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Turning forests into trees into poems

Tim Entwisle

Tim Entwisle

June 13, 2012

I’ve returned from my visit to Ionia, or at least the island of Chios, home of Homer and Mastic and once part of that Ancient Greek empire on the Aegean Sea. I learned many things including why the island has few trees. You will read about the pine forests(Pinus brutia) being susceptible to fire. That’s half the story. The first half starts over 3000 years ago.

An Ancient Greek ship (from The Greek Age of Bronze)

During the Trojan wars, the subject of Homer’s Iliad, 934 ships set sail from Ionia and other Greek states. These ships were made mostly of fir (Abies) and poplar (Populus). The masts and oars were made of fir and the hull of the ship from poplar.

Now for the maths. Each boat had 50 oars, 25 on each side, and each oar was made from a single fir tree. Plus the mast, that’s 51 fir trees required to make each boat, a total of 47,634 fir trees for the whole fleet. Lots of these boats were destroyed of course. Worse was to come when in the fifth century BC they built larger ships with 170 oars each. Very soon the great forests of Ionia were destroyed.

The Ionian landscape is nearly bare of trees, cleared by fire and history

The third half (whoops) is all about agriculture. The southern part of the island has been cultivated for olives and mastic for the least 2500 years. The Mastichochora, as it’s called, often includes rows of mastic and olives with semi-natural vegetation – but not trees – in between.

Mastic, Pistacia lentiscus, from which the gum called by the locals the ‘tears of lentisk’ is extracted

I’ve already posted on the illusive mastic but here is the real thing, with cuts in the stem where resin has been extracted.

The trunk of the mastic, showing the cuts from which the gum is extracted

 The poetry of Homer has more to tell us about the plants of Chios and a new botanic garden on the island, the Aegean Botanic Garden, has a special Homerian garden to celebrate Homer’s botanical words. While I was visiting the garden, for its inauguration, Magnus Liden from the Uppsala Botanical Garden in Sweden read Homer in his very own Homerian Greek translation!

The beautiful Ionian landscape with grey-green olives and mastic (Pistacia lentiscus)

And if you want more on the Trojan War by people that actually know something about it, see Melvyn Bragg’s latest In Our Time BBC Radio 4 podcast. For some odd reason I wrote this before I got around to listening to it so I hope it doesn’t contradict the (very) few facts I’ve included above!

Magnus Liden, from Uppsala Botanical Garden in Sweden, who read Homer in his own Homerian Greek translation!

 Notes: I’m grateful to Stella Kokkini from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki for providing at the European Botanic Gardens Congress (EuroGard) the data on ships and trees consumed in their construction, and for Magnus standing still long enough for me to take the picture above. The image of the reconstructed Greek ship is from a website called The Greek Age of Bronze

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