This is a piece I’ve been struggling intermittently to write. There are two little stories you might want to read hidden away among thoughts on names and language and ear worms that you might not want to read.
As I walked out of Anavriti one day I came upon an old man standing in the road slightly bent over a tin with grain in it, and a goat on each side of him, handsome young goats, feeding, and he just looked so gentle, serene even, you could see he loved the goats. Goats could be good if you were lonely. I thought about him as I walked on and it brought tears to my eyes. But he and the goats, the three of them leaning in to the dish of grain, it was a beautiful composition, and I couldn’t take a photo. Things unphotographed fade, I said. but not always. Memory can save you from disenchantment but photographs can show awkward truths.
At least I could smile at the old man and say hello, and he smiled back. Or was he still smiling sadly at the goats?
As well as being unable to talk to people I meet – though sometimes it’s fine – I’m often troubled by being unable to name plants I find, in any language. Usually I’m fairly content if I know the genus, the family name, but not the species, the individual. But there are also genera (does anybody need/want to know that genera is the plural of genus?) which fool me, among the labiatae for example, which are no longer the labiatae but the lamiaceae, after lamium, the dead nettle; or the leguminosae, which are no longer the leguminosae but the fabaceae, after fabus, the broad bean. People, especially gardeners, get annoyed with the scientists for frequent name changes, but they are simply striving for accuracy and a rational system. I’m avoiding the substance here. Adam didn’t have a lot to do in Eden, but one of his jobs was naming everything. And I don’t like losing names, or confusing names, or just not knowing names, especially when I’m in Eden. Those lonely, linguistically difficult times are when I am most likely to fall under the narcotic spell of ear worms. It might as well rain until September. Behold all flesh is as the grass. Like a – what is a rhinestone anyway? the songs are all incomplete, I generally know only the chorus, so I have to repeat that over and over again.
A few days earlier I was on Chelmos, which is also called Aroania. One of the plants I’d read about and seen photos of is Teucrium aroanium, a proper endemic. By proper I mean that it really is very different from its relations. It’s not distinguished from other species found on other mountains only by an almost invisible hairiness on its calyx, or by having leaves which are more elliptical than lanceolate or vice versa. It’s strikingly itself. Unmistakable, unforgettable. It was early June and the weather was still changeable; it could be cold and wet. One day I set off for the gorge of the Styx, which I had read is best approached by going over the top of the mountain to the top of the gorge and then climbing down. An urgent poster outside a church in London had said: Seek Ye First The Kingdom Of Heaven! which made me think immediately of botanical adventures. What if the kingdom of heaven, or one of them, were located in the Valley of the Styx, the gateway to the underworld? Heaven and hell once again tied in a knot. But I only got as far as the beginning of the gorge, where sheep in summer graze among verbascums and geraniums on rocky slopes and trickles of water meander then accelerate towards the hidden depths. I was feeling ill and old. A couple of days later when the sun had come out and Tula, my kind host at the Hotel Sperchos in Ano Lousi had revived me with mountain tea laced with lemon and honey – she spoke no English but the tea spoke for her and for me – I decided from the map on a different strategy and found an easy way to walk from a road which crosses a flank of the mountains, a high, rolling plain, towards the cliffs above the bottom of the gorge. Just before the road turned left to begin its zigs and zags down to Peristera the village at the bottom of the gorge, I walked off to the right following the edge of the plateau where goats practised topiary on struggling firs, the kind of tree that earned Leigh-Fermor’s derision and made him think of Germany. the plant itself (As I began my walk another car pulled in beside mine. And out got the butterfly men from Loughborough whom I’d met on the plane!) To my right the plateau, to my left very steep and unstable slopes slithering down about 2000 feet. When the scree gave way to a section of rotten cliff, only thirty feet high at the most, I scrambled down to make my way around the bottom of it to see what I could see and suddenly – why do we always say suddenly? most things are sudden. Not the cloud-like cliffs of Dover seen from the middle of the English channel in the mist, not the dawn, not old age, but most things: at one instant the telephone is not ringing, the next it is. The bus isn’t coming and it isn’t coming and it isn’t coming and then suddenly a big red thing comes round the corner! You wander round the house for twenty minutes looking for your pen and then you find it. It doesn’t gradually appear. Anyway, at the foot of the cliffs, where solid rock with lots of cracks and gaps was being turned into scree, there was a little clump of Teucrium aroanium. Did I say, “Teucrium aroanium!”? I know I said “wow!” If a plant on a lonely mountain has a name it seems to speak to you, its presence is company, it drives all the ear-worm nonsense away. (Or takes their place as a superior, botanical earworm. And though I find it hard to learn new names, this one has stuck.) As I made my way carefully round the base of the crumbling rocks towards more secure cliffs I saw more and more teucriums, in the end bold, irregular carpets of it sewn into vertical fissures, the individual flowers so bold with delicate stamens curled out over the bowl-shaped lip like feathers in a fancy hat, and the gentle colour for which mauve would be an insult. lilac pink? The language of colour is the most difficult. Reading a bulb catalogue is like being shouted at in a foreign tongue.
And I still can’t decide whether to persevere with attempts to describe in words, or just insert an easy photograph.
