Corinthians 1.0: scorched earth policy

In ancient Corinth, the earth is talking to me.

It's my first brush with the fires that have swept the Peloponnese: the old seat of Corinth. There are two sites, the forum of ancient Corinth and the hilltop acropolis of Acrocorinth. Acrocorinth is a 4km walk, mostly straight upwards, and so in 34 degree midday heat I decide to walk it.

The 1.5L bottle of water dematerialises in the first km. I'm climbing straight into into Dante's inferno. (Isn't hell supposed to be downwards? I never did have much sense of direction. Oh well, I always did like the name Virgil.)

One whole side of the hill has been turned into a thousand-acre barbecue pit. The fire's still visible through cracks in the earth; the ground is warm to the touch, everywhere. The stench of blackness hangs in the air, sucking the energy out of the land and biting whole chunks off the already narrow road, tarmac cracked and tumbled away where the intense heat has crumbled the ground it lay on.

And it's not quiet.

As the earth slowly cools, it's making a noise, a rustling and creaking of land settling back into place. The sound of the earth renewing itself after injury, a billion fried lizards and crisped twigs being absorbed, feeding the creation of something new. And some things spat back; a soft puddle of what I realise is melted bottles is going the other way, floating on top of the newly claybaked crust rather than sinking beneath.

I stand here for a long time, listening to the earth talk.

When I reach the Acropolis it's almost an anticlimax. It's impressive enough set into the hilltop, with a long series of stone staircases leading to the summit. But surrounded by smoking earth and scorched fauna, it looks uncomfortably like the apocalyptic last chapter of a religious novel. I don't stay long in case I turn out to be the protagonist.

The walk back down is easier, with cool breezes scraping the sweat off my back. I'm glad I made this effort today. Despite the choking air, I feel somehow … cleansed.

I’m not sure what it is about the Mediterreanean landscape that gets me right there. The rolling hills you see from the south of France to the Spanish Costas to the Greek islands (well, technically the Aegean, but let’s not split hairs) are anything but natural – it’s all been intensely cultivated since the 5th century BC – but they’re beautiful nonetheless.

I think it’s the complexity of it. Civilisation brings lawyers and contracts and ownership, and with a market economy comes the need to delineate, to mark off your territory. In France, the ‘appellation’ system leads to adjacent fields producing entirely different wines, separated only by a road geographically, but by centuries of salting and chalking and fertilising agriculturally, by different families who’ve passed their particular secret sauce down the generations. Two rows of vines a mere fence apart are growing in ‘terroir’ from different planets.

Greece is the same. Between the hills, every square metre of land is being used in some way – but not the same way everywhere. Here are olive trees; here an orange grove; next door goats graze on grass. On slopes too steep to cultivate stand squat shrubs here, tall cedars there, a mosaic of diversity. Over the thousands of acres visible from any roadside stop, all this patchworked randomness comes together to create… something wonderful.

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