When his family moved to a Greek island, young naturalist Gerald Durrell was able to indulge his passion for wildlife of all sorts as he discovered the new world around him—and the creatures and people who inhabited it. Indeed, Durrell’s years growing up on Corfu would inspire the rest of his life.
In addition to his tales of wild animals, Durrell recounts stories about his even wilder family—including his widowed mother, Louisa, and elder siblings Lawrence, Leslie, and Margo—with undeniable wit and humor.
The final chapter in Durrell’s reflections on his family’s time in Greece before the start of World War II, The Garden of the Gods is a fascinating look at the childhood of a naturalist who was ahead of his time.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Gerald Durrell including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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The Garden of the Gods
The Corfu Trilogy, Book Three
By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Estate of Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
Dogs, Dormice, and Disorder
The unspeakable Turk should immediately be struck out of the question.
That summer was a particularly rich one; it seemed as if the sun had drawn up a special bounty from the island for never had we had such an abundance of fruit and flowers, never had the sea been so warm and filled with fish, never had so many birds reared their young, or butterflies and other insects hatched and shimmered across the countryside. Watermelons, their flesh as crisp and cool as pink snow, were formidable botanical cannonballs, each one big enough and heavy enough to obliterate a city; peaches, as orange or pink as a harvest moon, loomed huge in the trees, their thick, velvety pelts swollen with sweet juice; the green and black figs burst with the pressure of their sap, and in the pink splits the gold-green rose beetles sat dazed by the rich, never-ending largesse. Trees had been groaning with the weight of cherries, so that the orchards looked as though some great dragon had been slain among the trees, bespattering the leaves with scarlet and wine-red drops of blood. The maize cobs were as long as your arm and as you bit into the canary-yellow mosaic of seeds, the white milky juice burst into your mouth; and in the trees, swelling and fattening themselves for autumn, were the jade-green almonds and walnuts, and olives, smoothly shaped, bright and shining as birds' eggs strung among the leaves.
Naturally, with the island thus a-burst with life, my collecting activities redoubled. As well as my regular weekly afternoon spent with Theodore, I now undertook much more daring and comprehensive expeditions than I had been able to before, for now I had acquired a donkey. This beast, Sally by name, had been a birthday present; and as a means of covering long distances and carrying a lot of equipment I found her an invaluable, if stubborn, companion. To offset her stubbornness she had one great virtue; she was, like all donkeys, endlessly patient. She would gaze happily into space while I watched some creature or other or else would simply fall into a donkey doze, that happy, trance-like state that donkeys can attain when, with half-closed eyes, they appear to be dreaming of some nirvana and become impervious to shouts, threats, or even whacks with sticks. The dogs, after a short period of patience, would start to yawn and sigh and scratch and show by many small signs that they felt we had devoted enough time to a spider or whatever it was and should move on. Sally, however, once she was in her doze, gave the impression that she would happily stay there for several days if the necessity arose.
One day a peasant friend of mine, a man who had obtained a number of specimens for me and who was a careful observer, informed me that there were two huge birds hanging about in a rocky valley some five miles north of the villa. He thought that they must be nesting there. From his description they could only be eagles or vultures and I was most anxious to try to get some young of either of these birds. My birds of prey collection now numbered three species of owl, a sparrowhawk, a merlin, and a kestrel, so I felt the addition of an eagle or vulture would round it off. Needless to say I did not vouchsafe my ambition to the family, as already the meat bill for my animals was astronomical. Apart from this I could imagine Larry's reaction to the suggestion of a vulture being inserted into the house. When acquiring new pets I always found it wiser to face him with a fait accompli, for once the animals were introduced to the villa I could generally count on getting Mother and Margo on my side.
I prepared for my expedition with great care, making up loads of food for myself and the dogs, a good supply of gasoza as well as the normal complement of collecting tins and boxes, my butterfly net and a large bag to put my eagle or vulture in. I also took Leslie's binoculars; they were of a higher magnification than my own. He, luckily, was not around for me to ask, but I felt sure he would happily have lent them to me had he been at home. Having checked my equipment for the last time to make sure nothing was missing I proceeded to festoon Sally with the various items. She was in a singularly sullen and recalcitrant mood, even by donkey standards, and annoyed me by deliberately treading on my foot and then giving me a sharp nip on the buttock when I bent down to pick up my fallen butterfly net. She took grave offence at the clout I gave her for this misbehaviour, so we started this expedition barely on speaking terms. Coldly, I fixed her straw hat over her furry lily-shaped ears, whistled to the dogs and set off.
