I’ve clambered through the kitchen window to weed the small gulley between our house and the neighbour’s wall, lopping their overhanging fig branches to give light to WC and kitchen windows. I’ve tightened my Brompton’s front wheel that was beginning to wobble on its bearings – something I noticed as I freewheeled down the zig-zag road from Sokraki, stopping only to sit for a few moments in the cool quiet of the tiny church of Ag Isadoras on the ninth bend up from Ano Korakiana.
|Ag. Isadoras above Ano Korakiana|
“You are the first!”
I’ve checked our bank account to bring our statement up to date and ensure payment of our standing orders for water and electricity. Cycling home I stopped at Rolando’s shop in Kontokali to have a look at his electric bikes. He insisted I try one. Out of curiosity I did. You peddle. The bike takes off on its own, gently, soundlessly and powerfully. Very tempting but – apart from prices of €2000+ - I don’t want one. Peddling starts the battery driven motor. Once going I’d stop relying on my own faltering strength, whose testing is two thirds the joy and a third the pain of cycling. If an ascent is too hard I’ve the time to get off and walk.
I work through books – Mia Gallagher's Hellfire, Edna O’Brien's The Little Red Chairs, Katie Hayes' Lindbergh’s Legacy, Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare, James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall.
Harder work, for longer perusal and reference, is a book, found for me by my friend Mark, authored in 2017 by the Swedish biologists, now living here, Marie and Bo Stille The Herpetofauna of Corfu and Adjacent Islands. The book cost me €30. Far from being simply a catalogue of species - comprehensive though it is on that score - the book goes far beyond that, comprehending with charts, maps and descriptions of habitats – geology, geography, climate, vegetation - describing, also, the human culture including environmental legislation and three finely written pages on ‘Humans, snakes and fear’. That such fear is instinctive remains despite years of research, unproven. The authors suggest fear of snakes is more likely the product of ideas than genetics.
The positive thing with a behaviour transmitted by ideas and not by genes is that it is relatively easy to change one idea for another when new knowledge becomes available. Consequently the fear that makes us indiscriminately kill snakes, including those that are not harmful to us, should in most cases be easy to overcome. However, oral tradition still has a stronghold in many cultures and old stories of snake dangerousness keep on spreading. (pp 315-316)
Two years ago a part-time neighbour here was kind enough to walk up to our house and warn me, for the sake of the children he emphasised, that there were snakes on the path between our homes. He held up, for my inspection, a jar containing two beheaded slow worms. The other day a friend told me he’d killed two snakes on his plot.
“I knew because they had that black stripe down their backs”
We found a picture in the Stilles’ book
It was, as clearly illustrated in the book, a juvenile Anguis graeca or Greek Slow worm Ελληνικο χονακι ‘completely harmless’.
The Stilles' book can be bought with an accompanying poster - €3 - showing pictures of all Corfu's snakes and slow worms, too often mistaken for and often killed, along with other harmless snakes. One snake, only, on Corfu is venomous - the horned viper - a creature no more dangerous than its cousin, the British Adder. Potholes offer greater hazard.
This book is about faith, hope and love. I judge it as significant for the missionaries and disciples of our spreading belief in the world's environment, as St Paul's Letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament was, and is, to Christianity. When I was 16 in 1958, my stepfather, amid one of our many long conversations during my growing up, suggested that a ‘new religion’ was emerging across the world; one that held as its central tenet, that the survival and salvation of mankind depended on his stewardship of the earth - a faith supported by science but, being near unprovable, still a ‘faith’.
“It’s called ‘environmentalism’. It grows from a move away from drawing up lists of natural species to understanding their ‘ecology’ - our own included!”
I remember this, while having little understanding, at the time, of what Jack was talking about.
|Using the multi-tool to smooth a windowframe|
There are louvred exterior window shutters that are near indestructible, their colour running right through like words in 'Brighton Rock'; to be bought on the internet, delivered by courier; maintenance a damp cloth. On our house some of our windows are metal, but others are wooden with hard wood shutters at least forty years old, perhaps much older. Louvre slats increase their surface area. Stand back, and I can see the joiner’s small variations during their making, increased by repairs.
|One of my gravings|
It takes time to maintain wooden shutters. Lifted from the pintles on their wooden frames (those too need maintaining), I lay them on a plastic sheet under the veranda. I sand the roughest looking surfaces down to the wood, and, where necessary, replace rotted parts; apply filler in cracks and small holes; let it dry then wipe down with white spirit and apply colourless preservative which serves as primer and holding for undercoat on surfaces where the old paint is sound. After the undercoat comes the pleasant labour of applying Corfu green surface gloss. Each of two coats takes 24 hours to dry. I leave it longer.
