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A Fragile Blue EdgeWreathed in egret-white waves, the rippled hills of the coast glittered in hot light. The sky was a flawless blue, a near match for the glazed and glistening sea. We walked on warm sand, sinking into the smooth sweep of dunes that were slowly on the move, cartwheeling south with the wind and waves towards Monterey Bay, one of the few active dune fields on the Californian coast. Songbirds called out a new season as our docent led us along a winding track towards Point Año Nuevo, a windswept spur of mudstone about 90 kilometres south of San Francisco. The docent stopped us in a saddle of sand to talk about the single species we’d all come to see. Ravens stitched a black weave across the sky as he spoke.

Dune and Sky

In The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle asks a question as relevant now as it was when he wrote the book in the early 1990s: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren.” In the book, Michael Pyle gives voice to an idea he calls the extinction of experience, the cycle of “disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavours of sensation in our own immediate surrounds.” He takes his childhood in Denver, Colorado as an example: a place where as a boy, and a budding lepidopterist, he came to know and love the natural world while recording an astonishing variety of butterfly species in the city spaces that had held on to the wild. He compares that diverse richness to the impoverished inventory of species which he records later in life after the rampant expansion of the city’s suburbs. Entire species that were common to him as a boy, and provided a way into relationship with the natural world, had completely vanished. As we stood in the hollow of the dunes, listening to the docent describe the fragile history of the species we were about to encounter, I realised that just beyond the ridge, where turkey vultures trailed shadows over the sand, was an animal which for a period of time had been both the condor and wren of Robert Michael Pyle’s analogy: a creature once common to the coast taken to the very edge of extinction, nearly paling into memory.

Ano Nuevo

After nearly two centuries of killing, only a hundred northern elephant seals existed in the entire world by 1922. They were the sole survivors of countless massacres of their kind, when entire sedentary colonies were slaughtered for the oil stored in the animal’s blubber – oil which helped fuel the Gold Rush and rapid expansion of settlement across the American West. Those hundred seals discovered on Guadalupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico, were declared a protected species by the Mexican government in 1922, a move followed by the United States a few years later. Since then, elephant seal colonies and numbers continue to grow, so that there are around 175,000 – 190,000 present in the world today, all tracing their lineage to a small island in the Pacific, an ancestral relict once common along the coast.

Elephant seal

We rose above the dunes, sharp light scattered like glass across the sea. Although it was the end of the breeding season, a number of elephant seals were still sprawled across the shore. Breeding was first recorded at Año Nuevo in 1961 and this year’s pups lay like plump sausages on the sand, occasionally humping forward with the flap of small, wing-like flippers to bask at a new angle. Mothers raise a single pup each year, fattening it with milk so rich her young will gain 150 kilos of weight in less than a month. When they finally push off from land, the young will run the gauntlet of great white sharks in the strait, the primary reason why only 50-60% of them will survive their first year. Until that race across the strait, they’re settled in sunlight and sand beside a few males and females still lingering at the end of the breeding season.

Island and strait

A male rode in like a king coming ashore. We’d seen him in the distance, bobbing and breaching with a twist of white water until he caught a necessary swell. Even the enormous energy of this ocean couldn’t carry him far. A male will weigh between 1800 and 2300 kg when it arrives at the beginning of the breeding season, losing around 500 kg by its finish. This one seemed stranded between worlds: the buoyant blue gloss of sea and the inflexible gravity of shore. The seal reared up in sudden, lumbering movement, a muscled torque of motion that held it steady on its torso. It was sphinx-like at the edge of the sea, gleaming in spray. The long, pendulous nose of its name was now visible as it heaved forward, a blubbery shuffle that brought it another metre onto shore.

Elephant seal male

Seen here, hauled out and dozing on sand, the elephant seals give little inkling of their oceanic lives and migrations. It is to the sea that they belong, the place where they spend the vast majority of their time, only coming ashore for specific needs. Leaving Año Nuevo after breeding, the females chart a coastal course northwards to Vancouver Island before veering into the deep Pacific, feeding on rays, squid, eels, fish and small sharks. Once far out in the ocean, capable of diving to a depth of 1550 metres and holding their breath for a hundred minutes underwater, they’ll loop southward, boomeranging back to Año Nuevo. The males travel even further, journeying as far north as Alaska where their westward curve follows the sprinkled trail of the Aleutian Islands. They’ll be far closer to Asia than their natal shore when they eventually turn for home, spearing across the deep sea for the Californian coast. As remarkable as these migrations are, long pelagic peregrinations that return them to the precise place of their birthing and breeding, the elephant seals make the journey twice each year: returning not only to breed but also to moult in the summer months before setting off seaward again, following that Pacific sea-path encoded deep in their blood and bones.

Elephant seal 2

The sea-light glittered, caught up in the sway and swell of waves. A few shorebirds hurtled westwards, nicking the rising white crests like skipping stones. The elephant seals basked and rolled at the edge of the water; a dead pup was pecked at by ravens and gulls. There was a strange beauty to being in the presence of such relics – a species descended from a single, remote island. Dependent upon such limited genetic material, there are worries about the future viability of the species and what the evolutionary consequences of descent from that solitary population might be, but for now they flourish on these coastal strands.

