The tapir head was an ox
About moving mountains
Mountains can be living, mysterious entities. They can also be conquered, pulverized, and turned into mining waste.
The mountain was bigger.
So many dead mounting up,
time gnawing the dead.
“Viagem na Família”, Carlos Drummond de Andrade
“One never quite knows the mountain,” writes Nan Shepherd, an author who spent a lifetime walking the Cairngorm mountains, in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. In intense descriptions, she conveys thoroughly the shifting corporeity of the mountains. Her localist writing is what captivates us, but it is the plutonic precision of the mountain that allures us. Some kind of oracular device present in the rocks enables strange recesses in the senses. “These moments come unpredictably,” she says, “yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood.”
During the first two centuries of the Portuguese invasion, settlers concentrated mainly along the coast. The natural barrier raised by the Serra do Mar, a mountain range that runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Brazil, prevented colonial expansion into the hinterlands. In a way, the 800 to 1,000 meter high wall did not only hide the inlands of this already hard-to-tame colony. It also concealed the fears of the Portuguese crown of not finding the limitless treasures of gold that the other side of the continent – emptied violently at the hands of Spanish settlers – seemed to offer. Two centuries into the project of colonization, cartographic investigations of Brazil could still draw only the unchartable.
In a map from 1640, John Blaeu portrays a coast full of topographical seizures, names of places supposedly domesticated by the crown. The hinterlands, on the other hand, contain no more than a few mountain ranges, some rivers, and vague – and rather unlikely – ethnonyms of indigenous peoples. These were the mysteries that the interior promised: the rocks, the waters, and the native population, the three greatest unknowns of that land. No wonder that other maps, such as the 1681 Atlantic Chart by the Portuguese cartographer João Teixeira de Albernaz II, presents nothing but a cartographic void. The inlands are a blank space between two large waterways, designating the effort to demystify the unfamiliar by erasing it.
When did people start planting flags on mountain summits? In Mountains of the Mind, British writer Robert MacFarlane tells us that the interest in climbing dates back not much more than 300 years. Once a space of supernatural accesses and presences, the mountain was a hindered landscape. Until the last decades of the 1700s, he says, the motto was to go around the mountains, “along their flanks or between them if absolutely necessary – as many merchants, soldiers, pilgrims and missionaries had to – but certainly not up them.”
From the 18th century onwards – in line with the romantic idea embedded in European nature walking – mountains came to figure as spaces of contemplation, visitation, and exploration. Summiteers climbed mountains for entertainment, seeking the sensual gratification of mobile ascent. At the top, they earned a reward for their efforts: the landscape, the immensity, and the promise of greater risks.
In colonial Brazil, it was in the hinterlands that Indigenous and Black peoples fleeing from the slavery regime took refuge. If they did not hide from the foremen who traveled intentionally to capture or kill them, they fled from the demographic pressure caused by the arrival of yet other peoples, who did not inhabit the area earlier but who now moved in search of safer territories.
The flight was in itself an act of resistance, and the escape route was the mountains. In their hideouts, on their forgotten sides, quilombos sprouted and Indigenous peoples adapted to the ever-diminishing space for their self-governing practices.
“All those vast, and numerous mountains are heaps of gold, and of precious metals,” José Rodrigues de Abreu said in 1739 about the mountain ranges of the interior of Brazil. Reports such as these were continually coming from the settlers’ incursions into the southeast backlands, which had the sole purpose of providing the crown with “good reasons” for the internal expansion.
The sentiment triggered by these travels was twofold. The pioneers were both threatened and fascinated by the natives of the land. Only with their support – their knowledge of the territory, their technology of trails, their acclimatized hunting manual, and their skills for not becoming the game themselves – could the so-called pioneers penetrate the interior. It was the natives who supplied the crown with information about the metal-rich mountains, whose frugal names wound up being part of the invaders’ language in the Tupi-Guarani vocabulary itself. Sabarabuçu, Itaverava, Ibituruna were probably never intended to function as toponyms; they were contextual and transient descriptions, proper to each Indigenous subgroup, of a “big shining rock,” a “bright mountain,” a “black hill.” Many were the bright mountains. It was the mad search for ore that ended up gluing the myriad itaverava to only one specific mountain, at whose feet a city named Itabira was born.
In any case, that beguiling friendship could not last. Those who provided the trails were the same “gentios bravos,” untamed natives who, in the aftermath, had to be wiped out, concretely or culturally. Only then could the invaders occupy the territory without fear.
“Something moves between me and it,” writes Nan Shepherd. Over the years, her long walks through the Cairngorms began to satisfy not her desire to know the mountains but to unknow them. The sensory effects resulting from her relationship with them – “each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness” – allowed her to magnify the mountains not in order to zoom in and make them decipherable, but rather in order to alter herself and the mountains in one single act. She moved her eyes over the face of these immobile giants, she changed the focus from the largescale to the miniature, she bewildered herself in the contrast between the mountains’ shiny walls and their dark cuts. Thereby, she enacted a perceptual change, as well as a concrete one. “Static things,” she states, “may be caught in the very act of becoming.”
