Ron Walkey's "Island built_event "


Filippos Oraiopoulos and Aristide Antonas have proposed a running discourse they hope will lead to ‘an emerging identity’ for Youra, a small island in the Aegean sea, north of Alonisos. Perhaps they feel this isolated place is not fixed enough in the public eye, or that it now supports purposes in conflict with each other, or that its role as a protected biotope has yet to be firmly entrenched.
I suspect their words of caution, encouraging patience in the forming of a ‘pending identity’ that ‘sustains suspension’, stem from the concern that approaching the formation of an ‘identity’ for the island as a problem needing strong formal definition will not be constructive. I agree with this.
They suggest that an identity for the place should emerge from a number of events and interventions over time, some of which will take, many of which will be rejected. What is critical to its evolution is the maintenance of attention through the creation of a forum of ideas - a ‘center’ to these creative ideas. To my mind any identity, even a provisional or temporary one, needs not just events and activities, but limits and edges. Life at every level is found at the edge where differences reveal themselves. If the edges are defined, the centers will take care of themselves.
My proposal for this built-Event suggests an identity for this place that is critical for our time, an identity formed through the definition of certain limits to both place and activity.
Defined by the inclusion of wisdom long exiled, a new identity for this island may contribute to our efforts in confronting the imminent collapse of our biosystem and the human economies that depend upon it. I will not be embarrassed to use words such as forbidden, sacred, sacrifice, fate, abstinence, unknowing, the poetic eye, and metaphoric truth.

This text is in the form of a travel journal to the island, interspersed with personal reflections, into which various myths and stories have entered on tiptoe.


I had just returned to Athens from the green and rain of Berlin when I found messages from Aristide asking me to join a weekend boat trip from Volos to the island of Youra in the Northern Sporades. It sounded like a fine opportunity to spend time with minds that like good questions! So next day I was on the bus rolling north, floating by the new industries that had spread out all along the National Highway. On previous trips I had seen countless olive fields along this road. Now many of these have been flattened, squared, and fenced for machines and men to manufacture some infinitely small part of our modern world. Passing close to the blue and calm sea I could see new-built accommodation for tourism clustering down to the edge, and splashed across the hills above, villas, some straight out of an American soap opera, that were crying out their tasteless affluence.
In Volos I walk along on the narrow streets towards my friend’s house. Many of the small houses with courtyards that give Volos its special identity are now overgrown and abandoned, and each block holds at least two construction sites preparing for new high-rise apartments. They will be on ‘pilotees’, all of them, offering to the urban pedestrian only the butt of a BMW. The owners of the abandoned houses are in waiting for that sacred demolition permit that will allow them to join the current building boom.
I am on the quay next morning at seven, as the sun rises through the mist and frees itself from the mountain of Pelion. It is warming as it dissolves the memory of evening dew. And it is good to meet Aristide and Philippos once again, and to join the others, on a boat that lies so still on the mirrored morning sea. The name of this wooden craft that will carry us to the past and the future is “Odyssey.” I think, “Either fate is playing with us, or maybe the Gods want to tell us something?” “To what Ithaca are we bound? What have we to learn about design and identity, to learn about ourselves? And can we resist seduction along the way?”
A fine windless day is ahead the captain says. Then the ropes are off cast and we move out into the harbor and head south across the mirror, towards the open passage at the south end of the Pagassitic Gulf.
As the city of Volos falls behind I can see the remains of a mountain to the south of the city. There at Agria, a mountain has been blasted away over the years to serve the appetite of the cement factory. Opposite are the remains of the classical city of Dimitrias once dedicated to the goddess of planting and fertility. There the ruins have been allowed to recover themselves with pine trees now that archaeological excavations have come to a halt. Like so many classical cities in this region, Dimitrias was destroyed probably in one of the fierce raids from the north during the 5th century BCE. From that day the city disappeared, and an illustrious civilization was extinguished. But what about the Dodecatheo, their twelve gods?

“Listen to what he says….. “
Why did we smash their sculptures?
Why did we throw them out from their temples?
You know, they’ve never died, those gods.
Ionia, they love you still,
their souls remember you. Still.
Like in the dawn of an August morning
your mood is captured, given strength from their life.
And sometimes, low over the hills,
an ethereal and youthful form,
vague and undefined, may swiftly pass you by.”

