Elif dead in the boot of the car in her saffron silk dress; the scene had taken on the luminous allure of a Bronzino and was impossible to escape from. Now everywhere I went in Athens that picture was there. Everywhere I had met Elif, it lingered. Everywhere I’d seen her, and everywhere she’d talked of, was drenched by that image and by the sickness that comes over humans when they see a dead body. It felt like the compression of a shockwave – every living atom of my body polarised in revolt away from that dead thing.
In the end I started shaking and dialled the number of a therapist on Ippokratous street. She looked at me with dark fierce partridge eyes, and diagnosed me with mild trauma. “Slow down,” she said, “take long country walks”. As I left her surgery and shut the door I decided to escape civilisation and go to look at the landscape of Greece, and, perhaps with Elif’s saffron-coloured dress in mind, by the time I had returned to the house on Xenophilou Street I had decided to go and see as many of the crocuses of Greece as I could catch. Plants are the perfect excuse for urgent travel; you have to find them then, or they’re over for another year.
I went the next morning to look for Crocus cartwrightianus at Sounion. When Greece was formed, the land rippled up in a limestone spine. The islands merely emerged from the Aegean, but the mountains gathered strength into the high land of the Peloponnese and the higher land of the Pindus range. From Sounion you are aware of this without seeing it. Ecotone after ecotone, views rise into the distance and collapse into the sea. The same ochre earth lies as the same flesh over the same bones of white limestone, scabbed over by buildings or plants, sometimes bare. The mountains assume familiar shapes, predetermined by the chemical structure of the limestone, the oxygen, the carbon, the calcium; plant types root, and animals and people route according to this underlying structure.
I was looking at the place where Byron had carved his name into the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, despising the painstaking curl on the edge of his “y”, when I saw a bunch of crocuses, fresh and green on the other side of the temple. I made my way round the worn dusty path, and looked down into the white and purple slaked throat and tripled tongues, endless styles of vivid red. It was a shocking bleeding, a leaching out of the earth’s richness, a rich thing out of place in the bare ground; Crocus cartwrightianus.
I knew what it was, of course, had expected to find it here, but it was still surprising, I was unsettled, my palms were sweating. I sat down next to the group of flowers to try and analyse this reaction. Across the background static of my unsettled mood, there were three marked peaks of unease. The first was that the flower I was looking at was unlike the neatly defined species description of Crocus cartwrightianus in every book I had read. Colour, stamens, shape, the way the flowers were in a bunch surrounded by leaves were there, all fitted, but it didn’t fit. The feel was different. The second was that I had grown the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, in pots for many years, and I really knew it. Year after year I had potted and unpotted, removed leaves when spots of mould started to appear, sometimes nursed a petal down from the opening bud in impatience as the flower developed, picked flowers every autumn to sit in a bulbous vase by my bed. I knew the smell - dreamlike, intangible - that developed as the flowers opened. I knew the corm in its fibrous tunic, the way the roots spread into the earth or round a stone, the way the leaves, perianth, ovary, cataphylls all clustered together just under the soil like nerves at the back of the neck, the way a new corm budded from the cortex and broke off easily in raw creaminess. The flowers I was looking at now were supposed to be of the type from which the triploid Crocus sativus, had developed. They were supposed to have the same DNA, just one third less of it. Looking at these white petals, sharp in the sun, and the starburst of purple down the throat, it was impossible to believe in a forerunner or an evolved successor. They were unique and immutable. The third peak of uneasiness was an overwhelming urge to pick one.
I resisted, and stayed to watch the sun go down, shivering slightly, watching the tones of the crocus change as the sun through it turned orange and then almost green. As the sun was swallowed up by the horizon a moth flew down to the flower on the cliff, followed by another. A moth pollinated crocus? Had the dreamlike smell evolved to attract moths under the moon?
It was cold. I got into the car and drove fast to Nafplio.
I found Crocus niveus south of Areopoli. It was the 28th October, “No” day, when Mussolini was turned back, and the marching bands in every village were numerous as ants.
I drove south down the bare cape with the sea to my right. After five miles I stopped to have a drink – it was spectacularly hot – and walked to the shade of a dry-stone wall round an olive field. Crocuses were growing there, intentional and unmistakeably whole and white against the dried grass of the summer and fallen olive leaves and bare red earth. A crocus scattered, coming up as a slim bud, something of the underground, and then the bud again, taller, and then the bud more developed, like an egg with the pointed end miraculously opening, a yoke of protected gold, the warm fringe of the stamens inside, and there it was here and there scattered about and fully open, large goblets with three lilac petals outside and three inner like warm white, and the throats always warming through that texture of life, the vertical construction, imperceptibly to veined gold. A thin single style of rich saffron gold trisecting near the top, then peeling apart again at the end into a frayed, tasselled edge. Crocus niveus.
