HERD ABOUT IT?
by Ana Grarian
I picked up a copy of “Small Memories” by Jose’ Saramago. A slender, hard cover volume with a muted depiction of old fashioned hayricks, and in the foggy background, perhaps a house of sorts. Saramago begins with a description of the beginnings of his village, it’s place in history and in the landscape, and then this beautiful description of his placement within that landscape.
“I came into the world and it was from here, when I was not yet two years old, that my parents, migrants driven by necessity, carried me off to Lisbon and to other ways of feeling, thinking and living, as if my having been born in the village were merely the result of some mistake made by chance, some momentary lapse on the part of destiny, a lapse for which destiny still had the power to make amends. This proved not to be the case. The child, unnoticed, had already put out tendrils and sent down roots, and there had been time for that tender child-seed to place his tiny, unsteady feet on the muddy ground and to receive from it the indelible mark of the earth, …….. Only I knew, without knowing I did, that on the illegible pages of destiny and in the blind meanderings of chance it had been written that I would one day return to Azinhaga to finish being born.”
Whisked off by his parents to the city, where they can make “a better life”, Saramago returns again and again to his roots in Azinhaga, which some inclination of fate, has given him the eyes to see, and the heart to value.
The dust jacket reads; “the formation of a man and an artist who emerged, against all odds, as one of the world’s most respected writers.” Ah yes, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The true odds not being that someone from this rural, money poor town, could have something useful to say, and a way of saying it, but that the world would notice and take heed.
Saramago goes on to describe the two rivers that define the life of the town; the Almonda that runs beside it, and the Tejo, unseen behind a wall of trees, that brings the floods. His landscape is dominated by olive groves, ancient trees that have seen the lifetimes of many men come and go, and could live to see many more, and then there is this….
” A few years ago, acres and acres of land planted with olive trees were ruthlessly cleared, hundreds of thousands of trees were cut down, ripped from the deep soil, or else the old roots of trees that had given light to lamps and flavor to stews were left to rot. The landowners, most of them owners of vast estates, were paid by the European Union per tree uprooted, and now, in place of the mysterious and vaguely troubling olive groves of my childhood and adolescence, in place of the gnarled trunks covered in moss and lichen and full of holes in which the lizards could hide, in place of the canopies of branches laden with black olives and with birds, what we see is one enormous, monotonous, unending field of hybrid corn.”
Saramago does not lay claim to the same anger, frustration and dismay that this passage brings to my mind. He was after all a child at the time (1930’s?) and did not see the landscape from the informed mind of the adult who wrote the passage, but the child who simply lived within it.
This brings to mind my adolescence when the impinging influx of families brought by a combination of the baby boom, more bridges, better cars and *gasp* civil rights, filled the old pastures, orchards and forests of my childhood with a monoculture of three bedroom cape cods with attached garage on a cul-de-sac, and of course the requisite strip malls and highways. I must have been in the 8th or 9th grade when I threw a hissy fit because the woods with the little dirt lane, that had one time been a part of our property, would now sprout more look alike homes and a paved roadway. The problem being that I threw the fit in front of my mother, and a neighbor, one of the inhabitants of said ticky-tacky.
The town Saramago writes about is Azinhaga, whose name is derived from the Arabic word for “narrow street”, but in Saramgo’s memory is more of a path, a shortcut to where you want to go. What paths inhabit your memory? Isn’t it interesting that today we think of path almost exclusively in a metaphorical sense, of college, trade school or grad school, technical, or professional?
For me, there was that path, or narrow lane, that led off from the end of our road, at the junction with our driveway, to a forested pasture, at the entrance to the larger woods. Another path led from our back yard, past ancient farm implements to the large shed, filled with parts and hardware, where my Grandfather sat and reminisced about younger days, and then meandered into the woods where my father and brother cut the wood that warmed our house in winter. And another, that cut off in the opposite direction and cut the walk to school in half, safer, and much more interesting.
It is the paths in life that sustain me, the immersion in trees that shut out the wretched noise and stink of the highway, an envelope of blessed green in spring, an uproarious yellow/orange/red in fall, and the snow cushioned silence of a black and white winter.