BIRDS, CONCHES AND MEN

Atlantis alone knows whether it is in fact only a myth or not. That which is imaginary and fantastic has always afforded Man the opportunity to expand the boundaries of his imagination, it has enabled him to sweeten the dullness of his daily life.

Man has always loved his myths and when for some reason some begin to fade away, new ones soon emerge fused by the power of his boundless imagination for men well know that they cannot long survive without fantasy.

Enjoying the sight of endless rolling waves; enjoying the soothing music of conches; enjoying soft sands and salty waters; enjoying the taste of the sea's delicacies; enjoying the sight of breathtaking landscapes, is not an esoteric desire. It is a need all men have for fantasy and adventure far from the polluted grime-ridden cities which sap his energy but cannot totally extinguish his yearning for a mythical past when he could sail proudly in uncharted waters like a Greek hero.

The legendary Atlantis was produced by fire and love - a violent and passionate love so overwhelming that it reached down into the depths of the earth and could not even by seagulls be seen, only felt. Occasionally the awesome power of this passion still makes itself felt erupting violently and disgorging molten lava into the peaceful valleys of the Azores. Before this passion there was Chaos. Afterwards, Genesis. The hands of the Lord were tired after six days of arduous labor — separating the land from the waters, sculpting Man in his own image and a host of other primeval chores. So exhausting was His task that on the seventh day He took some much needed time off. Busy He was bur not too busy to bless His earth with nine splendorous specks of lava covered with an unending variety of vegetation and wildlife.

Genesis, however, was not as complete an act as it is often made out to be for Man had then to take seeds and cereals to the islands. God had some help along the way. Birds, which abound in the Azores, are recent inhabitants of the islands. One of them - the Açor (goshawk) is supposed to have been responsible for guiding Prince Henry the Navigator's sailors to the rugged shores of the islands. Santa Maria, São Miguel, Terceira, São Jorge, Graciosa, Pico, Faial, Flores and Corvo — so were the islands christened when first sighted. Together they are the Açores (Azores), grateful tribute to the goshawk. The inhabitants, Açorianos.

After having initially explored the islands there was what can only be described as a demographic explosion. All of Europe was astir. This was an adventurous time when new and exotic lands were being discovered by Europe's daring navigators. Ships arrived daily in European harbors carrying silk, spices, Oriental dishes and glittering gems. Let us be silent as to the legality of much of this commerce. What is of true interest to us is the fact that these islands were for many years ports of call for weary seamen, mighty armadas and merchant fleets which traded in and smuggled everything from coffee beans to flax.

This truly frenzied commercial activity took place in the city of Angra, on the island of Terceira more than anywhere else on the islands. Angra became a city of contrasts: both opulence and misery existed side by side. With the eventual collapse of maritime trade, the islands lost the interest they had once had for seafarers. Here we have a great paradox indeed. Now that distant lands had been discovered and linked by maritime routes, now that the world was smaller, the islands grew more distant from the rest of the world.

These are the islands which now, although poor in some respects, are blessed with natural delicacies such as the passion fruit and coffee butter, cheese and beef of the finest variety. From the watery depths around them local fishermen extract a thousand and one different types of fish. It is in these same waters that they hunt that magnificent monster which provided Jonas with the most surrealistic means of transport ever devised. The whale!

A hard-working people, be it in the age-old activity of whaling or in farming, the Açorianos have not only been destined to till the rich soils of the Azores but also to immigrate, to search the continents for a better life. The exodus began with the tropical allure of Brazil. Off they went, their bags packed with little more than dreams and despair and they soon journeyed further to the remaining Americas. Now they are everywhere. Nobody can truly understand these people without doing a great deal of traveling. The Azores are in every ocean.

The islands have however, by no means been abandoned. Although technology has begun to bleach out local color in some areas, we can still find archetypal characters religiously engaged in the same ancestral rites, rooted in a past too distant to pinpoint, that their forefathers practiced.

The distilled essence of many local customs and traditions is undoubtedly the burning desire of every farmer for a bountiful harvest. Festivities in fact, often interrupt the backbreaking grind of country life. The statue of a local saint weighing heavily upon the broad shoulders of sturdy young parishioners, the sight of townsfolk at once taunting and fleeing from a roaming bull during a bull run — these are the festive times on the islands.

But the silence. The bewitching silence. The islands are undoubtedly the very last of monuments to silence. This silence is essential for there must be silence to read the language of Nature. There must be silence to interpret those mysterious mists with great patience, with the patience of a paleographer deciphering ancient scrolls. There must be silence to contemplate warm beams of sunlight shining upon a breaking wave, a moss-covered battlement, a stretch of jagged coastline.

There is silence on the land. There is silence in the sea. Born out of deep feelings of longing for those who have departed this silence is so great that is dwarfs everything else on the islands. It permeates the very soul of the islanders as if they had to bear collective responsibility for some unmentionable crime.

The clouds and the sun cover the meadows with every conceivable shade of green. The blueness of the skies and the depths of the sea add immeasurably to this breathtaking portrait of color and light. Someone is holding the paintbrush. That someone is truly a great artist. He paints with fury and passion.

Let us listen to the murmured prayers. Let us look into the dark eyes of the women. They are tired of weeping and mourning. But looking is not merely a matter of setting your eyes upon the object of our curiosity. It is imagining the emotions that pour forth from it and beg our sympathy. Our task is to penetrate the images on our voyage through the Azores. Each island provides us with an arena of unending images and views whose beauty is not always enough to dilute the harshness of daily island life. Let us awaken our sensibilities and grasp this harshness. Let us attempt to understand the differences between the mythical and the prosaic, between the fantastic and the inconsequential. Before us lie both sides of this unique coin: detached solitude versus singular beauty.

Alamo Oliveira, Angra do Heroismo, March'87