I’ve been fortunate enough to immerse myself in nature these last three weeks and I’ve also had the luck, and the time, to observe some wildlife. This has been an utterly delightful, as well as nourishing, part of the trip so far.
Kim and I are currently in Meteora in central Greece, famous for its beautiful, huge rock formations. A couple of days ago we were walking up a steep, wooded hill, heading for a chapel built in to a rock; the area is populated with monasteries built high up on spectacular rocky outcrops. Half way up the track, Kim stopped abruptly. I peered down to see what he was looking at and came face to face with a tortoise. It was right in the middle of the path.
As I bent down closer, its head retracted inside the shell. I inched away and the head slowly reappeared. I stayed where I was for a few minutes, transfixed. The tortoise’s head moved back inside the shell and out again repeatedly, as if assessing whether or not it was safe to move. Finally, it did, lifting a front leg, holding it in the air, and then carefully placing it a few millimetres further forward. The other three legs eventually followed in turn and I watched as each one seem to waver, as if with indecision on the owner’s part, before being put down on the ground again ever so slightly ahead. I was fascinated by the tortoise’s claws, so small and spiky, and by its carapace which looked a little worse for wear. I found it hard to move on, but the tortoise was making progress despite its leisurely pace and would soon be in the undergrowth. So, reluctantly, I started back up the path, carrying with me the gentle quietude of the reclusive reptile.
Kim wrote about the turtle that was spotted in the sea during our week of yoga near Spartia in the south of Kefalonia. I was one of the lucky swimmers who caught sight of it. A fellow yogi, Peter, who we dubbed the Turtle Whisperer, had shouted over one afternoon when a few of us were out in search of the turtle he’d seen the day before.
I tried not to think about how long I’d already been swimming or how deep the sea must be by this point and started towards Peter. After several minutes I caught up with him and was rewarded by the sight of the turtle. It was a metre or two below the surface, swimming out in to the expanse of the ocean. I was wearing goggles, not a mask, and so needed to keep coming up to the surface for breath. But each time I went back underwater, the turtle was still there, a little ahead of me, gliding through the turquoise sea, its legs moving slowly and gracefully up and down. Following behind, it felt like my strokes and the turtle’s were in tune. After a while, I stopped swimming and watched as the turtle swam deeper and further away, its body becoming less and less distinct in the deep water.
In contrast to the meditative-like encounters with the tortoise and the turtle, I’ve experienced a more vibrant, joyful sensation observing the many goats here. They are almost ubiquitous, as you’d expect from a country renowned for its feta cheese. When I was in Greece last year, on the island of Samothraki, I quickly developed a fondness for the goats which easily outnumber the people there. The agility of our caprine friends is well known. But seeing them close up on the mountainous tracks and then watching them leap neatly on to tiny ledges and steep edges increased my respect for their nimble antics.
Less obvious, at least to me, was a fact I heard at a performance hosted by the Wellcome Collection in London earlier this year called Sheep Pig Goat. There I discovered a key difference between sheep and goats: where sheep are grazers, goats are browsers. To me this explained a lot about goats and why I’ve come to like them so much. I’m a big fan of the attribute of curiosity in any being, human or otherwise. I realised that, as browsers, goats are hardwired to explore far and wide. The glint in their eye, an equal mix of mischief and comedy, seems to reflect this characteristic of enquiry and playfulness which makes them so entertaining to watch.
Cats and dogs
At risk of sounding overly romantic about Greece, I’ve even been appreciating the stray cats and dogs here. None of the ones I’ve seen so far seem too badly affected by their lifestyle: they’re generally pretty clean and don’t look particularly underfed. They wander around in packs and groups, apparently quite content and with a friendly attitude towards passersby. I confess to developing affection for one kitten in particular. It had been hanging around the tent in Camping Argostoli and I couldn’t resist befriending it. With its bushy tail too big for its small body, a short white stripe down the black fur on its back and oversized whiskers, I found it quite adorable. Its miaow was so quiet it was almost pathetic, but at the same time it had the effect of being discreet; not overly demanding. I would have happily packed it in my rucksack when we left the campsite.. However, I have pledged in another piece I wrote recently to not develop undue attachment to places, things, or even people: to enjoy but without holding on too much. So I will continue to watch the wildlife that comes my way with appreciation and warmth, and ensure my luggage stays free of any endearing creatures that cross my path.