Şirince January 2018

In the Nesin Mathematics Village recently, I was joined at breakfast one morning by a journalist called Jérémie Berlioux. He knew Clément Girardot, the journalist whom I had met in the Village in the summer of 2016. This was before the coup attempt of July 15, but after the terror attack at Atatürk Airport on June 28. I wrote about this attack the next day in “Life in Wartime” on this blog. Then I headed off to Şirince to join a “research group.” My wife and colleague came along, though not to be part of the group; afterwards we headed up the coast for a beach holiday. We were at the beach when the coup attempt happened, as I wrote in my next blog article, “War Continues.” I contrasted politics with mathematics, which was an inherently nonviolent struggle. This was the kind of struggle engaged in by the research group in the Math Village.

Large clay pot against dark vines

Outside the Nişanyan Library

Clément interviewed me while we were still at the Village in 2016. I shall quote the first paragraph of one of his articles. I do this both from vanity and because the paragraph provides an overview of the Village in the words of a professional observer. The recent conversation with Jérémie has caused me to think about what professionalism means, in writing in particular. Clément wrote:

« À Istanbul, je vis près de la rédaction du journal Cumhuriyet, je vois chaque jour des barrages de police. Le Village des mathématiques est de plus en plus important pour moi, comme moyen d’échapper à l’hostilité de la ville. » Mathématicien américain de 51 ans, David Pierce enseigne à l’université Mimar-Sinan d’Istanbul. Durant ses vacances, il va donner des cours dans ce lieu paisible installé sur un butte, au milieu des pins et des oliviers. Un îlot de liberté dans une Turquie sombrant dans l’autoritarisme. À 15 km de la côte égéenne, sur un propriété isolée proche d’Izmir et des principales stations balnéaires du pays, le mathématicien Ali Nesin, 60 ans, et ses amis ont construit le Village des mathématiques pierre après pierre depuis 2007. Des maisons, des amphithéâtres, une bibliothèque… C’est aujourd’hui un véritable village d’une cinquantaine de bâtiments, où des jeunes de 15 à 25 ans viennent suivre des cours de maths en complément de leur scolarité. À l’image de David Pierce, les professeurs qui y enseignent exercent dans les meilleures universités du pays.

This is from an article called “Des maths contre la dictature” in We Demain, February 2017. Not finding the article online, I quote from the pdf file that Clément sent me. His description of my university is generous. His quotation looks like a rearranged translation of what I wrote him by email in response to one of his follow-up questions, in which he asked,

3) Given the current situation and increased pressures again[st] civil society and education sectors, what is the importance of the mathematics village in Turkey in this context?

I responded on November 15, 2016,

The Math Village grows increasingly important for me as a way to escape the unpleasantness of the city. In Istanbul we live near the headquarters of Cumhuriyet newspaper, so we see police barricades every day.

Cumhuriyet had drawn the anger of the government in 2015. From time to time, government supporters find reason or excuse to protest the paper, and the police protect it. In the We Demain article, Clément himself did not discuss Cumhuriyet specifically, but mentioned the repression of journalism and research in general:

Matée par Erdogan, la tentative de putsch laisse place à une répression cinglante. Et à des arrestations en série : académiciens, profs, journalistes…

En dehors des vacances scolaires, le village accueille aussi des chercheurs pour des séminaires et des groupes de recherche.

En parallèle, l’état démocratique du pays s’est fortement dégradé ces dernières années. La Turquie détient le triste record mondial du nombre de journalistes emprisonnés.

The symbolic ellipsis is in the original, but does reflect an actual ellipsis in my quotation. What I print as a second paragraph break is that in the original (there is no ellipsis in either sense). Clément had already described our workshop in a Swiss paper called La Couleur des Jours (publication date unknown):

Quelques heures avant l’atelier photographique, sous le patronage du buste en bronze d’Aziz Nesin, les même gradins étaient occupés par huit chercheurs de haute volée venus des Etats-Unis, d’Israël, de Pologne et de Turquie. Pour eux, le calme du village est appréciable mais tout relatif : « Parfois, il faut garder une concentration très forte et une petite distraction peut tout faire exploser », note David Pierce, 51 ans, mathématicien américain installé depuis une dizaine d’années à Ankara puis Istanbul.

