Tuesday, 21 May 2013

May 17 – Dolphin Blues

In the Greek myth that tells how dolphins came into the world, Dionysus, God of amusement and drinking, plays a leading role. He was kidnapped by pirates who thought he was a prince and worth a fortune in ransom. They tied him to the mast and set sail for Turkey, where they hoped to sell their catch. Having no idea who they had on board, they got a big fright upon hearing a flute playing and suddenly seeing grapevines growing up the mast. Then the oars changed into wriggling snakes and their prisoner into a black panther (in other versions of this myth Dionysus changed into a lion). Apparently not having the same courage as Pi (who decided to survive on a small boat with a tiger) they all jumped into the sea. Dionysus took pity and changed all the pirates into dolphins.

And so, even today, dolphins like to swim alongside boats and with their jumping to amuse people. Mythology has plenty of stories where people are saved by dolphins and even now you will hear stories of those saved by these angels of the sea (read here).

This also happened to Arion of Lesvos, who was born around 650 BC in Mytilini and was known for the creation (or refining) of the dithyramb, a hymn sung for yes, indeed - Dionysus. Arion was so famous in his time that he toured the world with his music. Herodotus tells that one day Arion set sail for Corinth after winning a kind of Eurovision song contest on Sicily, and receiving plenty of prizes and gold. The crew decided to rob him of his treasures and to throw him into the sea. In those times the cigarette did not exist so as a last request Arion asked to sing a song. The crew, happy at the prospect of their coming booty, accorded him this wish; Arion took his lute and sang a hymn for Apollo, God of poetry. Happy to hear the song, dolphins gathered around the ship and when the song was finished, Arion jumped into the sea and one dolphin took him on his back and carried him all the way to Corinth.

For lots of people, not living at the seaside and not be able to regularly see dolphins, spotting these animals can be a mythical event. But not all people are amused seeing   dolphins in the waves; because dolphins like to eat fish, just as we all do.

Dolphins are clever animals, so they know when seeing a fishing boat, that fish must be around. They stalk the fishing boats, wait until the nets are thrown into the sea and then play a cat-and-mouse game with the fish who are trying to escape the nets, or they just try to pry out real fat fish from the nets. This is not an easy task; they need all their strength to make holes into the nets. Well, you may have guessed already: fishermen do not always like to see dolphins.

Normally dolphins are like nomads roaming through the seas, looking for fish. Modern studies are showing that more and more dolphins remain in a specific area, for example a group of about two hundred dolphins around Lesvos. They are attracted amongst other things by the fish farms, which for them are like brightly lit shop windows displaying plenty of delicious snacks. When some fish escape, dolphins will feast on them. But they may also have become rather lazy, mucking about in areas where people usually come to catch their fish.

Lots of fishermen are thwarted by the hunting of the dolphins: after a confrontation with these mammals they may need as long as three days to repair their nets (and sometimes the nets cannot be repaired at all). There is also a risk that these jumping fellows get stuck in their nets. In the past when killing dolphins was not forbidden, that was no problem, but nowadays dolphins are protected animals and such a bycatch is not appreciated. Many fishermen also strongly believe causing the death of such a mythical animal can bring you bad luck, so there are fishermen, who upon spotting dolphins, immediately return to the harbour because they are afraid of wounding a dolphin or of having a three day session of net repair.

There are other sides to the tale. Last year the Royal Society Biology Letters published an article about a study of dolphins, in Laguna (South of Brazil), that cooperate with fishermen in order to catch fish: they drive the fish towards the fishermen and signal where and when to drop the nets. The dolphins don’t even gain fish for this service, meaning further research is required to find out why they do it. But it is a fact that makes you wonder.

The are many stories about how governments train dolphins as lethal weapons (Ukraine) or mine detectors (US). Would it not be a better idea to train these big mammals to help the fishermen? - to teach them to swim in front of the boats, looking for fish, instead of behind. It is proven that they are intelligent enough to learn a lot. Are there no dolphin whisperers who can help the fishermen of Lesvos to train dolphins?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Saturday, 11 May 2013

May 9 – My wild cat in the paper

(European wild cat. Photo: Internet)

 Greeks aren’t exactly mad about cats. Nor did the ancient Greeks love them: they used them for hunting mice or as food for their fighting dogs. Even the Greek Gods had no time for them and that is why these soft and furry animals have nearly no role in Greek mythology.

