Digging Roots Deep Into a Yearning Earth

When I plant a little birch tree and see how it is growing green...my soul is filled with pride from the realization that, thanks to me, there is one more life added on earth....

- from ``The Wood Demon'' by Anton Chekhov

WE often stumble on unexpected and wonderful encounters by the mere climbing of a hillside in Greece. Last October in the isle of Samos we were drawn up the lower slopes of Mount Kerkis by various sounds, the autumn song of willow warblers, the whirring of insects, tinkling of goat bells, and the raking of fallen olives.

We came on a small stone hut and beside it a tethered donkey that shook its ears at us and rattled its harness. We were startled by the sudden appearance of a wiry little Greek, darting out from the sage bushes and waving his rake at us. ``Have they sent you from Kosmadei?'' he demanded sharply. He was relieved to hear that we came from an island much further afield then Kosmadei. ``The people up there are always interfering,'' he explained.

He stooped down, picked up a stone and flung it far off into the rosemary and junipers. For a moment we thought he was dismissing us, but he was proudly showing us the extent of his territory.

``Where the stone fell my domain ends,'' he said. With Grecian hospitality he offered to share his midday meal with us, showed us his hut, his spitiko, his woodpile, pleased by our interest. Then a new expression came over his face. He had wonders still to show us that made him beam and chuckle. ``Here's the best of all. Oriste! Look!'' he said.

On a terrace looking down over the Aegean and toward rocky Ikaria he had planted a row of silver-gray olive saplings. ``Up in Kosmadei they say I'm far too old to be planting trees and keep sending for me. I'll never see the fruit, they say. They don't understand that trees are for tomorrow - avrio. I may not see the fruit but it will be there!'' He smiled triumphantly. ``There's immortality in olives.''

``How old are you?'' we asked.

``Guess.'' We couldn't. He counted out on flickering fingers, watching our faces and enjoying our astonishment.

``Eighty-seven! Impossible!''

``It's true. Not much time left so I must be busy.''

Dusk falls early in October. We had to leave. If we wanted, he said, we could ride down to Potami on his mule Arapeena. If not, then till tomorrow. ``Avrio!'' we called, waving back to him.

During that last week of our holiday we returned each day to visit Manolis Poronos, his face wrinkled as the olive bark but eternally youthful. He was a brother to Chekhov's Wood Demon, planting Greek olives instead of Russian birches. He became for us like the guardian spirit of green wooded Samos. He spoke very slowly, especially when understanding of Greek failed us.

A certain phrase ran through all he said: Ti tha kanome? What's to be done? He believes that whatever befalls us is the will of God and has to be accepted and endured. There was the fearful heat of last summer, the rivers dried up, and the olive crop failed. ``And my wife died,'' he said. ``Ti tha kanome?'' Life goes on.

``What do you do when you lose a human companion? Plant trees!'' he exclaimed, not waiting for an answer. ``They're the best companions - better than the folk of Kosmadei,'' he added with his slyly sarcastic grin.

He had tales of war and peace in the island, of Turkish, German and Italian invasions. ``We lost everything except hope, some times even that. Ti tha kanome? We endured. Now come and help me water my olives.'' He had a fine, dry humor and liked to tell us of all the subterfuges he used to outwit the watchful eyes of the villagers of Kosmadei.

``Why can't they leave me alone? My son too!'' he told us. ``He wants me to join him in Athens. Athens! It's an open sewer. How could I plant trees in all the pollution? Besides, I'd get lost over there. I've never left the island in all my life.'' He took to us for we were ready to lend a helping hand and he delighted in the title we gave him: King of the Olive Groves.

As he sat beside us his hands were never idle. He was always carving at pieces of olive wood, creating birds, beasts, sometimes a cross. He showed us graftings taken from wild olives whose fruit, he told us, you never eat. There were silences when we thought he had fallen asleep but he was gazing into the distance, smiling, as if he saw scenes from a lifetime of planting trees, tending them, harvesting their fruit. All at once he would follow another train of thought.

``The priest up in Kosmadei is always quoting St. Paul and says he knows as much about olives as I do. I am to look him up in Romans but I don't read much nowadays so perhaps you could do it for me.''

We found the passages and read: ``If the root be holy so are the branches.... For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?''

``Paul knew what he was talking about,'' said Manolis, delighted. ``He was here, sailing from Chios over to Samos. He'd have understood what I feel about my trees, he wouldn't have stopped me planting, he'd have helped me. It's odd how close you can feel to some of the characters the priest talks about. I often imagine Paul sitting in that grove down there, writing away at his letters to the Romans, telling them how the people of Samos are like olive trees with fine roots. He and I would have understood each other, even though I'm not the great traveler he was,'' he added.

Again he seemed to drowse over, but he was wide awake, giving us a strange look. ``If you ever come and find I'm gone be sure to water my saplings,'' he said.

Each time we returned down the hill to Potami we were turning over the latest wisdom of Manolis, considering some new horizon he had opened up to us. The sound of his voice calling Ya Sas in greeting, his philosophical Ti tha kanome, his avrio when we left became part of the joy of the calm autumn.

On our last day we climbed up Mount Kerkis to say goodbye to our old friend. The sea was ruffled by a rising wind, there was a sense of storm after serenity. We were half-drenched by a sudden cloudburst and took shelter.

By the time we reached Manolis's spitiko there was so much quiet we knew we had come too late. The cautious neighbors of Kosmadei or the son from Athens, foreseeing a change in the weather, had fetched him away at last. He was off to his winter hibernation.

Everything was touchingly tidy. Manolis has set one of his olive-wood crosses on top of his woodpile, as a message of farewell, perhaps as a sign. Ti tha kanome. Submit, accept. His presence lingered about the place, we heard echoes of his slow voice, saw the brown fingers carving wood or counting the centuries of olive trees, his own age, that of his grandchildren. We felt that we had known him all our lives, not a mere week.

He would be riding now on Arapeena with bundles of sage and firewood stowed in her saddlebags. The track taken would be the ancient one, trodden by generations of islanders on slow-trotting mules, not the new road, blasted out of the hillside for tourists with speedy cars and noisy motor bikes. ``If you find me gone...,'' he had said. We watered the silvery-gray saplings for a last time. Would we find him again next October?

Back in our own island we heard of a freak gale that had uprooted thousands of trees in a single night. There was a growing anxiety for our planet earth, with man abusing nature and wiping out whole species of wildlife.

In the midst of so much desolation we kept remembering Manolis who planted for tomorrow. A quotation teased our memory, then came to us. The wise old Greek would have handed out the same advice to his son as Walter Scott's Dumbiedykes gave on his deathbed to his: ``When ye hae noothing else to dae ye may be aye sticking in a tree. It will be growing when ye're sleeping....''

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