The grave and the goats

The bus roars away in a cloud of diesel exhaust, leaving me alone on a stretch of road that curves into the distance and disappears over a hill.  The sounds of southern Skyros rise to the surface in the wake of the bus’s rumbling engine:  wind gusting over the parched land, goats bleating in the distance, and the persistent drum of waves crashing one after another on the rocks below.  It’s only a five minute drive to the nearest town, but I feel like I’ve reached the end of the world.

A harsh and inhospitable environment on Skyros.

A harsh and inhospitable environment on Skyros.

The scenery doesn’t change much over the next couple miles, but as I walk further away from civilization, the starkness of my surroundings seems to intensify.  This is some seriously inhospitable land, as dry and dusty as a mummy’s fart.  Small scrubby bushes as rigid as chickenwire line the road, and jagged rocks thrust out of the ground like stalagmites.  The only sign of life is the occasional jackdaw croaking at me from on high.

It’s a weird place to go for a walk, and perhaps an even weirder destination awaits me, but I’m loving every minute of this little adventure, from the peace and solitude to the sweat trickling down my back.  It has been a long time since I’ve been so completely alone with nature.  I’ve missed it.

Eventually the barren land gives way to small groves of twisted olive trees.  Goats peer out at me from the shadows, and run away when I get too close.  Even the domesticated animals are half-wild out here.

Rock art on Skyros

Rock art on Skyros

A few hours later I crest the last hill and gaze down on my destination: a particular grove of olives perched above a wide, blue bay. “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England…” A final half hour of walking leads me into that quiet grove, where a snowy white tomb of marble greets me, the final resting place of the British poet Rupert Brooke.

I myself am not enamored enough with Brooke’s poetry to have made this pilgrimage, but, like so many other destinations on the trip of mine, it was important to Richard Halliburton.  And so, here I am, alone beside a century-old grave as the sun sinks into the Mediterranean.

Well, not entirely alone.  Wide-set eyes watch me warily from a hundred different directions—I am completely ringed in by goats.  Black goats, brown goats, goats with fur like grey marble.  They watch as I open my little pack and eat a light dinner of bread, tomatoes and feta.  They complain loudly when I lay out a blanket in the clearing beside Brooke’s grave, and they scatter like leaves when I make sudden movements.

The ever-present Skyros goats.

The ever-present Skyros goats.

Before retiring to my blanket I spend some time staring at the tomb.  The setting feels quite familiar thanks to Richard’s description:

“On three sides the marble mountains shield it; seaward there is a glorious vista of the island-dotted ocean, bluer than the sky itself, which looks straight down through the wreath of olive trees upon the tomb.  The flowering sage that perfumes all of Skyros grows thickest here.  There is a sweetness in the air, a calmness in the ancient trees…”

Olives, sky and ocean—check.  But the goats…they account for the biggest change since 1925.  Not just their presence, but their effects.  Where is this sage that supposedly covers the island?  I can’t find a single sprig.  It has all been grazed away, leaving nothing but red dust and white rocks behind.  Instead of a ‘sweetness in the air’, the breeze is redolent with goat poop.  But still, the ‘calmness’ of the ancient trees is undeniably present.  It’s incredibly peaceful here, even with the goats.

I read the poem inscribed on Brooke’s tomb, one of the wartime poems that made him so famous at such a young age.  It’s titled “The Soldier”:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.  There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.” 
 

Richard adored this man.  Brooke’s poetry spoke to the complexities of Richard’s soul in a way no other words could.  For him, the pilgrimage to Brooke’s grave was of the utmost importance.  I can’t hope to match that sense of importance, but I can at least pass a companionable night with Brooke’s ghost.  It must get lonely out here on this odd and remote spur of a Grecian island, with nothing but goats for company.

Rupert Brooke's view from his grave on Skyros.

Rupert Brooke’s view from his grave on Skyros.

Night has settled in.  I wrap myself up in my blanket and lay on the hard ground, gazing up at the Milky Way, identifying familiar constellations.  The goats are still bleating, picking their way among the rocks on the hillside.  Don’t they ever go to sleep?

Eventually I doze off, only to be awakened by the sound of cloven feet awfully close to my head.  I sit bolt upright, and the inquisitive goat shoots into the shadows like a rabbit.  This happens again and again, all night long, an endless succession of curious goats rousing me from restless sleep.

Eventually the sun rises.  I stumble from my blanket haggard and tired, but it’s too beautiful in the little olive grove for me to care about my achy back and the bags under my eyes.  I eat breakfast by the tomb and try to imagine what Brooke’s spirit has witnessed over the past hundred years in this one location:  olive trees growing and spreading their limbs; clouds in a million shapes and colors passing overhead; the gradual replacement of fragrant sage with ochre dust; fleeting visits from various admirers; a longer visit by Richard Halliburton and his companions; and an unprecedented night of entertainment from an American girl beset by goats.

I’m happy to have contributed.  Rest in peace, Rupert Brooke.

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5 Comments

  1. Sarah, this missive is downright beautiful!

  2. I’m enjoying reading up on your travels, it’s the inspiration I need right now. I even started up with the plasma donation this week per your suggestion! Curious, are you traveling with a computer, tablet, phone, or just stopping frequently at internet cafes? Random goat encounters are fun, I’ve had interesting ones of my own. Keep up the good work. Any suggestions for animal of the week?

    • I thought you were afraid of needles!? Hope the plasma donations go well. I’m traveling with a small netbook, the Asus Transformer, but that’s only necessary bc of my blogging. Last trip I just went with an iPhone (service shut off, just using wifi), and prior to that I used internet cafes. My favorite setup so far was the iPhone–so multi-purpose. Animal of the week: cicada (per the vote of the other folks at the hostel). Cheers!

  3. william r. taylor

    Sarah,

    Trying to catch up. My wife and I were away on vacation where wifi was unreliable. I was looking forward to your Skyros visit as Richard’s chapters about Rupert Brooke and his burial were some of the most eloquent, serious chapters he ever wrote. I could almost imagine how the fragrance of the flowering sage would flood Brooke’s burial place and inspire you reflect on R’s enchancement as he wrote his tribute. Enter the goats and their particular fragrances. My anticipations were blasted to smithereens. Well, so much for such flowery reminisces. You wrote well and delivered an accurate picture of today’s Skyros. It was the goats that spoiled the illusion.

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