Although it was still early the sun was hot and the sky clear, burning blue, like the blue you get by scattering salt on a fire, blurred at the edges with heat haze. To begin with we made our way along the road thick with white dust, as clinging as pollen, and we passed many of my peasant friends on their donkeys, going to market or down to their fields to work. This inevitably held up the progress of the expedition, for good manners required that I passed the time of day with each one. In Corfu one must always gossip for the right length of time and perhaps accept a crust of bread, some dry watermelon seeds, or a bunch of grapes as a sign of love and affection. So when it was time to turn off the hot, dusty road and start climbing through the cool olive groves I was laden with a variety of edible commodities, the largest of which was a watermelon, a generous present pressed upon me by Mama Agathi, a friend of mine whom I had not seen for a week, an unconscionable length of time, during which she presumed I had been without food.
The olive groves were dark with shadows and as cool as a well after the glare of the road. The dogs went ahead as usual, foraging around the great pitted olive boles and occasionally, maddened by their audacity, chasing skimming swallows, barking vociferously. Failing, as always, to catch one, they would then attempt to vent their wrath on some innocent sheep or vacant-faced chicken, and would have to be sternly reprimanded. Sally, her previous sulkiness forgotten, stepped out at a good pace, one ear pricked forward and the other one backward, so that she could listen to my singing and comments on the passing scene.
Presently we left the shade of the olives and climbed upwards through the heat-shimmered hills, making our way through thickets of myrtle bushes, small copses of holm oak, and great wigs of broom. Here Sally's hooves crushed the herbs underfoot and the warm air became redolent with the scent of sage and thyme. By midday, the dogs panting, Sally and I sweating profusely, we were high up among the gold and rust-red rocks of the central range, while far below us lay the sea, blue as flax. By half past two, pausing to rest in the shade of a massive outcrop of stone, I was feeling thoroughly frustrated. We had followed the instructions of my friend and had indeed found a nest, which to my excitement proved to be that of a griffon vulture, moreover, the nest perched on a rocky ledge contained two fat and almost fully fledged youngsters at just the right age for adoption. The snag was that I could not reach the nest, either from above or below. After having spent a fruitless hour trying to kidnap the babies I was forced, albeit reluctantly, to give up the idea of adding vultures to my birds of prey collection. We moved down the mountainside and stopped to rest and eat in the shade. While I ate my sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, Sally had a light lunch of dry maize cobs and watermelon, and the dogs assuaged their thirst with a mixture of watermelon and grapes, gobbling the juicy fruit eagerly and occasionally choking and coughing as a melon seed got stuck. Because of their voraciousness and total lack of table manners, they had finished their lunch long before Sally or I, and having reluctantly come to the conclusion that I did not intend to give them any more to eat they left us and slouched down the mountainside to indulge in a little private hunting.
I lay on my tummy eating crisp, cool watermelon, pink as coral, and examined the hillside. Fifty feet or so below where I lay were the ruins of a small peasant house. Here and there on the hillside I could just discern the crescent shaped, flattened areas which had once been the tiny fields of the farm. Eventually, it must have become obvious that the impoverished soil would no longer support maize or vegetables on the pocket handkerchief fields, and so the owner had moved away. The house had tumbled down and the fields become overrun with weeds and myrtle. I was staring at the remains of the cottage, wondering who had lived there, when I saw something reddish moving through the thyme at the base of one of the walls.
Slowly I reached out for the field glasses and put them to my eyes. The tumbled mass of rocks at the base of the wall sprang into clear view, but for a moment I could not see what it was that had attracted my attention. Then, to my astonishment, from behind a dump of thyme appeared a lithe, tiny animal, as red as an autumn leaf. It was a weasel, and to judge by its behaviour, a young and rather innocent one. It was the first weasel I had seen on Corfu and I was enchanted by it. It peered about with a slightly bemused air and then stood up on its hind legs and sniffed the air vigorously. Apparently not smelling anything edible, it sat down and had an intensive and, from the look of it, very satisfying scratch. Then it suddenly broke off from its toilet and carefully stalked and attempted to capture a vivid canary-yellow brimstone butterfly. The insect, however, slipped out from under its jaws and flipped away, leaving the weasel snapping at thin air and looking slightly foolish. It sat up on its hind legs once more, to see where its quarry had gone and, overbalancing, almost fell off the stone on which it was sitting.
I watched it, entranced by its diminutive size, its rich colouring, and its air of innocence. I wanted above all things to catch it and take it home with me to add to my menagerie but I knew this would be difficult. While I was musing on the best method of achieving this result a drama unfolded in the ruined cottage below. I saw a shadow, like a Maltese cross, slide over the low scrub, and a sparrowhawk appeared, flying low and fast towards the weasel who was sitting up on his stone sniffing the air and apparently unaware of his danger. I was just wondering whether to shout or clap my hands to warn him when he saw the hawk. With an incredible turn of speed he turned, leaped gracefully on to the ruined wall and disappeared into a crack between two stones that I would have thought would not have allowed the passage of a slow-worm, let alone a mammal the size of the weasel. It was like a conjuring trick; one minute he had been sitting on his rock, the next he vanished into the wall like a drop of rain water. The sparrowhawk checked with fanned tail and hovered briefly, obviously hoping the weasel would reappear. After a moment or so it got bored and slid off down the mountainside in search of less wary game. After a short time the weasel poked his little face out of the crack. Seeing the coast was clear he emerged cautiously. Then he made his way along the wall and, as though his recent escape into the crack had given him the idea, he proceeded to investigate and disappear into every nook and cranny that existed between the stones. As I watched him I was wondering how to make my way down the hill so as to throw my shirt over him before he was aware of my presence. In view of his expert vanishing trick when faced with the hawk, it was obviously not going to be easy.
