By Way of a Lake Pt. 2

Having lived with the Prespa Lakes for almost a decade now, I feel a fierce love and allegiance towards them. It seems a natural exchange for what they’ve provided me over time, the give and take of long tenure. Yet there is one other wetland in northern Greece that attracts my attentions now and then; I suppose it feels like infidelity.

When Julia and I first journeyed to Lake Kerkini a few years ago, we spent our evenings talking over wine after long days of walking, birdwatching, and exploring. We spoke in quiet tones, equally feeling the pull: “What would our lives be like if we’d chosen to move to this lake, instead of those lakes.” Like most infatuations, though, it passed. But the lake had left a mark on us, and it sparked a torch that lit imagined lives.

For the first time since then, we returned to Lake Kerkini a few weeks ago with friends. Unlike Prespa, which was just emerging from its winter chrysalis when we left, Kerkini was brimming with spring. About 800 metres in altitude separate the two lake systems, and the difference was startling. Trees were in leaf on the hillsides lifting from the lake edge; lesser spotted and short-toed eagles circled overhead; butterflies traced the air, following invisible currents.

Kerkini lies on a major migratory route, channelling birds from the Aegean towards the narrow opening of the Strymonas River that cleaves the high Rhodopi mountains on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Migrating birds follow the river through the alpine opening, fanning out over the Balkans. But they arrive by way of the lake. Many birds were already back – black kites readying to nest in the hills, egrets and herons filling the trees, hundreds of white storks in courtship atop village electricity poles. Equally there were those passing through, like the flock of hawfinches unfurling like a long ribbon over the meadows, their wedge-beaked, orange and brown forms bulleting through. A secretive black stork, the solitary and shy relative of the white, stood in an isolated field, a purple and green glaze spilling over its shoulders and head. Wildflowers sparked into colour, and creatures emerged from a long winter.

One of the striking features of Lake Kerkini are the herds of water buffalo farmed on the wet meadows around the water’s edge. Not only do they help maintain the ecologically rich meadows, they also provide the region’s noted culinary specialities: buffalo meat, cheese and yoghurt. They lend an epic presence to the lake-edge habitat as they wallow through the water, sloping through rivers up to their heads, then congregating in their hundreds on the flatlands, where birds gather around unconcernedly by their sides. 

Talking of Kerkini as a lake is somewhat inaccurate; in fact it’s a reservoir. Historically the area was a great marsh, dotted with a number of sizable lakes, swamps and reed beds filled by the Strymonas River as it roared downed from its Bulgarian mountain source near Sofia. But in 1923, the future course of the wetlands was set in motion by a cynical political agreement. Four years earlier, the Greek government had embarked on an ill-advised war against Turkey in an attempt to wrest control of Constantinople back again. By the end of 1922, with the routing of the Greek army, the destruction of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the lost of countless lives, Greece’s war was over. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Greece and Turkey in 1923, set a terrible precedent that remains a framework for the resolution of ethnic strife. Called the Great Population Exchange, the agreement required the mass movement of ethnic populations between the two states, despite long histories and traditions grounded in regions on both sides. It is estimated that 1.3 million Christian Greeks exited Turkey, while 800,000 Muslim Turks were required to leave Greece. The only areas exempt from the exchange were the Christians of Istanbul (Constantinople) and the Muslims of Thrace, Greece’s eastern province.

What this colossal population exchange meant for many was a miserable arrival in a land they had little connection to, with little prospect of employment. Athens and Thessaloniki swelled beyond their available infrastructure; but many people tried to settle the land. In the extensive area around Lake Kerkini, 85,000 refugees are thought to have arrived in the years after the signing of the treaty. But trying to farm in the marshy sway of the Strymonas River was an unenviable task; the continual flooding decimated crops and the area was rife with malaria. An estimated 20% of the newly arrived died in the years 1923/24 alone.

The Greek government decided to act by draining the marshes and creating a reservoir. Along with containing the flood waters, in would also open up large swathes of arable land for the refugees to farm. An American company was hired and construction on the reservoir and dam began in 1928, which was intended to hold back the winter and spring run-off that could then be slowly released in summer for irrigation. What can’t be seen when travelling around the lake are the older villages that already existed amongst the marshes. They were sent to the bottom by the rising waters, lost to the visible world.

Lake Kerkini reaches its high water point in late spring and early summer, when it traps the melt-waters of winter. During the hot season water is siphoned off for agriculture, resulting in areas of the lakebed being brought to the surface again by autumn. The great film director, Theo Angelopoulos, used those areas to build a mud and stone village for his film, ‘The Weeping Meadow,’ that traces the difficult political history of Greece in the 20th century. Once the village was built, the crew waited for the rising waters of late winter to film the drowning of the houses.

This great ebb and flow of water levels has created a variety of unique habitats – mudflats, wet meadows, riverine meaders and marsh – but the most ghostly and alluring is the drowned forest. Located in the northeast corner of Lake Kerkini, it is a remnant of an earlier landscape – the boggy and alluvial edge of the river. The willows are now submerged for nearly half the year, and provide an astonishing refuge for pelicans, herons, egrets, cormorants, and terrapins. Willows naturally embrace water, but this inundation takes its toll – the area is under water far too long for offspring to survive. It is a landscape that will eventually go the way of the villages that nestle at the bottom of the lake.

