Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

An Olympian Tree on a Grecian Hillside

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

An Olympian Tree on a Grecian Hillside

Article excerpt

THE large island of Evia, Greece, is not rich in ruins. Odysseus never slept here. Tragedians wrote in other places. Evia gets exactly three lines in Berlitz's 700-page guide to Greece. Don't come here looking for a classical atmosphere.

But less-elevated pleasures lie all around. In Prokopi, one of Evia's villages, there is a Leicestershire manor, a Turkish saint, and, in the cool of every late afternoon, a concert provided by goats.

And then there is the tree. It is said to be the biggest plane tree in Europe. Its trunk is creased and pleated like the face of an old poet. The bottom branches have sought the earth, have put down roots, and have again risen, so that the lower part of the tree seems to be leaning on its elbows. The upper branches widen and soar. A hollow at the base of the trunk is as big as a room, and indeed has been used as a room - as picnickers' refuge and lovers' hideaway. There is even rubbish from a small fire inside this wooden den. But fortunately, the fire didn't damage the tree.

The government of Greece locks up the Acropolis on Sundays, but affords no protection to this mighty work of nature. The tree stands amid the slag heaps of an abandoned magnesium mine, as if to say that the animate triumphs over the inanimate, though maybe the message is only that magnesium is no longer in demand. When the mine was operating, Prokopi was more prosperous than it is today. Now, in tavernas, some men play cards from morning till night.

I visited the tree with a party of musicians. Fifteen of us scrambled over its thick roots. We joined hands, and we could just encircle it. My nose rubbed against the tree's indifferent hide. We sang "Embraceable You" - a comedown musically for this crowd, who for the last several days had been practicing a four-part mass of William Byrd. But I couldn't manage the mass, so the singers were accommodating to their new friend.

We were all staying at the Candili Centre for the Arts, a manor house and outbuildings on a hill above Prokopi that rents itself out to artists and musicians and writers, in groups or in pairs or singly. The estate was built in the 1830s by a relative of Lady Byron from Leicestershire. It remains in English hands. You could spend a year in its library. You could swim laps in its bathtubs. We all played croquet on its lawn, where a chaste Victorian garden blooms under the proud Greek sun.

To reach the biggest plane tree in Europe from the Candili Centre, we had to totter single file across a plank bridge suspended on ropes over a stream. Then we flocked through a meadow where belled goats were grazing. On our way back, the goats were gliding toward another meal. Their bells, more or less in harmony, played just for us.

Goats are everywhere. I saw them tethered in the tiny yards of white village houses; I saw them with their herder in the fields; I saw their hides hanging from a rope stretched between trees. …

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