In Persephone’s fields
I. The Mediterranean region casts a spell over me with its lands of myth and magic, where rock and soil and water intersect to form widely diverse land and seascapes. Perhaps it has to do with windswept cliffs and inland plains; or rock-filled valleys, mysterious springs, oases; or with centuries of cultivation by the ingenious hand of man.
It is a region of extraordinarily rich beauty as well as harshness, where human traces echo down the millennia at all points of the compass.
Egypt’s Mediterranean shore is stone-strewn and scrubby. Still, there are figs and prickly pears near the ruins of Graeco-Roman ports, and gardens around the Second World War memorials at El-Alamein. Inland, the Nile Delta forms a discreet area surrounded by desert: A patchwork of brilliant green rice fields, fruit farms, and smallholdings where farmers cultivate everything from cabbages to loofahs to taro.
A recent trip to Sicily* has introduced me to a very different landscape. Its glorious eastern coast from Siracusa/Ortigia in the south to Taormina and Mt. Etna in the north presents a feast for the botanist, a paradise for the gardener.
Here again are the familiar citrus trees, vines, olive trees. But the farms are more likely set among terraced, rocky hillsides interspersed with streams or dry river beds. Oleanders grow wild and prickly pears are ubiquitous, clinging to vertiginous cliffs like crazy mountaineers determined to scale every peak.
Even among the steps and seats of an ancient Greek theatre myriad plants, including grasses and alyssum, have found a foothold:
The distant vista is of Mt. Etna, sometimes shrouded in mist (or is it smoke?) or with its head in the clouds, at other times illumined by the sun. Strangely, it brings to mind a pyramid: an inescapable symbol of place.
As you make the ascent up Mt. Etna’s deceptively gentle southern slope the chestnut trees and oleanders give way to more specialist plant life, notably the Etna broom (Genista aetnensis). This ‘pioneer’ wild plant gradually breaks down the lava with its root system. I’ve read it’s a slow process, taking around 400 years, but that’s a nanosecond in geological terms. In summer the broom produces delicately fragranced yellow flowers, an improbable sight among the black masses of lava all around. Luckily, G. aetnensis was in flower when we visited (though I missed getting a photograph of the blooms).
Sicily is Persephone’s land. When the ancient Greeks thought to explain the change of seasons, keenly felt on this windswept island in the sea, they imagined the story of a young woman – Persephone – abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. In a frantic attempt to see her daughter again, Demeter (goddess of cultivation) bargained with Hades that Persephone should in future be allowed to emerge into the fields for half the year before returning to him. So the growth, fertility and sunlight of spring and summer are followed by the dark, cold chill of autumn and winter, as the waters follow the moon.
In a way, Persephone’s story was a recurring theme. Our visit, primarily to discover a number of private and public gardens, brought frequent reminders of the fragility of life in this most beautiful land. Capsized cacti; a tree split by a bolt of lightning; mealy bugs on a bitter orange tree; a dreaded beetle destroying Canary Island palms…
To be continued
- Our trip was organised by Susan Worner Tours based in Yorkshire, UK