Monday, July 4, 2011

Ο Νικος Κυριοπουλος

Nico herding his goats, March 2008
On 23rd June my neighbour and good friend Nicos Kiriopoulos died; shockingly quickly after having his illness diagnosed only about six weeks previously.  Nico died in the house in which he was born seventy-six years previously and which, barring a few months military service, he hardly ever left for more than a few hours at a time.  The loss of any member of a community must alter it but Nico was the last of the village’s farmers; here there will be no new layers of humanity through whose industry the rent left by an elder passing might be covered.  Nothing in Mystraki will ever be the same again.

Nico, with his wife Fortini, farmed goats and olives, grew vegetables and kept domestic hens; they were as close to being self sufficient as it is possible to be in a largely retailer dependent society.

Through the century beginning soon after the exodus of Greece’s hitherto Ottoman masters and ending at the outbreak of the last world war, Mystraki developed as a clan farming community; the Kiriopoulos surname common, as yet it is, to every inhabitant.  Most of the land around the village that is not presently cultivated for growing olives, presently scrubby wilderness, once supported all manner of crops, not only to feed the human population but also the considerable animal population.  Domestic animals; pigs, goats, sheep, bovines, to provide meat and diary products for the table; horses, donkeys and oxen for transport and drawing bulk, water in particular, and agricultural implements.

Life made the landscape.  Animals foraging undergrowth kept woodland accessible; browsing goats adequately cleared inaccessible uncultivated land.  Water came to the hamlet of Valanidia, a kilometre beyond Mystraki and represented now only by my home, in ox-drawn bowsers, huge barrels laid horizontally on axels, keeping open a track from the village well in the valley between Velanidia and Mystraki to the house.  After the war increasing mechanization, better roads and cheap imported food led to the abandonment of the still almost mediaeval life of country villages in favour of what was considered a ‘better life’ in the cities.

When, in 1998, I arrived to take possession of the house, Nico was here to welcome me.  Why an englishman would want to buy and throw money for restoration at a mouldering eighty year old pile in which generations had been born, lived and died without any benefit of running water, sanitation or electricity, had obviously puzzled him but he was overwhelmingly grateful that I had chosen to do so; Nico appreciated and valued his environment, both natural and built.  A gentle man in every respect and a natural philosopher, Nico had had very little formal education.  Barely literate, although he had aspired to being able to write and read a shopping list, he was nonetheless an autodidact of all that is essential to life; horticultural skills, innate knowledge of when and where to sow and when to harvest; how to deliver into the world, raise, slaughter with compassion and butcher domestic animals; viniculture (although his wine is something of an acquired taste!), cheese making, bread oven maintenance, how to repair and fashion tools; repair and build shelter, how to magically improvise and re-cycle.  Much more than this Nico had cultivated the difficult art of thinking, of using the most primary sources to make sense of and know the sheer joy of living.  No one has taught me more about the privilege of living, of being able to feel the inner peace and tranquility that comes with being in harmony with the very rhythm of life than has Nico.  Rather than being formally taught, this learning was somehow assimilated from the man, by being with him during long contemplative silent conversations and, when he did try to verbally communicate, of understanding all he had to say about the seasons, weather, plants, diet and all that is good in the world; Nico had no capacity for negative ideas.  Nico and I did not share much spoken conversation, he did not have a word of english and I, even after half-heartedly studying the language for over fifteen years, can not claim a facility for speaking greek that is even close to fluent, but from our first meeting communication between us was never a problem and such greek as I have owes more than a little to Nico’s patience and understanding.

With Nico’s passing his goats will go from the village, the paths and tracks which their twice-daily wandering and browsing kept open will become overgrown and impassable.  In a matter of months fast growing wild pear will provide shelter for more vulnerable trees and shrubs which in turn will grow tall and strong and ungratefully shade out the wild pear that had protected them.  In very few years large areas of land will revert to impenetrable woodland.  It is a cycle of which Nico was, and we are, a part; a cycle that always was and will ever thus will be.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful piece and a true tribute to Niko. Great to see you blogging again - yes we have much to learn from such 'humble?' Greeks as Niko - though no recognised qualifications, he knew far more than us in the natural doings of daily life - and why should someone with such a 'good' lifestyle be taken so early from this earth ? Glyn

Andrew said...

"...a cycle that always was and ever thus will be."

Ah no... not ever, nor always. Things will pass. We have to accept that. Without change there would be no life.

John Foster said...

Anonymous Glyn (!) Why indeed? Nico's father made it to 105 and was out with his goats on the day before he died.

Yes, certainly, "Things will pass", but, Andrew, does the interval between their passing not depend on our individual perception of the size in space terms or length in terms of time of a cycle? Some say that, under the sun, there nothing is new.

Andrew said...

Well, there is certainly plenty that is getting old (self included).

The Flying Tortoise said...

Thankyou for sharing that John. I'm sure you'll miss your old friend... my sympathies to you...

DavidW said...

Achieving Nicos’ evident understanding of the natural world around him required, I should have thought, far greater insight and application than a formal education can impart. Perhaps it was with a man such as Nicos in mind that a fellow greek philosopher wrote in 5th cent BC ‘The life so short, the craft so long to learn’.

John Foster said...

Hippocrates penned this much copied truth, which serves well in your comment David, but may he not, in turn, have heard it echoing down the centuries from much earlier times than his. it also serves to remind us that, long after our flesh, blood and bone have been dissipated as dust in the wind, something of us, words perhaps, or the seeds of our ideas, can live on, albeit without our being credited with them, through to eternity.

DavidW said...

You are right, of course, that this is an age-old truth: not enough hours in the day etc. ‘Eternity’ – now there is a concept that I have always had difficulty with. I simply cannot get my head around the thought of anything going on for ever…..and ever….and ever. Fortunately, my present thinking is much more short term: joining you tomorrow and re-embarking on our quest to reduce Greece’s wine lake. More Hellenic wanderings of a vinocephalic Brit!

Francis Hunt said...

One of the greatest last gifts we can give to a friend is an eloquent obituary and, when it succeeds - as your does - it gives the one remembered a wonderful, fragile immortality. In your writing Niko lived once more - for me.

Thank you.