Letter from a Greek Sharecropper

Stratis Haviaras has just retired after more than thirty years as the curator of the Poetry and Farnsworth Rooms in the Harvard College Library. The founding editor of the Harvard Review, he is the author of four books of poetry in Greek, two collections of poems and two novels in English, and, most recently, Millennial Afterlives: A Retrospective. His translations of C.P. Cavafy, have been collected as The Canon (Hermes Press, 2004).

With every new crop the small farmer is dreaming of striking it rich.

My maternal grandparents were refugees from Asia Minor. In 1912, uprooted by war, they were rescued by American warships off the coast of Smyrna and brought to America. When the Great War ended they were allowed to return to their homeland, only to be caught in a new round of slaughter. This time those who survived made their way to Greece and found temporary shelter in a refugee camp. In 1925 both sides of my family settled in a swampy estuary by the Bay of Argos, and began farming. Poverty, malaria, typhus, and tuberculosis were the names of death in the years between the two great wars.

After WWII and despite an equally devastating civil war that went on until 1949, farming returned to the plain of Argos and, thanks to the Marshall Plan, chemical fertilizers became for the first time affordable.

Just before we harvested our first summer crops, we saw a group of about forty men and women roaming our fields, helping themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on. Some were filling bags with eggplants and okra, others baskets with still-unripe tomatoes and grapes. These people were thin, pale, with a layer of dusk in their hair and clothing. They looked so determined and angry, we wouldn't even think of confronting them. We stood there, witnessing the looting of the fruit of our labor in broad daylight, shocked, unable to stop them. The village priest, who happened to be cultivating his little squash and cucumber patch that morning, asked them politely where they were from, and they said they were from Terror, Hunger, and Despair, and if anyone, including his god, tried to stop them, he had something else coming. And saying this they promptly harvested the priest's cucumbers, no matter how small they were, and then on, apparently to something bigger and better.

There had never been such a thing in the twenty-year history of our settlement, and all we could do was to suppress our rage and to become discouraged. Eventually, the word of mouth came round that these people were survivors of concentration camps and that they were communists. They had just returned to their mountain village in the Northern Peloponnesos, only to find that the Germans had burnt it to the ground after killing every man, woman and child they found there.

What was I at the age of nine to make of this incident? When my own mother retuned, a concentration camp survivor herself – and a widow – and found our house razed to the ground by the Germans, we still had a small piece of land on which to grow vegetables and to look to the future. What was to become of the others who were homeless and landless? Was there to be conflict between private property and the common good? War, our common experience of hardship, and at long last the coming of peace had done little to deal with inequality and injustice. In fact, the end of the war was now making visible conflicts and problems we had not been aware of before. And then the civil war raged for another four years, causing more death and destruction.

The previous spring, a few months before that incident, my grandmother had carved out of her small field a four square meter plot and taught me how to tend it as my own. For the first time after the loss of our house, I had something I could call my own, and the pride of property came together with hope and ambition. Come July, I would be harvesting the most beautiful tomatoes in Greece, and I would give half of my harvest to the gypsies who didn't have any land of their own, who pitched their tents by the village dump in the outskirts of the village.

I tilled my little patch, raked it, and put in nine tomato plants from the nursery, one for each year of my age. Between the three symmetrical rows I opened shallow canals for irrigation. In a few weeks' time, when the plants had begun to grow taller, my grandmother showed me a handful of fertilizer crystals, advising me to use them sparingly -- three grains would suffice to help each plant grow stronger and bear more fruit. I did just that, but soon afterward my cousin Socrates, who was a couple of years older than me, came by, saying, “Three grains? Only? That's nonsense!” Then, having said that, he went on to add more – a whole handful of fertilizer crystals to each plant. Three days later the stuff had burnt all nine tomato plants from the roots up.

I took to making long walks in the fields, looking at the crops and studying the herbs and flowers that grew wild on the roadside and in the ditches. At the same time, I became interested in insects and all sorts bugs and the small creatures feeding on them. Forget-me-nots attracted the smallest, most delicate blue butterflies. Worms bored tunnels to aerate the plants' roots. Aphids made lacework of tender leaves, and a little black creeping thing devoured scores of aphids in order to save a mallow plant. A dung beetle pushed his oversized ball uphill, like Sisyphus. These, too, were farmers and gatherers who owned no land of their own, but made free of its blessings. Was there something to be learnt from them?

That first year after the end of the war, before the new money began to circulate, we daily bartered goods for other goods and services, and it was a simple and fair way to give and take and to share. Worth seemed to have returned to the thing itself. I remember asking a roving shadow puppeteer how much he charged for entrance to his show, and his answer was, “One egg.” When, the following winter, the post-war money was finally printed, there was little need for it. But by that time there wasn't much left to trade, let alone to sell.

The next few summers, the well-rested soil of the fields produced enough goods to sustain us year-round, and the well-tended orchards and vineyards bore unusual amounts of fruit. Peaches, apricots, plums, pears, melons, and no fewer than twenty varieties of grapes were in abundance. So were the tomatoes and the okra with the effect that the local cannery began to operate again, employing several dozen young women. The taste and texture of fruit and vegetable from that era would never be matched in the years to come. Steadily, general improvements in our lives and increased demand for perishables began to change the picture of the village economy. There was new construction, expanding houses to accommodate new members of families, as well as construction of a high school building, a bigger church, and a new tower and tank for water distribution. For the very first time a movie theater opened its doors to everyone's delight.