Shell midden

As we left the seals to weave back through the dunes, our docent pointed to a slope of sand salted with pale grains. An ancient place in the lee of a ridge, it was a shell midden of the Quiroste people, a group of the Ohlone Indians who had lived here seasonally for 6,000 years – hunting, fishing and gathering abalones and other shellfish from the sea. Like the elephant seals, the Quiroste communities along the coast were part of a living landscape that endured until European contact in the late 1700s decimated their numbers and ways of life. Through forced baptism and settlement in Spanish missions around Santa Cruz, the Quiroste as a people disappeared to nearly nothing. A black oystercatcher whistled from the sea while we stood there, its rising song breaking the spell of sand and shells, leading us back into a day of brilliant, unbroken blue.

Blue beach

Sand

 

Gathered Light

Reed liIt reached me as an afterglow. We were walking on a cliff-edge path when a faint light glimmered at the corner of my eye. I stopped and looked down on the sea for a while, reluctantly accepting that it must have been the sparkling roll of a wave that I’d seen, a crest of bright water. I’d taken a few more steps along the path when I saw it again, fleetingly, like a vague memory dredged from the depths. Watching the sea more closely this time, I looked for disruptions in its undulating rhythms. But nothing other than sunlight played on the vast surface of the Black Sea. From seventy meters up, at the top of red sandstone cliffs, the sea was spread out in a shimmering blue glaze, brimming with polished light after the early-morning storms. Whatever I’d seen had subsided, gone back to its secret depths.

I was turning to join the others again when I saw an unmistakable shudder close to shore, a rippled undertow of motion. And I was still holding my breath when the silver arch of a dolphin broke the surface and caught the sun on its flukes. I must have yelled out because suddenly people were around me, my friends pointing joyfully toward the waves, and a few French tourists asking what all the excitement was about. Another dolphin leapt clear of the water, then two of them in perfect synchronicity. They climbed into the air, passing with graceful ease from one medium to the next, dragging sprays of water like silver harnesses from their tandem tails. They seemed suspended in an enduring moment, balanced on a high wire slung above the sea. Water droplets sloped from their sides like shards of light.

Gathered light

About a dozen bottle-nosed dolphins made up the pod. They crested the surface of the sea with their beaks, playfully nudging the lid of their world, and occasionally scribing arcs in the air. I later realised how time had dissolved while we watched the dolphins. Past and future, and all the weight they carry, had folded into one clear, immeasurable moment. Everything else had fallen away, brushed off like a scattering of crumbs. I was aware of feeling an ineffable joy, and lightness of being. Some days outlive others – they are lit differently in memory when recollected, brushed with an intensity that seems to suspend the customary passage of time. This was such a day. As the dolphins moved further out to sea, we watched them breaching in the distance like a range of receding hills.

Water light

*     *     *

I’m delighted to be hitting the road in a few days time on behalf of The Small Heart of Things and thought I’d post this short excerpt from one of the book’s essays, ‘An Accumulation of Light.’ Along with events at the AWP conference in Seattle between February 26-March 1st, I’ll be reading at the following places:

February 27th, Terrain.org reading, Seattle, WA
March 4th, Russell Books, Victoria, BC
March 5th, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
March 7th, Grass, Roots, Books & Music, Corvallis, OR
March 10th, The Booksmith, San Francisco, CA
March 11th, Books Inc., Mountain View, CA
March 14th, Books Inc., Berkeley, CA
March 15th, Point Reyes Books, Pt. Reyes Station, CA

If there are any readers of Notes from Near and Far in the places I’ll be visiting, it would be a great pleasure to meet up. Or if you know of anyone who would be interested in attending one of the readings and book signings for The Small Heart of Things, I’d be deeply grateful if you could share the news. Full details of these and other events, including times and bookstore links, can be found on this events page. Many thanks, and looking forward to meeting a few readers along the way and exploring a new part of the world!

The Stone Coast

The Stone CoastFor centuries men cloistered here, monastic, remote, alone. Men who’d shed some of the world as a way of contemplating its essence, stricter in their spiritual devotion to it. At the edge of this high mountain lake, they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made recognisable by what is no longer there. Made meaningful by the things that are let go.

Pale as the winter moon at its tip, this crescent coast mottles to mineral brown as it bends south. A curve of limestone bluffs, trellised with creepers and fugitive trees, an anchor for the ancient junipers that grow gnarled and woven on its surface. A few weeks ago, when I last stood on the peninsula, the lake was bathed in pewter light, misted and mysterious. Ahead of me, like a moat-ringed citadel, rose the island of Golem Grad, dark and magnetic in the distance. Thousands of great crested grebes floated on the worn glitter of the waves, drawn to this singular place, the deepest part of Great Prespa Lake, to feed on the endemic bleak that dwell there in winter. Each year the fish gather in deep uvalas, the karstic underwater depressions that lay off the tip of Cape Roti, enticing the grebes with their vast, shoaling presence. A siren song from beneath the waves.

