On the way home, we spotted something on the road, and realised it was a tortoise. I was always delighted to see tortoises, one of Greece’s most enigmatic native species and symbolic of the Greek god Hermes, a deity said to occupy the boundary between life and death, a psychopomp responsible for guiding souls into the afterlife. Rustling in the undergrowth on our walks, tortoises would make an unmistakeable sound as their large shells pushed through the leaves. And sometimes- as on this occasion- we would also see them on the road. But this time something felt wrong. We slowed to a stop, and I got out of the car to go and move the tortoise out of harm’s way. But as I approached, I saw the road surface was covered with large bright red splotches of blood. Part of the tortoise’s shell had broken off and its red and purple insides were oozing out. Though it had been walking, its head had dipped now a little, and it was still. As it sensed me close, it tried to walk again. A bird of prey circled overhead. Stricken, I looked back at J. Another car had drawn up behind ours and he motioned to me to do something. I bent down and picked up the tortoise in my hands and carried it to the brush at the edge of the road and placed it carefully down. I don’t know what happened to it next. I just felt an animal sense of its dying. The universality of that panic for life. I felt it. I cried for a long time in the car afterwards, and cried every time I thought of it in the days afterward. That it was still trying to walk. With part of its shell gone. With its blood all over the road. This precious charismatic animal whose body takes so long to form and which lives for so long, just trashed there, its little wizened head bent forwards, its eyes dull. It isn’t life then death, I’d thought. There is a period of dying, even if death is sudden and violent. I had no connection to this animal apart from this deep moment of witnessing, and still for days later I was thinking about it.
My time in Greece was characterised by seismic global events. We are all living through them still and know what they are. The trauma of the coronavirus pandemic is close and ongoing, and is yet a ‘cuddly toy’, according to Arundhati Roy, when compared to the realities of climate breakdown. In a letter to the papers I’d stumbled across that June, Jem Bendell had written, ‘it is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all’. There wasn’t an answer, for me, artistically, during my time away. Sometimes all I could hear was the ticking. But I knew that as I began to make the drawings for my first Aeolian harps, it wasn’t only the music I’d listened to and the books that I’d read that filled the page. It was the dying tortoise, it was the empty Acropolis, it was losing the path and finding it again, it was being alone, unprepared and not knowing what to do next, it was the colour of the sky, the colour of the sea, it was everything. By the end of my time in that wild place, I knew myself better as a maker and a wild thing.