Many centuries ago BC Greeks went to live in Egypt and there they met a totally different House of Gods. As with the Greek Gods there used to be many Egyptian Gods and their family tree was as complicated as that of their Hellenic colleagues. Greeks arriving in Egypt must have wondered about Bastet, the popular goddess pictured as a cat or as a woman with the head of a cat: goddess of fertility and saint protector of the cats. She started her career as a goddess with a lion’s head (but because lions were rather thin on the ground and cats were very popular in Egyptian households) in the course this changed into a cats head.

After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Greeks kept on going to Egypt and when Alexander died, one of his generals from Macedonia took power in 305 BC:
Ptolemaeus I. This was the beginning of a Greek dynasty that only ended with the death of the legendary Cleopatra in 30 BC. During this Greek reign the goddess Bastet gave way to her Greek sister Artemis, who was also a goddess of fertility, but not of cats.

There were other ancient cultures where cats were loved. In a grave from Neolithic times, 9500 BC, they found the remains of a domesticated cat. These house cats originally descended from the wild cats.

Last week the Dutch paper The Volkskrant announced that the wild cat was back in Holland. According to this article the wild cat disappeared from Holland (and from Europe) in the first century and now it suddenly is back.

I have here on the Greek island of Lesvos a garden full of ‘wild’ cats, which are of course not Felis silvestris, the official Latin name for the European wild cat. They are reverted house cats and with a little patience most of them can be easily tamed. In the summer they spread out to the different hotels and holiday houses and in the winter they come back to knock on my door for some food and some drinks.

The changeover of cats around my house is large. A few die on the street because of the fast and increasingly intense summer traffic, some die because of illness and some just disappear (maybe taken by tourists to faraway destinations). In the winter the survivors reappear. A few of them I have known for years but each year there are plenty of newcomers, most of them kittens, often just dumped on the street and they need some time to get used to my dogs and the other cats. But sometimes in the winter new adult cats may also appear. They must be attracted by the loud screaming that welcomes me when I come out of the house with the food for all my animals or they just are attracted to the pussy cats and are hoping for a date with one of the many beauties (who are nearly all sterilized).

With longing eyes they watch the amount of food and in the beginning they are not sure how to mingle into the group of hungry cats that attack the food. Most of these adult cats stay for a while, gain a place at the feeding trough, and after some time you can even caress them. Others disappear after some weeks as unexpectedly as they arrived.

One day a huge big cat appeared, one that I knew already from years of its roaming around our property. That year for some reason he decided that my food was easier than his eternal hunt for mice and he came around at dinner times. I called this enormous cat Ali Baba and it took me months to get him used at my presence. He stayed until one night when there was a big rainfall and I never saw him again. I am still wondering if cats sometimes sleep in a hollow that can be filled up by heavy rains and possibly drown.

However, the article in the Dutch paper about the wild cat returning to the south of the country caught my attention for a different reason: the wild cat in the photograph used to illustrate the article was exactly like the cat that visited my house a little while ago. He came spying on the other cats having dinner, but was so afraid that he only approached the food when I and most of the cats were gone.

Of course it cannot have been the same cat, I mean, he cannot have been travelling as a stowaway with some tourists back to Holland. But he looked so much like the picture that I finally consulted the internet in order to know what the difference is between a wild cat and a domesticated cat. The biggest difference is in the tail. The tail of a wild cat is thick with black rings and a black tip. The nose must be of skin colour and on his back a black stripe starts behind the shoulders.

Since I now know those differences I have inspected all the cats around the house and I am sure they are all wild housecats. But that beautiful grey-brownish cat from a few weeks ago clearly knows when to disappear, because I have not see him since and I suspect he might be a real wild cat. But I cannot remember how its tail was, nor if he had a stripe on his back.

Imagine if I had seen a real Felis silvestris! I should be careful announcing this news in case my garden gets invaded by cat spotters with huge camera’s and binoculars who come to scare the cat away. According to the internet there are still plenty of wild cats in Greece, so he will not be a show case like that poor and lonely wild cat in the south of Holland.

