Sunday, 11 January 2009

Echoes of watermills

Time to head south: Viana do Castelo, quite a nice Port town nestled between the sea and the mouth of the river Lima. I wanted to dig through an old register of watermills in Monção county, where we live. For some reason it’s held there, and bizarrely, nobody in Monção’s council has any idea how many watermills lie within their reach, how many are functional nor what potential exists for their rehabilitation

Actually, this is what I am supposed to be doing my thesis on – to complete my masters in something to do with environment and energy studies (a completion that I could have submitted 1 year ago, but have dragged out, changed twice, dithered plenty until finally resolving to focus on something related to our new home in the river valleys of Northern Portugal.

We have a little mill on our property too, so there’s some self-interest going on there. But what I really want to know is can these old mills feasibly be adapted into mini hydroelectric generators ? And what other enticing service could they deliver if the river’s energy could be borrowed again: a potters wheel comes to mind, a sharpening stone for your axe, a sanding block, a press for local olives?

They were originally built – in serious numbers – to grind corn and grain, to cut wood or to thrash some kind of plant into linen (I heard about this one only recently). In other words, a shortcut for really boring manual labour.

Using the energy embodied in falling water has been used for centuries, millennia in fact. The earliest record of people doing clever things with water is from Sumerian times (a mega early civilisation between the 6th and 4th millennium BC). It is said that they were the first people to practice year round agriculture (from around 5300 BC – really quite a long time ago). Indeed it was this ability to grow serious amounts of food that meant they could stay in one place, build towns and ‘cities’ and develop some kind of complex society – divisions of labour, a system of organisation, record keeping, writing, laws and all the rest. Sounds amazing, wish I could visit.

Although there isn’t actually any proof they ground corn, it is thought they used a water mill of some kind to raise water, probably for irrigation. A few thousand years later the Greeks must have discovered a discarded Sumerian design pad and they took it to the next level: the water mill. Enthused by this new invention one of their sponsored poets of the time, known as the Antipater of Thessalonica dispatched some inspired counsel:

"Hold back your hand from the mill, you grinding girls; even if the cockcrow heralds the dawn, sleep on. For Demeter has imposed the labours of your hands on the nymphs, who leaping down upon the topmost part of the wheel, rotate its axle; with encircling cogs, it turns the hollow weight of the Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age.”

This guy really was inspired, or maybe already on a higher plane. Sleep on you grinding girls. Use your minds and labour less, lie about and think, philosophise, play. “The Golden Age”. If this is when you are no longer forced to break your back working the land, while machines magic it all for you, then our modern age is golden indeed.

I thought about this and realise that there are fundamental differences in how far we have taken our golden age thing. The Antipater observed the virtually harmless energy capture of falling water – tapping into the world’s hydrological cycle.

Today, in contrast, we extract prehistoric solar energy in the form of oil and gas, from deep underground, and burn it to turn everything, to drive our computers and move our carriages even to make the food we eat – forget about grindstones.

Is our age more golden? This depends on your definition of golden. It has surely enabled us to industrialise our planet, for our population to soar, famines and plagues to be averted, armies to build fiercer weapons that ever before and to build machines that think. But unlike the benign impact of a water mill – burning all that ancient sunlight embodied in fossil fuels is creating an environmental disaster which could extinguish almost all life on earth. Read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees if you feel inclined to know how.
Hardly benign, far from golden.

Here in the Northern Green of Portugal lies a land of rivers and vineyards, dotted with watermills at every river bend. Today, however, you will find no spinning wheel or grinding cogs but plenty of brambles and weeds. The mills lie in ruins. Even getting to them is hard work, for which you need a machete and dragon skin gloves.

How could this be? what a waste I declared to anyone that would listen. Surely they could be of some use these days. I wanted to know how many still exist around this area. After a fair bit of digging and confused conversations in my cringeworthy Portuguese I found the answer – in the regional office of environment and water resources an hour or so away. There I found an old office, staffed mainly by people from another era, sitting around desks and cupboards from the 30s, surprisingly free of the usual computerised networks and blinking screens. I somehow explained my venture and then a lady appeared with a pile of old folders covered in dust – the cadastra – an archive of old records of where the mills exist in Monção, their location names of the owners, and even how many grindstones are registered in each mill. Amazing – and nobody’s looked at them for years, they said. “we thought about creating a digital record” they said “but it never happened”.

