This morning I woke up to an island shrouded in mist, a rose gold dawn of cockerels and damp. Autumn beckons and the weather is changing. I notice these things, not least because I sleep out of doors from June until the first rains come, sometime in October. It is too hot to sleep inside, under the tin roof with no fans to stir the stagnant air. I prefer to take my chances with the mosquitoes and wake with the sun. As we edge towards the equinox sunrise is ever later but the dawn chorus in the valley still starts long before first light, an accompaniment of crows, brays, twitters and bleats that gradually draws me to wakefulness by 6 a.m. If I should dare to sleep on, the cats come to find me and knead me into the world, demanding breakfast.
Time to head up the terraces into the house and put the percolator on the stove for the first coffee pot of the day. Coffee and the BBC news. Living off the grid is not synonymous with living in ignorance. We have a satellite dish and a basic decoder that allows us to pick up the BBC and other free-to-air stations. We watch the news every morning. The ripples of world events wash our shores and Symi has been effected by everything from global economic problems to the war in Syria and attempted coup in Turkey. We cannot pretend that because we live on a tiny island that we are safe from the vagaries of world events. The effects of climate change face me every morning as I look at dead or dying trees in my groves and orchards. Since we bought our farm in 1995 we have seen thriving almonds, apricots, peaches and pears die off due to extreme summers and dry winters. Last year our olive trees also started to die off. It is not just us. All over the island deciduous fruit and nut trees have died. Endemic conifers are also showing strain and even as far north as the island of Leros we saw dead and dying indigenous trees.
The Greek Island cliche of the tourist brochures is blue skies, calm seas, endless sunshine and idyllic beaches. That is only part of the picture. Greece, like all the other countries in the Europe, also has winter. While it seldom involves metre deep snow drifts – unless you live in northern Greece – but it does usually involve a lot of wet stuff and that, in turn, translates into a lot of green stuff. The Mediterranean climate has two defining characteristics – long hot dry summers and relatively mild wet winters with high rainfall. Spring and Autumn are such short seasons, only 2-3 weeks between Summer and Winter that they hardly register at all in Southern Greece. We would not survive those summer droughts without the winter rains and on naturally arid islands like Symi which have no springs or rivers, harvesting the winter rains in cisterns has been a way of life for thousands of years.
If you have only ever been to Greece in the popular summer months of July, August and September you may find it hard to imagine a landscape of wild cyclamens and silvery asphodels, bright green annual grasses and waist high corona daisies. The first rains usually fall sometime in October, around the same time that the squills start punching through the sunbaked earth to remind us that Persephone is on her way back to Hades. Within a day or so a delicate green bloom tinges the rocky landscape as dry scrubby herb bushes regreen and grass seeds germinate. The wild cyclamens poke small heart shaped leaves out of stony terrace walls and rocky hillsides. The delicately scented pale pink flowers follow later, in February and March. By April the country is a riot of flowers as nature pushes to complete complex life cycles before the first heatwaves of May and June bake the earth.
It is quite possible to see no rain at all between mid March and early November but most years the drought on Symi lasts from April to late October. A long time without water.
The next time you look at a photograph of gleaming white Cycladic houses against a brilliantly blue sky and sea, remember the other Greece. The wintry green one of rain and cyclamens.
A brief introduction to life off the grid.
When Nicholas and I bought our first boat, a 23 foot wooden ketch called Frolic, back in February 1981, little did we realise that this would eventually lead to a lifestyle that is far from conventional and a long way from our starting point as white middle class South African graduates.
Home is now the small Greek island of Symi in the Dodecanese, about 25 nautical miles north of Rhodes and within spitting distance of the Turkish coast. We have lived off the grid for decades now, experimenting with a permaculture-inspired lifestyle that aims to be as self-sufficient as possible. We try to grow as much of our own food as we can, despite having settled on an island that is famously dry and has more perpendicular surfaces than horizontal ones. Every year brings its challenges, particularly as Symi is seeing the effects of climate change as the summer drought grows ever longer.
I have been blogging Symi since 2001 as part of my work for Symi Visitor Accommodation but I am often asked to write about aspects of living here on a more personal level. This is for those of you who are more interested in how one can live all year round without mains electricity than what life is like for tourists visiting the island.