** ** **
With my friend Dave I’ve replaced a beam supporting our wooden balcony. When we walked there last year Lin and I saw a dip in the decking and assumed a normal settling. Then Mark, visiting, noted how one of two supporting beams had fallen four inches, where it entered the centre of one of its brick support columns. He inserted an Acrow prop to secure the balcony over the winter.
On a stepladder Dave sawed through the centre of the damaged beam. Both pieces slid easily from the support columns, to be lowered to me. The cavity at the top of one of the column harbours an ants’ nest, whose inhabitants in their constant activity had reduced one end of the beam to a splintered stub, which, if it had given any further would have led to the collapse of one half of the balcony.
“Seems they’ve left that alone. But keep an eye.”
We lift the new beam into place; tap away some old mortar; perfect fit; unscrew the Acrow, and lower the jack, deftly catching the substitute plank, as the new beam starts its job.
From above, it’s the power drill with screw driver again - zzzz zzzzz- done, zzzzz zzzz- done, zzzz zzzzz - done; the shims and decking replaced; the decking now pleasingly level; job completed in 3 hours. Cups of tea had helped us through the morning. Now we broke two cans of lager.
“Finished in the cool of the morning, Dave. You made it look easy!”
It’s not the best idea to ‘battle’ against nature. For the first time in ten years we experience the deprivation of abundant fresh oranges and lemons - one of the delights for a northerner in Greece. Since last spring, citrus scale insects have infested the under surfaces of the leaves on our two lemon trees and one blood orange.
|Not a disease - an infestation|
Scale insects are a pest familiar in the citrus industry. They occurs in the USA and all over southern Europe. Not all citrus trees are affected. On walks we’ve see many unaffected trees, bearing the abundant lemons and oranges we had come to take for granted. Last spring, on advise, Lin mixed dissolved bars of olive soap in boiling water, mixed with oil to hold the olive solution on the foliage. We sprayed as widely as we could reach with a hand pump sprayer lent by Mark. The insects turned to black mush which dried up. On new growth the scale insects return, the male insects travelling, the female clustering and immobile once on their leaves. We sprayed and sprayed at regular intervals. Still new insects return; in small numbers at first, but in clusters that visibly increase. I have watched them gathering. As well as spraying, I’ve hung sticky fly papers in the branches. In days they’re covered, sometimes, to my regret, with a trapped lacewing or bee, but mostly thousands and thousands of scale insects. My neighbour’s orange tree has no fruit nor blossom, but seems clear of scale insects. What’s their vector? Where are they coming from? Why are they on some trees and not on others? Some people here have pollarded their trees drastically. Others have even felled them – which might work for disease but can have only limited effect on spreading insects. Others have employed pest controllers who’ve applied traditional toxic sprays as for other pests, but this like our non-toxic olive soap solution, kills the insects only for more to return. I long for signs of the arrival of predator insects, enjoying scale insects as a welcome feast. Many ants roam the branches but they’re lapping the honeydew in the mould, leaving the under leaf pests unmolested. They may even, as I've read, have a symbiotic relationship with the scale insects, moving them about to new trees, or replacing them on leaves we've temporarily cleared by spraying.
“We need Ladybirds” says Lin.
I cannot just leave the trees alone, hoping that nature will take its course – since with all leaves coated in black mould preventing photosynthesis I will be watching our trees die.
Symbiosis of ants and other insects: One of the most common is the herding or farming of sap feeding insects 'homopterans' such as aphids, scale bugs and mealy bugs. ... By stroking the back of some aphids with their antennae, the ants can induce a honeydew droplet. The ants may move the insects to areas on the plants with the best sap.*** *** ***
On the 1st May I was standing on the balcony and a neighbour saw me and called ‘Kronia Polla. Proto Maio!” I’d clean forgotten. I went foraging for flowers from verges, walls and abandoned gardens returning with flowering garlic, violets, a pink mallow flower, yellow and white daisies, sprigs of jasmine and wild sage called Lantana Camara - dry thorny stalks bearing bunched florets of many tiny multi-coloured flowers. I found roses, wall flowers, and from a flourishing Bird of Paradise plant, two orange azure flowers like parrots’ heads, sweet peas, clover, blue flowered comfrey prickly to pick, a lily from our garden and a deep purple leafed plant bearing a tiny pink flower. I fixed these with green string in granny knots to a wired circle of long stalks from the invasive pelargonium on the wire fence in our small garden.
|Spring 2018 - all my own work|
|Λάμπατα στον Άη-Γιώργη - 22 June in Ano Korakiana|
**** **** ****
On a Sunday I cycled to Dukades – 5 kilometres west, as the crow flies - to sit in the platea in the shared shade of a Jacaranda and a Lime tree sipping chilled village wine with two of my neighbours, absorbing languid conversation, noon sun seeping through the greenery, sparkling our glasses.
“Look how the sunlight dapples my white wine. If a cloud comes it doesn’t seem as good. Go away cloud!”
