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Journal

The Journal

Stymphalia & Scarlet Vineyards

The day following our exploration of lake Doxa, our group ventured into the valley of Lake Stymphalia (Λίμνη Στυμφαλία). A storm hovered over the valley, the filtered light illuminating a patchwork of cultivated earth. This entire region is sacred to the goddess Artemis in her form of Artemis Stymphalia, protectress of the lake, fowl and forests.

Humans have lived in relationship with this land for thousands of years: the limestone basin providing ample sinkholes and rich irrigation for the surrounding plain. It is said that Artemis, angry at her followers for failing to honor her properly, once blocked the flow of water and flooded the plain with stagnant water. It wasn't until an offering was made that she allowed the obstruction to clear and the people to prosper again.

The lake was also the site of Hercules' sixth labor, when he was set the task of killing a flock of carnivorous birds that hid in the marsh, terrorizing villagers of the region. Given a bronze rattle by the goddess Athena, Hercules frightened the birds from their hiding place among the reeds and shot them down, one by one, with his bow and arrow.

When we pass the lake, it is easy to imagine the mythic birds crouching among the thick reeds. In fact, the reeds are so thick that it is nearly impossible to see the water's surface from the road.

At the local environmental museum, we learn that the exposed surface of the lake is shrinking, due in part to human over-draining and the build up of commercial farming sediment. Combine this with a "natural" increase in mud deposits on the lake floor and the reed beds are spreading, doubling in area within just the last 50 years!

While the reed beds are an important shelter for migratory birds, the loss of open water affects other species that are essential to the health of the ecosystem, like reptiles and amphibians. Hercules' tale seems an ample warning against the dangers of allowing the reed beds to form so dense a shelter...

Leaving the lake, we drive to Psari (Ψάρι) where a series of hikes begin at the village church and descend into the valley among olive groves and vineyards. Where the path curves, we take a short detour to Saint Dimitrios ('Αγιος Δημήτριος), a tiny chapel surrounded by a low wall and towering cypress.

Passing through the stone archway, the cypress grove silences the wind and shades the horizon, creating a deep and heavy quiet.  I feel a vibration in the stillness and I wonder if there may have been an ancient temple beneath the foundations of the church, continuing the tradition of worship in this place over the centuries.

Returning to the path, we continue our hike through the “Scarlet Vineyard” - a collection of vineyards which grow on land that has been cultivated for nearly 3,000 years. It appears several of the vineyards are abandoned, grapes left to shrivel on the vine as offerings to either Dionysos or the birds, I'm not sure.

Storm clouds continue to form and dissipate, creating prisms on the horizon: a rainbow rises from the mountain peak. Rain comes and goes in soft drizzles, brightening the scarlet leaves on the vines.

As we near the village, the fresh autumn aroma of the decaying earth is replaced by a stench of refuse: plastic, garbage, and metal rots among the trees. Our guide tells us that trash is simply thrown by locals off of the nearest cliffs, despoiling the forest along the trail.

After the beauty of the hike, this comes as a gross reminder of the disconnected ways humans relate to the land. Over three thousand years of relationship with this valley and humans are still dishonoring the land? I am overcome with anger and sadness, offering a deep apology to Artemis Stymphalia on behalf of my fellow humans.