Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Review: Wild New York

I am slowly working my way through the pile of books I left behind in Greece following my 2010 visit to America. One of these is Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson.

What a fascinating read Wild New York turned out to be. Essentially two books in one, Wild New York examines the human history of New York City, as well as the natural history waiting to be discovered in each of the five boroughs.

Wild New York includes:
  • Dozens of  Wild Facts describing the city's worst snow storms, the best places to watch the sunset, the rarest animals, the highest points, the healthiest forests, and the hottest spots for bird-watching
  • Fascinating biographies of the city's animals, from the much maligned pigeon and the dreaded rat, to falcons nesting on Park Avenue and sharks lurking off Coney Island
  • A history of the city's 1.1 billion-year-old geologic past, including the unearthing of a mastodon's 10,000-year-old bones in Manhattan
  • Sixteen pages of color photographs showing rare views of New York City and its wildlife
  • Directions for 33 walking tours in parks and wildlife refuges throughout New York City with 18 detailed maps to help urban eco-tourists find nature in the city.
Speaking of walking tours: during two of my extended visits to New York City I have been lucky enough to stay in Washington Heights, within easy walking distance of two of the parks mentioned in Wild New York―Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Hill Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a copy of the book with me on my walks through these parks which meant I often walked right past geological formations and historical landmarks completely oblivious to their existence and importance. Wild New York includes walking tours for both these parks, as well as two walking tours for Central Park and numerous other locations.

If I have any complaints about Wild New York, one would be the format of the book, which in the hardcover version has dimensions measuring 9.1 x 7.4 inches. This makes the book somewhat bulky and inconvenient to tote around the city comfortably if one wants to use it ‘on location’.

Although completely understandable, given the 1997 publication date, another complaint is the absence of internet addresses for the many organizations and individuals mentioned throughout the book. Wild New York is crying out for an updated reprint that would solve this issue. Better yet, an updated Wild New York would also be available as an eBook making the information in it even more accessible to the urban explorer.

On the positive side, the chapter detailing 33 parks, nature areas and wildlife refuges in Wild New York provides a comprehensive overview of the whole city. All the major parks are of course examined here, from Central Park and the New York Botanical Garden to Prospect Park and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Less well known is the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge adjacent to JFK airport, and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Staten Islanders may be familiar with the Staten Island Greenbelt, but how many other New Yorkers (let alone visitors) have taken the time to visit there? Or Alley Pond Park in Queens? Or Breezy Point, and Plumb Beach?

The good news is that Wild New York makes it easy to visit these places by providing clear ‘How to get there’ details for visitors using public transport or their own vehicles. Having said that, another criticism comes to mind regarding the walks detailed in the book, and that is the lack of information about the walking distances involved. It is not always possible to know whether to allocate one hour, three hours, or more for some of the suggested walks just by looking at the maps. Nor is it always clear if the terrain is flat and easy to cover or hilly and harder to negotiate. An updated reissue of Wild New York would hopefully address these concerns and the others previously mentioned.

Despite my caveats, I discovered a wealth of interesting facts and historical information about New York that was previously unknown to me, and I would venture to say that even long term residents of the city will discover much about their home within the pages of Wild New York, that they are completely unaware of.
“Whether a native New Yorker or visiting from out of town, if you have the interest or the inkling to find hundred foot trees, tidal pools, salt marshes, Native American caves, hilltop vistas, or even just learn which wildflowers grow between the sidewalk slabs or which trees are tough enough to stand up to the stress of city life, this book is for you.”
~ Vincent M. Silenzio on September 26, 2000 (Amazon Review)
I suspect Wild New York has been long out of print, and your best bet for finding a copy is by scouring your local bookshop or online via Amazon or Abe Books, both of which have copies available.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pumpkin & Fennel Pie (Greek island style)

Portrait of Irene by Bill Cook
My sister Irene Gevezes has been living on Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea for almost 40 years. Among her many skills and talents, Irene has become a formidable cook and during a previous visit to the island, I filmed Irene as she prepared a number of traditional Greek dishes including purslane salad, lemon-peel spoon sweet, and goatsmilk cheese.

