Friday, 22 August 2014

August 19 – About volcano’s and swimming stones

(White phalusses at Sigri)

Have you ever noticed the great number of stones on a Greek island? Just like the Lesvorian landscape, that proudly shines with its stones and rock formations. It was millions of years ago that volcanic forces ravaged and reshaped the island, so that now we can admire whimsical rock formations - like the mountainsides built-up of columns (columnar lava), horizontal stone plates that seem to be on the brink of falling down, or enormous rocks which were catapulted by the force of the eruptions and now lie scattered around, just waiting to be made into a Lesvorian Stonehenge Centre.

The monastery of Ypsilo, which has, without doubt, the best view over the stone desert of the West, has been built on the Ordymnos, a so-called lava dome (see it as lava that gets pushed upwards and forms mountains). Also the tops of Lesvos' biggest mountain range, the Lepetymnos, are lava domes, as are most of the mountaintops surrounding Eresos. The famous mermaid church at Skala Sykaminias has been built on lava rocks. Filia, Avlaki and Alifanta present 'so-called' dikes, plates of horizontal stone (solidified magma) sticking out in the landscape like enormous ridges.  The Panagia Glikofiloussa Church in Petra has been built on a 'so-called' volcanic neck (the solidified end of a canal transporting lava when the volcano was active, with the sides now eroded).

The volcanos also petrified thousands of trees, so that we now can enjoy the beautiful Natural History Museum in Sigri, where you not only find trees, millions of years old, but where you can discover all sorts of other fascinating geologic aspects of the island. If you don't fancy popping into a museum during the hot weather, or you don't want to go for a stroll in the Park of the Petrified Wood during the soaring heat, you might venture out by car from Andissa towards Sigri, where just after the junction to Eresos, there are construction works going on to widen the road. Digging into the ground they have found a whole museum-full of new petrified trees. Upon discovery they are first covered in plaster to protect them, thus creating a landscape of white phalluses. When you take a closer look at where the earth is removed you might see other trees, branches or roots that were covered by lava and rain millions of years ago, thus getting petrified and transformed into colourful fossils, and now seeing daylight after so much time.

During the last few weeks the Greeks have been under the spell of another road construction discovery. Close to Serres in the northern province of Macedonia: a grave was found, where two sphinxes and a huge statue of a lion (resembling the Amphipolis lion) stand guard over the entrance. The enormous grave dates from the time of Alexander the Great (356 323 BC) and because the last resting place of this great warlord has never been found, lots of people hope he will be hidden in this grave. Other, more sober, persons think it might be the grave of Alexander's wife Roxane.

Alexander the Great and his wife Roxane are known worldwide and the discovery of their grave would bring lots of publicity. So too, I could imagine, would the discovery of the grave of Sappho during the road construction at Sigri. However, the very important archaeological finds made this summer on Lesvos seem only to have attracted the local media. For a few years the archaeological service of the University of Crete has been digging around Lisvori and what they have found has not been a statue of a lion, but lots of stones that served 150,000 to 500,000 years ago as tools for the inhabitants of Lesvos. That means that the site is the oldest archaeological place in Greece and the East of Europe.

Can you imagine that where we now drive around in rented jeeps and cars, people used to roam in search of food with spears and axes hewn out of stones? In those times there was no agriculture. People survived by hunting animals and finding plants. Apparently the hunting fields of Lesvos were plentiful, especially around the Lake of Kalloni. The lake was only much later connected with the sea after a severe earthquake. Prehistoric animals as big as elephants, camels, rhinoceros, deer and huge tortoises were all living on the island (some bones of those animals found near Gavathas can be seen in the Natural History Museum of Vatera in Vrissa). People in paleolithic times did not depend on planes or boats: it is thought that the island was then still connected to the Asiatic plateau, so that it could be reached by walking.

It is known that the Romans used to come to have a holiday on the paradise-like island of Lesvos. I guess that people in the Stone Age were not familiar with the concept of vacations. When they wanted something different, they just moved elsewhere to another place and I bet in those years Lesvos already was pretty popular, due to all the tools that now have been recovered.

So stones can be mighty interesting. Without knowing you may have in you hands an antique item: a prehistoric axe or spearhead. Stones on Lesvos can also provide more surprises: they can sometimes hide amethyst or quartz. Even gold and silver used to be mined on the island.

Other less flamboyant stones can also surprise you. During volcanic eruptions, pumice can be made, as was the case during the eruptions on Santorini: lava cooled so fast that gas got trapped inside the clot. This porous stone has the attractive attribute that it can float. I read about it by accident and when the next day I took a stroll along the beach I could not believe my eyes: there was a piece of stone floating on the water! I thought that I might not have seen them before, because I had not known their story. A few days later I saved another piece from the sea, but since then I have never again seen stones swimming in the sea!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

August 13 – Ineke

While the August sky provides a shower of stars
And has even dropped a star from the Movies
Your star is rising towards that same sky
In the middle of the zodiac

If the Olympic Gods still reigned
This crying world
I'm sure they would create a sign
For your star in the sky

Taking care of and saving animals
Over so many years
With intense love and endless patience
Was more than impressive

And even as your breath began to fail
Your ears and heart kept open to the tales
Of the animals and their problems
As well as about friends and other people

Your heart was so big
Too big for yourself
Too big for Agia Paraskevi
And maybe even too big for the island

Goodbye Ineke, we will miss you...