Looking south

It’s long been a dwelling place, this stone coast. The stilted cliffs are fissured with caves that house colonies of chambered bats and otters course the shore, denning in dark, coastal hollows. But the relics of human residency can be found here as well, seen in the collapsing monks’ cells and fading frescoes of saints on the cliff faces, the peninsular chapels enclosed by stone. The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis was raised in the 13th century, built into the cliffs at a time when the lake’s water level was almost certainly higher. Encircled by high mountains, and more isolated than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this peninsula, including two further hermitages built along its shore in the 15th century, became a centre for spiritual solitude, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Rock flowers

Hermitage, at distance

They dwelled in stone, these men. While some hermits homed inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. In the summer crush of light, all the heat of the season is gathered by the suntrap of the cliffs, reflected until it wearies with its sharp intensity, its arid indifference. The sun is no consolation at its height here; it is as relentless as winter. The white stones could be coals underfoot, and sunlight fires the cliffs to a brilliant, blinding glare. The heat is dry and withering, and I wonder if that is what the monks sought here: to live with the light of their desert fathers.

Winter light

The monks’ lives were composed of prayer and contemplation, a persistent devotion to scriptural study, and the constant toil for provisions. They must have sown seeds on the surface of the cliffs, nurturing sparse crops in the thin soil between stones and trees, and journeyed across the water to collect stores from lakeside villages. But mostly they must have fished to survive on this seam of rock. As they rowed away from the hermitages, they would have passed pygmy cormorants standing like dark crosses on the stones, their still, outstretched wings drying in sunlight and wind. They’ll have heard the whirr of wings when pelicans kept close to the coast, as if charting its bends and bays, marking a map held in ancestral memory. A memory that once told of monks.

Hermitage, close up

Across the lake

In winter, the vaulted sky over the peninsula can be a bruise that doesn’t heal, the clouds edged for days in violet and dark blue. The monks would have shivered into a thicker, rougher set of robes with the coming of the cold, facing the wail of snow until the skin around their eyes was raw from it, scraped into red weals as if with the edge of a blade. They would have rowed from the hermitage to the waters off the cape, to the same deep places where thousands of grebes still gather for the same reason, in search of silver glinting fish long after the monks have gone. With fingers gone numb from hauling their iced nets into boats, and no longer able to endure the cold needling ever deeper inside them, the men landed their catch on the coast, dragging their skiffs through deepening snow, tying them down with rope. Some say smugglers bring cigarettes ashore in this place now, and the rings of black, fire-singed stones that I sometimes find could be evidence of those landings. But it’s the older tenants of these cliffs that I think of when I’m there. Somewhere on that peninsula, where it tilts into the blue bowl of the lake or beneath the ancient, woven junipers foresting the flats, some of these monks must be buried. A nest of bones in a dark clot of earth; given to the place that became their world.

Juniper

Hermitage of the Metamorphosis

At night, during winter storms, I sometimes imagine the murmur of their voices from long ago. It’s quiet at first – a shallow rise and fall that could be the sound of water on a summer shore. But gradually it deepens, gathering strength as more monks leave their stone beds to climb the stairs to the chapel. Saints flicker in candlelight, smoke blackening the arched ceiling while snow billows across the peninsula, flailing over the lake and deepening in drifts against the fishing boats. Wind shreds the walls to whistle inside the chapel, guttering the flames. But the voices of the monks, secluded for years on this stone coast, never lessen; together their words are woven, air becoming sound and soaring, angling towards eventual light.

Through the window, the world

In the Eyes of a Bear

For an audio version of ‘In the Eyes of a Bear’ please press the play button:


In the Eyes of a BearAs the sun rose over the mountains, I walked a treeless ridge that buckled into the hazy distance. A vast summer sky cradled a few threads of cloud and a warm breeze rolled over my shoulders. Skylark song sparkled like sunlit rain above the meadows. The alpine world was bursting into song, the brief, ecstatic season when the mountain’s granite bones are clothed in wildflowers and butterflies. It was a morning of bird monitoring for me, and as I neared the place where I’d spend the coming hours watching the skies around the wind farm for raptors, pelicans and ravens, a creature unexpectedly stepped into sunlight ahead of me.

I’d always imagined that my first real encounter with a European brown bear would unfold in a forest. It’s where our legends and myths tell us they live, deep in the dark and leafy heart of the remnant wild. And over the years, it’s where I’ve most often found their prints, large and looming in the yielding earth, big enough to make my hand suddenly resemble a child’s in comparison. Forest raspberry canes are stripped clean of their fruit within days of ripening and high claw marks decorate those trees chosen as scratching posts. Mounds of bear dung mark the woodland floor like native cairns, their varying constituents an inventory of the seasons: plum stones, beetle wings and rosehips; apple pips, wasp heads and fur. Seeing these signs is a reminder: that for all that is solitary about my walks, this world is shared and sentient beyond measure.

Skylark nest

So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the animal in the meadow that for the slenderest of moments I had no idea what I was looking at, whether some giant feral dog or a strange hybrid of creatures more common to me. It had lumbered into view from behind a rocky outcrop, stepping up onto a stone in front of me to settle in sunlight. That momentary flicker of uncertainty was eclipsed by a blazing clarity, as if the scene had suddenly been floodlit and telescoped into focus: only fifteen metres of mountain meadow separated me from a brown bear. My mind suddenly emptied, a clear and continuous space in which all I could hear was my heart, like the quivering thrum of an arrow in the moments after hitting its target. From its low saddle of stone the bear eyed me in the meadow, and the wild rushed in like a river.