The list of our countries should have included Canada as well. Seven of the eight of us were men. The possibility of avoiding some distractions of the city—and perhaps to have another kind of distraction—is one reason why I have now visited the Math Village for a third winter.

Garden in winter, outside Nişanyan Library

The slope above the pot outside the library

Village life

While attending university, most Turkish students live at home. The Math Village may be their only chance to enjoy what most American college students can do any time: stay up till morning, hanging out with friends. A well-imagined Brian “Bri” Knoepke is supposed to have written in The Onion (5/17/00; reprinted in Dispatches from the Tenth Circle, 2001):

Wow, what a weekend! They say that part of being a teenager is knowing how to cut loose, and there’s nothing quite like getting together with a big group of your peers and just “letting it rip.” That teen-abstinence rally totally rocked!

I don’t know how much sex happens in the Math Village, but late-night talking happens, and in the summer it happens out of doors, often not far from somebody else’s open window. In winter, windows are closed, and students who want to stay up can spend their evenings by the wood stove in the dining hall, not bothering anybody else. During my last stay, I would see wine bottles in the trash cans when I went for breakfast, early in the morning. Once or twice, I met the students themselves. You could tell they had been up all night, since they were not using their quiet voices. Also, they told me.

Rolling hills covered with olive trees, the far edge lit by setting sun, Şirince, January, 2018

Sunset, not sunrise

Breakfast would have been laid out by an early bird like me. When I asked her how she was, she said, “Super!”

Next morning I asked, “Are we super again today?”

“Every moment, I am super (Her an süperim)!” she said.

“Twenty-four hours a day?”

“Twenty-four hours a day!”

Asuman Hanım would offer me some of the special dish that she had made for herself and other workers, to supplement the standard Turkish spread of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheeses, olives, jams, and (of course) bread. One day the special dish was an omelette with mushrooms from the previous evening’s vegetarian meal (prepared for two of us). Delish.

Şirince, January, 2018

A narrow footpath disappears among the olive trees on a slope

Another day, Asuman Hanım had made something from cornmeal. I called it polenta.

“Black Sea people call it mıhlama,” she said, “and they love it.”

“Are you from the Black Sea?” I asked.

“I am from the world (Dünyalıyım)!” she told me. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Washington.”

I am from Washington, and every day I read about it quâ seat of the US federal government; but I have not been there since 2014. In the Math Village, I was reading about it less, as Village life drew me in. For the third winter now, as I said, I have taught at the Village, this time during the weeks of January 15 and 22. The Village continues to enchant me, for its society, its physical structures, its surroundings, and its facilitation of thought.

Uphill view through the olive trees, Şirince, January, 2018

Writing life

I mentioned thoughts about professionalism, brought on by my breakfast conversation with Jérémie Berlioux. According to Somerset Maugham in The Razor’s Edge,

as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

I talked freely with Jérémie about the Math Village, but also inquired about his own life as a journalist. On Twitter I follow a number of journalists who write about Turkey. Many of them seem to be freelancing. It must be hard, I said, for a writer to have to pitch each article to a publication; but I acknowledged the financial difficulties that traditional media faced.

Small red, yellow, and purple wildflowers among rocks, Şirince, January, 2018

Wildflowers among the rocks in the olive orchard

I subscribed to the print publication, Harper’s, a copy of which I had before me on the breakfast table. I had been reading William T. Vollmann’s article, “ ‘I am Here Only for Working’: Conversations with the petroleum brotherhood in the UAE.” Vollmann’s conversations with foreign workers had been difficult to arrange, because of the country’s restrictions on journalism.

