Halcyon Days in the Saronic Gulf
There’s a term in Greek for a spell of fine weather in the middle of winter, the halcyon days (alkyonides meres), after the kingfisher, which, according to legend, must nest and raise its brood floating on calm waters. These days tend to occur for a week or two from mid-January, but can start any time from the solstice through to 15 February. Perhaps for that reason, the exceptionally mild weather over the twelve days of Christmas did not call forth the same climate anxiety as, for instance, the heat waves of the summer, and the ever worsening and elongating fire season. It’s just the halcyon days, we tell ourselves, and marvel at the blue skies and soft spring-like air.
We had visitors over Christmas from Nashville, Tennessee, and they reckoned themselves lucky to have escaped the brutal cold snap and snowstorms that were shutting down airports in the US just as holiday travel was getting underway. That the polar vortex dipping so far south in the US and the ‘unseasonable’ heatwave in Europe stem from the same weather destabilisation is hard to wrap the mind around. Walking about on Cape Sounion on Boxing Day (the temple itself was closed to visitors, but many Athenians had made the same pilgrimage to walk around and admire the view, and try to sneak through the fencing, thwarted by a skeleton crew of exasperated site guards), we felt blessed.
Shortly afterwards we decamped to ‘Fishhook’, an island in the Saronic Gulf not far from Athens but somewhat off the tourist track (especially in winter, when nothing is open). The little island, though its ancient name (Kekrifalia) gets a nod in the Iliad, lacks any ancient monuments to speak of, but has fine beaches, both shingle and sand, and is crowned with a forest, of mostly Aleppo pines, threaded with footpaths (firebreaks, really). It isn’t especially wild as forests go – the most charismatic fauna are partridges (chukars) and hares – although we have also run across snakes and tortoises, know rumours of hedgehogs, and hear owls, both the weary peeps of scops owls and the cries of little owls (Athena noctua), which sound like the mews of indignant newborn kittens.
But this winter, we not only walked in the forest, we went swimming almost daily from 31 December well into the New Year. It took me at least ten minutes to inch myself into the water, but once in, I found I could swim for a good half hour at a time. Were there more fish than there used to be? We thought so in the summer, and put it down to the Covid lockdowns, when not even fishing boats went out. I was on the island for the first three weeks of lockdown, and it was eerie how quiet everything was – how much background noise we tend to tune out from planes overhead, even the odd helicopter, and boats chugging on the sea. The sky too had seemed sharper, and I found I could walk the forest at night even by starlight.
On 6 January, the church bells called the island’s inhabitants to the Epiphany service (or Theophania), the Blessing of the Waters. The weather was still ‘unusually mild’, in the locution of our times, but a south wind had kicked up, just enough to put people in light jackets. The villagers turned out in their Sunday best, except for a handful of burly lads in tracksuits, with a change of clothes in a bag, ready for the ritual swimming for the cross following the service.
After the mass, the congregation filed out through the side door to fill up empty vessels – jars, bottles, thermoses, flasks – with holy water, blessed by the priest. The silver vat, with little taps, was continuously refilled by an assistant emptying plastic bottles from the local grocery store. Then there was a procession down to the seashore. The road was strewn with branches of lentiscus (skinos, in Greek), the mastic bush, known for its fragrant resin, which grows as a wild shrub all along the forest paths, festooned just now with red berries. As we trod on the branches down to the port, they exuded a pungent, incense-like smell, and it occured to me this must be an ancient practice, predating Epiphany by centuries.
At the quay, I noticed one teenaged girl among the divers – the boys all wore regular swimming trunks, but she, perhaps in a nod to religious modesty, wore baggy boy’s trunks and a T-shirt. The priest poured a small bottle of holy water into the sea, and tossed out a wooden cross, once, twice, three times, pulling it back on a ribbon like a fishing line, before a last throw and the divers were off, churning in the water, their relations waiting on the quay with towels and warm clothes.
Hesiod’s Works and Days, which I spent some years translating, is studded with phenological observations, such as that spring sailing must wait until the topmost leaf on a fig tree is the size of a crow’s foot. This is one I always look out for on Fishhook, which is awash in hooded crows and feral fig trees. (Traditionally, the island had only two cash crops to supplement subsistence farming: resin from the tapped pine trees, the deep scores from which are sometimes still visible, and dried figs, which were sold across the way at Aegina to build up daughters’ dowries.) It’s summertime when the golden thistle blooms and the cicada starts singing.
I watch these things not as Hesiod did – to map out the cycles of time – but to notice what is changing, what is off, where we might be headed. Our first landlady on Fishhook, an Englishwoman who had lived on the island for a couple of decades, used to say that February was the yellow month, when the mimosa trees blossomed into yellow starburst pompoms in her garden, and the lemons hung ripe in the lemon trees. The mimosa has been blooming earlier and earlier; I saw one in nearly full bloom already in December.
Walking in the forest, past a hillside of pink and purple anemones, I came across Kyria Katina near the head of the path. She runs the Taverna Parnassos during the summer. She was out gathering armfuls of sour grass (oxalis) as fodder for her chickens. She expressed concern about the autumn’s lack of rain. Scant rainfall hurts the olive crop – everyone here has their own oil – but also the health of the forest. The big island across the water shows what Fishhook might be like stripped of its robe of greenery – a more brutal landscape of rock and shadeless scrub. That the forest might burn is a fear every summer; during heat waves the paths are closed off to hikers, for fear of a stray cigarette or spark.
The island is dry for winter, and yet I am amazed at the efficiency of the plants in the forest – the lush moss, the spiky leaves of asphodel which bristle along the path – at collecting moisture out of thin air. The asphodel condenses it into larger and larger drops of dew, until the liquid runs down the spine of the long leaf either towards the base of the plant or its outer circumference. It’s enough water, I think, to quench the thirst of a hare. (I’ve often wondered what they drink in the dry times when there are no puddles.) The forest creates its own micro-climate. I’ve even seen a few ochre mushrooms here and there. But we worry. We always worry.
And here’s the paradox. My climate anxiety is least high when I am out and about in nature, observing what is at stake and what may (what will?) be lost. I am consoled by it even as I grieve. Does it worry me that the crickets are still out, chirping, at the end of December? Or that I see hummingbird hawkmoths in the bougainvillea, and even the great ball-bearing of a white-tailed bumblebee fumbling in the winter-blooming rosemary? It does, but my heart still leaps to see these things, or to hear the owls piping in the forest, or to run across half a dozen partridges on the eleventh day of Christmas, fluttering off with the sound of rapidly deflating balloons. I think how people a hundred years from now, or maybe less, would pay a fortune to have, for an hour, what we take for granted, and I try to absorb, to record, to witness, these late halcyon days of the Anthropocene.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.