Wild slope

Although the sun was still low in the sky, it was rising with summer fire. The sunlight reached my back and flared past, illuminating the bear in fine detail, its eyes magnified to dark pools. In his book Becoming Animal, David Abram says that “reciprocity is the very structure of perception.” To look into the eyes of a wild creature is to enter into a relationship, a shared exchange carried out over common ground. For all that we praise and rightfully honour the other senses, sight remains for humans the most elevated of perceptual tools. It’s how we tend to map and render the world. Peering into the reflective gleam of a frog at ease on both land and water, or to look between the ancient, knowing lids of a tortoise sheltered within its shell, is to be offered the possibility of empathy, of imagining a remarkable life and lineage vastly different to our own. But there in the bright meadow, looking back at the bear as it stared at me intently, I felt no tingle of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Awe and fear had filled me, in equal measure, leaving no space for anything else.

Mountain road

The light poured over the mountains until the bear was enthroned in summer glow. Its fur was more grizzled than brown, sleek and shimmering, as if each length of hair was tipped by a silver shard. Dark rings encircled its eyes and waves of muscle rolled through its shoulders when it moved. It nodded the air with its black muzzle, picking up whatever traces of adrenaline and fear were seeping through me. Although on all fours it would have stood waist-height against me, it appeared to be a young bear on the very cusp of adulthood, and I was sure its mother was near. I turned slowly in search of her, the space between the bear and I seeming even smaller than before when I considered the consequences of coming between the two – all that a threat to a mother’s long labour of blood and nourishing would entail – to see only an empty meadow rippling with wildflowers and wind. Feeling the bear’s stare deepen inside me, I began backing up slowly into sunlight.

Wildflower meadow

For as long as we’ve depicted animals on cave walls and shared language around fires, stories of our relationship to the wild kingdom have helped render this world sensible and meaningful to our human consciousness. They’ve also been practical guides, of vital importance for survival. But on that ridge of rising summer light, only a short and startling distance from an animal more than equal to myself, I finally understood something of what the philosopher Krishnamurti meant when he wrote that “the description is not the described, the word is not the thing.” No amount of stories about our wild inheritance could prepare me for its actuality, the arising of our animal essence. From the moment the bear appeared my skin was electric, every last hair bristling and alive. My entire body felt charged with a taut pulse, as if no longer flesh but a conductor of pure, necessary energy. I acted with little thought, my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level, the same kind of instinctiveness that our ancestors must have experienced. That immediate, visceral response to the near presence of the bear was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. I was no longer the dominant species, all the assumptions and riches of human culture fallen away, like the stripped-back bones of these mountains before summer brings its flourish of colour. All that was ever wild remains within us.

Fritillary

For whatever reason, the bear suddenly startled. There’d been no sound or sign of a mother in the end, so that only the two of us shared that alpine world. It may have finally seen my dark silhouette emerge from the blinding glare as the sun rose higher, or picked up an additional scent on the wind, some pungent, primitive smell of mine that resonated with its genetic inheritance, the stories its species carries in blood and bone. The bear padded off the rock to hit the meadow in full flight, charged with electric intensity as I retreated with slow steps. It thumped across the unfolding summer flowers, scattering butterflies that drifted up into the air. Silence welled up to fill the long, hollow seconds until the bear sheered away, hurtling down the slope of bilberries and meadow grasses. The echo of its run beat like a drum across the miles, and all I could do was stand still in the sunlight, breathing, breathing, breathing, as skylark song fell about me like rain.

Varnoundas wind farm

It’s been a quieter year at Notes from Near and Far, so I’d like to take this opportunity with the last post of 2013 to thank you all for sticking with the blog. The Small Heart of Things, and an upcoming book tour on the west coast of North America on its behalf, has taken up much of my time this year, so my apologies for the less frequent posts. I’m extremely delighted and honoured by the positive reception the book’s been receiving so far. For anyone who is interested, or who would like to know a little more about the book, recent reviews for it can be read via the following links at The Rumpus, The Iowa Review and The Baptist Times, or via the Press page here on the blog.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued interest in Notes from Near and Far. I’m extremely grateful for the conversations and connections that have been made here, and for the sense of shared community. With the last days of the year upon us, my very best wishes to all for a creative, inspiring and joyful 2014, wherever you may be.

Isthmus

The two Prespa Lakes are split by a flat isthmus, a spur of sand which pelicans glide across in summer as they swap one body of water for the other. Those two lakes, though, were once one, a single blue bowl encircled by steep slopes. Over thousands of years, silt and sediment from the mountains were sluiced down their gullies and creeks into the river that drains the valley. As the river emptied, spilling its mountain hoard into the lake – all the spoil of sand and silt that had been worn down by wind, rain and time – those tiny grains built up in a slow process of accumulation until they spread out across the water, building a bridge one particle at a time, turning one lake into two.

Those sandy levels are a favourite place of mine to walk, and at this time of year a marvellous spectacle unfolds across the flatlands. With the arrival of autumn, starlings begin gathering in large numbers, lining up like dominoes on the electricity wires slung along the road. I hear their chatter from a distance, the gossip of a gathered clan. The starlings tumble as I near, falling together to sheer away across the sky. The flock somehow stays together in these aerial dances, these murmurations of many wings, bending and turning as one, a dark and swaying figure, like they were simply a sheet being rippled by wind.