At that moment he slid, sinuous as a snake, into a hole in the base of the wall. From another hole a little higher up there emerged a second animal in a great state of alarm, which made its way along the top of the wall and disappeared into a crevice. I was greatly excited, for even with the brief glimpse I had got of it, I recognized it as a creature that I had tried for many months to track down and capture, a garden dormouse, probably one of the most attractive of the European rodents. It was about half the size of a full-grown rat, with cinnamon-coloured fur, brilliant white underparts, a long furry tail ending in a brush of black and white hair, and a black mask of fur beneath the ears, running across the eyes and making it look ridiculously as though it was wearing an old-fashioned mask of the sort that burglars were reputed to indulge in.
I was now in something of a quandary, for there below me were two animals I dearly wanted to possess, one hotly pursuing the other, and both of them exceedingly wary. If my attack was not well planned I stood a good chance of losing both animals. I decided to tackle the weasel first, as he was the more mobile of the two, and I felt that the dormouse would not move from its new hole if undisturbed. On reflection I decided that my butterfly net was a more suitable instrument than my shirt, so armed with it I made my way down the hillside with the utmost caution, freezing immobile every time the weasel appeared out of the hole and looked around. Eventually I got to within a few feet of the wall without being detected. I tightened my grip on the long handle of my net and waited for the weasel to come out from the depths of the hole he was now investigating. When he did emerge he did so with such suddenness that I was unprepared. He sat up on his hind legs and stared at me with interest untinged by alarm. I was just about to take a swipe at him with my net when, crashing through the bushes, tongues lolling, tails wagging, came the three dogs, as vociferously pleased to see me as if we had been separated for months. The weasel vanished. One minute he was sitting there, frozen with horror at this avalanche of dogs, the next he was gone. Bitterly I cursed the dogs and banished them to the higher reaches of the mountain, where they went to lie in the shade, hurt and puzzled at my bad temper. Then I set about trying to capture the dormouse.
Over the years the mortar between the stones had grown frail and heavy winter rains had washed it away so that now, to all intents and purposes, the remains of the house was a series of dry-stone walls. With its maze of intercommunicating tunnels and caves, it formed the ideal hideout for any small animal. There was only one way to hunt for an animal in this sort of terrain and that was to take the wall to pieces, so rather laboriously this was what I started to do. After having dismantled a good section of it I had unearthed nothing more exciting than a couple of indignant scorpions, a few woodlice, and a young gecko who fled, leaving his writhing tail behind him. It was hot and thirsty work and after an hour or so I sat down in the shade of the, as yet, undismantled wall to have a rest.
I was just wondering how long it would take me to demolish the rest of the wall when from a hole some three feet from me, the dormouse appeared. It scrambled up like a somewhat overweight mountain climber and then, having reached the top, sat down on its fat bottom and began to wash its face with great thoroughness, totally ignoring my presence. I could hardly believe my luck. Slowly and with great caution I manoeuvred my butterfly net towards him, got it into position, and then clapped it down suddenly. This would have worked perfectly if the top of the wall had been flat, but it was not. I could not press the rim of the net down hard enough to avoid leaving a gap. To my intense annoyance and frustration, the dormouse, recovering from its momentary panic, squeezed out from under the net, galloped along the wall and disappeared into another crevice. However this proved to be its undoing, for it had chosen a 'cul de sac' and before it had discovered its mistake I had clamped the net over the entrance.
The next thing was to get it out and into the bag without getting bitten. This was not easy and before I had finished it had sunk its exceedingly sharp teeth into the ball of my thumb, so that I, the handkerchief, and the dormouse were liberally bespattered with gore. Finally, however, I got it into the bag. Delighted with my success, I mounted Sally and rode home in triumph with my new acquisition.
Excerpted from The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 2003 Estate of Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- 1 Dogs, Dormice, and Disorder
- 2 Ghosts and Spiders
- 3 The Garden of the Gods
- 4 The Elements of Spring
- 5 Fakirs and Fiestas
- 6 The Royal Occasion
- 7 The Paths of Love
- 8 The Merriment of Friendship
- A Biography of Gerald Durrell
- A Message from Durrell Wildlife