Monday, 25 November 2013

November 20 – Hunting for treasures in Limonos


Over the last weeks, especially during the weekends, the woods of Lesvos were teeming with mushroom hunters. Even on steep slopes of the pinewoods you saw earth upturned and mushrooms thrown away, probably because they were worm infested. Mushrooming seems to be the newest craze here on the island and I wonder if that’s because it has received publicity in the media, or whether it’s due to the magnificent weather — or is it the crisis that forces people back to nature.

An average Lesvorian only knows the pèperites (peppered milk cap; Lactarius piperatus) which grow mostly under the carpet of pine needles. They can be found in large numbers, they grow quite large and that’s why the island people cut them in pieces and then fry them. I don’t know any people who use mushrooms for medical purposes, but indeed some mushrooms have healing powers. And that has been known for a really long time: Ötzi, the iceman and the oldest European mummy, who was found in 1991 in the Italian Alps, was carrying some mushrooms with him. He lived in the copper Age, many thousands of years BC (5000 - 3300) and the tinder fungus he had with him probably served as a tool for making fire and it’s thought that the birch polypore he also carried was used as a medicine.

I didn’t realise that those leathery fungi, which mostly grow on tree trunks, could make a fire. When on the lookout for this family of fungus, it’s mostly the ox tongue (Fistulina hepatica), a thick and tasty mushroom to be baked like a steak, that I am searching.

According to the ancient Egyptians, mushrooms were food for royalty, and a
Hadith says that truffles were the manna that Allah sent to the Israeli people and that their juices are a medicine for the eyes. I know some Lesvorians who are sure that you can find this delicacy on the island, but I have never seen Lesvorian truffels, nor have I seen people looking for them, although the island still has plenty of oak trees, on whose roots truffles so like to grow.

Digging for treasures under oak trees? You don’t have to dig into the ground in order to find something valuable. The Belgian born Alain Touwaide, who works at the famous American Smithsonian Institute, is the scientific leader of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. This institute studies traditional medicines, originating in the Mediterranean, and especially the medicine practiced in Greece by the ancient wise men like Theophrastus, Aristotle and Dioscorides. Hippocrates, who also belongs to this list, said: “Be the food your medicine and your medicine the food”.

Touwaide studied all the books and papers these sages wrote, because all of them had something to say about the medicinal uses of herbs. Now Touwaide is looking for even more ancient papers containing descriptions of the old medical traditions in order to digitalize them and so preserve them for the future. The modern pharmaceutical industry is also learning from this old knowledge. And now we come to the treasure he found: in the beautiful library of the Limonos monastery near Kalloni he discovered many old scripts describing ancient and traditional ways to use herbs.

Touwaide believes that Lesvos can have a meaningful part in preserving the ancient ways of healing. This big island has a very rich assortment of herbs and many of the island people still believe in their healing powers. Looking for chorta (herbs and wild vegetables) is, on Lesvos, even more popular than mushroom hunting, especially in the winter when the new plants sprout from the earth.

Lesvos is mostly promoted as the island of Sappho, but it also is the island of
Theophrastus, known as the founder of biology; and Lesvos was the island chosen by Aristotle, as the preferred area for his studies written up in his famous book Historia animalium.

But here on the island, similarly to elsewhere in the world, it still remains easier to see a doctor and then the pharmacist than to go into nature looking for suitable healing herbs. Maybe the crisis is now making people return to natural herbs. Why take chemical pills for each small ailment, pills that could poison your liver or damage, who knows what, other parts in your body. I say: back to Nature that has plenty of natural remedies, back to the herbalist who has studied them, or back to the grandmothers who know the secrets of home remedies like cough syrup, calming herbal infusions, wild vegetables for when you have a puffy feeling or an ouzo for stomach pain.

Alain Touwaide is right in wanting this ancient knowledge to be preserved, afterall, in earlier times people fell ill and recovered thanks to the healing herbs. Even though modern medical science can heal more ailments than the traditional herbalists, the mighty pharmaceutical industry also destroys a lot and is far too expensive.

And Lesvos? That is still the home of biology, offering plenty: from precious papers in the monasteries to a multitude of mushrooms and herbs. A paradise that, maybe because of the crisis, is rediscovering its blessings.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

November 8 – Where is the divine helping hand?