The attention to a mountain reveals an animated flux. Look at it. Look at the mountain’s variable nodes and you might see it everywhere, the tapir head. Let your eyes rest, behold the vast space that fills the corner of your eyes. You will see its jaws, the muscles on its nose, the impulse of its eyes like a double-sided vulto spying on you as you pass by.
Yet you can’t control it. Look at it with greedy eyes and it will disappear. That’s what a tapir does, it seduces you, but once you try to seize it, it disappears. In its place, all you can see is the dirty ground, the shapeless earth, and, on it, the carcass of a headless ox.
The reward-imagination of the mountain echoes a way of thinking. What the summiteer longs for is ascension. Once the mountain became a romantic hiking trail, it also became a symbolic watchtower. It is a space of supreme knowledge. Climb it, your reward is the landscape – the possibility of all seeing, of all grasping, of mastering the whole.
Plant a flag. Then, once it’s yours, you can start mining it.
It was a milestone for the Portuguese settlement, yet only a continuation of the disaster for the Indigenous and Black populations who took refuge in the hinterlands of the southern region of the country. The concrete news of minerals hidden in the mountains at the beginning of the 18th century led to the establishment of the first villages far from the coast, in the state sardonically named Minas Gerais, the general mines.
The ruthless extraction of gold shaped the urban outline and social stratigraphy of the region, but it was only after gold’s depletion that eyes turned to the valleys around the city of Itabira. Already in 1720, the area at the foot of a “bright mountain” had delivered its scarce alluvial gold to the Farias de Albernaz brothers – they were the first to build a chapel there, fringing it with a couple of settlers’ houses. Two centuries later, in 1910, the discovery of iron deposits in Minas Gerais was announced at the XI International Congress of Geology, in Stockholm, launching the speculation around the state’s mining lands by foreign investors.
Itabira’s mountain had since long received a new name, the Cauê Peak. Now the world ore maps placed it at the northwestern tip of a strangely geometric arrangement – called the Iron Quadrangle – one of the most lucrative mineral provinces in Brazil, stretching over some 7,000 km.2 Over a little more than a century, the topography of this cartographic square has been flattening out.
“Our first view of the world,” wrote the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade about the Cauê Peak. He also described it as “unconscious, calm.” Commenting on the poet’s imagery, José Miguel Wisnik says that the peak was a “magnetic place of original fantasy;” it was a saturnine presence “from whose interior it was impossible to leave.”
At the mountain’s feet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born, my grandmother was born, countless beings were born until the ore started to bare it from the inside. Of this Cambrian mountain of a thousand names, the only one left is the one given to it by those who handed it to mining. The name is now a void. The Cauê Peak is a crater, the exact opposite of a mountain.
The Cauê Peak is only one of many mountains in Minas Gerais devoured by mining. Or rather, displaced.
Sorted of the elements deemed precious by those who exploit them, the waste resulting from the mountains was initially abandoned in open and exposed areas, eventually silting up the riverbeds of the Rio Doce and Rio das Velhas basins. Later, when the environmental legislation was revised, the destination changed: crushed and melted down with toxic chemicals, the mountains now accumulate in the hundreds of tailings dams that infect the region.
In 2015, one of those dams collapsed in the city of Mariana, in Samarco’s mine. Only four years later, another dam, run by Vale, broke down in the municipality of Brumadinho. The mud of mine tailings that flooded from these two disasters caused human and non-human deaths, displaced communities, impacted river and sea systems, and spread toxic metal trails through nearly 50 cities situated along the arteries of the river basins. The cases were particularly devastating; but over the past 20 years, at least seven more such events have taken place.
Many still call the disasters an accident. Many still overlook the fact that, among the 790 tailings dams existing in Brazil today, over 200 were classified as having a “high potential for damage”: just like the ones in Mariana and Brumadinho, they are located upriver, in particularly populated areas, and pose a high risk to the environment. Many also ignore that, according to the evaluations at the time, both dams had guaranteed stability and updated safety control measures, presenting “low risk of rupture.” Today, 45 of the total are assessed as having a “high risk.”
Mining waste: what a sad name for a mountain.
And then, after everything has been dug up, on the plain, all that is left is to settle a cattle farm.
Cabeça de anta era boi (the tapir head was an ox) is a series made by the visual artist Flavia Regaldo. A result of the encounter between a dream with a tapir head and the construction and collapse of an artistic partnership of many years, they are part of a work in progress portraying the mountains of Minas Gerais, her homeland, and Portugal, where she currently lives. The tapir head comes from a shared dream between the artist and her former partner. She dreamt it, he dreamt it, or one of them just absorbed the dream. It doesn’t matter.
Cabeça de anta era boi is composed of Flavia’s etchings, which reinterpret the artist’s dream in light of her change of continent, as well as an objective (perhaps never to be accomplished) to request her former partner’s version of the dream. The images featured here are taken from mountains on the Portuguese coast. Camila’s text was inspired by the series.