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Our warm, blue, wet world — adrift in the deep freeze of infinite space — is aswarm with islands. In the southeastern Aegean Sea, one of them hosts an ancient tree of mind-blowing cultural gravity.
Tiny, Mighty Island
This diminutive Greek island in the Dodecanese chain is 26 miles long and a scant 7 miles wide. If you squint, it almost looks like a happily dozing whale.
The place went through the usual meat grinder familiar to antiquity, hollering armies with swords and stone catapults periodically swarming the place and wreaking havoc.
The Greeks and Persians took turns conquering and reconquering the isle due to its strategic position right off the coast of Asia Minor.
One imagines generations of locals watching with amusement from the granite hills of the paradisiacal isle, passing cups of the famous island wine back and forth and commenting on the invader’s uniforms.
Crossroads of the Aegean
The island was a great center of learning through its provincial affiliation with Alexandria; the Egyptian city whose legendary library was the largest in the ancient world. And the island's huge market was a famously happening place, a swinging Aegean destination for the laurel-leaf-and-toga set.
In the 7th century B.C.E., legendary Greek hero Heracles (more commonly known to Disney enthusiasts as Hercules) is said to have had a little skirmish with the island locals, who chased his shipwrecked gang off the island—only to have Herc churlishly return, slap them around, and marry the King’s daughter.
Episodes like this may explain Hercules’ ego, not to mention his syndicated omnipresence in the world of singing cartoons.
Tree of Knowledge that Changed the World
And the tree? It's an Old World Sycamore, surrounded by a low stone wall and a decorative little fence in the middle of the island’s namesake town.
You wouldn't guess from the tree's muted presentation its massive historic significance.
Cuttings of this single tree have made their way all around the world -- its progeny growing in Asia, Europe, South and North America, and the island nations of Oceania. What is the big deal with this tree?
This is the tree under which Hippocrates, the world’s anointed “Father of Medicine”, would conduct his lectures. Hippocrates (460 - 370 B.C.E) was born on this island, and his "Hippocratic Oath" still informs the public avowals of graduating med school doctors the world over.
As a medical practitioner, Hippocrates was waaaay ahead of his time, innovating various proto-surgical procedures (most of which are too alarming to catalog here), and prescribing mods—diet and exercise tweaks—that today we call “lifestyle medicine”.
Hippocratic bone-setting in the age before plaster casts
Maybe most significantly, the Father of Medicine is known to have murmured "Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food”. Talk about an understatement.
Hippocrates put the island of KOS on the map, and food in its proper context. Some of us have run with Hippocrates' "food is medicine" dictate, honoring the guy's simple, powerful mission—spreading the word in the name of his home island.
From asparagus to pork rinds, food isn't just subsistence. What we eat joins us to the living world and fixes what's broken. Or doesn't.
Look into it. Food is our way forward if we want it to be.
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