesting activities, repress any protests, sabotage, or resistance to tree plantations, and imprison some of the most confrontational persons or uprising leaders. Manuel was one of them.
Afforestation changed the land:
“fewer lambs and kids were born on the Milhafres highlands, and knees and elbows, threadbare from ancestral poverty, grew more tattered than ever; but the all-powerful absolute State went ahead with its plans. All over the plantation area the pines spouted and grew, and within a few years the valleys and hills were decked with a lovely, even blanked of emerald velvet.”7
Here the story of power became the story of fire. Teotónio, the elder member of Louvadeus family, became a desperate arsonist. His son Manuel was imprisoned after the protests, and his granddaughter Jorgina ran to Lisbon with the local Forest Service representative. His farm, his refugee in the highlands, was expropriated by the State. His dream of building a home in the plateau would never be possible. In reference to the title of the book, he also lost his relationship with the wolves, which were killed by the Forest Service rangers. With the wolves, he lost his soul: “the soul of highlanders (…) were born out of these petrified hills and rough gorges.”8
Teotónio set tree plantations on fire as a revenge, and to slow the afforestation project. Teotónio was not alone: Arson was a common practice:
“The arsonist would come in the dead of night, slithering like a snake, holding his breath, light the bunch of pine needles or dried grass and make off. The fire will only be noticed when it was well under way and the flames were leaping. The practice took root and became widespread. Its authors were many.”9
He rode around the area where the trees grow, lighting small bonfires. The Forest Service:
“refrained from seeking help from the villagers, whom they supposed to be accomplices in the misdeed (…). The fire spread to the entire plateau (…) Milhafres highlands were a frightful sea of flames. The heat was suffocating and the first ashes were already polluting the atmosphere, exhaling poisonous fumes that made it hurt to breathe”10
The mid-20th century State Forests in Portugal have been referred to as “fascist modernist landscapes.” The concept is supported by a strong argument: the fascist land ideology placed intensive environmental management as part of its presence in the territory with detrimental consequences to rural living conditions, natural resources and landscape patterns and processes.11 However, the Lapa and Leomil highlands also became a landscape of power in the mid-20th century.12 As the state imposed changes against peoples’ will, the people turned the landscape back on their oppressors. Fire became a weapon which the people of the imaged Milhafres used to assert sovereignty over the land and Where the Wolves Howl became Ribeiro’s critique of fascist landscape management. The novel When the Wolves Howl became a cultural emblem of rural resistance against the authoritarian regime, which took place throughout the 20th century in various regions of Portugal, and which the State sought to cover up.13
- Project FIREUSES – Burning landscapes: A political and environmental history of the large wildfires in Portugal (1950-2020)” (PTDC/HAR-HIS/4425/2021), of which the author is a team member.
- Aquilino Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl [Quando Os Lobos Uivam, 1958). Traduzido por Patricia McGowan Pinheiro. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963, 40.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 42.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 45.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 47.
- Internal report by Direcção Geral dos Serviços Florestais e Aquícolas, Projecto de Arborização do Perímetro Florestal da Serra de Leomil, (The Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests: Lisbon, Portugal, 1954)(Unpublished).
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 273.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 44.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 246-247.
- Ribeiro, When the Wolves Howl, 282.
- Tiago Saraiva, “Fascist Modernist Landscapes: Wheat, Dams, Forests, and the Making of the Portuguese New State,” Environmental History 21 (2016): 54–75. doi: 10.1093/envhis/emv116.
- “Landscapes of Power” are explored by Sharon Zukin in Landscapes of Power, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
- When published, the novel was banned and the writer was taken to court. In his self-defense, Aquilino Ribeiro said he was not inspired by any occurrence in the place where he was from, and the novel was not intended to incite the acts described. He claimed he was inspired by readings about other situations that took place decades ago in central Portugal. In the end, he was acquitted. A. Caldeira and Diana Andringa, Em defesa de Aquilino Ribeiro. Lisboa, Terramar, 1994.
Ana Isabel Queiroz
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- Landscapes of Power in Aquilino Ribeiro’s When the Wolves Howl - September 14, 2022