Thursday, 28 February 2013

February 25 – The most beautiful flower of spring

(Ophrys (fusca ssp.) sancti-isidorii )

It has taken some time, but finally the almond trees have come into blossom, at bit later than other years. The result is that the Lesvorian landscape is coloured with tufts of pink-white clouds and I’m amazed to see how many almond trees grow on the island. It’s the best time to count them because these fruit trees are always the first ones to deck their branches with these fragile blossoms. And now the first prune trees are slowly starting to open their flowers with the peach and apricot trees soon to follow.

So what can be done with all those almonds. In the local women’s cooperatives, they make marzipan from them, just like they do with walnuts. I must admit that I take the almonds from the trees near the house; but because nut cracking is so time consuming, I still have bags full of almonds that may never get eaten.

The first flowers of the year however are not from a tree but spurt from the earth long before a new year starts. The first anemones (wind-flowers) begin to show their colourful petals in December. But these flowers are at their best when the almond trees are showing off - a scene that gives you a warm spring feeling.

After these first blossomings, other flowers follow in a quick succession - like blue grape hyacinth, irises, red anemones, dandelions and marigolds and soon you will loose count of what will be next.

However, along with the almond blossoms and the anemones there is another flower that starts pretty early in the year: the wild orchid. These flowers are a bit more modest and if you don’t really look for them it is easy to overlook them. The wild orchid secretly adds it colours to the landscape and is so small that most people will have never seen her that early in the year. On January 31st orchid specialist and photographer Jan van Lent discovered a few Ophrys (fusca ssp.) sancti-isidorii on the island and possibly some Ophrys (fusca ssp.) lindia. Astonished to find them so early he immediately set off for more orchid hunting, resulting in proof that orchids can also be placed amongst the earliest flowers to bloom in spring, along with the anemones and almond blossoms. On February 13th he even found a flowering Himantoglossum robertianum (the Big Roberts orchid), which is considered to be the biggest orchid in Greece.

These names may not conjure up familiar images for people who are not conversant with wild orchids. But when entering this orchid world, a new universe will open because there are many kinds of orchids, divided in families, species and subspecies. A layman might not see the differences in subspecies but the orchid specialist who studies these flowers does and exchanges his findings with other connoisseurs.

Orchids do have something very special that other flowers do not: they still continue to develop new species. It is a flower world in motion that keep the orchid hunters also on the move. Because not only new flowers get a name; there are orchid specialists who even rename some of the species. So when you have just determined which orchid you have found and if you have not read the latest publications you may be driven mad because professor X may be calling the orchid ‘such’ and mister Y will call it ‘so’. Who is the Pope of the orchids?

It sometimes drives Jan van Lent crazy and he wonders why some people have to rename a flower. I mean, you ask for roses and you then get tulips because someone has decided to replace the name of roses by tulips. The orchid world is a strange one with lots of naming and squabbling.

And orchids do get eaten. Their bulbs are unearthed in order to make flour, which is used to make a kind of power-drink named salep. This milky drink used to be consumed in great quantity in times when coffee was still too expensive for many people. Whilst the drink is now forbidden in Europe, in Athens, for example, you may still find street vendors trying to sell this drink. Although it’s not certain that they sell the real orchid-salep or whether they make this with milk and cornstarch, see Jumping Ropes with Fox Testicles Ice Cream.

Wild orchids are protected flowers: do not touch them, just look at them. When you really look for them, you will discover small amazing beauty queens that can be admired only when you really try hard, just like when looking for mushrooms or wild asparagus, other products of nature that you only will find when you really concentrate.

So whether you are already mad for orchids or would like to take a chance that you will come under their spell, spring and early summer on Lesvos offer you the opportunity to see them. They can be found on the island from January until the end of June. In early summer they will mostly be found in the mountains. For more information about orchids on Lesvos see the orchidblog on the website

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

February 17 – Gold fever

(The Mount Ida seen from Lesvos)

Today in Chalkidiki (north of Greece) a group of around forty masked men entered the compound of a goldmine and caused a lot of damage. This aggressive act didn’t just came out of nowhere: for some time the inhabitants of this region have been protesting against the opening of this particular goldmine; it’s called Kouries. The licence to dig was given to Hellas Gold, 95% owned by the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold, the remaining 5% owned by the Greek company Aktor. 