The ride is idyllic; the twin Hyundai engines slip us through the water with quiet Asiatic power. Many students, having partied late, doze at this early hour. Others light up a succession of small paper-covered offerings as part of their personal sacrifice to the god of lung cancer. It is a time conductive to reverie.
Where is this Youra? How is it that we have permission to land there if it is forbidden to do so? Did the inhabitants of city of Dimitrias know of Youra? What was the island it called back then, and how long did it take to get there?

“Listen to What Happened…..”
We must never forgive Plato for disparaging Homer’s world of luminous amoral fatality. We must continue to regard theology as a decadent form of reflection, one that already at its origin was headed downhill towards the modern wasteland of denatured “facts”, algorithms, and the banalities of “public opinion.”

We round the point with the village of Trikeri high on our port side.
It is easy to see the new roads that have been slashed across the landscape to reach new recreation property developments. At the crest of the hill and usurping the view from the cluster of old island houses stands a new concrete skeleton waiting to be clad as a large villa. I begin to get a bit uneasy, not from the sea but from sensing what has happened on this marvelous landscape in the fifteen years since I made the passage more frequently. All along the south of the peninsula named Tisseo, to Platania and beyond, there is much new development: isolated, expensive, unsustainable, from where the glories of this sea and the landscape can be consumed during a few weeks of summer.
I wonder what is the poetic content in all the human effort now modifying this landscape. The rationale of the older landscape, –the low stone fences enclosing goats and sheep, the pathways, here and there a few cultivated terraces –they spoke of survival and with a timeless elegance. And now?
As we pass the last ‘elbow’ of land before we head out towards islands of Skiathos and Skopelos, we look up to witness the complete destruction of a gigantic mountain landscape that is well underway. From four or five hundred meters up thousands of tons of rubble from an extensive marble quarry are being poured down the mountainside and into the innocence of the blue sea below.
Will aggressive destruction of nature like this end at some point? All of us know that it is not much longer before the major support systems on which survival on this planet depends will pass beyond the point of repair. Atmospheric poisons, climate change, ocean current redirections, desertification I don’t need to tell myself more. Demeter, goddess of fertility, together with the rest of the eleven Gods must be furious at us.
I watch out of the corner of my eye for them for here I am, on this beautifully crafted boat, one that is gulping up long-stored hydrocarbons as it carries me in a semi-reverie past Skiathos, then close by the southern edges of Skopelos.
At a bay where once we swam naked and made sand salads with an exceptional three year old, now I see there is a large cluster of tourist bungalows, units for passive summertime consumption. They march up the hill ignoring the ruins of a 6th century BCE defensive wall; a wall that I know is raised from gigantic fitted stones. Years ago I climbed up beside it in wonder, as ten thousand cicadas ground away at my ears.
What can the myths tell us about what Demeter did/does about ignorance, greed, and destruction? What penalty is paid?

“Listen to What Happens……”
Near to this place, only removed in time, Erechcithonas, king of the Pelasgi in Thesally is so rich and powerful that he wants to add a great banqueting hall to his palace in which to entertain and impress his friends. His carpenters tell him that there are no long timbers available in his kingdom to construct such huge roof. “Only in the ‘Ieron Alson’, the forest sacred to the Goddess Demeter might such trees be found.” they tell him.
One day he enters into that grove leading twenty slaves each carrying a sharpened axe, for he is bent on harvesting all the tall poplar logs his new project will demand. But the Goddess Dimitra herself appears, and transformed into an old lady stands in his way to remind the king that the forest is a sacred precinct where nothing should be touched by humans. Angry and impatient he sweeps her aside and threatens to kill her if she is not quiet. Enraged, the goddess draws herself up into her majestic form. With her feet deep into the earth, her head blocking out the sky, she screams down at him, “Build your dining room, dog, for you will need to eat there! You will need to eat there forever!”
The axes fall, the deed is done, the trees are felled, stripped and assembled into a magnificent roof over a glittering banquet hall where now the first feast is prepared. Demeter sees all, then sends down the demon of hunger to enfold itself around and within the body of Erechcithonas. Enthroned, the king sits with his retinue and begins to eat. Then he calls for his twenty cooks and twelve wine slaves to bring him more. This they do. But he calls them again, for his appetite appears insatiable. Soon, all the animals he owns are slaughtered, prepared and eaten; the mules, even the cats. His fields are stripped of their harvest, even those that stand unripe. His father Triopas, son of Posidon, makes excuses at court for the king, claiming an unexpected but necessary absence. It is not many days before the starving man must sell his own daughter to raise funds to buy food, yet he remains famished at the tables laden with such plenty. Finally there is nothing left to bring towards him to eat. Nothing. Then he begins to pull away at the wasted and feverish flesh of his own body, consuming himself,… handful by handful.

