The Garden of Alkinoos -- in America

Homer and Hesiod spoke with passion about the agrarian nature of Greek civilization. They wrote their immortal epics sometimes in the eighth century BCE.
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Homer and Hesiod spoke with passion about the agrarian nature of Greek civilization. They wrote their immortal epics sometimes in the eighth century BCE.

In book eighteen of the "Iliad" Homer sings how god Hephaistos sculpted a new shield for Achilleus, the greatest Greek hero in the Trojan War.

This shield was large and heavy, five layers thick and glittering like lightening. On its surface Hephaistos designed the Earth, the sky, the sea and the sun. He added two poleis, one featuring weddings and festivals and the other armies at war.

In the peaceful polis, farmers plow the rich black farmland; others harvest the grain and eagerly feast on the meat of an ox; still more harvest the vineyards putting the honey-sweet grapes in wicker baskets. A boy plays a lyre and sings a wine song. Four herdsmen with nine nimble dogs tend a herd of straight-horn cattle pastured by the river. Young men and women holding each other's hands at the wrists dance surrounded by an adoring crowd. Finally, Hephaistos designed the River Ocean in the outermost rim of the shield.

The other agrarian icon that is permanently fixed in my mind comes from book seven of the "Odyssey" of Homer. Odysseus has landed in the Ionian island of Kerkyra, Homer's Phaiakia. He follows the advice of the local princess, Nausikaa, and reaches king's Alkinoos' palace.

Odysseus was about to enter the main door of the palace when he noticed a garden that took his breath away: This small garden was in the courtyard where pear, apple, pomegranate and olive trees, sweet figs and vines and vegetables flourished year around. The breeze of the West wind kept ripening grapes after grapes, fig after fig, apple after apple, and pear after pear. Looking at this garden, Odysseus saw his home in Ithaca, the blessings of the gods on Alkinoos intensifying his nostos, his passion for returning home.

I have lived with nostos for decades.

I do visit my Ithaca, also home of Odysseus known as Kephalonia. My nostos is not a matter of life and death as it was for Odysseus. But my Greek home is rarely out of my mind. And its agrarian roots provide me sustenance for all I do. I see a small farm full of fruit trees and vegetables and I am instantly in Kephalonia.

This happened on Saturday, December 28, 2013. I visited a small Greek farmer in Newberry Springs in western Mojave Desert in southern California. Vaggelis Pylavrianos, 81, cultivates about 20 acres of land, sowing it with a tremendous variety of fruit trees and vegetables. He uses his own seeds and does most of the work. He also has a couple of dozen chickens.

He purchased his farm in Newberry Springs recently because the groundwater of his other small farm in Hinkle, California was poisoned by a utility company.

"I dream of Greece every day of my life," Vaggelis said to me in front of his home decorated with a Greek flag. "I grew up in Athens and lived through the horrors and hunger of Nazi German occupation. I remember my older brother with a bloated stomach. I had to search for scraps of food to survive."

Vaggelis has been in America since 1951. "I never received welfare in this country," he continued. "I have worked hard all my life -- and I love it. There's no way I will retire. These fruit trees and vegetables are my life. They keep me healthy and alive."

Vaggelis' Odyssey in America became my Odyssey. He kept talking, telling me one story after another, but my eyes and mind were rereading Homer, seeing Alkinoos' garden in Vaggelis' farm.

The most pleasurable experience from my journeys to Kephalonia took place in the summer of 2006. For several days I walked to a vineyard that used to be mine. It now belongs to the son of my late cousin Aggelos.

This was late in August when the heat is often intense and oppressive. I would walk in the afternoon the short distance from my village home to the garden: full of fig, walnut, pear and olive trees next to a huge vineyard loaded with golden grapes of the "robola" variety. I would eat figs and then grapes.

Each bunch of "robola" is the material manifestation of natural perfection and pleasure. The individual spherical grape is soft and aromatic and sweet, melting in the mouth, triggering an entire history in my mind's eye: how as a youngster I would help in the harvesting of this fruit of god Dionysos, stepping on it in my father's, "linos," a small enclosure like a swimming pool, for gathering the grape liquid that became our fabulous wine.

But like Vaggelis I did not return to my garden of Alkinoos. Time had intervened to break my nostos to a tolerable level.

But listening to Vaggelis, and understanding his tragic passion, left me in secret tears and near speechless. Here is a Greek hero living in almost total isolation in the wilds of the Mojave Desert. He raises organic food. That journey of seeing healthy food come out of the white watered desert is all that he hopes for, his gift to his adopted land.

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