Springtime In Greece
( Originally Published early 20th century )
This extract is from a book descriptive of country life in modern Greece, written by a former United States minister to Greece. Mr. Horton describes a summer spent by his family at Poros, a country village on the seashore near Athens.
Our daily walk to market led through the lemon orchard to the back gate of the garden, whence a narrow lane conducted us to the little town of Galata, where one crosses over to Poros in a row-boat. It was scarcely a mile, but we were fully two hours walking it the first day, the wild flowers made such children of us. It was in early March, when the air is soft in Greece and the fields are fresh and green. The gardeners were digging up the fresh earth and were setting out tomato and. lettuce plants, — not the little stringy heads of lettuce that we eat in America, but a tall, crisp variety that you break off leaf by leaf and crunch like asparagus.
The garden path was lined with peach, pear, almond, and apricot trees, and these were all in bloom. One young tree especially delighted us. It was slender and graceful as a young girl, and its leaves were completely hidden under immense snowy blossoms which, when you looked close, betrayed a delicate tinge of pink.
The bees too were at work. Who calls them when the flowers are ready ? Tennyson has told us about the bees. They play the same lyre in Greece as in England, and they strum its drowsy strings to-day just as they did thousands of years ago.
"And murmuring of innumerable bees ! " Greece is the bees' reveling ground. We had been in the country three years before we learned how to pro-cure Hymettus honey ad libitum, although we had tasted the genuine article after a week's residence in Athens. It happened thus : As I was walking along the street one day I met a shepherd carrying a pine limb to which was attached a huge triangular comb of yellow honey. I bought it from him and took it triumphantly home. I gave the man I forget how many drachmas, but that first taste of real Hymettus honey was worth dollars instead of drachmas to me.
For two years after meeting that shepherd the Kyria and I used to watch the silver slopes of old Hymettus and wonder where the famous honey came from in the ancient days. I explained to her frequently that trees grew there more thickly then than now, and that in consequence many small streams formerly trickled down ravines that have long since become dry. " The bees too are gone,"
I said, and this idea was corroborated by our frequent attempts to buy Hymettus honey in the shops. We were told that a firm in Piraeus had the monopoly of the real product and sold it to the English ships. I bought a tin, but it was no more like the nectar of my triangle of the pine bough than "golden drips" resembles maple sugar.
Again we were informed that one Merlin of Athens had bought the entire crop, which he sold in small tins at an enormous price. One trial was sufficient ; all the rest was left for the innocent tourists, who paid the belated wizard a large profit on his ingenious outlay.
It remained for an angry bee to enlighten me, and to teach me that the Greece of the bucolic poets is not yet entirely dead. One May evening we were hurrying across a wild-thyme field, at the foot of Mount Hymettus, to catch the car for town, when a bee suddenly fastened his stinger in my eyelid and hung there buzzing. Of course I was angry at the time, but after the wound ceased aching I began to think, with the result that we made another trip in the same direction a day or two afterwards. A little inquiry brought us to the bee country proper. We found rows and rows of hives at the foot of a cliff on the mountain side, and a dozen or so of rustic villagers on guard. These hives we had seen a hundred times before, but had not recognized them, as they were simply conical baskets, and looked, at a little distance, for all the world like rocks.
We bought about thirty pounds direct from the hives, and I have no hesitation in declaring it the best and most wholesome honey in the world. There is no way of describing the taste of it, save to say that it tastes exactly as wild thyme smells. From the countrymen we learned that there are thousands of acres of wild thyme all about the mountain.
The sun was setting that day as we left the hives and cut across to the main road through the wild-thyme fields. The bees were just coming home, and we soon found ourselves in the center of a cloud of them. The air was utterly still, but they drifted obliquely by, as though floating on a gentle breeze. One of the countrymen shouted, " Don't move, and they won't touch you ! " So we stood still and watched them. I do not know whether the little insects themselves were so yellow, or whether it was the setting sun that shone through the long cloud as it drifted by, but I could not help thinking of the line in the poem, " Swarms of tawny bees."