When the waters recede at the end of summer the lake bed comes to the surface again. Marsh plants and grasses spring up, briefly and insistent, like my thoughts of the lake itself from time to time, and that never to be resolved question of what might have been.

6 thoughts on “By Way of a Lake Pt. 2

  1. Fascinating history Julian, although tragic for those immigrants that attempted to settle the shore of the lake. I can remember seeing several abandoned villages on Cyprus and thinking how traumatic such movements must have been for the ordinary families caught up in such torrid political strife. But having to cope with diseases such as malaria too must have been devastating.

    If it’s not too personal question, where was the tipping point for you to move to Greece? Was it an easy decision? Do you manage to make a living from your writing? I know several people now that have made that personal choice to move east, but once their savings run out find it quite hard to make a living?

    Best wishes, Paul

    1. Thanks very much for that, Paul! Though I’ve never been to Cyprus, there are many abandoned villages around our part of Greece that date from the Greek Civil War. As you so rightly point out, trying to imagine the trauma and loss that goes with each and every empty house is a painful process.

      No worries at all with the question, Paul! I’m happy to answer it. We’d been living in London when we finally came to the realisation that we didn’t have the time or energy to follow our passions and interests. I wanted to be writing, while my partner, Julia, wanted to be involved in environmental work; we both wanted to live beside the hills, lakes and wild creatures that were so important to our lives, and grow our own food at the same time. A tall order to be sure…but somehow it all worked out. Making the move here was easy, but the decision itself was much harder. Not because we didn’t want to leave the city, but because we were leaving behind the habits and comfortable familiars that had defined our lives. But the moment we were honest with ourselves, and acknowledged the necessity to move on and explore a life closer to our hearts, then the rest unfolded of its own accord. And we’ve never looked back to be honest…I’m really curious about your own move to Romania and will have a look at your About page over the next couple of days to see what it says. I would certainly have left some comments on your excellent and informative posts but you must have your reasons for not allowing comments.

      I don’t earn very much at all from my writing to be honest. In fact I don’t know many writers who do!! But over the ten years we’ve lived here we’ve managed by keeping a number of balls in the air, like most of the people in our village do. We ran an organic vegetable smallholding for about five years selling to restaurants until I started having back problems. Although we still grow and sell salads and herbs it’s a pretty tiny concern these days. But we do run a small business selling our own homemade jams, preserves, pickles, herbal teas etc. throughout the area and in Athens. Then there’s English teaching that Julia, my partner, does, occasional translations for environmental organisations and right now we’re running a bird monitoring research study as part of an environmental assessement for a wind park project that’s meant to be built here in Prespa. There’s always a nervous moment at the end of the month when the bills are due, but we always knew that living the kind of life that we hoped to would come at a certain cost. Sorry if that’s a bit of a long reply! Looking foward to hearing about your own move to a wonderful part of the world.

      Best wishes,

      1. Sorry about the delay Julian, but I have just arrived in the UK for a few days. The first item on the agenda was to buy some walking boots as my 27 year old Scarpa’s are now letting in the water! I went for a pair of Brasher Hillmaster’s that look and feel quite sturdy with the all important leather lining. I can’t get on with synthetic liners hence the careful maintenance of my Scarpa’s over the years.

        I can relate with so many of your reasons for moving, write down to the growing of food, wildlife projects and pickles! Did you see our gardening page? Laura has the green fingers really and I admire her perseverance for refusing to use any insecticides at all. Every year we have Colorado beetle infestations and she literally spends hours picking both beetles and eggs off the stems and leaves of our potato plants. It is a loosing battle of course but we always manage a reasonable crop which sees us through most of the year. In fact we probably manage to supply 70-80% of our vegetable needs.

        I also have a page dedicated to the pickling process Szekely style :)

        I take my hat off to you as you have managed to exist by your own means in Greece. Unfortunately I opened my small tourism company at the start of the economic downturn and although my tours were very popular, customers were not regular and financially it was difficult. I am divorced and have two daughters living in the UK, so I have to boost my income with some work in Germany.

        I have also helped several students with their English studies but unlike Julia I’m not qualified as a teacher so never charge for my services. Translation work I know can be quite lucrative, but from the experiences of a friend of mine who freelances, regular work with international companies is hard to come by.

        Good luck with the bird monitoring research study.

        Best wishes, Paul

        1. Thanks for that, Paul. Looking forward to having a look at Szekely style pickling! I had a good laugh about the Colorado beetles as that was precisely our main job as well – scouring the potatoes for the insects and their eggs and removing them by hand….not something I looked forward to every year. What always astonished me, however, was how much vegetation even a few overlooked beetles could consume in such a short period of time. Amazing….still, we always managed a pretty good harvest, so something must have been working. Shame about your tourism company though, which sounds like a great idea; can only hope things turn around so that you can earn a living where you so obviously enjoy being.

          All for now,

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