Thursday, 18 January 2018

January 16 – The Sparrow Bush

(A sparrow bush, lycium europaeum)

When the ice-cold wind blasts from the north and threatens with polar bears on the road, the lee of a sparrow bush is a perfect place to adjust your breathing and estimate if the damns of heaven will or will not open soon. It is a fine place to blow your nose or drag the zipper of your jacket up to under your chin, because in the winter it’s always is colder at the seaside than you think.

The sparrow bush is an unsightly, thorny, winter green bush, that grows along the beach, towering at least two meters over the road, offering shelter. It’s so ugly that each time the municipal men come in spring to take away the useless branches of the shadow-offering tamarisks, I am afraid that they will think the sparrow tree is a worthless one too and cut it down. Last year indeed they pruned the bush a bit too enthusiastically and I was afraid that the bare sparrow bush would not survive.

But it has proved to be a tough bush, that resists sea water, snow, some ice and especially that freaky cold north wind, as well as an extravagant pruning session. This winter it came back in all its glory and along with it - the return of its inhabitants. This is not an empty bush: in the cold season it houses a gang of lively sparrows.

I am not a birdwatcher, so forgive me if they are in fact buntings or some other sparrow look-alikes. How can anyone ever distinguish all those birds? I take it that they are not house-sparrows, because they live in that bush. Therefore they might be tree sparrows. Those little creatures do move all the time; they waggle, twitter and tweet all day long in the sparrow bush. When you want to photograph them, they disappear between the leaves deep into the tree and the only thing that remains is an angry rustling. They then keep very quiet, even if you wait a bit, in the hope that suddenly one will peep out from between the leaves to properly introduce himself: “Hello, I am Pete the Tree Sparrow”.

I was more lucky in determining what the bush is. It probably is a Lycium europaeum, also known as a box-thorn, wolfberry or tea tree. Tea? Yes. The leaves are good for infusions that may help poor eye-sight and other eye diseases and even help to prevent cancer. It is a healing sparrow bush. According to Wikipedia, there also should appear berries, in China named goji berries: much hyped as weight reducers. They’re not only good for slimming; the Chinese also think they might help you to live longer.

But I cannot remember ever having seen those little weight-loss berries between the leaves. I have noticed tiny, dirty white flowers, that, according to Wikipedia, flower in the summer. Although the ones in my sparrow bush appear in autumn and winter.

There may well exist a winter-flowering box-thorn without goji. I mean, this family has about 70 to 80 varieties. Pliny the Elder (23-79), a Roman botanist, who wrote one of the oldest surviving encyclopedia (Naturalis Historia) named the sparrow bush after Lycia, a region in what is now Turkey. But much earlier the Greek Theophrastus (371-287 BC) had already noted this goji bush in his books, mentioning that they produced excellent wood fire.

Sparrows have an extra bone in their mouth to eat (berries with) seed. Because they hang out day and night in those box-thorn bushes, I’m wondering if it’s because the sparrows are so mad for those goji berries, that before I have a chance to see one, they’ve already been consumed. In China the goji also helps to fight impotence in men: I figure that those little rascals might also use them for this purpose because the sparrow population diminishes with the hour. Our houses nowadays are built so solid and so compact, not leaving any space for the house sparrows to nest and this – I imagine – might be so frustrating that some of them become impotent. Tree sparrows find their numbers declining because they seek food in the chemically treated fields. This can also cause impotence and there’s certainly not enough goji berry-eating ever to combat that problem.

Those small discrete sparrows are protected by the goddess of love: Aphrodite. They are known because for their busy sex life. The, to a human, impenetrable goji bush offers a unique opportunity. When you shelter from the icy north wind in the lee of such a bush, you may hear excited rustling and movement from deep within the bush. It could be that you are sheltering beside a popular sex-club.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

January 7 - Where has the Great Greek Mercantile Spirit gone?

(Olive harvest on Lesvos)

In the mud, between olive trees, there are shabby summer tents. The trees don’t look much better: those that are not nearly cut to the ground, most of their branches have been sacrificed to the nearly freezing people who have only tiny fires to warm up. Welcome to Lesvos, the island of millions of olive trees, now better known as The Shame of Europe: Camp Moria.

This refugee camp has been built amidst some of the endless olive trees that since immemorial times have helped the island. Even in 1850, when due to a frost, all trees literally burst open and cattle also died, the Lesvorians immediately set about with empty stomachs to replant new trees. Within years these brought new prosperity to the island and food to their plates.

Mytilini again has become an international town: many NGO's have settled to help the thousands of refugees who arrive or are stuck in the camps. They live in hotels, dine in restaurants, empty the stores and now and then take a stroll over the island. Similar to 1900, when Mytilini was a bubbling centre of international allure, only then it was the trading companies and the merchants, living in huge villa's, who brought the city economic prosperity: a period that even tourism never could compete with.

While Mytilini and Moria have become their own new worlds, elsewhere on the island life continues as usual. Winter means olive harvest, mostly done by hand but sometimes aided by small electric devices. The millions of trees are spread all over the island, even growing in inhospitable mountains, supported by small terraces on incredibly steep slopes or in remote corners; even there — most of them still get harvested. There are not many huge plantations: most of the fields are owned by different families who have looked after them for generations. Some people get the olives done in a few days, some take all winter to beat the fruit out of the trees.

In the glory days, when Lesvos was still part of the Ottoman Empire, though the Greeks had a pretty free hand in managing their soap and oil businesses, 98 steam driven plants pressed the liquid gold from the olives and three factories were transforming the kernels into fuel. The island had the largest number of big factories in all of Greece. Oil and soap were exported as far away as Marseille and the countries around the Black Sea.

In Agia Paraskevi and in Papados the old factories have been transformed into museums, while each community still has its own presses, most of them have modernized. The many – big and small – olive producers are united in a cooperative, that helps with transport, pressing and storage. But Lesvos lost its rich commerce. No more foreign consulates left in Mytilini, the big merchants moved to the mainland and since the mighty Ottoman Empire became part of history, Lesvos lost most of its export markets.

There now is just a bit of the oil going abroad. Most of the precious olive oil strands in local kitchens or is send to family in Athens. Only a handful of small producers pour the golden oil into bottles with their own label and try to sell to other countries.

Especially in the north olive trees are not taken seriously anymore. There they think that the new gold can be pressed out of tourism. In the summers they labour in kitchens and offices to please the tourists. But there is no clear vision about how tourism on the island should be developed. Some people thinking they hold the power believe that all-inclusive hotels will bring in the money, while some smaller offices just try to promote alternative holidays and eco tourism, which in my opinion suits the island with its millions of trees far more. Those offices do not go for the money, but realize what a rough diamond this, so often neglected by Athens, island can be in the overheated tourist industry.

The tourist business is an unstable market. Proven by the last two years when tourists stayed away from the island due to the refugee crisis. The olive market is more stable: if you take care of the olive fields, there is money to be earned. In the winter months everywhere on the island you hear the long sticks beating against the branches or the humming of little machines ticking the olives in the nets. The liquid gold drips everywhere from the trees, but what is missing on the island are some smart merchants. Lesvos is infested by people who cannot or will not cooperate. Everybody mistrusts everybody and cannot be happy when some one else is successful. So everybody continues operating on their own, never succeeding in something big. The Great Greek Mercantile Spirit, once making Izmir and Mytilini so prosperous, seems to have gone up with the smoke of history.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018