The Small Heart of Things

I’m delighted to announce that The Small Heart of Things was officially published yesterday, making its way in the world through the University of Georgia Press. While a book might appear to be a singular thing, in fact it more closely resembles those flocks of starlings, or the isthmus spanning the lakes; it’s composed of many pieces, a multitude of feathers and sand. The writings of authors such as Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Nan Shepherd and Giorgos Catsadorakis – amongst many others – have greatly influenced the thinking and language of the book with their elegant explorations of the world around us; the discussions with readers here at Notes from Near and Far have helped clarify ideas or opened up paths in new and enriching directions; and the wonderful work of other writers, artists, bloggers and naturalists that I’ve been privileged to discover since starting this blog have expanded my sense of place immeasurably. The Small Heart of Things has been shaped by many people, and I’m grateful to the readers of Notes from Near and Far for being part of it all. Thank you.

Great Prespa Lake

I’ve been asked in recent weeks where the book will be stocked, so for those interested in purchasing a copy, it’s available from a variety of different sellers. In the United States, where it’s published, it can be ordered through a favourite local bookshop or by visiting the wonderful IndieBound to find your nearest independent community bookstore. The book can also be purchased directly from the University of Georgia Press, or bought from online sellers like Barnes & Noble, Powell’s City of Books and Amazon.

In the UK and the rest of Europe, the book can be purchased through Foyles Books in London and online at Books etc., The Book Depository, Amazon and Bol.com. Copies will also be available at Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex where I’ll be speaking in November.

In Canada the book is being stocked by Another Story bookshop in Toronto, as well as being available online at Chapters Indigo. For countries outside those mentioned, I believe online stockists, just as Booktopia in Australia, are the best way to find the book. An electronic version is available for Kindle.

Many thanks for your interest and continued support of Notes from Near and Far. If you have any questions about the book or where it can be found please leave me a message below and I’ll do my best to help out. Until next time, happy wanderings…

The Marsh Country

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.”

~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

“Large terminals, operational buildings, offices, roads and car parks will interrupt the broad open scale of the marsh landscape… The network of ditches and creeks running through the marshes will be severely affected or destroyed…Existing open views out over the Estuary will be lost and replaced by terminal buildings, aircraft hangers and extensive areas of paving…The low hills of the Hoo Peninsula rising out of the surrounding marshland will be lost entirely.”

                                                                        ~ Foster + Partners, Thames Hub Airport Proposal to the Airports Commission, 2013

The Marsh Country

The Greek mountain sun fades to a mellow glow in September, casting a burnished crown of light over the valleys and lakes. The sloping meadows have been turned wheaten by long months of heat and the land looks spent, worn down to a layer of pale dust. The sky thins of birds until it’s nearly silent, but I still hear the chatter of a few departing swallows and the bubbling notes of bee-eaters sounding their summer leave, sun-glints of cinnamon, lemon and teal as they streak south across the seasons. I watch them skim over the house and garden, emptying the air behind them, but as I stand there in the warm dazzle of sun I find myself thinking of somewhere else, a place where the sky will soon be awhirl with wings.

The Hoo Peninsula is a rich weave of water and land at the edge of the Thames Estuary. Only 30 miles from central London, the peninsula takes its name from a word meaning ‘spur’ in Old English, jutting, as it does, into the widening waters like the prow of a boat. It’s bordered by two rivers, the Thames and the Medway, and has been preserved from the tides that sweep up both waterways by a seawall that protects its lowest and most vulnerable edges. The peninsula is a mosaic of landscapes, a mingle of intertidal mudflats, grazing marsh, 13th century flint churches, pockets of woodland where nightingales still thrive, centuries-old villages, shingle beaches, dikes, creeks and lagoons. It’s a place where a set of complex habitats, both human and wild, are woven into one.

Water

But wherever you go, water is at the heart of the Hoo. It lifts boats from the river bed with the rising tide, seeps up creeks like a slowly moving cloud and fills deceptively deep hollows with quickening mud, as if the whole place were still under the jurisdiction of the sea, just like it’s always been. The poignant charnel house that overlooks the marshes from the churchyard of St. Helen’s in the village of Cliffe is a reminder of that long, maritime history, and the intrinsic relationship that lends this place its unique character. Victims of drowning were often caught up in a particular set of currents in the Thames that beached them on the rim of the peninsula; once pulled from the river, their bodies were carried across the marshes and temporarily laid to rest inside the ventilated stone building until they could be identified and buried. This watery world has long been noted for its wild edges.