Now that I am back on the island for an extended stay, I have started filming more recipes with her, and these will be added to my YouTube channel as each is completed.

In the video below, Irene is making a traditional slice, or pie, using ingredients sourced mostly from her home garden. Even the grated goats milk cheese she uses in the pie is made from the milk she gets daily from her own goats.

Pumpkin & Fennel Pie
Main Ingredients:
Pumpkin, fennel, spring onions, silver beet, plain flour, two eggs beaten, grated goat milk cheese.

Herbs & Spices:
Mint, lemon balm, turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper, 8g yeast,

Water, olive oil, vinegar, Raki or Ouzo as needed.

Preheat oven to 180C (Irene uses an electric oven)

I am not going to give a detailed description of the preparation and cooking processes here. You can see those in the video. I will say though, that the whole process―from 'go to whoa'―will take several hours, which includes preparation and cooking time.

Early in the video I say to Irene that she has not "measured" any of the ingredients. Of course, throughout the preparation and cooking process Irene does measure the ingredients, although not by weight. Mostly she is measuring by quantity. For example, we see a large colander full of fennel, and a large orange plastic bowl full of diced pumpkin and chopped silver beet leaves. Also, when Irene places all the ingredients into the large saucepan it is filled to the brim.

If you are going to make this pie, or slice, don't worry about preparing too much filler or pastry. As Irene points out in the video, she simply freezes any excess filler and pastry for later use (the left over pastry makes a great pizza base as well).

If you don't have access to homemade goat milk cheese (and how many of us do?), substitute grated feta cheese, mozzarella, or other white cheese of your choice.

Finally, in the early part of the video Irene uses the expression "wilt it" while preparing to cook the fennel. What Irene means by this is to simmer the fennel (and later the pumpkin) on low heat until thoroughly cooked.

If you have any questions. Don't hesitate to ask them via the Comments section below. I will pass them on to Irene and add the answers in the same manner.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Photos: Ikarian Landscape

Is this the way Greek legends and myths are created? On seeing the stark, forbidding landscape on the southern windswept side of the Aegean island of Ikaria, my nephew, by way of explanation told me that local lore had it that when God finished creating the world he dumped all the left over stones and boulders on Ikaria. Walking over and around some of the thousands of massive boulders that dot the landscape here, I can well believe that story.

It takes a hardy people to create a life out of this landscape
Moon rocks have got nothing on this rock strewn landscape
How many years did it take to create this monster?
Many boulders are larger than the average American SUV―and God knows they can be massive! The largest of these monsters dominate the landscape like nothing else on the island, and one can only guess at the eons it must have required for the combined effects of wind and rain, and heat and cold to wear down and smooth the surface of the largest boulders.

Putting them in perspective
Boulders bigger than your average SUV
 One of the strangest rock formations is that seen in the image immediately below. The locals have dubbed this the 'cannon', due to its obvious similarity in outline to military weapons of this type. My comment on seeing this was, No wonder the Turks have not invaded Ikaria, if they can see this with binoculars from Turkey, they will think it is a massive cannon of the type used during the Second World War, and stay well away! 

The 'cannon'
I'm sure I will return to this theme of the Ikarian landscape in future posts as I wander further afield across the island.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mother’s Day, Greek Island Style

Waiting for the dance to begin
I wonder if the children and adults participating in the Mother’s Day celebrations held in the Ikaria village of Kampos, understand how truly important maintaining their traditions are, not just for the islanders and their island, but for the maintenance of their national culture and identity?

I was pondering this as I watched and filmed some 25 traditional dances over several hours during the evening of May 11, 2014. There were six groups of dancers ranging in age from seven or eight years through to teens and adults. Ikaria, by the way, is a small island in the Aegean Sea, not far from the Turkish coast.