Such restrictions had prevented Jérémie from getting a visa to work in the UAE at all. He told me that some financial difficulties of news media were of their own creation. With the money that he could live on in Turkey for half a year, a French paper might pay for a reporter’s two-day visit. The journalist would stay in a luxury hotel, employ a translator, and travel by taxi, avoiding the ordinary life of people. The resulting article would admittedly be good, having been written by a trained professional.

I recalled a would-be war photographer who put his pictures on the web for free, after he could not sell them. Jérémie recognized this person and said his photographs had been from Mosul. The photographer was young, and he could have used help in improving his work. By giving it away, he gave difficulty to the professionals who tried to live by their own work.

Landscape, green hills, Şirince, January, 2018

The academic ethic is different. At our universities, at least in mathematics, we are paid salaries, and therefore we can give our work for free to the journals that publish our articles. We also supply the journals with free labor in the form of refereeing others’ articles. This is a problem when the journals charge exorbitant rates to sell the articles to our libraries. I have joined the Elsevier boycott in response.

At the Math Village, I teach for free—or for room and board, and for the opportunity to be in that place. Students pay for room and board, but receive no credit for the courses they attend. I often type up my lecture notes, and I put them on my webpage. Anybody may use them for free. Admittedly, few persons would want to buy my notes: they are usually only a skeleton for what may be fleshed out in a lecture, depending on the backgrounds and interests of the students. Perhaps few persons can write a good textbook, but the writing takes a special professional skill. I shall still suggest that one textbook cannot serve all students, and when publishers try to make it serve anyway, this leads to the bloated volumes that some students are asked to use for their courses. (An example is the calculus textbook with two chapters on transcendental functions. Teachers are supposed to decide which one to omit, depending on whether they want to give the functions an early informal introduction or only a later rigorous treatment.)

Hillside of olive trees, and one house, seen from above with sun behind viewer, Şirince, January, 2018

Village teaching

I taught two courses this winter in the Village, as I said. They were on the Cantor set and on finite fields. I had taught the Cantor set last winter. The last two winters, I had taught finite fields. This year, as I taught, I edited my typeset notes from last year. I did not have to worry too much about preparing new lectures. This doesn’t mean I copied my old notes onto the board during lectures, just that I knew where I was going. Still, in the middle of the second week, I was pleased to recognize a new connection between the courses.

Green hillside with terraces naturally edged by stone, Şirince, January, 2018

In 2016, I chose finite fields as one of three topics suggested by Village founder and director Ali Nesin. The Cantor set last year was the suggestion of my spouse, after it had been a topic in the topology course that I had taught in our department in the fall. In a separate article of this blog, I plan to say something about both of the courses together, in part because, like some other mathematicians, I entertain the fantasy that everybody should be able to appreciate mathematics, if only it is expressed the right way.

Hilltop of olive trees in a carpet of tiny yellow flowers, Şirince, January, 2018

My last class on finite fields was on Saturday, January 27. Classes are normally held through Sunday; however, whether they are student or teacher, not everybody stays around that long. I was keen to see my wife. Ayşe had come to the Village to teach for the second of my two weeks there in the winter of 2017; but our room became cold, along with the weather, and like a number of other persons at the Village, Ayşe came down with influenza. So did I, though the worst of my case didn’t happen till I was back home.

Village breathing

Being unaccompanied this year, I had to give my Turkish a bit of a workout. During a dinner conversation in the first week, from a former advisor to the previous Prime Minister of Turkey, I learned that—goat’s milk would not be back in the shops till March. I was the only mathematician at the Teachers’ Table; my companions were participants in a political program. In truth we did not talk much, except perhaps at the end of the week. However, on the first evening, when one of the other persons fetched her special goat’s-milk yoghurt, because she could not eat the standard cow’s milk yoghurt on offer, I observed that I had been making my kefir with goat’s milk, but now I couldn’t find the milk in the market. I assume it was the woman’s husband who gave the explanation, which had to do with the caprine life cycle.