From the deck I look out at the unchecked ‘development’ and wonder what role the forbidden now plays in our lives, for I am getting the feeling that maybe we should not be making this trip, that this Youra should remain prohibited to us. Why is it we that have a special permit to land there? Is being an elite ever defensible? Are we too going there to “consume” the place? Maybe this odyssey is an illicit affair.
Since that daring theft by Prometheus, humans have been doing pretty much what they want, and when they want to do it. Now with help of technology’s short-term efficiency we’ve been drawing stored wealth from the ground so fast that any sense of limit is blurred in the fog of progress. Progress is freedom, right? Progress is unbounded, right?
Yet why do we need to see limits as chains?
Our daily survival, social discourse, our customs ¬–all are shaped
by what we’ve chosen to refuse. Each of us is differentiated by the boundaries that are either defined for us or, if we are lucky, by those we have defined for ourselves. Identity is etched not by what we do, but what we do not do. Our responsibility here together is to not accept externally placed limits, be they religious, social, or cultural, but to recognize internal ones as we move through the thicket of seductive alternatives towards a ‘self’ that makes some sense among those we love.
Abstinence, the choice of what to say ‘no’ to, seems central. Abstinence requires some experience with consequence. It requires courage. And with it comes an opening into mystery, and an awakening of the poetic imagination. Maybe we should not land on this island, but remain wiser by abstaining from setting foot on it?
The bowsprit noses out into a brisk wind that is slowly building up along the eastern side of Alonisos. I see roads cutting down across the natural slopes to reach new development, and more olive trees have been cleared for white villas – little abstinence is visible there.

Youra and the small pellagos around it have been declared part of Greece’s only marine park, and home it is to the last of the remaining seals to be found in the Eastern Mediterranean. I ask about these sea animals and hear of the programs that have so far been not very effective in protecting them and in enhancing their fertility. I ask how many are left. Only sixty-five! With increasing water pollution from chemicals, the sea thronged with pleasure boaters and the almost depleted fish stocks, the total demise of these mammals is undoubtedly imminent. What monument will be raised to their absence? What raised to our neglect of them? But wait, a few people are trying, and that’s good news isn’t it? There is a park after all.
Also, they say the cave of the fabled Cyclops is on this island.
“Oh, oh”. I think.

“Listen to What Happened…… ”
They say that the cave high up on the western face of the island of Youra, a cave now defiled, was once the lair of the Cyclops Polyphemeus. Here Odysseus and his crew are said to have found themselves prisoners, being devoured two by two by the monster. Crafty Odysseus offers wine to the monster and blinds him when he falls into the swoon of sleep. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to instruct his shipmates that by covering themselves with the skins of the devoured sheep that lay around the floor of the cavern they could escape from the cave and from the roaring of the blinded beast. Of course, as Polyphemeus was one of Poseidon’s sons, the rage of that god against Odysseus was multiplied which further prolonged the wandering of that old warrior.
But ‘they’ are wrong, for the cave of Polyphemeus is very far from Youra. It’s near Sicily. The cave on Youra was the home of another older Cyclops, -one of three Cyclopes, all children, like the Goddess Demeter, of parents Kronos and Gaea, These Cyclopes gave to Hades his helmet of invisibility, and became the forgers of Zeus’s dreaded thunderbolts. Either it was Arges, Steropes, or Broontes that lived in that Youra cave. One of them was killed, and killed not by Odysseus but by the God Apollo in his anger over the death of his son Asclepius by the hand of Zeus. Asclepius had been annoying Hades with the knowledge he’d been given of how to use the blood of Medea in bringing the dead back to life. So, acting in defense of the order the world that is life and death, Zeus kills him with a thunderbolt forged by the Cyclopes. Apollo is seized with a violent rage, and, taking up his arrows kills the Cyclops. But it is not told which one.

