Grab your kenditiria to go to the mastic trees [chapter 2]


In this series of short stories about a year in a mastic village, you will get to follow the journey of little Dimitris and his family. Together with Dimitris, you are invited to observe and learn the craft of mastic cultivation. This is the second chapter; stay tuned for more!

It is very early in the morning. The sun has just come out. The moment Giannis and Dimitris leave their car by the road, the sweet and distinctively rich aroma of the mastic trees surrounds them. Some trees are short, others larger, and the young ones just centimeters tall. Beneath all of them, at the bottom of their trunk, there is the leveled and cleaned soil with white powder, called the ‘table’. From June till November (when the rains start), one can simply identify the mastic trees from the white soil forming circular targets.

Giannis had already started explaining things to Dimitris since they were in the car. For example, that the young trees are not to be embroidered, only those that are more than three years old. Dimitris has heard some of this information before. He has been going to the mastic fields from a very early age, but back then, no one really explained to him what to do or not.

He used to observe with the curiosity of a child. Other kids at his age, and even his friends, did not really care to learn mastic cultivation. They were always bored every time their parents or grandparents took them to the fields. They would play around and complain that they were tired and wanted to go back home. But the elders had a reason to take them to the fields. The children might play around, but eventually they would start to observe because they would get bored of playing in the nature and little by little they started helping.

Dimitri’s Grandma said to him once, when he was younger, that in her time it was mandatory for the children to follow their parents in the fields because there was no one to watch over them. Back then, they did not have babysitters and the grandparents would also be on the fields. Thus the children were joining the adults from dawn till dusk.

She also explained that the task of embroidering (‘kendima’ as it is called in Greek) is a very precise work. One learns to embroider correctly a tree by staying close to an experienced mastic grower for years. By embroidering, the grower creates wounds on the bark of the tree. The tree is a living organism, so one must learn where to start wounding it and how deep. The purpose is not to wound the tree and destroy it, but to learn how the organism of the tree works; how it produces the mastic resin, when an incision is hurtful for the tree, and when it just scratches it.

It is not only the physiology of the tree that needs to be learned; the properties of the mastic resin itself are important too. Mastic resin is produced in liquid form, as any other resin, but unlike the others, it has the ability to dry under the right conditions and become thick as a rock. For this reason, embroidering takes place in August and September; a rain-free and warm but not completely hot period. Extreme heat does not help mastic resin to dry. Fresh air is also important and that is why Giannis prunes the trees every winter; to grow at the point of letting as much sun and wind is needed to dry the mastic resin.

In this illustrative video made by FORTH, we see the practice of dusting and embroidery.

Giannis and Dimitris are now in the mastic field. “Dimitris, did you collect any dried pieces?” Giannis asked. “Very few. There was not much mastic produced from riniasma,” young Dimitris replied with a rather sad tone in his voice. “Well, leave them to dry well and we will collect them next week,” Giannis relieved him.

“Now grab your kenditiri and come here. I will show you how to make proper incisions,” Giannis told him. “You make vertical or linear incisions not too long, up to 10 cm, but also not too deep, otherwise you will hurt the tree more than you want. See? Like this one,” Giannis teached him as he pushed a bit hard and pulled fast the pointy head of his kenditiri on the tree trunk to create an incision. “From which part of the trunk you start to embroider, you remember?” Giannis continued and asked young Dimitris. “From the bottom, because the resin starts to be produced at the bottom where the trunk is also bigger and by making embroideries often, you move upper and upper on the trunk, and the resin follows,” Dimitris replied enthusiastically. “Well done!” Giannis said impressed.

Late in the afternoon, back in the village, Dimitris, his older sister Irini, and their grandma are sitting in the living room. “Grandma, of all the stories you tell us, you never told us any old song that you and your esmichtes[1] used to sing?”, Irini urged grandma. “What song, dear? We only sung in the fields,”, grandma replied. “In the fields?!”, Dimitris asked with wonder. “Tell us some songs. You remember any?”, Irini stubbornly suggested to grandma. “You wonder if I remember, my dear? Of course, I do!”, grandma replied while laughing. “We were spending so much time in the mastic fields that we would sing and make picnics. Let me think for a second. Here is one we were telling while we were embroidering: [2]

Εμπρός παιδιά κουνήσετε, εχάραξεν η μέρα (Come children move, the day started)
Και θα τον κόψει η ταχυνή τον ψεσινόν αέρα (And the dawn will make yesterday’s wind stop)
Πιάτε τα τσεντηστήρια σας να πάμε στα πηξάρια (Grab your kenditiria to go to the mastic trees)
Αμέτε εσείς στο Ψάρωνα τσαι βω στα Χοβελάρια (You go to Psarona and me to Chovelaria)
Τσαι σαν κοντέβγει να γίνει ολόρτο μεσημέρι (And when high noon is almost there)
Η μια τον ένα γάιδαρο στη Βληχωνή να φέρει (The one –she- the donkey to Vlichoni must bring)
Κουνέλια να φορτώσουμε, κολάτα, κονταρούδια (Rabbits to load, kolata, kontaroudia)
Κι η άλλη ας φεύγει στο χωριό αντάμα με τα βούδια (And the other –she- can go back to the village with the cows)
Εμπρός παιδιά κι η εποχή ε θέλει χασομέρια (Come children and it is not a period to lose time)
Μακάρι που και νάχαμεν ακόμη δέκα χέρια (I wish we had ten more hands)

“That was nice, Grandma. But why it refers only to women?”, Irini asked skeptically. “I told you before, my Irinaki. Women were mostly going to the fields at my time”, grandma reminded her.

Summer goes by fast and it is already the 15th of August. As in any village or city in Greece, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is celebrated. Here in Pyrgi, the bond of women is very important and many social customs are led by women. For the celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, women carry the sacred icon of Mary around the village, asking her to bless the village. On the way back to the church, the icon is transferred through changing on the hands of the local women. This tradition is performed only by women and Irini’s and Dimitris’ mother is taking part this year. Irini watches and wonders if she will perform too one day while Dimitris is looking around the crowd to find his beloved Eleni to wish her. He seems to be unlucky this day, but the young boy already has another plan on his mind to express again his feelings to Eleni and convince her. He learned something these days from his grandma and an idea popped in his head.

This is a fictional story written by Danae Kaplanidi (PIOP), and is the outcome of archival and ethnographic fieldwork research in the villages of Mesta, Olimpi, Emporeios and Pyrgi. The author would like to thank the research participants for their time and willingness to share stories about life in southern Chios.


[1] Esmichtes means ‘bonded’ in Greek; it is used by women of Pyrgi to name their best girlfriends.
[2] The lyrics in Greek are from Kolliaros, G. (2003) Mian volan ts’ enan tsairon iton: Folklore of Chios: The 21 mastic villages. Chios: Aigeas Publications; translation in English by the author.