From another time at the table, I recall finding reason to suggest that, of Presidents Erdoğan and Trump, the latter was more powerful in the world, the former more powerful in his own country.

In a dining room full of students, and where smoking was nominally forbidden, the person who ate goat’s-milk yoghurt would light up a cigarette after dinner. This was my cue to leave the table. Having seen five persons whom I loved die of lung cancer, I have a low tolerance for smokers who light up in crowds. I did live with my wife for several months while she was a smoker. I rarely smoked one of her cigarettes myself. Then she quit when I moved permanently to Turkey. Her mother continued to smoke for five more years, until she was found to have cancerous lung tissue in her brain.

Şirince, January, 2018

The sea view from a garbage dump

Soon after my arrival in the Village on the morning of Sunday, January 15, I ran into one and then another former student from our department in Istanbul. Bahadır had made his first visit to the Village on the morning of my departure in the winter of 2016. He was awestruck then. Sevde’s first visit was now, and she was in awe. Bahadır and I took Sevde to see the sea view and Sevan Nişanyan’s nearby Lycian-style tomb—currently empty, and the intended occupant, having escaped from Turkish prison, is living in Greece. Sevan’s son, a graduate student at Oxford, had organized the political program at the Village. Though he usually did not sit at the Teachers’ Table, I had the opportunity to talk with him once or twice.

Şirince, January, 2018

Bol Kepçe in the afternoon

One of those times, as I had in the past, I expressed to Arsen my displeasure about his smoking. He accepted my words good-naturedly as he put out his cigarette. That was nice, but smokers don’t seem to understand that they cannot take back the smoke that they have already put into our common air. The common air of Arsen and me was in the Winter Garden or Kış Bahçesi. The original dining hall, called Bol Kepçe (Full Ladle), has been supplemented twice, first with Ciddi Kepçe (Serious Ladle), and now with the Winter Garden, a high-ceilinged room (having terrace above), with French windows on three sides. There is no smoking in the first two halls, except by Ali Nesin and a few others, such as the person I mentioned earlier. I try to think that these halls are like colleges at Oxford, where only professors can walk on the grass.

The Winter Garden seems to be the Village’s unofficial enclosed smoking area. I cannot object in principle to such an area, unless the Teachers’ Table is laid there, as it was during my second week, when there were more of us. Then several persons were subject to my intemperance about smoking. In truth the Winter Garden was smokier from the woodstove than from cigarettes. It also appeared that smokers learned to avoid me.

What we do

A group of young men had organized a specialized mathematical program for what was my second week in the Village. They had screened the students who applied for their program, in order to take a “homogeneous” group of them.

“Homogeneous,” I asked, “as in being all male like yourselves?”

I don’t actually know the composition of the selected group of students. As for their male teachers, I heard of a woman who might have joined them, had she not got sick; also (it was said), it would have been artificial to include more women. I did not pursue the matter. I thought it artificial that all of the men were working on the same specialized topic, which seemed far from what at least some of them normally did in their own research.

I am not happy to think that our research group in 2016 in the Village were almost all male. I could say that each of us had already taken up independently, and thus “naturally,” the interests that we pursued in common at the Village. Eight was a good size for the group; we met in fours in the morning, and in different fours in the afternoon, thus working on four problems in all. One of my fours has a paper on the ArXiv, ready for submission. I cannot suggest that any of us men should have been replaced by a particular woman. Still, our composition could have been different. It is not a good excuse to say that I did not organize the workshop; I could have raised the question of gender with the organizers. I could even have declined to join the group. Some tweets from “Academic Twitter” make me more aware of the possibilities now.

