Cockerels and Goats

I’m an early riser by nature but in summer on Paxos it’s essential if you want to work. The air is cool and very still, the occasional cock crows, the hens and wild turkeys chatter on softly in the olive groves around my house and the cicadas have yet to start that day long thrill of sound which is so much the Mediterranean to us north Europeans who rarely hear so much as an unconvinced cricket.

Crowing rooster
We have other animals on Paxos: snakes - mostly big grass snakes, invariably only seen dead on the road ( a liking for basking on warm tarmac has been an unfortunate adaptation to modernity). At one level, and certainly at a distance, I long to see the legendary horn-nosed viper in the flesh. Venomous, of course.

In spring the sound of wood pigeons is matched by the sound of gun-fire. The collared doves still stop here on their journey between Africa and the north and islanders still eat them. I’m always glad when they’ve flown on. Going nowhere are Scops owls: ferocious looking birds with savage beak, glaring yellow eyes and a general bring-it on-look, indigenous to the Ionian islands. They are oblivious to that the fact that they are also one of the tiniest species: a few inches high, easily held in a hand. More like a cross, nocturnal sparrow. Their ‘song’ is a single note exactly at the pitch of a mobile phone signalling its battery is running out. Habitat: right outside your window, all night, wherever you are.

The mighty Scops owl

Scops owl (© Fair Isle Lodge & Bird Observatory )

Goats, of course. I have little to say about goats except that it is no surprise that they are associated with all things unreliable and bad. There’s the devil: forked hood, horns, eyes on sideways (certainly on the cover of the Denis Wheatley books I devoured, unsuitably, as a thirteen year old). Goats provide us with the image of the cuckold and the inelegantly sexually optimistic nonagenarian and of course the mischievous, not entirely benign god Pan. No positive characteristics for a creature that takes whole gardens, drying laundry, fences, flip-flops, books and new trees in its digestive stride: a stride that passes unimpeded. I have seen goats still hobbled dragging substantial tethering posts, gazing up with a newly planted rose bush or expensive hat in their maw. Capricious, capering – from capra, the goat.

Until the mid-20th century, the island used boats and donkeys for transport and it is crissed-crossed with donkey paths: ancient flagged or stepped narrow lanes between high drystone walls. Away from the slick villas of the coast, the occasional tiny cottage has dark green shutters and doors –not bright blue like the Aegean islands. It is wonderful to walk on these nearly forgotten paths, letting them determine your direction: although unless you watch turnings very carefully, faint memories of the Cretan labyrinth creep in as they fork and curve back on themselves and swiftly become indistinguishable one from another. There are still the occasional rendezvous with a donkey - invariably longing for a new friend and able to run at astonishing speed.

I walked in the early evening yesterday. Stop and it was possible to hear the noises of silence. Wind on dry grasses, the distant roar of the sea, insects buzzing past, a cloud of swifts or swallows. Pomegranate, cherry and fig trees hung over the walls from long forgotten orchards whose houses and memories are just a pile of rubble or a single carefully built stone gateway: ‘nothing beyond remains’. Walking west into the setting sun I felt a bit like Eve as I ate soft blue black figs (and, no, I feel fine). The relentless winter rain here gives the island a wonderfully lush vista of 500 year old Venetian olive groves, woods of bracken and dog rose as green as Devon, and headlands with their melancholy sentinels of pines and cypresses, but on the west coast it turns to a cropped, thorny garrigue, smelling of oregano, myrtle and, often, goat. The cliffs are precipitous and the cream stone shaped into mad whorls, arches and sea caves by forces so great that the creation of this scarred, melted landscape is simply unimaginable. The air is damp however hot the day, the breeze blows and the sea is piebald in shades of blue: the crystal turquoise of small coves almost iridescent in its brightness, the deep pewter-purple swell in fissures in the cliff so deep, that it is here where some Paxiots claim to have kept a submarine during the war to harass the German and Italian shipping fleet.

On the same walk last year we were suddenly engulfed in an overwhelming smell: gamey, eye-watering. We were still looking around us when a huge figure loomed ahead down the path. My first, not entirely rational, thought was that it was a llama, the second, in common with my companions, was to climb over a high wall as the beast thudded towards us, gathering speed.

Wild goat
Not a llama

It was the biggest, blackest, scariest Billy goat I had ever seen, followed at a distance by his females and their young. Later, bravely, we returned to the track and stopped at a farmhouse for cream cheese. When we described our near death encounter the farmer’s wife said fondly ‘Ah yes, that’ll be Costas. What a beautiful goat - so friendly, so affectionate - all he ever wants in the world is a cuddle.’

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