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Sun, wind and water are basic elements for gardeners. Less attention is given to fire, the fourth element. I have just been in the firing line, witnessing its powerful impact on gardens and landscapes.
On the wooded Greek island of Thasos I have been out in the field, tracing the course of archaeological excavations that stretch across more than 150 years. Many of them have been French, with a brief English input in the 1890s and some shrewd observations by a visiting American, published in 1909. The Greek Archaeological Service now presides over them, but a tempting patch of ground in the centre of the island’s ancient main city is still owned by the Egyptian government. It does nothing to exploit it and it sits unexcavated, a relic of 19th-century property rights. Beside it, stands another of Egypt’s overseas assets, a fine old house between Thasos’s ancient marketplace and the modern seashore. Its ivy-covered façade has sprouted brambles and a fig tree and is in terminal danger of collapse. I looked in vain for autumn cyclamen among its undergrowth. A month ago, if you had asked me to bet on the likeliest casualty in Thasos’s ancient heritage, I would have backed this house as the obvious candidate.
That bet would have overlooked the power of Zeus. In the early hours of one Saturday morning, the “father of gods and men” began to throw thunderbolts and lightning at inland Thasos on a scale that brought Homer’s Iliad to life. In the poem’s 13th book, the attacking Trojans are within reach of a storming victory among the Greek invaders’ beached ships. Into battle goes the Cretan Greek hero Idomeneus, determined to turn the tide, and Homer compares the gleam on his bronze armour to the gleam of lightning Zeus throws down from heaven. From my window in inland Kasaviti, among ancient pine trees and olives, the gleam on Idomeneus’s breastplate became readily imaginable while Zeus threw lightning at me through the clouds.
As Homer also knew, lightning can have an incendiary effect. It sets fire to trees and can cause an entire landscape to burn. We forget nowadays that the first catastrophe for Homer’s Greek heirs in the new millennium was not the financial bailout. It was ecological, a fearsome series of fires which swept through various Greek landscapes in the summer of 2007. Ancient Olympia was at risk of obliteration by an advancing wall of fire. Talk of the “Olympic flame” still has an unfortunate resonance. In a single summer, separate fires scorched more than 650,000 acres of natural landscape from Attica to Evia, from Lesbos to the perimeter of Olympia’s superb museum. Greece’s then prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, appealed to the EU and Greeks were touched by the European response. The losses were assessed at about €5bn. Even Austria sent at least one firefighting plane.
Fires in the modern Greek landscape are often a murky story. In 2007, all manner of culprits were cited, from Turks to terrorists, but there was good reason for human hands to be involved. As new building is usually permitted on land which has been burnt, unscrupulous owners can outflank planning rules by starting a convenient fire. On Thasos, there were no such culprits. Unlike last month’s fire in the migrant camp on Lesbos, it was not started wilfully. I can testify that it broke out naturally on the mountain slopes around me, feeding on the dry undergrowth and pine trees in its path. In the late 19th century the vines on Thasos were devastated by phylloxera disease and farmers abandoned production of their excellent wine. They planted olive trees instead. Around me those olive trees flared up and then glowed with hot embers as if lights had been turned on in the gaps of their ageing trunks. Each new gust of wind blew sparks across the landscape, forcing human and animal life to abandon their homes. My image of a forest fire is formed by art, not nature, by the fine painting by the Florentine Piero di Cosimo, now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. In its background tall trees have collided and are producing fire by rubbing their branches. Birds and animals rush to safety, among them a deer with a male human head and a wild sow with a woman’s face, the first female chauvinist pig. No such animals were running for safety beside me on Thasos. After packing my nightshirt I was saved by Greek women on two legs, not four. We fled by road and watched the clouds of black smoke soaring upwards, sometimes from houses abandoned in the fire’s path.
It is the last thing an island needs in this age of prolonged austerity. The Greek air force was summoned and for two days we watched while they dropped water bombs on to inaccessible burning valleys. Unlike the fires of 2007, this one claimed no human lives and needed no police investigation. Nobody is going to impeach Zeus. Thanks to Australian research, I can even tell you how best to encourage a burnt olive tree to regenerate. Leave it unpruned until it sends up new shoots. Check that they are sprouting from above the point where the tree was first grafted. Then cut off the burnt upper growth and water the tree very often. There is no need to use fertiliser.
From Australia to South Africa, from Nevada to California, the impact of fire on green nature is being reclassified by modern research. It used to be considered an unqualified disaster, but is now often represented as part of the “balance” of nature. In South Africa the distinctive flora of the open “fynbos” depends on frequent burning for its regeneration. Its flowering proteas set seeds which are only able to germinate if exposed to fire in the nearby bush. Varieties of pine tree in California give off inflammable vapours which assist a healthy burning in their environment. Fires are now seen as “opening” events in dense forest canopies because they allow big trees like sequoiadendrons to grow up into the light.
From front-line experience I am sceptical about this supposed “balance” in abusive mother nature. Life with her is more like a constant fight. On Thasos, I can see no advantage in the fire’s aftermath. Pine trees had made the south of the island a green haven but they will be slow to regenerate, if at all. Previous fires led to small pines regrowing only to a height of a few feet. Olives may make an eventual comeback, but I am not one to credit “balance” to Zeus and his lightning. According to Homer, the Olympian sadist has two jars on the floors of his hall, one full of good, one full of evil. He picks and mixes for us mortals on earth. On Thasos I have no doubt which one went into his mix, to the distress of the island’s gardeners and farmers.