No worries. They are perfect like this; museum pieces. Each record comes in two parts: one written by hand – in careful and sometimes beautiful text. The other a typed copy. They date from 1941 to 1945, when somehow Portugal seemed to have avoided the miserable distractions of world wars.

So yesterday was my appointed time to record them. I hadn’t planned for the snowy conditions and of course it was another un-heated building. But carpeted and made of thick stone so not too bad. The power was out in the little study cell I was shown to, but I had enough battery power to keep me going for a while. So I was left alone with these pages of antiquity. Soon enough I discovered that each page had seemingly shrivelled over time to incredible thinness, as if a mere touch would turn them to dust. This also meant that each folder held hundreds upon hundreds of entries. This was going to be a long haul. Hour after hour I turned page after page, finding a rhythm typing in the records, as you can walking an endless hill or chopping logs. Each page a new entry I could copy down. I felt like a professor from an Indiana Jones film, everything around me seemed draped in sepia. Even the names of mill-owners that I dutifully recorded, occasionally one person owned two or three places – the rich guys! Or the Golçalves family, who owned half the mills in a village.

I became entranced by these names. Like a school roll call, Only more exotic, a ships’ crew from a Latin American adventure: Redolfo Alves, Germano José de Almeida, Dr Antonio de Cunha Meneses, Baltazar Rodrigues Chaves. Each page heralded a new character, a dashing hero or lady shrouded in mystery.

Like everywhere, most names seem to have been chosen from a fairly limited, often biblical hat. José, Manuel and António were regulars. Sitting opposite them on the girls’ bench one could find plenty Maria, Rita and Rosas.

But now and again my trance would be enlightened by someone special. Joana Rita Bravo Pereira do Lago de Eça grabbed my attention: The force is strong with this one, I mused. Lago de eça… eço is echo. Lago is lake. So eça could be the feminine echo. Joana’s echo? Joana of the echoing lake … What a name! (was she the child of a complex love triangle involving trapeze artists and musketeers? or did her ancestors claim another name from each foe they vanquished?). What became of her? Where are her descendents now? It was as if by opening the dusty volumes a bit of her echoed past me into another time.

They became my compadres, they occupied my addled mind, projecting images of life in the early 20th century . Gaspar de Sousa I imagine hunchbacked under his sacks of corn, struggling against his rural toils; Baltazar Gonçalves the boistrous mayor; Clementine e Antonio Domingues orphaned siblings, survivors from needless killings perpetrated by departing Napoleonic troops; Carmelinda de Jesus, a warm and honeyed lovely living in her own spirit world.

By closing time I had only got through half the register – around 400 mills. I still can’t believe how many. This is smallish district we’re talking about, less than 20,000 people, and only two main rivers. Yet it seems people built mills on every tiny stream – how resourceful! How inspired.

As I drove home in the frozen twilight I look forward to the next stage of my enquiry: visiting some of these mills, or rather their owners, searching in the living faces for stories of their ancestors, those that passed by my war-time register. And to look upon the ruins of their mills that once brought them a little income, or perhaps a moment of wonder as they imagined echoes of ancient water-nymphs, full of mischief, still falling among the spinning wheels, gracing them with their boundless energy.


Sarah Campbell said...

Well...there you go, thesis done and literaly dusted! Beautiful piece of writing Moona which clearly evokes your day from my windy, Scottish vantage point.
That linen plant you were wondering about is flax by the way. They used the mills here on Lismore (3 that I know of) to turn flax to linen also.
Listen...when you go talking to the people tread lightly, stay open and gracious and keep humble. It's easy to ruffle feathers in these old communities by getting over zealous.

Lots of love


Anonymous said...

Hi, great work and interesting reading...thanks for sharing. We have also come across an ancient horizontel watermill that used to wash hemp...thinking that it was to make paper for a nearby monastary. Trying to find out more about it but haven't found much...that is why I was happy to come across your blog.