Articles from September 2009



Living in the Middle of the World

The road from the village to the olive fields

The road from the village to the olive fields

After months of roaming about the valleys and shores of Crete, marveling as we went at the contrasts between the rough, craggy face of the land and the surprising beauty of plants like miniature iris, tulip, and ground orchids, we wondered more with each new village: Where are the gardens? Not the little plots of summer and winter vegetables or the figs, mandarins, pomegranates, and sinuous grape vines that shade and feed, but the spaces where the tame clasps the wild and connects the lives and histories of people and places?

A story from our friend George Vlastos at last turned us in the right direction. He told how centuries before the Cretan farmers had turned from selective breeding of olives that produced prodigious fruit to grafting their cultivar onto the giant wild trees, which were able to easily put up with seven months of drought. However, the new olive cultivar is best gathered when it falls totally black and ripened. This requires that farmers gather them fairly quickly as they fall. Today this is accomplished by laying out large nets under the trees, then lifting the filled nets and bagging the olives, and again laying out the nets – often as many as five times in a season. Because of this extended harvest, farmers have to live near their orchards.

Vlastos says, “Yes, we domesticated the olives; but they also domesticated us.”

We considered this relation between olives and civilization as we continued our travels. The sprawling olive fields that often filled an entire valley between two villages seemed less like a old growth forest and more like the informal grounds of a grand estate, which comprised most of the island.

Olive groves are, perhaps, the real gardens of Crete. In winter an oxalis fills the spaces between the trees. By March arums begin to rise up through the green carpet and, later, iris, anemone, Lupin palestinus, and wild orchids, like Dactylorhiza romana, Anacamptia pyramidalis, and Ophrys lutea and scolopax (the latter looking like a tiny archaic “Bee Man”).

Lupin palestinus fill a spring field at the Minoan site of Monastiraki

Lupin palestinus fill a spring field at the Minoan site of Monastiraki

The-Old-tree

The oldest tree in the Amari Valley surrounded by anemones. She was shattered in the spring storm of 2003.

These fields are vistas with similarity of style, but also with endless variations in both terrain and other plant varieties. They are unintentional gardens, in the Western sense; but they are also conscious responses of the people who planted them to the landscape in which they live.

In the last few decades, many farmers have begun raising the smaller wild tree(a cultivar of Olea europea), which yields a tiny fruit with a big pit. They need more water to flourish and have often been given the drip irrigation treatment. Yet, they have an advantage suited to contemporary Cretan history. Their entire crop can be harvested in two weeks each autumn by knocking the olives down into the nets while still green. The oil that is pressed from these is greenish and bitter and must age for several months before it is really palatable.

The “advantage” to the farmers is that they no longer have to live near their trees but can fly back from Athens, for instance, and take a working holiday to do the harvest and visit old friends and family.

Since World War II people have been leaving the villages for cities and the greater international diaspora. Olive fields planted in recent years look like the well-ordered fruit orchards of California. The rolling groves that once connected places are slowly fading, with none being replaced.

Some day soon they may stand apart from the villages that spawned them, like parks…or like the gardens of some ancient estate.

Sheep graze among the thousand year old + giants near the Agia Galini River

Sheep graze among the thousand year old + giants near the Agia Galini River

An orderly field of the new "turbo tree". Yet, the place itself feels very ancient and powerful. The landscape still rules.

An orderly field of the new "turbo tree". Yet, the place itself feels very ancient and powerful. The landscape still rules.

We called this grove the Valley of the Giants. A morning walk there in the mists was like time travel.

We called this grove the Valley of the Giants. A morning walk there in the mists was like time travel.