If I put a photo of those flowers in an album or on this site, it feels inadequate to write as a caption, ‘beautiful flowers on a greek mountain’ or whatever, so much more impressive to put ‘Teucrium aroanium on Chelmos’. Then I thought of how I always go straight to the captions beside paintings in galleries, looking for guidance and facts. Things un-named and uncategorised can be disturbing. There’s a little trick when it comes to plants. If you know the genus (usually easy) but not the species (often difficult) you simply write, for example, ‘teucrium sp’, thus demonstrating that you know the correct way to admit to your ignorance. It looks somehow more impressive than ‘this is some kind of teucrium’. Ignorance is loneliness, naming is conversation.
The day before I met the man with the goats I walked up through the forest towards Spinakaki, which is just over 2000 metres, and is the most northerly of the five peaks on the ridge of the Taygetos which are called the pendaktylos, the five fingers.
It was a quiet walk up through the fir forest; in places the trees were dense and few flowers grew, but I was excited to find among the leaf litter some tiny orchids, Epipactis microphylla, with their quiet colours of green, brown and dull purple. Litter isn’t always litter. Then I heard voices, the confident loud voices of the young which sweep all before them, like beaters driving on, setting up game birds, or like the birds themselves, but big bold birds that own the mountain with their cries and squawks and screams. When they caught up with me I felt a bit ashamed of my morose prejudices, because they were charming and friendly, happy and smiling young Athenians, with shiny skin-tight sporty clothing and beautiful tanned bodies and sunglasses, speaking perfect European/American English. I asked them if they were brothers, they said no, they were best friends. They had left Athens at 5 in the morning, they were going up to the ridge, then all the way along it to Profitis Ilias, at 2404 metres – a spot height that everybody knows, the highest peak in the Peloponnese. It would be another five or six hours before they got there, even if they travelled athletically, and there would be no water anywhere along the way. Then they were gong to camp on the summit and return to Athens the next day. They seemed fit enough and enthusiastic enough to just shout their way to the top. And they were interested in what I was doing and where I was from, and not, it seemed, in a terrible hurry, not like some of the grim athletes you meet racing over the Alps. It was like being back in the world of everybody-speaks-English. The trouble with that is that it’s only really true of the places I don’t really want to be. The two charming young global-english boys would be good for information about routes and times and techniques and kit but had nothing to teach me about the mountains themselves or the people that lived there or had lived there.
Yes – so how’s my Greek coming on? well, I can say pefko, that’s a pine tree, the other major component of the forests of the South Peloponnese, krokos, crocus of course, kiklámina, which at first looks very different but is actually cyclamen, and I was about to learn a new word.
I didn’t see the two nice young friends again. They must have gone a different way to the top, and I got lost in dense young avalanche-damaged forest in the steep valley which rises up above Livadhi, a summer pasture with a sheep pen.
I finally got to the top of the valley. Behind I could see Anavriti nudged by rounded hills, the gorges hidden, and Sparta as a white smudge beyond in the broad valley of the Evrotas, where olives, oranges and pomegrantes grow. In front of me lay a wide grassy bowl, half a mile across, and beyond it what looked like the main ridge. So I had to go down into the bowl and across before I could get to the top of Spinakaki. At least though I was beginning to realise where I was, which wasn’t where I thought it would be. As I made my way across the grassy slopes, which were disappointingly bare of flowers, some sheep, not a big flock, about twenty five of them, walked before me, and I followed them because they were on a path, which was their path, I think, not a walkers’ path, there were no walkers there. On and on they went. Normally sheep will suddenly break out and run back behind you if they don’t want to travel on. I don’t remember when they lost me but by the time I got up to the main ridge, just a little north of the summit of Spinakaki, and saw the dull blue ranges of the Taygetos stretching out westwards to the Mani, and Messinia’s long distant arm beyond the Gulf, the sheep had gone. Then for the second time that day I heard shouting. A long way off to the south, high on another ridge, was a tiny speck of a man with a very loud voice. I looked all around, nobody else, but I couldn’t imagine why he might be calling to me. I wandered over the humpy mountain top looking for flowers in its disappointing scree. There weren’t many. It was a barren mountain. More cries from the distance. It became obvious that the man really was calling me. He eventually drew near. He was not far short of my age. Having no photograph, I’m struggling to remember what he looked like. He looked like a wild man of the mountains. He was very brown. His hair was straggly and white, held in place by a piece of cloth tied round his head. He had a big knobbly stick. His clothes were rough and tattered. He spoke to me with that loud, blunt directness that people use when confronting idiots who are entirely ignorant of their native language. When he shook his stick at me I understood that he was a shepherd. When he followed up the word he said over and over again, the one word which stood out from the unintelligible flow and became my language lesson for the day, PRÓVADA!!, with a loud and desperate BAAAAA!!, I understood that he had lost his sheep. All I could do was shrug, smile weakly, point vaguely down towards where I’d last seen the sheep – how could they have vanished from that wide open mountain? – and wish I could take out my camera and point it at him.
That evening I told the story as best I could in French to Maria who translated it for George, who laughed and said the old man spent all his time in the mountains, that if he had to go to Sparta he would die.
At least I have a picture of the sheep, if not the shepherd.