A wrinkle: in the late 1950s increased pumping to meet water demand for intensive farming began to deplete the water table, causing sea water to seep in. Crops began to dwindle. Luckily, one of the native sons, who had left the village to find his fortune abroad, returned just in time to save the village. He had become a shipping magnate, and several hundred young men promptly abandoned farming for work in the merchant marine. The water problem, too,was eventually solved. Well into the 1960s a massive project, having successfully tapped an undersea fresh water spring, began to irrigate anew the entire plain. But by that time the gypsies who were permanently camped in the outskirts of the village had began to buy land cheaply. The gypsies? Buying farming land? Whoever heard such a thing? The occasion made the news on national television.

By that time we had moved to Athens, and my mother leased our small piece of land to Cousin Socrates, to farm vegetables as he did in his own field. His share would be two-thirds of the crops. I asked him whether he knew better by then than to be too generous with chemical fertilizers, and he laughed. I myself, having been burnt as a fledgling farmer by his open-fistedness with the stuff, stayed away even from gardening petunias. In 1977, ten years after I came to America, I had a large enough back yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts to ponder over and finally yield to gardening.

When I visited my hometown again, Greece had become a member of the European Union Everyone seemed to be prospering from farm subsidies coupled with ever-increasing demand and higher prices. That was certainly true for Socrates, who in the meantime had inherited more land from his parents. Invited to dinner at his house, I was astonished at the size of the homegrown artichokes his wife had just cooked to serve with the meat. Seeing the expression on my face, his smile was one of mischief. He just said, “Hormones.” And that's his famous last word, in my memory. The next time I traveled to my birthplace was to attend Socrates' funeral. He'd died of colon cancer that had metastasized to the liver.

Talking with my late cousin's son, George, who had also taken up farming, I learned that there had been warnings concerning the handling of fertilizers to the effect that they could cause cancer.

After that, my mother decided to let our field rest for a few years and then give it over to organic farming. Today, at 93, she is still growing lettuce, scallions, and fava beans in her yard in Athens, and she has no doubt that organic food is what keeps her healthy and going.

My home town makes the national news in Greece at least twice a year: once when on Holy Saturday there's a public burning of a dummy of Barabas. Another occasion, also in spring, is when a squadron of one-legged, baby hauling storks stops for a few days by the old cannery. No one knows why they choose this spot to feed and rest in their long flight from Africa, but they had been spotted there since 1925, which explains why the cannery's brand name is “Stork.”

Yet another wrinkle: a dispute developed with the gypsy landowners who were accused by the natives of stealing electricity to run their farming equipment. The electric company didn't take the matter seriously and sent no crews to investigate. At any rate, the accusation didn't have much to do with the issue of abusing a common resource. It had a practical, everyday point: in order to steal electricity, the gypsies had to run hazardous wires through other people's land, who said they were afraid of being electrocuted. The news media sided with the gypsies. The villagers were up in arms. The electric company reported that its crews refused to investigate because the gypsies were actually armed and dangerous. A night raid by the security forces confirmed this, the gypsies were disarmed, the underground wires were removed, and things began to quiet down. Not for long, though. At the zero hour of Easter, while everyone attended the midnight resurrection service, the gypsies broke in and robbed every single house. Note: national TV news showed people in Athens applauding.

So what else is new? What's a free, democratic society without conflicts, without a little mischief, a little theft, a little discrimination, a little injustice, and a little applause? The storks' stopover is never a cause for concern, when they descend every spring to feed off the fat of the land. There's still fat for everyone around, and this is Greece. When hard times are left behind, all manner of creatures are allowed to get fat.

Wrinkle #3: uncultivated and without fertilizers for five or so years, our field still doesn't qualify for organic farming. A chemist my mother hired to test the soil determined that as long as neighboring farmers continue to use chemicals, the water table under our land continues to be contaminated.

What is to be done?

It's June 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as I write this I take time to plant my vegetable garden: eight cucumbers, twenty tomatoes, twenty-six peppers, and four eggplants, with little irrigation canals separating their five, symmetrical rows. There are three extra rows of basil, celery, and parsley, and a round rock garden for more herbs: mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, green garlic, cilantro and the like – to this gardener's sensual delight. This is the twenty-eighth consecutive year I have been doing this. No chemical fertilizers, not even cow manure. Cow manure can be full of antibiotics and hormones. I maintain a compost pile, and two or three times each summer I add topsoil, bought in 40-pound bags. The real investment, though, is of time. According to another Greek proverb, you've got to be either a priest or a ploughman, not both. Being a writer and a gardener can be costly in more than one way.

When my daughter was six, I built a small stand for her to sell part of our summer harvest. A passerby, impressed by the looks of the tomatoes on sale, asked for the price, and then remarked that one dollar a pound was too steep. The little girl replied, “My dad says each tomato that he grows probably costs him as much as five dollars.”

Then neighbors' trees, unpruned for years, keep spreading, their branches and foliage gradually filling the space of my yard, allowing less and less sun to reach the garden. As for my sharecroppers, squirrels, skunks, possums, and raccoons are the first to make free of the summer harvest. They have to get some fat under their skin for the long New England winter. But there is enough for everybody, including my neighbors, who look at my garden and smile approvingly, but don't, they say, have the time to grow their own. Do they really like tomatoes ripened on the vine and bursting with flavor? As with retsina, it's an acquired taste. Cucumbers are in such abundance, at the peak of the season I am harvesting as many as fifteen a day. You can make salads, pickles, even cold soups, and there are still enough to offer around. Bouquets of basil for pesto, including a sampling other herbs, are always welcomed. Insects and squirrels turn up their noses at herbs, opting for other delicacies in the garden or the compost pile.

The survival of the fattest is by all means guaranteed.