Artificiality is no reason to avoid anything. The artificial is simply what we create. Our lives are artificial. A student talked to me in the Village because she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She wanted to find the natural path. I did not know what to tell her, beyond my own story. To be human is to have left behind nature. The cats that beg for food at the tables in Bol Kepçe are behaving naturally. They cannot do anything else. We can. We can smoke cigarettes or not. We can do mathematics or not. We can try to stand up, or not, to those who would mold us to their own will. Some persons may seem to be able to fly on autopilot, and we wish we could just do the same; but there is no autopilot.

I did study for a doctorate in mathematics because I thought I had to. When I graduated from St John’s College, I did not know whether to pursue mathematics, philosophy, or physics. Ultimately I understood that it had to be mathematics; but I took more than a year to reach this understanding. Meanwhile I did what my uncle called maundering.

I eliminated the option of physics fairly quickly. When a student at the Village told me she wanted to study physics, I said that was great for her; but I personally preferred the independence of mathematics. Physics needs confirmation by the external world, and mathematical proof is secondary; in mathematics, proof is all we have, but also all we need. In implicit recognition of this, we tacitly agree that proof must be universally accepted. In Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction (2002), Timothy Gowers observes,

the fact that disputes can in principle be resolved does make mathematics unique. There is no mathematical equivalent of astronomers who still believe in the steady-state theory of the universe, or of biologists who hold, with great conviction, very different views about how much is explained by natural selection, or of philosophers who disagree fundamentally about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, or of economists who follow opposing schools of thought such as monetarism and neo-Keynesianism.

It is important to understand the phrase “in principle” above. No mathematician would ever bother to write out a proof in complete detail—that is, as a deduction from basic axioms using only the most utterly obvious and easily checked steps. Even if this were feasible it would be quite unnecessary: mathematical papers are written for highly trained readers who do not need everything spelled out. However, if somebody makes an important claim and other mathematicians find it hard to follow the proof, they will ask for clarification, and the process will then begin of dividing steps of the proof into smaller, more easily understood substeps. Usually, again because the audience is highly trained, this process does not need to go on for long until either the necessary clarification has been provided or a mistake comes to light. Thus, a purported proof of a result that other mathematicians care about is almost always accepted as correct only if it is correct.

If you insist on holding an unpopular theory of the universe, you may believe the universe is “out there,” confirming your theory, regardless of what other people think. In mathematics, we understand that what we think is all there is. We can only check our work, not against an external world, but by consulting one another.

I was talking about graduating from college and deciding what to do in life. In my own case, I eliminated physics, but continued to consider philosophy. I still continue to consider philosophy, in the sense that I consider it to be more important than mathematics; but here I am not talking about university departments. Mathematics suits me, and this was told me in a dream I had one night, at the organic farm where I was working, a year out of college. Such is my story. I remember nothing of the dream but its telling me what I had already all but understood: that I had to learn modern mathematics. I had had the luxury of taking time to understand this, while I lived in a corn crib, spending my days bent over in the fields under the summer sun. I can only hope that my students’ families will grant them such a luxury, if they wish it. I don’t know whether the students can or should use my experience as an example to their parents, or to themselves.

Ending and beginning

Ayşe read somebody on Quora recently whose meandering style reminded her of me. Setting out to explain that theine and caffeine are the same thing, he ends up talking about space aliens.

The present article originated as a selection of photographs. Then the words started to come. I was prompted by seeing, in a stack of papers, a printout of Clément Girardot’s article from We Demain. Recalling, for example, the student who was excited by physics, I went on consider why mathematics differed from physics and other fields in the way that Timothy Gowers describes (and I have often thought of). I could go on to recall Vladimir Arnold’s declaration in 1997 that

Mathematics is a part of physics. Physics is an experimental science, a part of natural science. Mathematics is the part of physics where experiments are cheap.

The Jacobi identity (which forces the heights of a triangle to cross at one point) is an experimental fact in the same way as that the Earth is round (that is, homeomorphic to a ball). But it can be discovered with less expense.