Activists claim that politicians have put the country up for sale and that’s why controversial mining projects like this can happen. Eldorado Gold mainly operates abroad, in third world countries where, on the whole, governments don’t care about the environment and the population welcomes new jobs. So yes, I guess this means that Greece, this southern part of Europe, has become a third world country.

But what’s wrong with digging for the yellow metal? Gold mining not only destroys large spaces of land where all trees have have to be chopped down, but mercury and cyanide are used to separate the gold from other metals and other heavy metals can come free during this process. When these materials seep into the ground water or are released into the air, there can be contamination of natural resources as well as risks for people. Most of these mines are only operational for a certain number of years, thereafter they are abandoned, leaving the local populace with a polluted and destroyed environment. Here is a good article that is oppositional to this gold digging: Why Are Greeks Protesting Canadian Mining Operations?

It could be that Lesvos might get sold out to just such a large company. But for now, the island can count itself lucky that its western part is threatened ‘only’ by a huge Spanish wind mill park that will destroy part of its nature but will not use poisonous matters like mercury or cyanide.

But Lesvos also has to fear the Golden Danger. Turkey is the leading European country for gold mining and most Turkish gold mines are in the west, not too far from Lesvos, like the Pergama-Ovacik Goldmine. Okay, that’s a bit away, but the danger might also come from closer to home: last year the inhabitants of the small village Zeytinli protested against coming gold mines that are proposing to get the gold out of Mount Kaz.

I look out on this huge mountain in Turkey. It is also called Mount Ida. Most of the time in the winter it’s covered with a bright white layer of snow. It’s said that in ancient times the Olympic Gods used the top as a watchtower to follow the Trojan war. The slopes of this mountain descend all the way to the Golf of Edremit, which is opposite Lesvos. The area is also called the Olive Riviera. Just like Lesvos, a lot of people there make their living from the olive trees and they are not happy about the coming of a polluting gold mine industry.

It has been raining a lot on the island and everywhere rivers and small rivulets are looking for a way to find the sea. But not all the water has descended from the mountains. In flat areas you’ll see water rising up: these days the island has hundreds of wells that only work when the heavens have thrown lots and lots of water down, as in this past winter. In many places now you will need rubber boots to keep dry.

Water can be pushed up from an underground water basin; the more water there is in this basin, the more water is pushed up. It is said that the wells of Lesvos are connected with the wells on Mount Ida as they share the same underground basins (I see it as communicating vessels). So here you can see the danger: when the groundwater in Turkey gets polluted through gold mining, the water on Lesvos will  also get contaminated. And even if this communicating-vessel theory is wrong, there remains the danger that the sea between Turkey and Lesvos will get polluted by materials that are used to make the gold shiny.

In ancient times on Lesvos there was mining; in the region of Molyvos silver, zinc and lead were extracted. In Byzantine times there was even gold mining too. If Mount Ida is full of gold, I wonder if there isn’t gold in our Lesviot hills as well (am I  waking a ‘sleeping dog’?).

I don’t want to start a new gold rush, but a few days ago a friend came with a strange story. He found two small nuggets in his woodstove. The question is how this gold came into the stove: is there gold coming up with the water, getting entangled in the roots of the olive trees, that later find their way to his woodstove, or did somebody loose a heavy golden chain or bracelet that then got entangled in the wood and later melted in the wood stove? It’s a fascinating story, also because I have heard the same story about another person who years ago also found a nugget in his woodstove.

So maybe we don’t in fact need those goldmine polluters to find the gold. We just need to let the trees do the job of getting the gold up from the earth. And then we need to start sifting through all the ashes coming from the stove. So for all you fortune hunters: gold not only comes from the mines, but also from the woodstove!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

February 12 - The Tobacco road

(Old steammachine at Milelia)

It is not easy to quit smoking. Especially when living in a country where the authorities have tried in vain to make public buildings and restaurants smoke free and where the people are reputed to be the biggest smokers of Europe.