Two of thunderbolt-making Cyclopes must still be among us!

As we begin to approach the southern cliffs of Youra the captain reduces the efforts of engines and we draw near the rising cliffs with caution. They are steep, perhaps reaching 200 meters before leveling off out of sight far above us. We see a small and enticing path zigzagging its way back and forth up a slope and disappearing over the crest. It touches the water without a wharf or landing. Here the water is very deep for the charts show underwater contour lines that are drawn close together. It is forbidding this ancient castle-like cliff of sharp limestone dusted with low thorny green bushes and milk-holding cacti that are now turning red in the mid-May heat. The engines are slipped into neutral, and as we glide forward ever so slowly the cliffs rise up high enough to shut out the wind. The captain is worried, how to land us? “Won’t we change our mind?” he hints.
I’m on his side. “Think what we can imagine if we don’t land!” I say. But we’ve come too far, and abstinence doesn’t seem to be on the program. I don’t say anything about the anger of the Cyclopes
Turning the boat, the captain orders one of the heavy anchors to be let go, and more than two hundred meters of chain are rattled out over the cleat until he is confident it’s reached bottom Then the stern lines are thrown and made fast, and one by one our team walks the swaying plank and is helped ashore by two of the crew members.
What seductions and delusions await us, for Demeter can’t be happy? Can we keep our minds clear, need we to take blindfolds with us? I know there are no sacred cows on this island, but perhaps the goats allowed to roam free here belong to the Sun, replacements for the cows that were slaughtered by Odysseus’s starving crew?
We are drawn quickly up the path, all forty of us. Some, mostly women, reach down to pick oregano that is just days away from flowering, and clutch at the pink wild flowers that smile at us from between the rocks. Under that oven of a sun we soon reach the level area and walk easily towards the cluster of walls and buildings that are the residence of the guardian of the island.
His dwelling is built into an old monastery and we see that the small church is still intact. The complex is surrounded by a gated wire fence that keeps the goats from eating the riot of wildflowers and green within. It is clear that these voracious mammals are predators that have destroyed the bio-diversity of this landscape. Inside the compound beside the small church there’s an attached sleeping room, a storeroom, several outbuildings including an oven, and a number of other smaller structures sinking in a state of advance decay.
The guardian and his wife have made this place beautiful with simple yet elegant moves. Gathering water off roof in the winter rain there is a cistern large enough to serve both of them and their mule, and a flashing team of photo-voltaic cells provides him enough power to pick up the news on a small TV. He’s made small constructions, alterations, and attachments to the courtyard that include a pergola to support the grape vine that is now throwing deep and welcome shadow onto his courtyard. It is a finely detailed place, a testament to immediacy, intelligence, and limited means.
We ask him about the monastery, when it was inhabited, what happened to it. He leads a few of us into the small church.

“Listened To What Happened……….”
It is said, that years ago, there were forty resident monks living at this monastery located on Youra. On the holy day that celebrates .. Saint(?)… all of them but one had crowded into the small domed church under the gaze of the Pantocrator to begin the ancient chant for the evening’s ‘unsleeping’ liturgy. Suddenly out of the clear evening sky and without any warning a ferocious thunderbolt struck the building. The electrical energy passing at that moment through the dome was sufficient to incinerate the whole congregation. The one monk that lived to tell the tale had, at the precise moment of the strike, stepped outside to tend an animal, or so the story goes. We are shown the one long fissure transversing the dome as evidence of the power of a force from above.
We might speculate on why those thirty-nine monks deserved such a hot collective fate. No doubt deep in a dust-covered volume that lies under glass at one of the ancient monasteries on Mt. Athos we might find some historic speculations on that matter. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this event, cataclysmic and symbolic as it was, did lead to the rather prompt abandonment of the monastery as a sacred precinct of Greek Orthodoxy.
My own inclination is to believe that the shocking deed was the work of one or both of the surviving Cyclopes, done with the bidding of Zeus who still remains very angry at the replacement of the Doodecatheo by the poor black monotheism of Christianity.
Youra is a dangerous place. We’ve been warned.

