Reflecting of the Nature of Lesvos

Some reflections and observations on the nature of Lesvos and the history of walking through its landscapes and thinking about the natural world by participating graduate student, Ethan Schmidt:

One of the most striking things I noticed since our arrival on Lesvos is the variety of unfamiliar flora and fauna and the amount of time our group has spent trying to identify them, observing the habits of animals and the properties of plants. We have been attentive to vines and flowers and trees, strange birds, colorful fish, iridescent butterflies and beetles, and the ubiquitous swallows, cats, and lizards.

During our first swim together on the beach below the town, we were struck by various kinds of creatures which inhabited the warmth of the shallows; a yellowish fish which squeezed into the gaps in the rocks on the sea-bottom and which, following a few minutes of observation, revealed itself to be touched with shades of crimson and azure; another fish, at first grey, then, when the light touched it, alive with hints of deep purple, which followed after us as we disturbed the sand with our feet (and which we eventually realized were not attempting to consume our toes, but which, in fact, were presumably feeding on the invertebrates and plankton which we disturbed in the sand), and schools of tiny, electric blue, fish, which came in various different sizes.

At Skala Skamnias, I found myself standing where a mountain-nurtured stream, its source somewhere in the forests and olive groves high above, emptied into the Strait of Mytilene, searching for waterbirds and amphibians on the marshy banks with which it was fringed.

Upon reflection, it struck me that my fellow researchers and I were engaging with an ongoing tradition of naturalism on Lesvos which stretches back to antiquity. Not only is contemporary Lesvos, and Molyvos in particular, a destination for birdwatchers from across the world, but Aristotle, in the fourth century before the common era, composed his surprisingly accurate treatises on zoology and biology just across the mountains on the shores of the Gulf of Kalloni, then called the Lagoon of Pyrrha.

Indeed, he discovered and formulated, through a similar type of hands-on engagement with the landscape and its denizens, human and non-human alike, the processes of metabolism, temperature regulation, reproduction and biological inheritance, and the quality of sentience. His pupil Theophrastos, inspired by this approach, extended this project to flora, and produced one of the most formidable and influential scientific and specifically botanical texts which survive from the ancient world.

Though my fellow researchers and I may not have been thinking of Aristotle or Theophrastos as we engaged with nature here on Lesvos, we were taking part in an activity and a project which is rooted deep in the past and deep in the landscape of the island, and which presented a telling moment of confluence between past and present, between modernity and antiquity. Such diachronic moments of communion may represent the most emotionally and intellectually affecting experience which the historian may seek.