But all this is about Mount Hymettus and its famous honey, and we have forgotten that we are down in the Peloponnesus by the seashore and on our way through a lemon grove to the Poros market.
As we strolled slowly along toward the market, the Kyria and I, we stopped now and then to listen to the bass-viol boom of some large, iridescent green beetles. The poppies were blazing with their reddest flame, plashing the green wheat with frequent patches of blood-red. A tiny beetle buzzed in every poppy's heart.
In the early flush and triumph of the Greek spring the green of the wheat is so vivid, and the red of the poppies so fiery, that the peaceful hillsides seem to have arrayed themselves in barbaric splendor. In March the poppies begin to bloom, and they are in full revel by the middle of April. Then you see them everywhere,— in the fields and country lanes and even atop of the mud fences, where they have gallantly leaped in their onward march.
But I do not think one gains most pleasure in Greece from the poppies, splendid as they are. The anemones hold rival sway in that land. Whoever sowed the poppy seeds mixed therewith an equal quantity of delicately tinted windflowers. And of all places in Greece, or perhaps in the world, they grow thickest on the field of Marathon.
There are many tiny wild flowers too in Greece, that hide among the grass and are so exquisitely beautiful that one understands why they could not have been larger without sacrificing something of their daintiness. I think we were most pleased, on that first trip to market, by certain tiny four-pointed stars of dark blue, with a yellow eye in the center. There were millions of them, and all among them other stars of the same shape and size, terra cotta in color; besides these, dandelions, buttercups, white daisies, and occasionally patches of yellow daisies—yellow and gold.
Asphodel ! acres and acres of it, on the hillside. We walked among it hand in hand and imagined ourselves happy shades, far from all the cares and anxieties of life. Waist-deep in asphodel, that swayed gently in a breeze from the near-by sea, we waded. Pale pink were the waxen flowers we plucked, and without perfume, like a beautiful body without a soul.
This is a stately plant, as befits the symbol of death, for it stands up tall and straight, with stalks that branch out symmetrically from the main stem. The plain where it grows seems a great table set with many silver candelabra.
We came suddenly, at the farther side of a little knoll, into a field all life and light and color, — a lawn of grass, closely cropped and brilliantly interwoven with white and yellow daisies, bluebells, and poppies.
" Hear the bees ! " cried the Kyria. Stooping down, I found that every blossom was held by a buzzing insect.
How easy it must have been for the ancient Greeks to think in poetry! Paganism adapted it-self so easily to the impressions of nature and to the imaginings of aesthetic and susceptible minds. Coming over that little knoll, I felt like Orpheus when he emerged from Hades and stood for a moment blinking at the sunny world.
Abridged from "In Argolis"
Poros (po'ros). — Galata (ga'la ta).— "And murmuring of innumerable bees": quoted from Tennyson's poem, "The Princess."— ad libitum (ad lib'i turn): Latin for "at will,""as much as we liked."—Kyria (ke re 'a): the Greek word for "lady"; used here as the author's name for his wife.—"golden drips ": an imitation of maple sugar. —belated wizard: here, one having the same name as Merlin, the famous wizard of King Arthur's time, but living long afterward. — bucolic (bu kol'ik): relating to the life of a shepherd; hence, pastoral, rustic. —Peloponnesus (pel o po ne'sus): the southern peninsula of Greece.—anemone (a nem'o ne): wiridflower. - Marathon (mar'a thon) : a plain east of Athens. — asphodel (as`fo del): a blossom of the lily kind; in Greek mythology the plant of the blessed dead, its pale blossoms covering the meadows of Hades (ha dez), the abode of the dead.— candelabra (kan de la bra): branched candlesticks. — Orpheus (or'fus): the musician who, the poets said, could make all animals, and even trees and stones, follow him when he played on his lyre. — Argolis (ar'go lis).