Never in the world did I think that I’d be writing about wildfires more than once in a summer. But I’m preoccupied by the Peloponnesian fires, and the implications of the government’s lack of insight (as well as the possibility of duplicity—scapegoating in order to deflect criticism). I ache when I think the tragic irony implicit in the deaths of a mother and her four children who fled the fire—but whose house survived intact—and those of the couple who refused to leave their only donkey. I’m cheered by the successful efforts of the man who doused his neighborhood with his homemade wine, using a hand-cranked crop sprayer, and saved several homes. But I’m also reminded that, for all our civilized veneer, we are, at times, at the complete mercy of natural processes (whether or not they occur naturally).
Five years later, at the Greek town of Pylos, I stood on the ramparts of the old fort, overlooking Navarino Bay, thinking of Kazantzakis, and of that summer, as I entered the third year of my first marriage (which would last only four years altogether). Nearby stood the site of the ancient Palace of Nestor, where Telemachos had gone looking for his absent father. I had begun to study archaeology by then, and had embarked on a three-month trip to ancient sites with my husband, a budding classicist. Pylos was our second stop in the Morea, after Olympia—a site saved from the fires by enormous effort, and only just. That summer we had taken the train from Patras down the coast, through much of the territory that would be almost unrecognizable after this summer’s devastation.
And although I carried the Blue Guide to Greece and a copy of Pausanius as references, the manuscript that truly illuminated the journey was that of Kazantzakis.
My trip through the Morea and the rest of Greece amounted to a rite of passage. I learned firsthand about Greek food (which I would come to love above all other) by choosing from fragrant pans in taverna kitchens, about train and bus travel, about incredibly friendly people, and about staying in tiny unrated hotels. I got to use my fledgling modern Greek (even phoning for reservations in Athens), caught a nasty throat infection on the way to Crete (which led me to “the best otorhinolaryngologos” on the island), and took photographs that would stand me in fine stead decades later in my humanities and art history classes. I still have the painstaking notes I took at each site: Olympia, Pylos, Sparta, Mycenae, Tiryns, Delphi, Knossos, Mallia. And now I go in search of the book that led me there, driven to revisit Kazantzakis by news of wildfires that have nearly obliterated an entire landscape.