Tracking Gristmills in Portugal: Retrospection and Reflexivity on Place, Technology, and Change

By Gade, Daniel W. | Journal of Cultural Geography, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Tracking Gristmills in Portugal: Retrospection and Reflexivity on Place, Technology, and Change


Gade, Daniel W., Journal of Cultural Geography


This article discusses changes in Portuguese gristmills driven by wind and water in the context of a personal retrospection on a field project carried out four decades earlier. Into the mid-twentieth century, windmills and two kinds of watermills were still important rural facilities to grind wheat, rye, and maize into flour. By the 1970s, technological change in Portugal had much reduced the number of those still operating; by 2011 most of those mills had ceased. The major exception is the persistence of watermills in the northwestern part of the country where maize cultivation, fondness for maize bread, powerful streams, hamlet settlement, and a conservative frugality converges to keep some mills still working. Nevertheless, they too, can be expected to disappear in the years ahead. Function is one thing; form is another. The Portuguese landscape remains rich in these structures and broadly held sentiment favors their preservation. Reflecting on a past project stimulated thinking about the importance of place in formulating a geographical topic, research as a cultural experience, constraints of fieldwork in the life span of scholars, and the value of critical self-assessment.

Keywords: Portugal; reflexivity; retrospection; technological change; water mills; windmills

Introduction

My aim in this article is to discuss traditional gristmills in Portugal as an example of the belief that, for at least many geographers, adventure in the field starts in the imagination. I also seek to develop the idea that, in the act of formulating knowledge, something is missed: the experiences of the research effort and the larger lessons derived from it. Geographical writing has a long tradition of texts that convey a detached impartiality or emotional neutrality. That authorial reticence has long denied readers insights concerning the motivation for conducting field studies in particular and research projects in general. The motivation to learn firsthand about an element of a cultural landscape and the country in which it was found has benefited from retrospection. The passage of four decades and two additional trips since that initial survey has added to the ability to make sense of the topic, the country in which it was conducted, and what geographers do.

Portugal as a place

In this study, the place propelled interest in the topic. Small in area, Portugal was nevertheless remarkably diverse in its landscapes. The combination of being poor, socially conservative, and with almost half of its population working in agriculture, explained why Portugal was still to some degree a living museum inherited from a pre-industrial past. A folk tradition carried on by people with a peasant worldview held sway outside the cities. No superhighways, shopping centers or sprawl had yet intruded, and since relatively few people owned automobiles, the narrow though paved roads were uncrowded. Only the sunny coastal strip of the Algarve around Faro had substantial concentrations of foreign tourists. At the time, the dictatorship that ruled Portugal manifested an obsession with holding on by military force to its colonial possessions in Africa. Posters all over Lisbon proclaimed the right to overseas empire.

Compared with Portugal of the early twentieth century, much about traditional rural life had disappeared by 1971 (Vasconcelos 1967). Nevertheless, cultural-historical geographers of the Berkeley tradition could salivate about a range of phenomena still extant. In the Serra da Estrela, thousands of ewes moved up and down with the seasons to support the nation's cheese industry; Portugal then was the only European country that produced more cheese from sheep's milk than from cow's milk. Portugal also had a tantalizing linguistic anachronism in Miranda do Douro, a town on the northeastern border with Spain. Most people there continued to communicate among themselves in Mirandes, described by some people as a form of Vulgar Latin and by others as the Leonese dialect once spoken in medieval Spain. …

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