Many years before the arrival of the first industrial chimneys, Eleusis depended on agriculture. This was generally a dry and arid land, yet the plain outside the town remained fertile and supplied the inhabitants with abundant wheat, barley, olives and grapes. Great wealth, however, was also to be found on the mountains that surround the Thriasian Plain. The pine forests on the slopes of Mountain Pateras in the west and northwest, Cithaeron in the north, and Mount Parnitha in the northeast supported the families of numerous Arvanites pine resin harvesters.
The versatility of pine resin
The pine resin of Eleusis was in great demand and the Arvanites took full advantage of their forests. During the Greek War of Independence the resin was an indispensable material for the construction of the fire ships used by the revolutionaries against the Ottoman navy. The villagers of the Thriasian Plain sent large quantities to Hydra and Spetses. Resin was also used to make tar, a black viscous material produced by the high temperature carbonization of pine wood, that was much sought after by shipbuilders of wooden sailing ships.
When the first industries appeared, the pine resin was turned into turpentine (a key ingredient of paint) and rosin (a component for inks, adhesives, varnishes, soaps, soft drinks, poultice and ointments). Large quantities of pine resin were also used to produce retsina (in a ratio of 19 kilos of resin for 500 kilograms of grape must). The Arvanites also used pieces of pinewood rich in resin for lighting purposes at home.
Going, going, gone!
The resin harvest season began in early April. The work required a lot of preparation, as harvesters often had to clear a path through the forest to the pine trees they would exploit that year. Most of the forests were owned by the state and the harvest of the pine trees was auctioned to the highest bidder. Merchants and industrialists would win exploitation rights for a patch of forest and then rent the trees to the harvesters, who would either pay with a certain quantity of product (meaning that the harvester was free to sell the rest at whatever price he could secure) or for a specific amount of money (the harvester would receive a fixed price per quantity of resin).
Show me the money
By the end of the 1930s, Greece had revenues of 200 million drachmas from exports of resin products; most of the money (130 million drachmas) went to the state and a small group of merchants and industrialists, while the rest was distributed among fifteen thousand workers. The majority of harvesters in the Thriasian plain were permanently indebted to the merchants and shopkeepers of the region, at least until the founding of the Productive Cooperative of Pine Harvesters of Mandra, which secured loans from the Agricultural Bank of Greece, participated in the public forest auction and rented the pines to the producers at low prices.
The Pine Harvesters’ Association was another entity that attempted to negotiate better prices for its members and encouraged them not to go out in the woods unless the merchants agreed to their demands. The Association also organized a strike; as the harvesters refused to work, the merchants attempted to send their own families to collect the resin, but the workers set up a blockade on the bridge of Dexameni and prevented the merchants’ vehicles from crossing.
Into the wild
Working in the woods was not easy. The Arvanites pine harvesters selected locations close to fresh water and accessible by the means of transport of the time (initially horse or mule-drawn carts and later motor vehicles). Their huts were little more than a temporary shelter (often from sheet metal and bricks) with some basic amenities (wooden shelves for their clothes, branches to sleep on the floor, an oven for baking bread). They survived mostly on cured olives, and their only luxury during the hot summer days was the cool water they kept in waterskins. Many harvesters returned from the mountains in the autumn in poor health as a result of malaria that was endemic in the region.
Unit of measurement
The main tools of the resin harvester were the adze and the karoki. The adze was used to tap the pines. There were two techniques: the sophitic and the kountouriotic. The workers who followed the former cut small incisions on the trees, while the latter technique required a large incision to get a lot of resin. The difference was not just a matter of personal preference, but it was a function of the resin production economics. The users of the sophitic technique usually owned the forest, so they could tap as many trees as they wanted. The users of the kountouriotic technique rented the land they exploited, so they had to extract as much resin as possible from the pine trees to avoid paying rent for more trees.
The karoki was a container for the transfer of resin (with an average capacity of approximately 22 kilos of resin) and a unit of measurement of pine-tree productivity. Each area was said to contain an x number of karoki, but the number of trees needed to fill a karoki depended on the location. A fertile and well-watered area gave a lot of resin and 20-25 pines were enough to fill a karoki. Trees growing in arid and rocky areas gave less resin and therefore required more work.
Guardians of the forest
Since pine trees were a basic source of income for their families, the resin harvesters were very careful during their stay there and protected the forests from wildfires. Clearing paths and removing tree branches (both elements of the harvesting process) removed dangerous fuel from the forest and reduced the risk of fire (and its intensity when it happened). Unfortunately, harsh working conditions, poverty, and the broader economic trends had a negative impact on the pine harvesters’ employment prospects. Young people abandoned the mountains, the industries of Eleusis closed and the pine forests disappeared. Therefore, whenever you come across a pine tree in the backyards, the parks or the sidewalks of Eleusis, consider it a relic of a time when these trees supported an entire way of life among the pine forests of the Thriasian Plain.