In the middle of the twentieth century it was attempted to divide physics and mathematics. The consequences turned out to be catastrophic. Whole generations of mathematicians grew up without knowing half of their science and, of course, in total ignorance of any other sciences. They first began teaching their ugly scholastic pseudo-mathematics to their students, then to schoolchildren (forgetting Hardy’s warning that ugly mathematics has no permanent place under the Sun).

Arnold does have something to say. His parenthetical remark about the Jacobi identity seems misleading, if he is referring to the identity as it applies to the vector product in three-dimensional Euclidean space. The coincidence of the altitudes of a triangle is easy to prove by vector methods (or not), and I cannot see that the Jacobi identity can make the proof even easier. Perhaps Arnold has something else in mind. The main point I would make in the present context is that mathematics is not simply physics, or the other way around, even though the two fields have been connected throughout history. I could here bring in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis, where Collingwood shows sympathy for a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, when art, religion, and philosophy were not distinguished. In the following, read physics and mathematics for religion and art.

The church got the benefit of service by the best men of their age, and the men got the benefit of working for an institution which encouraged them to do their best work and guaranteed them a market for it.

This was in its way a happy state of things, especially by contrast with our modern world. But it was only possible by reason of what we have called the childishness of medieval man. Art, religion, and philosophy are not really the same thing; there are differences between them which need not appear as long as they are at a comparatively low level of development, but appear all too sharply when they reach maturity. At first it may seem possible to be at the same time perfectly artistic and perfectly religious; but if you develop these two tendencies as fully as you can, if you aim at ever deepening and intensifying both your religious life and your artistic life, you will sooner or later come to the parting of the ways and find that you can be one but not both. The monastery is an excellent place for primitive art; but the art of the monastery can never be more than primitive.

This all needs an investigation, but I shall not continue to make it here [until more than two years later, in posts such as “More of What It Is”]. I leave only the germ. Call it unprofessional. But this is my blog.

I inserted sectional divisions above into what had been a continuous stream of paragraphs, composed over a course of days. Now I turn to commentary on some photographs that have certain themes. The first theme is environmental.


I have had my run-ins with the Village Director, about smoking and other issues. I keep coming back, he keeps having me back, and I like to think we continue to be friends. The Village continues to be insensitive, as I think, to environmental issues like waste disposal. Tea leaves and wine bottles are dumped in the same bins, to be hauled away by the municipality of Selçuk. If there is a reason why composting of organic waste on site would be impractical, I do not know it. I can only recall that Ali is friends with a German Green Party MP of Turkish origin. Cem Özdemir did visit the Village once when I was there, and we discussed some of the issues. He ought to be better than I am at seeing what can be done and deciding whether it is worth pursuing.

Village heating plant

The Village did consider my suggestion of asking guests to drink from their own reusable cups. Nonetheless, glasses and ceramic mugs are still offered at meals, to be washed by Village employees or by students doing their chores. I might eliminate these, along with the paper cups that are placed by the water coolers that are scattered around the Village. Let people bring their own drinking vessels, or buy from the Village a plastic or steel mug, embossed with the Village logo. My proposal could be, and perhaps has been, called fascist, by somebody who declined to recognize what the word meant. A better word might be counterproductive, and I can imagine several ways it might apply.

The Village has had to learn to conserve water, though I am not sure how this has been done, except by putting paper cups instead of glasses by the water coolers, and by putting the hamam out of use. I would look into composting toilets, and when I saw a book about them in Turkish (translated from German), I considered buying it for the Village. However, as I understand, Village waste water is now treated on site, to be used for irrigation of the plantings that help make the place so beautiful.

Coal smoke billowing from chimney, Şirince, January, 2018

The Village is breathtakingly beautiful, visually. It can be olfactorily hideous in winter, because of the coal smoke. The Village was built originally for summer use. It is built of stone and brick and wood, without insulation. It seems to be built largely by amateurs, learning as they go. The coal-fired heating plant is next to the rooms that Ayşe and I liked well enough last summer, because they were away from most of the noise. I still had some issues, but Ali sent his architect (who had grown up in the Nesin Orphanage) with a notebook to take care of things. It was August, and the furnace to heat rooms was not burning. The furnace to heat water was burning, below our kitchenette. The heat came up through the stone floor; you could feel it with your bare feet.