Their perfection was shocking in the dead, dried up brown litter of the dead spring and summer plants. They looked like parasites, something that had leached off the heart of the dead things around it, with the guilt of survivors after a battle or collaborators after a war. A herald of new life where none should be; not a green spring freshness, but a hidden, biding of time. A hidden plant, profiting where the rest lies dumb and dead.
Crocus boryii I saw in the Mani. I walked up through the olive groves from Kardamyli, in a shimmering heat haze even though it was now the early evening, and at the end of one of the lanes was the crocus. I sat on a low stone and looked at one flower, white and perfect in the red earth, with two tiny “true” leaves of perfect green and a papery cataphyll, the now redundant protection for the emerging flower.
The perianth was a tone of warm white which could never be replicated, a living warm white, because it is not the colours themselves that are different in the natural world, but the textures and tone, the way the light falls. The open flowers had feathery yellow styles and pure white anthers with the beading of pollen that gives them a look of hydrophobicity, or powdered softness. I tried to take a picture but was caught by a web of light coruscating in a way that was impossible to capture.
There are only two possibilities when photographing a white flower; to map the iridescence of the petals and the sun in blinding white, and use the shadow puppetry of the petals as they fall across each other to indicate the shape of the flower, or to concentrate on the white shape against the earth, and show the habit of the flower’s growth (bunched, or alone, cupped or smooth) in uniform whiteness, implicating the styles and stamens to give a shot of gold at the heart of the coldness. No picture communicates the unexpected brilliance of bulbs out of bare ground, the grass shrivelled by sun; photos bleach the white to bone, and cannot convey the wanton, moisture laden, feeling of an autumn geophyte.
I couldn’t forget the crocus underground, couldn’t forget that every bit of moisture I saw had been fought for, sucked up among the dead roots of other plants, hoarded jealously in the corm in the boiling heat of the summer. As I toiled up the narrow dry-stone paths of the Mani the rays of the sun disturbed the mirror-clarity of my eyes, and globules of oil, computer-generated, disturbed my vision. I passed under and over the fruits of a pomegranate tree and under and over the olive tree where Bruce Chatwin had been scattered, swept round the great view down to the south from the mountains to the sea, and in the darkness of the church I sat on a broken half-Byzantine seat, one head of the eagle tucked under a shoulder blade and let the darkness clear my eyes. Like a nictitating membrane on a nidicolous bird.
I went next to look for Crocus biflorus subsp. melantherus next to the Stymphalian Lake.
Even in Greece, birthplace of unusual landscapes, the lake seems otherworldly. It’s a huge enclosed karst basin in Arcadia, with a population of birds that would drive a moderate birder into paroxysms of delight. I walked along a narrow path of terra rossa between shrubby oaks on the edge of the basin. Occasional glimpses over the marsh showed harriers snowploughing through the reed beds, throwing up flurries of some sort of duck.
Things were different here – the cupped crocuses arose hysteranthous out of verdure, heavy pasture, rather than dry ground. The crocus was white again, or cream, striated with heavy tyrian purple and a dusting of gold where the petals met the perianth tube. None of the flowers had reached anthesis – all were closed – but I knew what I would see inside if they were. Three black anthers on a white ground, like an enigmatic punctuation mark. Mel-antherus. It was in the name.
I photographed the crocuses from every angle, lying flat on my stomach to highlight the great mass of Mt. Cyllene behind it, from directly above to show the almost-open flower, wide-angled to show as many flowers as possible. The sun moved off the crocuses and onto the mountains, so I took my camera and moved back towards the car, retracing my steps towards the grassy dip that was all that remained of the temple of Brauronian Artemis. I turned the corner through the path of the oaks
and made my way back to the car.
“Pilgrimage and tourism,” says Rackham, “are nothing new. The oracle at remote Dodona had a more capacious theatre than any in England today.” I read that lying on the grass and cyclamen and colchicums of that capacious theatre; a built amphitheatre of grey stone, swamped by the vast plain it sits in, belittled by the mountains that ring that plain, mountains piled up over fifty million years of collisional orogenesis. A human endeavour amortized by the orchestra and koilon of a natural theatre.
I had gone there as a tourist for the human interest, but flowers took centre stage; Crocus hadriaticus delivering a parabasis, running like white fire all through the grass. It had unusually pointed petals. “Elliptic-oblanceolate perianth segments”, I said out loud, reading from the official description. Aristotle tells us that the Hellenes originated here, and then they spread south, flowing over the limestone like quicksilver, vermiculating it with traces of civilisation.
I looked at the sacred oak and at the crocuses on the grass underneath it. The oak was a sham, planted there by humans in a pretence of remembrance of a time when the Gods spoke to them. But the crocuses? Fauna move whereas flora unfold before our eyes.
Crouching down, I looked into the nearest white cup. I followed the logic of the petals into the nadir of the cup, where three stamens of yolk-yellow, dehisced like agonised tongues, writhed pollen. From those pollen dregs came one style, soon splitting into three of deep vermilion, glabrous and slick until at the end they broadened and deformed like a cleft lip. A hint, nothing more.
