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The magical microcosm of the Lycabettus hill through
the eyes of Antonis Zois
Eleni Papathoma, historian-ethnologist

We live, many of us, in the city.

We live on the asphalt, and in the cement.

The “green”, as we usually call it (as if its only significance lies with its contribution to the colour palette of our daily life), is predominantly absent.

And even if our lungs have got used to the lack of it, our eyes still look for the few of its samples, longing to lean upon them and rest. Trees on the sidewalks and in those courtyards that have not been turned yet into parking spaces; a few handfuls of grass and some fancy flowers on the squares; rose-bays (the underestimated plants thriving in ravines and on the Greek highways) and palm-trees (evidence of an elusive exoticism and of illusions of majesty) on the separating lanes of the big avenues; geraniums (preferred for their few demands) and yucca (favoured for their bulk) at the balconies; this is, more or less, the share that the urban context has yielded to nature for the consolation of our eyes. Which leads us to our first conclusion, a provisional one: There is no self-sawn vegetation in the city.

Is there none?

Or, do we see it not?

Some see it; so, there is some. Antonis Zois is one of them. I am not aware of any others, but I am using the word “them” in hope that he is not the only one.

Antonis Zois is a special man. He is a researcher, studying not the natural but the cultural heritage: he is an archaeologist. He has spent many years digging the earth and the history, searching, spotting, and concluding. For some years now, however, his quest has also turned elsewhere: among the rocks and the earth of the Lycabettus hill, at the seams between the tiles of the pavements, at the cracks on the walls, in empty plots. And there he discovered the miracle of life: without care, often with no earth or water, and always with no spectators, flowers of tiny size and of magnificent beauty sprout, grow and flourish.

Antonis Zois spots them. He watches their cycle of life and he records their development. He looks them up in the bibliography. He photographs them. Through the camera lens, his tender look grasps their image in a few thousands of pixels. And in this way he makes them visible to us, too, us whom haste and habit have turned blind to anything smaller than one centimetre.

For the first issue of MOnuMENTA Antonis Zois has offered us a precious present: the beautiful pictures of three of his most recent “discoveries”. Two of these discoveries involve flowers. The third one concerns a … bug. All of them teach us a lesson: do not pass by, open your eyes and look. Beauty is everywhere, nature is everywhere, make room for it.

A teeny-weeny daisy

Being among the most common self-sown flowers of the city, daisies flood the empty plots and the deserted houses in springtime. Those are quite big; we all see them. However, there are others, too, very small ones, which the close-up lens of the camera is needed to uncover. Antonis Zois’ camera lens stooped over a stubborn greenery that sprung up through pure cement in one of the most well-known corners of the centre of Athens. We quote from his diary:

«Friday, July 28, 2006
… On my way back, I pass by the crossroads between the Chersonos st., the Lycabettus st and the Stratioticou Syndesmou st., between the two Doxiades’ buildings. A little further down the main entrance of the smaller building, near the corner, where a few cement steps rise on the pavement, there, with no trace of earth, no seams between the steps and the cement bricks of the pavement, I am spotting the new plant, three or four of them, having begun to flourish perhaps today, or a couple of days ago. Strong shadow, pure cement, noble and beautiful small plants, about 5 mm in size-diametre. … the plant belongs to the large crowd of the category of the “composite” plants … . … it has the typical feature of the “Daisy”: the petals are on the perimetre of the blossom, while tiny blossoms are at its centre. …
»

A small blue miracle

At the narrow balcony, on the third floor, in the flower-pots of Antonis Zois, visitors, though uninvited, are always welcome. His hospitality is rewarded with small miracles of colours and shapes. We can watch the magic of discovery in the pages of his diary:

«Monday, June 19, 2006
In a rather big pot … a new and completely unknown plant has started to show, about ten days now… This new plant has been left in the pot; it is, even now, at the beginning of its growth, impressive, with quite big leaves, of lance or ivy shape, 6 cm. in length and 2 cm. in width …

Thursday, June 22, 2006
So, today, I saw, completely accidentally, that it has … two open flowers, blue and strange. Besides the strong blue colour, they also have on their petals and sepals a strong white … . … the flower … comes out from a fresh capsule, whose shape is … like an ivy leaf cut in half …
»

A king-bug

The wild flowers are the favourite hang-out for small bugs. Such a bug became a frequenter in Antonis Zois’ flower-pots. His size is no more than 5 mm but his back might be mistaken for Pollock’s palette. Deep green background with yellowish tints, black specks and outlines, spots and figures in rosy, orange and whitish colours, and two large motifs in the colour of the imperial purple dominate the centre. The enthusiasm expressed in Zois’ diary description is contagious:

«Wednesday, August 23, 2006
… his decoration is developed to an incredible degree … Besides the white and the black, he also has a series of small purple discs – the colour being one of the most genuine imperial purple I have ever seen and photographed in wild nature –, as well as some more motifs in clear and strong orange. …

Thursday, August 24, 2006
… The purple motif is strange; it is repeated twice in the centre of the area with the black background: they are like two shells, depicted by a professional painter, who had the real purpura in his mind while he painted these. I could say that mother nature herself was the painter, had I found, among the thousands of fragments of purpura shells in my excavations in the House F, some intact and purple-coloured. However, the purpura shells are not actually purple, … they become purple by hand with the brush … It could be that this bug is actually the smallest and the most bizarre of beetles …
»

Flowers and bugs of a few millimetres on the pavements where we walk hastily every day and on the balconies hanging between the fog and the asphalt: this leads us to our second conclusion, a final one: Beside us, without us, a magical microcosm lives and breathes.

Antonis Zois’ collection numbers thousands of pictures of self-sawn plants; he has spotted most of them while walking about the Skisti Petra and the Lycabettus hill, the “mountain of the lotus-eaters”, as he prefers to call it... Fortunately, the Lycabettus hill has not yet been built all the way to its top. The rich world living and growing on its earth and rocks may be threatened not only by the construction of buildings but also, sometimes, by the so-called “aesthetic interventions and rehabilitation”. Yet, this world does not ask for care, just for space. Let’s leave it some. We need it. After all, our feet need to be able to step directly on earth...

eleni.papathoma@monumenta.org

25/02/2007
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