The island boasts a local culture that steadfastly clings to the traditions of the past, while at the same time enjoying the many rewards and benefits of modern life. Every year, beginning in May and running right through until late September, the islanders organise a series of festivals (paniyiri) that start late, and finish even later. I’m talking 9:00pm to 9:00am, for those participants with the most stamina. The less hardy, generally older members of the community, will head home any time between 2:00am and dawn, but many have been known to match it with the young generations.

Anyway, the Mother’s Day celebrations started early-ish, and ended well before midnight. I filmed the whole event, and I have put together a video compilation of many of the dances that occurred during the night. I was positioned about ten feet above the dance ‘floor’, off to one side of the village square. It wasn’t the best position to film the participants, but I’m more than happy with the birds eye view I had of the whole event.

The celebration was as formal as you might expect for an open air, village celebration. That is to say, there were a couple of speeches followed by much dancing, hand clapping, vocal encouragement for all the dancers, constant chatter from the audience, kids running around the dance area and sometimes between the dancers themselves. The village square is located next to the main road that runs through the centre of the village, so there was a constant stream of cars, trucks, motorbikes and assorted foot traffic passing by throughout the event. None of these distractions disturbed the dancers in the least. In fact, they are part and parcel of any island celebrations.

But what I especially love about these island celebrations and traditions, is that they are embraced equally by the very young as well as by the very old. No one shouts at the kids to sit down and keep quiet, or to stay out of the way of the performers. The whole square seems as if it is being rearranging constantly by an invisible hand that manages to keep dancers, children, organisers and visitors out of each others way, as the evening progresses.

The video below provides a composite look at Mother’s Day, Greek style, as celebrated in Kampos, Ikaria on the evening of May 11, 2014.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Petropouli, Ikaria

Click on images to view full sized
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon in the Ikarian village of Petropouli, near the summit of Mount Atheras, the highest point on the island. Here are a number of images taken during my visit.

This old stone cottage, built in the traditional Ikarian style, still stands in the centre of the village. I don't know who owns, or owned it, but no one lives in the cottage any more. However, there are hundreds of old cottages like this still standing on the island, and many older Ikarians in particular, still live in them (see below).


Below, another old stone house in Petropouli. Someone is still living in this one judging by the well maintained condition of the exterior paint work. The slate roof may look rough and ready, but it does the job of keeping the rain out.


And just so you know what a modern island home looks like, here is a perfect example.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Back In The Blue Zone Again

Mount Atheras, the highest point on Ikaria
I have written before about the Aegean island, Ikaria, the place from which my parents and my eldest brother, Nick, immigrated to Australia just before the Second World War. I first came to the island in April 1971, escorting my late mother who was returning to her ancestral home after an absence of more than 30 years. Many changes had of course occurred during her life away from family and friends in those intervening thirty years, and many changes have occurred in the 33 years since I first returned to the island with her.

Ikaria, and many of the Ikarians who live on the island, have now joined the ranks of a very exclusive club reserved for just five regions on the planet. These have become known as Blue Zones, from Dan Buettner's book, "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from people who lived the longest."

Terraced hillsides and valleys make maximum use of the land
Blue Zone is a concept used to identify a demographic and/or geographic area of the world where people live measurably longer lives, typically well into their 90s and beyond. The five regions identified and discussed by Buettner in the book Blue Zones are:

  • Sardinia, Italy.
  • The islands of Okinawa, Japan.
  • Loma Linda, California.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
  • Ikaria, Greece.

Residents of the first three places produce a high rate of centenarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more healthy years of life.

Referring specifically to Ikaria, an April 2009 study on the island uncovered the location with the highest percentage of 90 year-olds on the planet - nearly 1 out of 3 people make it to their 90s. Furthermore, according to the study, Ikarians "have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia".