Sole of foot, carved in relief, Şirince, January, 2018

One of the marble sculptures carved on site from blocks scattered about the Village

Now, in winter, I was told that the heating plant smoked only when coal was added to the fire. This happened several times a day. Seeping under my door, the smoke woke me in the night. On Tuesday I moved to one of the rooms that Village staff consider to be the best,—and I think they are right, except in high summer, when students may congregate nearby, late into the night.

Purple sacks of coal beneath pine trees, Şirince, January, 2018

Coal imported from the Russian Federation (according to the label)

I can propose no alternative to heating with coal in winter. Had it been constructed like a standard-issue hotel in Turkey, as a concrete box with a roof suitable for solar water heaters (which are commonly used in Turkey), the Village might have been more efficient and more comfortable, though perhaps not to the eye; but there was no expectation, then, that the Village would be used year-round by so many people. Nor, I suppose, would there have been money to construct such a place. Apartment buildings in cities are now being retrofitted, on the outside, with panels of styrofoam insulation. Could or should the stone walls of the Village be covered up in this way? Though I do like lying in bed and seeing the wooden beams, I would propose covering the wood of the roofs from the inside with insulation. This might help in summer too, to keep the rooms from baking too much when the sun beats down.

We easily have ideas when we are not responsible for implementing them.


Three-legged black-and-white cat rests on two steps of open stairway, Şirince, January, 2018


A deaf cat that had lost a foreleg on the streets of Istanbul was brought several years ago to live in the Village. Here she seems to survive just fine. I used a picture of her from May 2015 in the article “What Philosophy Is” of last November.

Grinning donkey through chainlink fence, Şirince, January, 2018

Village staff take care of the cats, but not, I think, any dogs that might show up, since Village laborers may abuse them. Some dogs may come to hang out anyway, including one that was larger than any other I had seen. I could have stumbled over him, sprawled on the pavement as I walked to breakfast in the dark one morning. This was around seven o’clock, but the sky was still black, since Turkey had stayed on daylight savings time this winter, as it did last winter. According to rumor, since it causes more electricity to be used, the retention of summer time was done as a favor for the power companies. I wish I could hope that Turkey’s environmental insensitivity was like its jailing of journalists and academics: an extreme for the world.

Three dogs crossing a stream, Şirince, January, 2018

When I went off for a hike one day, three dogs from the nearby boutique hotel joined me. Since I had made the same circuit hike the previous day, and had encountered no other dogs, but only humans gathering olives, I figured there would be no problem if these three dogs joined me. Indeed there was not. The largest dog turned back en route. When the rest of us reached the Şirince road by the long way, we met some students walking to Şirince, and the two smaller dogs unceremoniously joined them.

Ruts of dirt road filled with water, dog in middle, Şirince, January, 2018 Horse tied up in clearing, Şirince, January, 2018


Traditional white houses on hillside in Şirince, January, 2018

My courses started at nine in the morning and ended at 11 in the first week (when there were few teachers) and 10:30 in the second week (when there were many teachers). I thus had afternoons free for the hikes I mentioned. Two weeks before coming to Şirince, I had come down with a cold, and it kept me inactive for two weeks. I hoped it would also keep my immune system primed to defend against such infection as I had suffered the previous winter. It was a few days before I went on a two-hour hike; but I did walk into Şirince on Monday afternoon.

Covered passageway between stone houses, Şirince, January, 2018


Bare stone wall between wooden doors, plaster above, plant pots below, Şirince, January, 2018 Stone steps in grassy hillside, Şirince, January, 2018 White branches of bare plane tree against dark background, Şirince, January, 2018 Earth scored by digging tools, covered with moss and vines, Şirince, January, 2018 Rivulet tumbling down grassy hillside, Şirince, January, 2018


Ali Nesin told me that olive abundance was cyclic. This year there was a bumper crop, and some of it belonged to the Village. Village staffer Emrah told me of the work that he and his colleagues had to do in organizing the labor to gather the olives.