(A painting of Saint Michael from the Taxiarchis Church in Ypsolometopo)

Today it’s another local holiday: as many as half of the inhabitants of Lesvos (all Michaelis’, Gavriela’s, Angelo’s etc) celebrate their names day today. But even more important: it’s also the day that the archangel Michael, who is the patron saint of the island, has his yearly celebration. This chief angel not only has Lesvos under his protecting wings, but also the cities of Brussels and Kiev, regions like Cornwall and Umbria and countries like Germany and Ukrania

To the Greeks, the archangel Michael is also named Taxiarchis (brigadier, chief), so monasteries and churches bear that name if they are built in the honour of Saint Michael. On Lesvos there are many of them, like in Kagiani (suburb of Mytilini), Molyvos, Mandamados, Ypsilometopo, Agia Paraskevi, Napi, Parakila, Asomatos and probably many more of those small churches that decorate the Lesvorian landscape.

It’s easy to see into which church you have come. Go to the front to the iconostase (the icon decorated panel that hide the altar and shrine). To the right of the central door traditionally there is a painting of Christ (Pantokrator) and to the left one of the Holy Mary (Panagia). At the left side of Mary you will find a picture of the saint to whom the church is dedicated. Archangel Michael, who is said to have thrown Satan from Heaven, is mostly depicted as a strong and handsomely dressed warrior with large wings, killing a dragon. The dragon here is a symbol for the Devil, so don’t confuse him with Saint George who also is known for killing a dragon.

Perhaps the world’s most impressive Michael-church is to be seen in Normandy, at Mont Saint-Michel. The largest Taxiarchis church on Lesvos belongs to the monastery in Mandamados and is easily recognizable because of the jetplane that has been placed at its entrance by a grateful believer. Although the church might not be as impressive as the one on Mont Saint-Michel, it is one of the more important monasteries in Greece because of its icon of the archangel Michael. This icon apparently keeps on producing miracles (see: The wondrous world of bleeding icons and the most recent miracle, of this week).

So Michael must be a busy man, because not only is he the much appreciated patron saint of many cities and countries but he’s also the patron saint of bakers, pharmacists, paramedics, artists, bankers, grocers, the sick, the poor, the dying, as well as of horsemen, soldiers, policemen, hatters, radio mechanics, glaziers, masons and painters. He probably has to run up and down and be present at all the wars in the world.

But there are many believers who hope that he also will have time for their private misery. For example in Mandamados they place a pair of iron shoes before Michael’s icon and hope that he will resolve their problems. After some time they look at the soles of the shoes and if they are worn, it will be a sign that Michael has gone off to solve their problem. When the shoes remain unworn they simply believe that Michael has not yet found time to help them. But the numbers of people visiting the monastery in Mandamados on November 8th proves that many people firmly believe in the miracles of this Saint Michel. And by the way, in religions other than Orthodox, Saint Michael Day is celebrated on September 29th.

If you are interested in having a little time with this saint, there are certain ways to recognize that you are, in fact in contact with dear Michael instead of somebody else: of all angels Michael seems to have the loudest and clearest voice, he always speaks straight to the point with a sense of humour and love: so no voice to ignore. When there is contact, you immediately will see the truth, even if this seems an impossible truth. You will feel surrounded by peace and feel safe and sound. You might find a sign in the form of a feather, or see shimmers of blue and purple. Women may think they have menopausal-like hot flashes because of the heat you may experience. You may even meet a person named Michael who can help you.

Well, now we know who we have to deal with when suddenly we will hear a strange voice, become paralyzed with fright, see strange light flashes or grow hot through fear. I am wondering if the monks also communicate with him. As I previously mentioned, Michael is the saint patron of the banking, a profession incidentally also practised by monks. The Mandamados monastery is one of the richest of Lesvos (possibly not as rich as the monastery of Vatopedi with the banking-monks on Mount Athos) but none the less all its money could be of great help in the Greek crisis.

The problem is that this ready-to-fight Michael has to protect the bankers to accumulate money. Is it not now time that God has a good chat with Michael, telling him that this profession no longer needs any protection and that Michael should tell the monks – who in a way take advantage of him – to start paying the same rate of taxes that all other Greeks pay? Now that would be a real miracle, helping the country in one fell swoop out of the crisis.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Friday, 1 November 2013

October 28 – Will the chestnuts disappear?

(Ceps and chestnuts)

Getting bored on Lesvos? Not for a minute! Even now as the summer season finishes and tourist villages like Molyvos and Petra are slowly being deserted, as the beaches are cleared of the sunbeds and umbrellas, there is still so much to enjoy on the island. And I’m not just speaking about the great weather, which is so nice that there’s no day that you’d want to spend inside your home.

In the autumn it’s the trees of Lesvos that attract people. Tourists switch from the beach to the shadowy, wooded mountain slopes with the wide views over the island and the locals (lots of them running shops or restaurants in the summer) return to their fields and olive trees for the harvest. Although this year they will not have too much work because the harvest is said to be pretty poor (see: Waiting for the rain).

Apart from the olives, there are many more trees asking for attention - for example, the pine trees that colour the heart of this green island. Lesvos has extended pinewoods, especially around Mt Olympus and above Parakila in the west. Until the late Sixties people went into the woods to harvest resin (see: When the pine trees still had a face). Even though this was hard work, it made a living for many villagers. Industrial progress however made resin uneconomical and this industry died. Now the pinewoods only offer fertile ground for mushrooms.

Reminders of the resin harvest were the iron cisterns nailed against the tree trunks where the resin was gathered. Although the resin harvest died-out, today these rusted cisterns are still the silent witnesses of that period when the villagers camped out for days in the wood to collect the resin. However, driving through the woods near Achladeri, we noticed that those rusted iron cisterns have been replaced with brand new ones! Has there been new demands for Greek resin and has some smart entrepreneur taken up the resin harvest?

That same smart person might also start cultivating the mastic trees. The neighbouring island of Chios is well known for the mastic (resin) of the Pistacia lentiscus, a bush or small tree from the same family as the pistachio tree (Anacardiacea family). It’s not true that this tree can only be found on Chios: but it’s only on Chios that they have been so long cultivated and where they produce a rich harvest. Were you to cultivate these trees on Lesvos (there are, in fact, many around as for example in Palios), this island also could start mastic production. But we’re speaking about a project that would take years and years; the trees on Chios have been cultivated for hundreds of years, and that is why they are so valuable there.

Then there are the fruit trees: after the olive, the walnut is the tree that gets harvested the most, because not everyone collects the fruit of his almond, quince or pomegranate tree (I must say, lots of them grow in gardens of deserted holiday houses whose owners are far away). Driving around the island in November I often see fruit just rotting away on the branches of trees or lying on the ground.

Around Agiasos, however, collecting sweet chestnuts still brings money in. The biggest woods grow on the slopes of the Olympus mountain range, although everywhere on the island you come across groups of these beautiful trees. They sometimes grow on very steep slopes, making me wonder if this fruit gets wasted or if there’s a person crazy enough to harvest there. When you go to Agiasos now each shop sells the brown fruit and you may meet pick-up trucks full of people who have been gathering big sacks of chestnuts. Sometimes there is such a deep layer of chestnuts on the ground that I imagine you could just scoop them up from a car driven slowly through the forest.

But this may not be the case for long, because the chestnut trees of Agiasos are ill. They are suffering from Cryphonectria parasitica, a mildew that has been killing sweet chestnut trees all over the world. In the United States millions of trees died and nowadays the sweet chestnut is no longer the number one tree in the woods of America. A few years ago it was thought that the chestnut woods on Lesvos and on Crete might escape this illness, but the mildew has managed to travel over the oceans and is now threatening these sweet Lesvorian chestnuts.

Last May I read an article about how the last mayor of Agiasos (Chrys Chatzipanagiotis) lobbied the Greek government to obtain a vaccination program. He was successful: this summer the trees were to be vaccinated. I am not sure if the job has been done and if this vaccine will be successful, but at least something has been attempted to save this (so rare on the Greek islands) chestnut wood.

Last week when I visited the colourful and scented chestnut wood, lots of the trees were a sorry sight: bare, dying branches waving in vain amidst the yellow coloured leaves of their still healthy neighbours. What a sad sight! It might be that I was there just at the very beginning of the chestnut season, but the ground was dotted with far less cupules than other years.

For me, each year visiting the chestnut wood above Agiasos is the highlight of the autumn. Between the bright coloured leaves you have breathtaking views over the Gulf of Yera and the Gulf of Kalloni. I hope that in future years these slopes will not start offering a wider view over all the island or that we can no longer find chestnuts in the shops of Agiasos.

The forests are also a unique habitat for mushrooms. My favourite mushrooms belong to the boletus family, and are plentiful under the chestnut trees if you’re there at the right moment. Even though the autumnal rains (I don’t count the few casual showers we’ve already had) have not arrived yet, it has been moist enough for the first mushrooms – such as the peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus) - to emerge from the ground, just lurking under the first layers of fallen leaves. I could not believe my luck when I also found two ceps (Boletus edulis). It’s hard to find this emperor of all mushrooms, especially on this island. Where will they be growing if the chestnut wood really disappears?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013