Cliffe charnel house

Sunlit marsh

It’s these wild edges that have made the peninsula home to such a spectacular array of birds. Over 300,000 of them winter around the estuary, arriving in autumn from their summer grounds far to the north to feed from the extensive mudflats and salt marshes that are restocked daily by the tides. In recognition of this richness, and its significant populations of breeding species like avocets, lapwings, shelducks and oystercatchers, the area has been designated a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, carrying the same status as the Prespa Lakes where I live in Greece. While it’s the rare pelicans and pygmy cormorants that make Prespa so significant, the estuary is renowned for its spectacular skeins of wildfowl and waders, the aerial rafts of grey plover, knot and dunlin that twist and turn over the water like a spool of ribbon being unravelled by the wind. The estuary also hosts a number of scarce plants and invertebrates, Britain’s largest heronry and the RSPB’s oldest nature reserve, as well as a species that has recently been discovered to have declined by a fifth in the UK since 2011, the water vole. A map of the estuary reveals an expanse almost entirely covered by large swathes of colour, each one related to a different protective measure intended to preserve it, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and RSPB nature reserves.

Wild edges

Taken together, the Hoo Peninsula has been accorded the highest level of protection shy of being designated a National Park. Despite this, and the unique rural character of its historic countryside and communities, the place finds itself under considerable threat. “If someone came along and said, ‘We’re going to build an airport on the New Forest’, people would be absolutely outraged.” I stood amidst slanting snow, peering out through a mire of weather as Joan Darwell did her best to speak above the whistling wind. “But they can, because this area is so little known for its importance.” We looked out over the marshes, faint in the mist. The unspoken question that hung heavy in the air was this: how meaningful are any of these protective measures anymore? As was witnessed in 2008, when Donald Trump convinced the Scottish government to ignore the SSSI designation of a rare strand of shifting sand dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast, the fifth largest sand dune system in all of Britain, so that he could build a luxury golf course in an area recognised for its unique ecological and scenic importance, protection means little without the intention to honour it, the desire to value a place for what it already is.

Cows

Water channel

I’d chosen Easter to travel back to England, mistakenly expecting those April days to have blossomed into spring. Instead I was welcomed by a deep winter clasp, when temperatures stayed locked beneath zero for much of my stay. I was researching some ideas for a book, and much of my time was taken up by walking a range of landscapes in and around London while at the same time meeting and talking with people who felt a strong sense of connection and attachment to the areas where they lived. Little did I know, as I journeyed by train through a veil of snow that morning towards the Hoo Peninsula, how profound and lasting an impact the place I was heading to would end up having on me as well.

Joan Darwell, Gill Moore and George Crozer are parish councillors for the Hoo Peninsula, and loyal to a place they call home. As campaigners for Friends of the North Kent Marshes, this isn’t the first time they’ve been trying to raise awareness of this remarkable and unsung part of southern England.  In 2002, a proposal was put forward to build an airport at Cliffe marshes where a set of large saline pools managed by the RSPB host a variety of wildlife, including the organisation’s symbol, the avocet, a species driven to extinction in Britain in the 19th century which only returned again after World War II. Although the airport plan was quashed on largely economic grounds by the Labour government in 2003, the idea of an estuary airport hasn’t gone away.

Hedge path

In the year that the Airports Commission is looking at aviation options in the south-east of England, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested building a floating airport in the heart of the estuary. Now he’s also backing Sir Norman Foster’s proposal to build Europe’s largest airport on the Hoo Peninsula, a four-runway hub with enough capacity for 110 million passengers per year, with the possibility of that figure rising to 150 million over time. The airport platform, which would be partially built over the intertidal mudflats and water of the Thames itself and capable of hosting 140 flight movements per hour, would be 5.2 km long and 4.5 km wide, connected to London by a six-lane motorway which would carve open the rural landscape, a high-speed rail link and a Cross Rail extension, together with the vast acres of asphalt required for cargo facilities, car parking, aircraft and maintenance hangers and the inevitable infrastructure that springs up in their vicinity – an Airport City as it’s referred to in the plan – including housing, shops, offices and hotels. In order for a hub airport to be viable, Heathrow, already Europe’s busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers and its third busiest for flight numbers, would be closed and redeveloped. According to the Foster + Partners’ proposal, Heathrow would be turned into a mixed housing and commercial zone to “rival London Docklands,” making the communities already dependent on Heathrow redundant in the process; in essence, then, the plan would be to shut down an operational airport near London in order to build another airport on some of the last open green space anywhere near the city.

Summer marsh

Winter marsh

“You’ve got this kind of magical place that’s the North Kent Marshes and nobody knows about it. Nobody’s celebrating it. And we should be. We should be putting this in the hearts and minds of people.” George had picked me up from a nearby railway station and we immediately fell into conversation. As we drove through a billow of Easter snow onto the peninsula to meet Joan and Gill, I asked him if he’d always been interested in wildlife and nature. “Not at all. All the years I’ve lived here and I never even went to the RSPB reserve down the road from me.” I asked him if there was a particular experience that had changed that. “It was the first year that two egrets came back and I went to the pools and saw this mating dance of theirs. And for me it was like being in Africa on the Serengeti. Just this kind of seminal moment. There are over 300,000 birds here in the winter; it’s an amazing thing.”

Like nearly everywhere in modern Britain, the Hoo Peninsula is far from untouched; it’s a region with a long history of human use. The lagoons arose out of Victorian quarrying; power stations and gas terminals anchor one end of the spur; the ruins of a 19th century defensive fort and World War II munitions testing zone are still visible. Yet each of these exists within the scale of the peninsula; the place absorbs them into its whole. Walking out from the villages is to enter an emerald land of grazing marshes used by farmers for cattle and sheep; along the spine of the peninsula stand the stone clock towers of rural churches.