Our talking turned on gender fluidity, so normal but with vexatious implications for architecture and competition; vulture capitalists feasting on Greece. How much profit, if any, seeps into the surroundings of these grand hotel projects? Morecambe! Where my neighbours knew one another in primary school. Solar energy - why isn’t Greece’s free resource, so much scarcer in the north, being tapped into by everyone? Will they ever sort out the ethical programming of driverless cars? Who will the software save first, the children in the car or the old couple who walk out in front of it? “Hm? That’s a bit of a no-brainer”; peculiar neighbours and the kindness of strangers; bitcoins and the end of money “Monitor every transaction and human ingenuity will invent alternative ways of doing business”; fake news, filter-bubbles, ‘likely stories’ and urban myths; and letters to Agony aunts.. 'Dear Marge. I’ve suffered from dropsy since childhood. An orphan, abused by carers, my relationships end in desertion. Help…’ ‘Dear Marge. A servant on one of our yachts persists in wiping the condensation off the champagne before removing the cork with such a noisy pop. Help’ …’Dear Marge. Can you help us with scale insects on our lemon trees? They’re spoiling our lives….’
A Sunday afternoon torpor, impossible north of the olive belt.
“We’ll go home and light the BBQ. Will you join us?”
They headed off by car, while I descended from the village via the road down to Paleo, pedalling away towards Doctor’s Bridge, but long before there, I spied a left turn down a narrow road signed ‘Corfu Donkey Rescue’. At last I’d found, after instructions from Mark, a road that went direct, if curvedly, to Skripero, with hardly an ascent.
I cycle gently between green hedges, trees forming shady tunnels, passing gaps through which I see meadows of flowers stirred by the afternoon breeze from the mountains. If I hold my breath the sound of bees comes from everywhere. I see butterflies, small birds, and, gliding on thermals, two eagles, mewing at one another where their separate circling intersects. In the distance, spread across the slopes beneath Trompetta, I see the separate parts of Ano Korakiana – Mougades, the Bear (where we live), and Venetia. An aeroplane passes over ahead, ascending northward
One of the difficulties of not believing is that I have no-one to thank for such happiness, so I do anyway, following pagan instinct - 'pagan' being the old name, so I was told by Richard Pine, for a villager.
“Blessed Mary, mother of God, pray for this sinner, now and at the hour of my death" and I, a Protestant.
****** ****** ******
On another Sunday Mark, John and Karen and I had Sunday lunch at ALS by the shore at Pyrgi. I cycled there through Ag Markos. Clouds with rain and wind and even some thunder during the night were clearing, leaving the shallow sea lapping the gravel beach near our table, limpid yet still blue over white and grey round stones, slightly ruffled so far as the horizon that underlies the mountains of Epirus across the Sea of Kerkyra.
|Mark, John, Karen and Simon|
In a month I’ll be finding it too hot this close to the shore, but now the climate was perfect, on a par with high summer in England, nearly shirt-sleeve weather.
“I passed you on the way” said Mark, who’d promised to drive me back later, bike folded in the back. We had beer, for me the green topped Ionian Beer I like, and later village rosé in a big carafe. Starters: courgette balls, saganaki - fried cheese, squid, and garlicky mashed potatoes - skordalia, and a rocket salad with balsamic vinegar and shavings of strong cheese. Bread too, fresh for Sunday; then, after just the right interval, whole sea bass twice, similar sea bream, and veal in wine sauce - sofritto. All around us, Greek families and friends. Though visitors are arriving, planes and coaches coming and going, the holiday season has yet to speed up. People are still preparing premises, smartening frontages, laying planks on jetties, raising flags and signs.
On the way home Mark took the low road one which I cycle and walk, becoming a gravel track through deep woods, undergrowth and overhanging greenery.
“You do know there’s been a landslip ahead?”
When we got to where rain had washed away the ground supporting a concreted stretch of our road, he went on foot to inspect. Then before I had time to be a sensible coward drove over the stretch at risk, making mock panic noises.
|Rain-made landslide undercutting the rough track between Pyrgi and Ano Korakiana|
“The concrete has a metal grid reinforcing it. They’ll need to build a supporting wall and in-fill. Quite a job and expensive.”
Near where our route turned up to join the Ag Markos road, Mark steered suddenly left along a gravel track I’d not noticed before and brought us to a church low on the eastern edge of Ano Korakiana whose cemetery was covered in poppies, white daisies and delicate blue flowers, almost hidden beneath, the whole waving in the wind among the white marble gravestones with their artificial flowers, photos of the departed and small lamps.
We drove on, and stayed until after dark, sitting quietly in the garden at Karen's and John's below the village. A mass of grey cloud came charging over the mountains, surging before a north west wind, but still no rain. The trees rustled and bent. The air grew almost chilly.
Back in the house I slept early. The street lights were out, the village in darkness. Shapes and tones and now and then lightning and thunder
|A windy evening at 208 Democracy Street|