The only thing I know for sure is that this cat might have posed for the photograph that was in the paper, so alike he was, and that he now has disappeared. Just like Ali Baba, who I used to see only in winters, he may have somewhere else, a summerhouse, and I will see him back in autumn. Now that I know what to look for I might be able identify him as a real wild cat and I will call him Silverstar and send a picture to the paper announcing that the wild cat has been back to Lesvos!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2013

Friday, 3 May 2013

April 30 – May first, sorry, May 7th

(Flowers at Profet Illias)

Because the Chinese New Year is so often depicted in the media, most people are aware that the Chinese live by their own calendar; but they are not the only people to do so. Even in Europe there are different calendars. The Orthodox church has never accepted the Gregorian calendar which is used by most of the world; rather it still follows the Julian calendar that was introduced by Julius Caesar. For this reason the Orthodox Easter falls on the same day as catholic Easter only once in four years.

This year Easter in Greece is extremely late: on May fifth. And because the weather is already pretty warm, we might get the hottest Easter ever. This year the Holy Week that is celebrated before Easter could easily be called a Holy Heat Wave Week. It started last Palm Sunday and will end after Good Friday with Holy Saturday.

Yesterday the mercury crept up way above 25 ºC. When I was watering the garden I saw a bird following the water and when the water formed a pool the bird jumped in to have some fun in his little bath. I am no bird watcher and I have no idea what kind of sturdy bird dared to come so close to me and even to challenge the many cats around my house just to enjoy a cooling bath. Its colour was grey like a sparrow, although its plumage looked more silky and finer and he wore a slightly red cap on his head.

Now I regret not having photographed him, as I also regret that last night I did not walk to the beach to take a photograph of the sea that was so flat that the reflections of the coloured lights in Turkey stretched as far as the beach here.

Today, when in Holland a King is crowned, on Lesvos the mercury threatens to rise above 30 ºC. The birdwatchers, now in large numbers on the island, gathering on the roads with their heavy cameras and binoculars hoping to spot a rare bird, won’t be happy with this exceptional hot weather. In Holland there is an expression for when it is really hot weather: the sparrows nearly fall off the roof! 

There are also a certain number of flower lovers on the island. They must be thankful, because the warm weather has coaxed plenty of flowers out of the moist ground: tulips, orchids, wild gladiolus, peonies. Many more flowers seem to have multiplied since last year and some places like the chestnut wood above Agiasos or on the Profet Illias above Parakila (from where the yellow rhododendrons stream down towards the pine woods) are so rich with flowers that you may believe you are in paradise.

These groups of tourists, so occupied with the miraculous scenery of Lesvos, probably do not realise that they are in the midst of the Holy Week ­­– that many Greeks go daily to church, and that they officially eat only shell fish and vegetables and that from Good Friday until Easter Night they may only keep themselves alive with fruit. 

Another exceptional thing that occurs this year because of the late Easter is that May First also falls in the Holy Week. May First in Greece is the celebration day of flowers and people will make garlands and visit nature and the restaurants. It can’t be that much of a celebration when you have to fast and possibly it does not suit such a sober week. For that reason the government has decided that the May First  celebrations will be postponed until May seventh, a day after Easter Monday.

I cannot believe that they have done this. For me it is like officially postponing spring for one week. So the Greek officials who are traditionally on holiday on this first day of May are giving themselves this May first as well as an extra free day next week.

I am wondering if they will then dine abundantly, because of what has been eaten on Easter. Easter Monday is often used as an After Easter Party Day, so it will be only on the next day that they can give their stomach some peace. But then it will be May First! But how many people will have the money to party for three consecutive days? Have I interpreted this right?

Lots of Greeks will visit their family during Easter here on the island and the stream of foreign tourists has also begun. The summer season has now really started and with Easter all hotels, restaurants and shops will be opened. Holy Week or not, May First or not, those tourists also have to go for dinner and can eat everything they like because they are not fasting. And so we suddenly go from the quiet winter directly into a hot and busy summer. Only the spring flowers are witness to the fact that it’s only just spring. Kalo Paska!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013