Grassland stone

Gill was keen to show me the church at Cooling that morning, and in particular a set of small gravestones in the churchyard. “We want to preserve the Dickens landscape as well,” she said as we walked through the churchyard. The Hoo Peninsula is at the heart of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the setting for many of its scenes. It’s the landscape that the author himself often walked, living, as he did, in nearby Gad’s Hill towards the end of his life. And from the churchyard where I looked at a bundle of poignantly small grave markers, Dickens took his inspiration for the “little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long” which marked the graves of the orphan Pip’s “five little brothers,” nestled together beside those of his mother and father. And it was the very landscape, the flat expanse of marshland veined with creeks and dikes at the edge of the Thames, where Pip would encounter Abel Magwitch, who’d escaped from one of the prison hulks that were anchored in Victorian times at Egypt Bay where the marshes join the river, a meeting which radically alters the course of the young boy’s life, one of the most celebrated characters in British fiction. Other literary landscapes in Britain, like the area of Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived, wrote and took inspiration from, are seen as nearly sacred, but it seems that this one, for the most part, has been largely forgotten.

Cooling church graves

Peninsula blue

Walking away from the church, Gill said, “What kind of world are we going to leave to our children and grandchildren in the future? We can’t destroy absolutely everything.” Quotes can never quite conjure the passion of a person’s voice, but as I braced myself against a lancing wind that morning while looking across the misted expanse with Gill, Joan and George, their commitment to this place, this home of theirs and habitat for immeasurable wild creatures, was both immediate and inspiring. There was a warmth in their voices that was absent from the day.

It’s exhilarating out on the marshes, within earshot of the rising river. A few months later I watched summer breeders circle and sheer across the meadows, flushing from sandy scrapes or lifting like wind-shivered flags from deep in the grasses. Avocets, redshanks and lapwings marked their nesting territories with a chorus of pulsing songs. The wild estuary light continually shifted, filtered through salt air and sea-funnelled clouds, so that the mood of any moment could twist and turn, sinuous as the river itself. The wind poured in from the north or rode up the Thames on the tide, like the centuries-worth of ships that have followed its promised course. On other days, when the sun burned like a hot coin in the saddle of the sky, the marsh grasses danced with a hazy shimmer, rolling towards the river, an English prairie slanting to the sea. These wide open spaces lend the peninsula its particular and unique appeal – the way the sky over the estuary seems uncommonly deep, the way the drawl of a tugboat’s horn or the call of curlews as they arch overhead are gathered up by the air and held there for longer than usual, so that the sound sifts down as slow as snow. Brought together, these expanses encourage a corresponding openness within; they leave space for weather and light, all the tangible atmospheres of our living, breathing world. To be out there on the peninsula, at the edge of the spangled sea, can be as liberating as it gets in a landscape.

Dark sky marshes

Estuary boats

But what value do these qualities of place carry in this age? What credence is given to open skies, to the ability to experience a place that hasn’t been turned entirely to our own use? In a statement to support the submission of their proposal to the Airports Commission, Sir Norman Foster said that “we have reached a point where we must act, in the tradition of those Victorian forebears and create afresh – to invest now and safeguard future generations. Why should be fall behind when we could secure a competitive edge?”

Their proposal would have us believe that the plan is brave and courageous, radical in its scope. Yet little has changed since the Victorian age they evoke; our approach to economic growth has long been premised on extraction and building, to level and reshape on a vast scale in order to spur and stimulate economic activity. Whether skyscrapers, motorways or airports, large-scale building is the status quo, and has been since the dawn of the industrial age. Foster + Partners’ plan merely follows a well-trodden route, breaking ground with old ideas.

Foster + Partners insist their plan is a way to “safeguard future generations,” but the obvious question in reply is what will be safeguarded for them? Given the increasing ease with which global firms feel they have the right to propose the development of unique and protected landscapes, what of the world will be left for those future generations to cherish other than a “competitive edge?” Those Victorian forebears of ours that Foster + Partners extol were equally well known for their enthusiasm for empire, and perhaps that is a more accurate comparison: a sense of rightful dominion over local communities, landscapes and wildlife. In a week that the IPCC, the UN’s climate panel, released its most comprehensive findings to date, stating that “unequivocal” global warming “threatens our planet, our only home,” a proposal to build Europe’s largest airport seems less about safeguarding future generations than it does economic opportunity.

Summer grasses

“They can talk about community, but the government thinks it can pick us up, bricks and mortar, and move us somewhere else. But it’s not like that because a place is inside you. A place is in here.” Gill tapped at her chest as she spoke. Drinking tea at George’s house, out of the cold and snow, I was able to sit in on a more intimate conversation. We still discussed the airport proposal – the serious risk of bird strikes in the estuary, the prevalence of fog – but we moved on to more personal things as well. George talked a little about his love of motorcycle touring with his wife while Gill spoke about her volunteer work at the church in Cliffe, and Joan told me how she’d once been very much a “classic Essex girl,” showing up years ago for her first trip to the marshes wearing high-heels and fancy trousers totally unsuited for the wet terrain. Each of them, in their own way, had come to make a connection with the wider landscape of home where they lived. “I walked up to the viewpoint one day and just looked at the landscape,” said Joan. “It was stunning; it was so beautiful, all the wildlife, the birds. It actually brought a tear to me. And I just thought, it cannot be destroyed. It just can’t.”