Şirince, January, 2018

Tarpaulins spread out for the olive harvest

I never see any farmers among the olives in the summer. Now I was happy to see how the groves were maintained, as by bringing in saplings to supplement the existing trees, or perhaps replace dead ones. I read somewhere that olives had been an ecological disaster for the Mediterranean since their cultivation began in earnest some three thousand years ago. Their roots go deep, and the surface soil washes away. Perhaps such erosion is why the harbor of Ephesus silted up.

Olive sapling in a bucket next to olive tree rooted in the ground, Şirince, January, 2018

Sapling in bucket and rooted tree

Perhaps also olive oil production has not been the ecological disaster that petroleum production is. (In the Harper’s article, the workers from the petroleum brotherhood interviewed by William Vollmann usually agreed that Global Warming was a problem.) At breakfast in the Village, I do appreciate being able to pour the Village’s own olive oil onto my plate, and to soak it up with the bread now being baked in the Village’s own oven.

Olives in the dirt, left from the harvest, Şirince, January, 2018

Olives in the road

I had not seen the olive harvest before, perhaps because in other years there was so little of it to do that it had already been done by January. Tarps are spread beneath the trees; men shake the branches with what looks like a pitchfork with mechanically vibrating tines; women collect the fallen olives from the tarps, or just from the ground.

Olives not yet harvested, Şirince, January, 2018

Olives on the branch

Possibly some folks come through later to collect olives that the first harvesters have missed. I think it was this kind of collecting that I had observed, two years before. Certainly this year there were many fallen olives in the road. I did encounter one or two trees that had not yet been harvested.


On my final afternoon in the Village, I paid a call on the artist in residence. She was practicing a duet with another young woman. The artist in residence is the niece of a friend (mentioned in “War Continues”) who has retired from the department of dance at our university in Istanbul. The violinist had to remind me who she was. We could not remember just when we had met in Istanbul, but I looked it up on this blog as she played with Eser.

Violinist and pianist practice in ceramics studio, Şirince, January, 2018

By checking my article on the Istanbul Film Festival last spring, I knew that Ayşe and I had met İmge on April 9. I had forgotten writing, in the same article, about Oliver Burkeman’s column on the effect of writing on memory.

Human figure sculpted from wire climbing picket fence against sunlit hillside opposite, Şirince, January, 2018

The players at the Village had to tell me that what they were working on was Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. I was just enraptured to hear serious music being played in this setting, in a country whose President is desperate to maintain a power that will all be gone when he dies. Beethoven lives on. What will be the legacy of Erdoğan?

Bare tree planted in alcove formed by stone buildings, Şirince, January, 2018

In a show once at Istanbul Modern, one artist’s work involved an abandoned holiday village, somewhere on the Turkish coast. Nature had started to reclaim the place. If the Nesin Mathematics Village were abandoned, some of the greenery might die back, for want of the irrigation water that I mentioned.

New pond of the Math Village, library beyond, Şirince, January, 2018

The new pond of the Village will collect runoff. We shall see whether this runoff will be enough to fill the basin prepared for it.

New pool of Math Village, sunlit hillside beyond, Şirince, January, 2018

If the government sends gendarmes again to close down the Village, as it did in the early years, what will later visitors think had happened in this place?

8 Trackbacks

  1. By The Tree of Life « Polytropy on February 12, 2018 at 3:19 pm

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    […] at Cornell, William Strunk, Jr. I can accept the rule, even while arguing, as I did in “Şirince January 2018,” that humans as such cannot act naturally. We cannot then be blindly obedient to a rule to […]

  3. By On Knowing Ourselves « Polytropy on June 4, 2018 at 3:55 pm

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