View across Kampos valley to St. Irene (Agia Irini) church
I can personally vouch for the above statement. On this and on previous visits to Ikaria, I have spoken to a 98 year old man who helped carry my brother (then 18 months old), to the ship my mother was preparing to board for her journey to Australia―just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

The people inhabiting Blue Zones share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to their longevity. These characteristics include:

  • Family – put ahead of other concerns
  • Less smoking
  • Semi-vegetarianism (except for the Sardinian diet, the majority of food consumed is derived from plants)
  • Constant moderate physical activity – an inseparable part of life
  • Social engagement – people of all ages are socially active and integrated into their communities
  • Legumes – commonly consumed
  • Geographical Area: All these "blue zones" are located near volcanoes which apparently increase the mineral content of the local water supplies.
There has been some speculation and claims that drinking water high in mineral content, along with the consumption of fruits, vegetables and vegetation irrigated with water rich in minerals may play a part in increased health and life span. However, an ongoing debate as to whether or not the mineral water component is a major reason for health and longevity in these "blue areas" is yet to come up with a definitive decision.

A closer look at St. Irene (Agia Irini) church
With regard to these shared characteristics, I can again vouch for the presence of some of these on Ikaria. Family ties remain strong, as do ties to the land with most families maintaining and producing a good supply of their own fresh fruits and vegetables. Almost every family on the island has their own grove or two of olive trees from which they source their own oil and a good supply of olives for the table. Many have their own vineyards from which they produce their own table wines, and many, like my sister Irene, have several goats which provide milk for general use or which is turned into homemade yoghurt or cheese. Of course, by producing their own fruits and vegetables, wines, olive oil and olives, and milk products, the Ikarians are by necessity, engaging in quite strenuous regular activity.

General view across the island
Time will tell whether Ikaria will maintain its position in the Blue Zone ranks. Unfortunately, many younger Ikarians are spurning the hours of physical work required to maintain extensive gardens, olive groves and vineyards, and the care of animals, in favour of a quick trip to local supermarkets to buy their groceries and daily necessities.

Here is Dan Buettner speaking about Blue Zones at a TED conference some years ago:

More Information

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Holiday Reading

After an absence of some three and a half years I have again returned to the land of my parents birth―the Blue Zone island, Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea, where I plan to spend the bulk of my four month extended vacation from my normal place of residence in Adelaide, Australia.

One thing that surely occupies the mind of most travellers on extended trips is how to fill their time in between all the fun bits associated with travel (eating, partying, visiting attractions and landmarks and other such diversions), not forgetting the not so fun bits―like the hours spent in transit or in actual travel between distant destinations. The best way to fill what can often turn out to be hours of down time is of course, reading.

Quite frankly, I’m a sucker for books. I can never walk past a bookshop without at least pausing to look in at the windows to see what new titles have been released, or if passing a second hand bookshop, stopping to see what books the owner has chosen to feature in the window display. It is a rare event to see me walk by a bookshop without walking inside to at least browse the crowded shelves and books on offer.

At the end of my last visit to Ikaria, early in February 2011, I left behind* a small carry-on cabin-sized case filled with surplus clothing and a collection of books I had bought during my visit to New York City during August 2010. Now that I am back on the island, I am reacquainting myself with the contents of the suitcase, having forgotten most of what was in it over the ensuing three or so years.

The image illustrating this post shows all eleven books that have waited patiently in that case for my return. Thankfully, I did read a couple of them on my previous trip, but the rest await their turn to be read during my leisure hours. Eight of the books have a direct focus on New York City, and since I won’t be returning there until next year, I am looking forward to reading them as a way to keep the fire burning in my heart for that great metropolis.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s muse during the early years of his career. That’s Suze Rotolo walking arm in arm with Dylan down a New York City street on the cover of his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I am also champing at the bit to begin Joseph Mitchell’s classic collection of New York stories, Up In The Old Hotel. Mitchell (July 27, 1908 - May 24, 1996) was best known for the work he published in The New Yorker. Many of his wonderfully written portraits of eccentrics and people on the fringes of New York City life are reprinted in this book.

But enough of this writing and anticipating―it’s way past the time that I pulled a comfortable chair out onto the sun deck, and cracked open the covers of A Freewheelin’ Time, and started reading.

*”I left behind…” One of the advantages of having family far from home is the ability to leave some items of clothing or other excess baggage with them when you return home. The obvious disadvantage of course, is that you may not get access to these items (as in my case), for several years.
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