Saturday, 17 March 2018

March 15 – Poisoners

(Snow drops on Lesvos)

Those Russians, with pointing fingers flying far beyond their borders, seem to think that they are like the ancient Greek gods. The attack with nerve agent in England on a double spy and his daughter has sharpened international relations. I wonder why they left such a clear fingerprint. There are less complicated ways to poison somebody. Socrates for example, sentenced to death because he neglected the then ruling gods, choose as his cup of poison, an extract of hemlock, a plant easy to find here.

The Greek gods were no darlings either, especially if you offended them. They used nature to realize their nefarious plans and knew where to find everybody everywhere, just like Russia nowadays. You can fill an entire herbarium with people changed into herby plants or waving trees. Hyacinth once was a very pretty young boy, killed by a jealous god and revived as a beautiful scented flower by Apollo. That same Apollo once chased a nymph, who was changed by her father into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo's love making. Minth was a nymph in love with Hades, who got changed into that lovely herb by Persephone, Hades' jealous wife.

The gods knew their botany. Circe, daughter of the sungod Helios, was even a specialist in herbs. As Goddess of magic she is considered to be the first witch mentioned in literature. She brewed mean drinks and changed, in combination with her wand, people in animals. According to Homers' Odyssey she lived in a huge palace in the midst of woods, where plenty of tamed lions, tigers and other animals roamed. When Odysseus and his men sailed to her island, she welcomed them in a great way and organized a rich banquet in their honour. Odysseus, tired, remained with a small crew on his boat. The men who continued partying, however, changed into boars, except for one, who hadn’t trusted Circe and run back to Odysseus to warn him. When Odyssey set off to save his men, the god Hermes stopped him to tell that there was a herb that resisted the magic of Circe: moly it was called. So Odysseus chewed on some moly's and without fear of Circe's magic he persuaded her to change his men back into humans. When Circe promised not to harm him with her magic, this Trojan hero stayed for one year at Circe's palace, to party and to love.

According to Homer, the plant moly, that originated from the blood of the giant Picolous, has a snow white flower and a black bottom. Curious as always, science tried to find out what herb Homer was writing about. Scientists do not believe in magic and think that Circe gave the men something that made them hallucinate, thereafter behaving like pigs. The galanthus has a substance (galamantina) that annihilates hallucinations, so it is said that moly is a snowdrop.

These little flowers have properties that matter. Theophrastus long ago mentioned their anti-poison faculty and nowadays those snow white flowers also are used in the battle against Alzheimer’s. Their playful clocks jingle in order to call the spring. However they are not the only ones calling out for this season: the island has just had its yearly transformation into a colourful flower park. In all kinds of colours, anemones giggle on grassy lands, tapestries of daisies stretch lazily under the olive trees, dandelions and other yellow flowers colour the grassy verges of the country roads, along the sea purple-pink gillyflowers open amongst spare grass and stones at the beach and orchids appear in special places.

Last week we went to the chestnut woods above Agiasos. I did not expect lots of flowers in the dark, moist wood, but we were immediately welcomed by masses of alpine squill, like the blue sky did descend on earth. So enchanting! It got even better. A little further on, we were greeted by meadows filled with thousands of snow drops. It looked magical! It was only the second time I have seen these little snow clocks on Lesvos.

I wonder if these delicate flowers (or any other plant) can be used as an antidote for nerve agents. Nature has an answer for mostly everything. The Greek gods knew that: they didn't need complicated formulae or laboratories to punish people and did not leave chemical tracks. They just took what was needed from nature.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Monday, 5 March 2018

March 3 – Sigri Harbour

(Sigri Harbour)

A quiet, small village, at the utmost western point of the island, surrounded by rugged impressive mountains, 'at the end of the road', as they say. This is lovely Sigri, a world on its own on Lesvos because it always is cool in the summer due to the wind that seldom lies down.
It is world famous, not for the village but for the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest. The number of petrified trees found in its surroundings made the village known, but never brought masses of tourists, only busses full of day visitors.

Even without the museum this sleepy village should be known by all tourists. Not only for its nice white chalked houses – an exception on Lesvos – but also for its beautiful surroundings, rich with big lonely beaches at the foot of bare mountains. Nowhere on the island can you get a stronger feeling of history and nature being present.

The remains of very old towers show that in ancient times this remote area had been more lively. In the hills excavations prove the existence of ancient settlements and looking at the walls of some houses, you might spot ancient stones, once belonging to glorious buildings. Now there only remains the Turkish castle, built in 1776 by Sultan Mehmet as a defense against pirates and other enemies. When Lesvos still was part of the Ottoman Empire, only Turkish people lived here. Might be a reason why this little village has never been very popular with the Greeks.

On both sides of the village long beaches litter the coast. Like Faneromeni, in the north, with a small tavern for thirsty throats but on its sands quietness reigns. At the south side of the village, along the dirty road to Eressos, more long beaches stretch at the feet of barren mountains. A whimsical coastline with many inlets make those ribbons of sand adventurous places, not easy to reach, but once you have found the way, you may have that whole paradise all to yourself.

Sigri: with its picturesque little roads under bowing reeds, between cool green fields and other fertile grounds, a gem stone hidden behind the fame of the petrified trees. But not for much longer.

The new road from Sigri to Kalloni is no longer frontpage news. Some parts are ready to drive on, or like the last part to Sigri, have already been in use for years. The bridge somewhere between Vatoussa and Andissa finally reached the other side, but for many people it is the question over which mountain tops will the tarmac continue its way. The solution might be drawn somewhere on a map - maybe not. Maybe the many sections of already completed road scattered in the landscape toward Kalloni will never be connected.

Last summer I had a big laugh, when I was told that they would build a new harbour in Sigri in eighteen months. I didn't believe that it was possible in such a short time. They have already worked for years at the road and I am sure that the road will not be finished in that little time. When visiting Sigri last week I had to admit that I could be wrong concerning the harbour. The seaside of the charming village was upside down: the spacious place at the harbour, where ferries used to dock, was filled with cement mills and other machines and a playground with plenty of sandy hills. A bit further out at sea floated a huge platform with a crane whose arm danced from the wall to the sea, in order to place enormous cement blocks in the sea. If they continue at this pace the harbour will certainly be finished in time.

I thought they made the wide new road to build a monstrous wind farm on the tops of the Wild West, but there is suspicious silence around these plans. It is clear now that the harbour is built to take ferries. I took the map and saw that indeed each journey with a ferry, going over Lesvos (except the ferries to Turkey) might be shortened by two hours, if they stop in Sigri, instead of Mytilini. Kalloni, a place where traffic jams can appear, will have to pay with more circulation. Time for a bypass there, but the shopkeepers are too afraid to lose their clients, so it will make the bottlenecks even more disturbing.

Sigri will not become a Pireaus. It might offer a daily event, seeing the docking of a ferry at least as big as the entire village. But Sigri will no longer live under the wings of the Natural History Museum, nor will it any longer be the hidden gem for people who like quietness, although I think the beaches around will not easily be disturbed. It might be that Sigri will be transformed from a quiet fishermen's village to a lively little port town.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018