There were fractal patterns in the flower, infinitely scalable, infinitely motile. I zoomed in, zoned into that cup of gold, until a clinging golden particle of pollen became an egg, and Elif hatched out of the egg surrounded by fractals of flying sea foam, and looked at me down the scales of the years and dominated my vision, until only her one brown eye with a black asteroid at the centre remained.
I stayed a few more hours, looking at the ruins, and then joined the vein of the motorway, the Egnatia Odos, and drove from the theatre of Hellas, through the parodos, the eisodos of the tunnel through the mountains; to Ioannina and on.
Crocus robertianus, I saw near Ioannina. I had a location, and the rock flaked under my nails insidiously as I scrabbled up the side of the road, and there was the white, bright as the green grass it grew through. Crocus robertianus, a perfect cupped shape, and inside the delicate styles of orange-red, dividing into three and then fimbriate, feathering once more at their ends.
A corm had fallen out of the bank on to the road. The species has a reticulated basal tunic; there it lay netted on the tarmac like an eyeball lying heavily in a string bag of veins. And just as there is something nauseating and forbidden about the knowledge we have of those veins around our eyes, the knowledge we gain of those hidden places when we close tired eyes against the light and the flash of red netting in the darkness confirms what we have been told but never wanted to know, so the sight of that corm, exposed and helpless and doomed in the tyre-path, was a sad senseless thing. At first I ignored it; then I tucked it into my breast pocket, and drove on.
So that was how, on 1st November, I found myself driving in crepuscular cloud along the Via Egnatia, past Metsovo, past Mount Peristeri, over the Katara pass, over the Pindos. Serpentine is the rock that you find up there in the mountains above Ioaninna; grey-red and flaking like the scorched front edge of a library half-burned, normally bare, with the added toxicity of zinc and high altitude.
I was pleased to come down into greener fields, through the town of Kozani to Krokos. It was a dull village, a few streets of poor concrete houses of dull pink and orange, satellite dishes and exposed wires, bright blue plastic pipes sticking out of the paved roads. As I got out and slammed the door I took a deep breath, and had a sudden wave of nostalgia, a flash of happiness from very far back, warmth, a sense of sun on the sea, and a smell of summer. I paused, surprised and slightly taken aback, leaning on the top of the car to try and track the feeling. And then I smiled to myself; as a child I had gone on holidays to Cornwall, and we stayed next to a bakery that made saffron buns. On sunny mornings we ran to buy them while they were still warm. That heliotropic smell, the smell of saffron, was hovering in the village, cutting through the cloud.
It was as unsettling as a chauffeur-driven Bentley cruising through a slum. A hidden plant, profiting where the rest lies dumb and dead, I had thought, and the thought came to me again here. What place did saffron, the world traveller, take in this provincial village? How did the drab fields produce an expensive intense sybarite? How could the humble colourless limestone here be turned, without fertiliser, into picrocrocin, the taste, crocin, the colour and safranal, the odour of saffron?
The next morning I walked out to see the saffron harvest. There were fields of purple, Crocus sativus, and at the heart of each of them were the three tongues ready to be plucked out. Welcome to the co-operative of Kozani said a sign, and as I walked in I saw the lines of purple shattered in a bloody butchery, one part of the field perfect and calm, the other half clearly plundered, disturbed. It was like a shellfish bed after dredging, a mountain after mining, a snow field after skiiers had past. The petals were ripped up with the saffron styles and put in plastic tubs, the perianth tubes bent like an ugly lean-to, and at the side of the field were large sacks full of the flowers, like slag heaps. The pickers, moving doubled up across the field, showed equal amounts of wear and tear. A man without an eye, stiffness in joints, a woman who looked as though she was paralysed in one side, a man with a nose twice the usual size. The pickers, as brightly coloured as the crocuses, were equally exploited.
Imagine the sun in winter. Imagine the coruscating rays dulled by fool’s gold. Imagine the smell of saffron, the compound safranal, so deeply embedded in your tastebuds that the smell is both metallic and earthy, and the back of your tongue tingles in response though your mouth is empty. A chthonic scent, a purging of the earth. Imagine that indestructible, bright, slightly truffled smell, and then imagine that your eyes are looking at the opposite; a delicate fretwork of flowers, gridolin and french green glowing with the sun, making the field inviolate, an ant’s nest for a Jain.
Walk across that field, feel probosci snapping under your feet and the land as untouchable as a field of snakes. Look down into a bunch of undisturbed crocuses, bend down, toe to knee to chest, single out one flower, mature, but not old or shrivelled. Reach out, lean forward, see the threads of fire in the heart of the purple, left right, left right, and watch your fingers crush the petals and wrench the living gold away with disproportionate force.
First photograph of Crocus cartwrightianus by Frank Blattner, photograph of saffron harvest near Kozani by Bob Gibbonsall, other photos author’s own.