Over the next hour we wander around in the quiet heat of this spectacular place, then out to a cliff edge from where we can see across to the cave of the Cyclops. Tailings from a recent archaeological investigations tumble from the cave and down the hill, and a small tree crouches windblown at its mouth. The goats sometimes come to visit there.
Later we gather in the shade of the courtyard and begin a discussion. Someone tells of the surprise at finding such a beautiful place, not at all like what her research had led her to believe. Another says that here is the essence of Greek unspoiled nature.
Motivated perhaps by genetic genius to make vernacular architecture, several stalwart youths make a tentative offer to the guardian to return soon with clay roof tiles and replace the asbestos sheets, thereby to improve the quality of the water collecting ability, and to make the place more ‘authentic’. I’m impressed, but I fear we are lost.
Charmed we are, like so many before us with the spring beauty of Greece ¬¬–its light, its extravagance –the ‘terrifying phenomenon’, as Zisis Kotionis once had little trouble in convincing me. It was so easy to see ourselves here in this garden of Eden, leaving the complexities of our lives all hung out to dry elsewhere. Here, paradise; a new start.
As most of us were dedicated to the making and study of architecture, our impulses were to improve, repair, extend. Wise Phillipos had written together with wise Aristide that we should not betray ‘the suspension of our ideas’, not choose an identity for this island through design. Perhaps they knew the danger that lay in the power of its seduction? Perhaps they were proposing impotence? Perhaps they wanted if see if abstinence might play a role?
It was so easy to think how the clarity of the logical mind could transform this place to into “a Center for Ecological Study and Sustainable Recreation.

“Listen to What Could Happen”…….
With extensive governmental support now assured, the various groups hoping to protect Youra island as a Research Park have been able to implement their ideas. Although the Mediterranean seals soon died out, a series of refuges for other endangered species has been created on the island, together with a small clinic for research, with enclosed areas where enhanced feeding patterns can be tested.
Anchored in the sea off the south end of the island the four permanent buoys have easily been accommodating the pronounced growth of ecological tourism, with cruises, canoes, and sailboats arriving daily. A funicular made of high technology carborundum steel sheathed in inert plastic has been installed to bring people up to the meadow, where experiments with hydroponic agriculture that support the small population can be visited.
Recently, a number of hostels and small hotels have been built at sheltered locations on the island. All these constructions make minimal impact on the landscape as their material is biodegradable, and their waste, intricately recycled, is then removed from the island. Power for the small but growing community of dedicated people is generated by wind turbines and photo voltaics.
The identity and image of the island is growing as its environmentally aggressive policies are being widely recognized.”

This isn’t a passive identity, but instead an active and aggressive one. The ‘battle’ is joined. But is the mindset not the same as with Promethean progress? Where is abstinence, where reflection, where some humility in the face of Demeter’s demands. Is active resistance the only alternative we have to passive ignorance?
I walk away from the group for a moment, find a shaded wall and sink to the warm ground to be surrounded by a chorus of poppies. A cat comes over to join me for a moment, stretches her neck up for a brief neck rub, then saunters off. Seduced by beauty, I can’t help thinking that at any moment ‘an ethereal form, vague and undefined, might swiftly pass me by.” And right now! Then there is the chance that the time might be ripe for Zeus to let loose another of his big ones, a lightening bolt right onto the heads of these beautiful young people who so unknowingly are involved in this illicit affair.
What could be done here on Youra to make amends? To be clear but humble, to accept uncertainty yet look for allies?