(Ineke Peeters-Lenglet, director of the Lesbian Wildlife Hospital, died on August 12 2014 due to a lung disease)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

August 5 – Lucky bird

(Lucky birds)

Although I do like birds, I will never become a birdwatcher: I haven't enough patience for that. And I can imagine that in order to pry on birds you need to study a bit. How else would you recognize a bird? Lesvos is a birdwatch-paradise and I often see odd birds and then think: what can that possibly be? The flamingo is the easiest bird on Lesvos to identify. For that I do not need a book. Same for the Black Storks. They of course are easy to recognize, but are not easy be find.

The real trouble starts when seeing a heron or a (white) stork. Sometimes, when driving with friends along the saltpans of Polichnitos, I say: Look, there's a stork, when, according to my friends, I am actually pointing out a heron. I have no idea what the small stilt-walkers are that roam the same waters. I have never studied the bird world and I rarely write about it. I did once write about those strange flamingos. And I was so surprised at finding a huge information board about the colourful red shellduck in the middle of nowhere in Palios, that I had to mention that phenomenon. As far as I know it is the only information board about a bird on the island. They should install more of those boards, especially along the saltpans on the island.

I do see often seagulls and it seems that here on the north coast you can even spot different species like the Audouins gull, the Yellow-legged gull and the Yelkouan shearwater (this bird looks like a gull, but is not a gull). My intention now is to learn more about birds and so I have bought a book (only in Dutch: Vogels kijken op Lesbos [Watching birds on Lesbos] by Luc Hoogenstein), and hope that this will make me a bit wiser about the birding world. The book describes all the important birdwatch-places of Lesvos and also provides a list of what birds you can expect at those places. Very handy. But I think this is a book for the more advanced. I mean, I can learn to say all those names by heart, but how does such a bird look? It would have been better if each name was accompanied by a small picture. Now I have to go through the whole book hoping that there will be a photograph of the bird I have just seen. How do I find, for example, the little bird I saw with white spots on its sides? Even on the internet that will be a Herculean feat.

Another bird that I see nearly daily is a crow. Well, that's wrong. The black birds here that sit on the electricity cables and scrabble around in the fields and the beach are not crows. It has taken me some time to decide whether that are crows, ravens or jackdaws. But I think they are jackdaws (corvus monedula), because they are partly grey and they are recognizable by their beautiful eyes with a yellow circle around the dark iris. Even though jackdaws are big birds, it seems crows are even bigger and ravens are as big as an enormous bird of prey. It is good that their family members Eurasian jays and magpies are so much coloured that they at least are easy to recognize.

The big birding season is, of course, in the spring. But even during the past months I have seen lots of birds, sometimes very bold in stealing my fruit. Even though the crickets now sing louder than anyone else, you can still sometimes hear the song of a bird in the background.

And when I go out for dinner, I am often confronted with birds flying over the tables. Tourists can be confronted by this phenomenon on the balcony of their hotel: a swallows' nest that, when birds are in residence, is at the end of a busy landing strip.

(Old) Greeks think that dogs in the sea may dirty the water and as far as I know dogs still are officially not allowed to swim in the sea. But Greeks have no problem with birds pooping around their homes or in restaurants. You see, swallows bring luck and even prosperity when they choose your home, terrace or balcony to raise their off spring. The Greeks will watch over the nests, even though that most flying hours, made by the parents to feed their babys, go straight over the heads of the guests.

I am not complaining: I think this birding thing is an entertaining performance and it makes you feel immediately at ease in the restaurant. I never realized that swallows are trekking birds and have a special place in Greek culture: not only do they bring fortune, they also are the announcers of the spring and they all should be back from Africa on March first. At least, that is the day in Greece that their arrival is celebrated and when children go around the houses with swallows made out of paper and sing songs about the spring and about swallows (Chelidonismata).

I am always looking for new forms of income for the Greeks and that is why I was interested to learn which swallow nests are eaten in Asia. The artfully crafted nests here are made of mud, small branches, straw and whatever else keeps the construction together. Somehow, I could not imagine that these nests could be a new export product. And I was right, they cannot. In Asia there lives a kind of special swallow that build its nests only with saliva! I am not sure if I prefer to taste swallows saliva or a bit of mud.

Also swallows are divided in different kind of birds. I did some study but am still confused. What the heck: if it has a forked tail it just is a swallow! I now will look for a book about birds on Lesvos that has a clear overview in photographs that makes it easy to find what bird you just saw. It must be a bird guide for beginners, with clear explanations about differences within species. Now that the heat has arrived and the sparrows fall off the roof (a Dutch expression meaning that it is very hot), it seems to me that it would be helpful to quickly identify which kind of sparrow you might have to resuscitate.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014