I suppose this is understandable as tobacco is actually grown in Greece. Even on Lesvos there were once tobacco fields, particularly around Kalloni. Nowadays it’s only the olive groves and the sheep and goat meadows that form the agrarian landscape, whilst in earlier times the fields were more varied. Along with tobacco, pulses, cotton and wheat were grown in large scale, amongst the export products were wine, figs and acorns (for the leather industry). And, to be honest, until the beginning of the twentieth century many more people lived on the island.

It is said that the Italian family Gattilusio, who reigned the island from 1354 to 1462 stimulated the export of wine and olive oil. Presumably before the inhabitants of the island grew those products only for their own usage. When the Turks took over the island the commerce continued to grow on the island and by 1548 taxes had to be paid on wheat, barley, beans, chickpeas and field-beans, sesame, flax and cotton, must and wine, figs, mulberries and almonds, olives, olive oil, honey, pigs and silk.

At the end of the seventeenth century tobacco appeared in the Lesvorian fields, that’s about one century after Christopher Columbus brought the tobacco plant back from South America. It was the Indians in that faraway part of the world who had discovered that smoke from the tobacco plant had pleasant effects and they started to use it for their rituals. The Spanish used it as a cure for sleeping and in 1560 a doctor who travelled through Portugal sent Catharine de Medici some tobacco leaves as a cure for her headaches.

Tobacco first was a medicine, but as soon they learned how to roll cigars with the leaves, tobacco became a stimulant. However, it was cigarettes that made half of the world addicted to tobacco. The very first cigarettes were rolled (and smoked) by soldiers in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Later, in America, a machine that rolled 200 cigarettes a minute was invented and so it started: American soldiers got ammunition and cigarettes to fight in the two World Wars and it was they who introduced cigarettes all over the world.

And so the Greeks started smoking too. And not a little bit! In old Greeks movies you rarely see a hero or heroin without a cigarette in their hand or mouth. Just watch Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, and you really want to start smoking again.

There were tobacco fields aplenty in Greece, producing different kinds of tobacco. But strangely enough, when the cigarettes became so popular in the Fifties the tobacco fields on Lesvos had became more or less empty. People had had enough of the island: there was a crisis, people no longer wanted to work the fields for no money and emigration became a must for many.

In 1913 there were 140.000 inhabitants counted on the island: then the economy was at its zenith thanks to commerce with the East. In 1912 the island was freed from the Turkish, but Mytilini continued to be a lively centre of international commerce. It was only in 1922 when Greece lost the war with Turkey and the Orient closed down to Greek commerce that Lesvos suddenly was in crisis. It must have been chaos then because people left the island in large numbers, but refugees filled the empty places up. In 1940, 135.000 people still lived on the island. Trust in any recovery of industry however was then lost and the number of inhabitants lowered rapidly until in 1981 they numbered only 88.000. In this century the estimated number has been around 90.000, although last year another exodus started due to the new crisis.

So, even before the world finally decided that cigarettes were bad, the tobacco fields of Lesvos had already been abandoned, along with the many other products that disappeared from the export list. The island now mainly lives from the byproducts of sheep, goats and olive trees. There is a small export of ouzo and the only new thing is tourism, which is good for a small part of the income of Lesvos.

I wonder where those entrepreneurs who made Lesvos rich have gone. Around 1900 the island was so prosperous that it invested big in steam machines: in 1888 12 steam driven presses were responsible for 60% of the oil production, the remaining 40% was produced by 190 regular presses. In 1908 113 steam driven olive presses took care of 95% of the oil with 97 presses dealing with the remaining 5%. The only investments nowadays are in solar panels and the windmills for green energy. But I wonder how much profit the island will get from it. I saw that the saltpans of Polichnitos were in production again. But who is going to invest in seaweed or who is going to collect wool in order to export it as insolation material for the building industry?

I would like to have a small field with some tobacco plants. I guess that cigarettes made from homegrown tobacco cannot be that dangerous to the health. But in Greece there is this old and strange law that you are not allowed to smoke your homegrown tobacco. So should I really quit smoking? Sigh.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2013