Seedhead Study in the smoke

Pondering the biodiversity of an olive orchard

We’re in the midst of a brutal heatwave, the worst Greece has seen since 1987, when some 1,500 people died. At our house it has been in the high 90s, even topping 100 at least once. Our abode isn’t that well-insulated (the ceiling is actually hot to the touch by late afternoon), nor do we have air-conditioning. So we blast the fans, take frequent outdoor showers, and sweat a lot. I hope my keyboard can take it.

We also get up before the blazing sun comes up and head out into the olive groves that surround our home—and pretty much every home in Greece. They’re everywhere, as ubiquitous here as sage or juniper in the Four Corners Country, and like junipers some of them are hundreds or thousands of years old. The whole olive thing intrigues the heck out of me, and I’m looking forward to finding out how it all works, learning about the history of the tree, and seeing and maybe even participating in the harvest.

I mean, you wander through these forests and you’re really wandering through orchards, in a way. After all, the trees were planted by someone. They’re not wild (although there are wild olives). And some groves feel a bit like orchards in the sense that the trees are planted in straight rows, they’ve been pruned frequently, the grass around them is mowed, and sometimes the earth has been spaded.

But then right next to that will be a wild olive thicket. These are the ones I’m drawn to and amazed by. The ground beneath them is a symphony of seedheads. So many different varieties, in so many weird and alien shapes. And not a blade of cheatgrass to be seen!

Sometimes when we set out on our morning walk I set a goal of collecting a bunch of seeds to bring back and plant in our yard. But so far I haven’t succeeded, in part because I’m overwhelmed, and also because I don’t want to disturb the lovely seedheads. Instead, I often find myself bent over staring at the intricate patterns until ants start crawling up my ankles. I figure I still have time. After all, the seeds won’t germinate until they get water, and they won’t get water till we get rain, and, well, it’s dry here.

That aridity is one of the things I like about Greece. It reminds me of the Southwest. It is spare like only a desert is spare, and clean and the light is hard and soft at the same time. Stoic. That’s it. Greece to me is a stoic landscape, although I’m not sure what that means. I guess it makes sense to me that so many monasteries are sit among the rocks and on the islands.

Pelion in the foreground (we live at the base of the far ridge on the upper right of the photo), with the smoke plume of the exploding Limni Fire on Evia in the upper left.

But during years like these the aridity—in both the Southwest and Greece—can lead to catastrophe, as both places suffer through a horrendous wildfire season. My Twitter feed alternates between calamitous images of California’s blazes, and those of the fires near Athens and on the island of Evia, which is just south of us (although separated by a big swath of sea). Pelion has thus far escaped the worst of it, but the thought of a fire breaking out here terrifies me. Our house would be vulnerable, I think, but we are close enough to the sea that we’d have a quick escape route, if need be. I never felt the need to have a wildfire evacuation plan while living in the Western U.S. We do now.

I write this from a hotel room in Thessaloniki, a few hours north of our home. Yesterday I took a bus from the little town of Milina to Volos and another to ‘Saloniki, a gritty and vibrant port town, where I’ll soon catch a plane—or a series of them—back to the U.S. for work—promoting my new book and reporting and grounding myself in my main area of coverage—and to see family and friends. I feel strange and anxious to be leaving, more so because of the fraught times and the fire danger.

I already miss Wendy, our little home, our goofy dog, and our new life. Already I’m looking forward to returning and resuming our daily rituals. And I even miss the sea.

Ah, yes, the sea, that foreign and lovely and salty body just down the lane. Another ritual is to go every evening to the beach near our house and jump in and cool off, if only for a moment. It’s quite a lovely way to end a work day, I must say. Luckily, the jellyfish have gone back out into the deep, apparently, as we haven’t seen any lately. Honestly, it’s so hot I think I’d jump in with them.