|Nico herding his goats, March 2008|
Monday, July 4, 2011
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.
As far as my resolution for this week is concerned, so far so good. I have written a medium length post this morning. It is an important and serious post, which I want to re-read, digest and possibly edit before I publish it meanwhile I have this to offer:
Last Saturday evening I drew up beside this contraption in a petrol station. When I first travelled to Greece, in the 19060s, these single-cylinder, petrol engines on axels were common maids-of-all-work which were then fast making the ubiquitous greek donkey redundant. The engines were used for everything and anything that needed a source of power, ploughs, rotavators, water pumps, saws, drills and when the farmer needed to go to town he could hitch on a trailer and use his engine to pull his 'truck'. They must have been durable machines, there are still quite a few around; this one is 45 years old. I doubt it has had an emission test for a while though!