St. Helen's

London Stone

I had only ever planned on spending a single day on the peninsula, but sometimes a place finds its way unexpectedly inside you, holding fast to some ineffable interior so that it leads you back again and again. Like a magnet, a compass. Two days after shivering amidst snow at the edge of the marshes I returned to the peninsula in the company of a friend and her son. We walked our way into spring that day, the first of my stay when sunlight eclipsed the clouds, bringing a hesitant warmth to the land that summoned the first movements and murmurs of insects.

We followed the seawall from the lagoons at Cliffe towards the river, the marshes to the right of us, speckled with cows, sheep and lambs. A corn bunting trilled from the tangled tip of blackberry canes and a marsh harrier courted the sudden warmth, wavering over a slim pocket of reeds, tipping its wings from side to side like a seesaw being ridden slowly by kids. Skylarks rose up to rain song from the deep blue, a shower of bright notes. Birds such as the skylark and corn bunting are in steep decline across much of the UK these days and yet there, only 30 miles from central London, on a peninsula that could fill with mechanical flight, the sky was dense with songs once common throughout the country.

Sea wall

Emerald marshes

Those songs stayed with me until I returned again in early summer, unable to stay away. This time I spent a few days in the marsh country, and I encountered richness wherever I went, each step bringing some new quality of the peninsula into focus. But with it came a simultaneous disquiet, the knowledge of its fragility. Shifting estuary light spilled across the grazing marshes where the terminal buildings would loom. Little egrets swept across a shingle shore like a sudden squall of snow in the place aircraft would descend. And the London Stone stood sentinel and mysterious at the edge of the sea, marking a spot first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285, a place that would become memorial, buried by runways built out into the river.

All that I walked across would be gone, either physically destroyed or irreversibly lessened to such a degree by the constant noise of a 24-hour airport and its attendant industries and infrastructure that it would amount to the same thing: the complete obliteration of a place and its communities. As I walked through rain and wind those days, through spectral sea-light splashed across the emerald grasses, I remembered the words of Gill from the morning I first met her, “We are custodians of the world, that’s all.” And then I remembered something else: the way that she said a place is in here as she tapped at her heart. From where I stood at the edge of the river, looking back to the villages that have lived beside the marshes for centuries, I struggled to fathom the sheer scale of it all. Not of the airport, but of the blindness, vanity and loss.

Cliffe pools

For more information about Friends of the North Kent Marshes, or to get involved with their campaign to stop an estuary airport, you can visit their website, or find them on Facebook and Twitter. Although the Davies Airport Commission, which will select a shortlist from the various airport proposals in late 2013, has just closed to comments from the general public, I understand that messages posted through this RSPB online email petition will still be sent.

I will be talking about the Hoo Peninsula on November 10th at this year’s Shorelines: Literature of the Sea Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend in Essex. There’s a terrific line-up of writers and artists looking at aspects of the sea over the weekend and I’ll be speaking in a session devoted to the Thames Estuary together with Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane, Ken Worpole and Jules Pretty. Directly across the river from the Hoo Peninsula, Leigh-on-Sea is a wonderfully atmospheric place to hear these writers (and I’m looking forward as much to being in the audience as to speaking!) so do come along if you’re around. For further information please see the festival programme

The Small Heart of Things Book TrailerWith the end of summer, migrating birds make landfall along the shore of the lake. The dense thickets of alders and willows that have sprouted within reach of the water teem with tiny, flitting forms. Whinchats, warblers and flycatchers rustle through the silvered leaves or snare insects on the wing, taking enough from summer’s rich purse to last them until the next stop on their journey. A few pelicans – either too young or too old to migrate with the rest of the colony – glide over their own reflections, the water a mirror of blue glass in the September stillness. Hummingbird hawkmoths blur through the last of the flowers and blackberries by the lake hang heavy from months of sun. As I gather them I watch a warm wind fill the sails of a swallow’s wings, so that it tacks across the sea-green fields beside me. I envy its ease in the air, a creature styled for the open sky.

Like other summers, it’s again been a bit quiet at Notes from Near and Far. But while walking by the lake, I’m reminded by the presence of birds skimming south that there are seasons in each of our lives equal to those of the turning world. Like those species pushing on after a summer of nesting, there’s a time for creating and a time for journeying. And there’s a season, I think, for simply being, as well.

I’ll soon be putting up a Notes from Near and Far post about the Hoo Peninsula, a remarkable and threatened place in the Thames Estuary. But until then, I’m extremely pleased to be able to share the book trailer for The Small Heart of Things, as the book will come out in a few weeks time. With much gratitude to two very talented people, my good friend Miki Ambrózy for the terrific post-production work and generously pulling it all together and to Janis Strapcans for composing the beautiful, original music that accompanies it. Although both versions below are identical, the Vimeo HD trailer is perhaps best for those with good bandwidth, while the smaller YouTube version should be good for those (like us!) who don’t have great broadband. Hope you enjoy!

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