Is there not a time and place to allow for lateral thinking, for dreaming, for welcoming back the stories that can help us shape our lives in a more ethical way? Is it time for the legacy of Prometheus to give way to that of his brother? Maybe Epimetheus was not ‘blundering and slow-witted’, but instead, as his name suggests, was the one who looked back and learned from the result of action, the one who refrained from folly that angered the Gods. His death, unlike that of his brother, is nowhere reported in any bloody and blazing glory. Maybe he lived in harmony with himself to a thoughtful old age?
How would one approach fostering a place for reflection? The mental place for reflection would need to be free to the imagination: without a single set of dogma. In that sense we need only allow the wealth of stories that have been part of this country’s history to have free domain. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are equal in what they can teach us, for it’s only the numbers of the dates that are different. Most reflective practices towards wisdom, as well as many religions promote a meditative state where time is set free. But we need to give this mental space a recognizable identity. Words about a feel-good guru-idealism are not enough –they need to be placed.
What, in this country, is revered and held sacred by the majority of the people? Well, two things: mothers, and the Orthodox Church. The first is of no use in answering our question, for Greeks will never be able to get beyond their private mothers towards a collective one. As to the second, few will disagree that the recent record of the Church in caring for the soul has been far from exemplary.
As the poppies wave at each other, I wonder at first if this island of Youra might be protected precisely because it is under the jurisdiction of the Church. If neglect were to continue to be the ‘modus opperendi’ for Church property, then this might prove to be an effective strategy. But on my last visits to Mt Athos, seeing the new roads, the increased religious tourism, as well as timber harvesting in full development l am led to suspect that Orthodox neglect might well be obsolete.

You don’t have to be Constantine Cavafy to feel the spirit of the past living in the present over this land. For centuries now the Greeks have taken in the story of their Hellenic heritage, there is no question about it. This presence, this gift to the western world is beyond political discussion or temporal favoritism.
The country is now emerging from the monoculture of the last seventy years, back into the light of cultural diversity, its ancient destiny. Surely it’s now time to allow for the ancient imagination to come to out into the light as well, to help us weave metaphors around the painful choices we must make together –to help us understand the humility of doubt, the courage of inaction, the wisdom of restraint, and the beauty of abstention.
Maybe right here on the island of Youra is where we should make a first step to call on those old allies of the ancient Greeks and to abstain collectively from the destruction of the environment that our illogical and poetically thin culture seem so addicted to.
So, as the poppies wink, I scribble down some laws for Youra:
Nine Necessary Steps To Claim the Island of Youra as a Precinct Sacred to the Goddess Demeter.

1. Remove the Island of Youra and the three small islands of Prasso from the jurisdiction and control of Mt. Athos, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the National State of Greece.

2. Create an International Trust in the European Parliament,
or join the World Endangered Sites to give the Islands permanent identity as a sacred site dedicated to the Dodekatheo. This precinct will continue to be surrounded by, and operate within the rules of the surrounding Marine Park.

3. Remove all goats from Youra Island and relocate them to other islands within the marine Park.

4. Abandon all human residence on Youra; no guards, no
visitors, just walk away. Forever.

5. Remove any berthing assistance and facilities for watercraft.

6. Forbid human access to the island of Youra through imposing the risk of severe penalty, perhaps even including ostracism.

7. Initiate sophisticated GPS global monitoring of the Islands.

8. On the most western island of Prasso, promote an enclosure to the honor of Demeter by allowing visitors to bring to the island by carrying in their hands, one stone no heavier than five kilograms, and to place it in a wall.

9. Allow no temple honoring Dimitra to be built on Prasso before the year 2115.

I see that I’m the last person left in the enclosure, for with the day ending the others have already begun walking the switchback descent. Catching up, I look down on the boat as it sways suspended above the deep blue, yet ablaze with the last of the slanting sunlight.
I wonder if Demeter would be pleased to be recognized and honored on this island? Is it much too late for Zeus, or are those two remaining Cyclopes still working away for him, making ready one last lightening bolt…?

“Now, Listen to What Happened…………!”


Ron Walkey,
Architect, Professor,
UBC School of Architecture,
Vancouver, Canada

This essay is dedicated to the spirit of Bud Wood. Sources
include Robert Callasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, ‘The Ionians’ from C. Cavafy’s collected work, Hamlyn’s World Mythology and the Athenon Edition of Greek Mythology. I’ve received kind and patient help with translation from Evi Staikou,
and support and encouragement from my friend and colleague
John Gaitanakis.

No comments: