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The Marble Shore

The Marble Shore“Whoever raises the great stones sinks.” ~ Giorgos Seferis, “Mycenae”

Like a river on a map, I trace the sinuous line with my finger as it meanders over the stone. The crystallised vein is rust-orange in a shadowy white expanse. The marble is rougher than I’d imagined, more like a sheet of compressed salt, baked solid by sun. A few succulents flower in the fissures, sustained by grains of soil wind-spilled into the cracks – enough to send up a shower of pale yellow stars. I hear the sighs of the sea beside me, whispers of wind through the pines. I’m standing in an abandoned quarry, hemmed in by its high cathedral walls, seawater licking the cove. A flight of herons steers eastwards across the sky. I follow that weaving line in the marble until the mineral seam slips out of reach, rising up the cliffs like a lit fuse, imagining all those hands that have worked this shore.

Marble The shore

It’s hard to reconcile the empty extravagance of the coast with the scenes that preceded it, when hundreds of men laboured here. On the southern tip of the island of Thassos, the marble shore is an ancient workplace, first quarried for its prized deposits in the 6th century BC. For 1,200 years, until the quarries were suddenly deserted in the 6th century AD, marble from this cape travelled the known world. Vast blocks of the valuable stone were loosened by a series of closely-spaced nails and blocks hammered in strict lines, then levered out by a complex system of winches and pulleys, the entire mechanism turned like a mill by men, most probably slaves, running inside enormous wooden wheels, or walking all day in circles around a horizontal turn crank. Freed from the cliffs, the stone tablets were hoisted onto boats lashed to the coast, which set sail for ports throughout Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. The Thassos marble was then chiselled, shaped and sculpted, transformed from its raw, sea-washed beauty into a suite of artful elegance: statues, columns, arcades, porticoes, walkways and edifices. Wherever it is still found, the marble must carry the light of this island.

Nail holes Shelving stone

There’s a melancholy edge to the day, a warm wind freighted with speckled rain. The storms that lashed the island overnight have been rinsed away, leaving a low grey sky spread across the sea. The marble is mute in this cast of light, solemn and ungiving. But later on, when sunlight returns the last days of summer to us, the marble begins to glow. The stone simmers into a hot glare. The tide pools brim with sudden glitter, reflecting the sun-scorched brilliance to a pure white profundity. I stand on a shore of light, ripples on the sea like fired glass. Absorbing it all, the marble seems to burn. To work this coast must have blinded, as if forever condemned to stare sightless at the sun.

The empty flats Stone cairns

This landscape is an echo, cryptic and obscure. It’s a mysterious resonance of the original, much larger, cape. A submerged marble reef suggests its earlier shape, ringed by an archipelago of lonesome rocks set apart from the island, as if the bed of worked stone sank from the weight it relinquished. I walk southwards, rising and falling between the coves of mined stone. The marble slopes in tilting planes ahead of me, a white world sliding into the sea. I drop down into a bay and find a vast, fluted column, a relic of the ancient works. It’s enthroned in stark beauty, as if the ruin of some obliterating catastrophe. Being in its presence casts a strange mood about the bay. It looks to have toppled straight from a pedestal, as if this was always its intended destination. Abandoned on a midden of broken stone, where sea-round pebbles have been mounded into cairns, the column summons the memory of those enslaved to this shore, who gave their lives to the sun, to this ancient marble light.

Succulents

Stone column

I’m delighted to announce that The Small Heart of Things is now out in paperback, available from independent bookstores and online sellers. On behalf of the book I have a few upcoming events in England. Full details for the readings can be found on the events page or via the links below for anyone in the area, or if you wish to share with friends who might be interested. Many thanks!

November 18th: LRB Bookshop, London, with Philip Marsden and Ken Worpole
November 19th: Caught by the River Social Club, London
November 22nd: Kendal Mountain Festival, Cumbria, with Ian Hill
November 25th: The Book Case, Hebden Bridge

“We were deeply engaged in this improbable geology.”
– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli

Meteora

I woke early to beat some of the fevered heat of the plains, the kind of humid blaze that leaves you soaked to the skin by mid-morning. The silhouettes of the Meteora were etched faintly against the night sky when a startling cry cracked the last of the darkness. As light seeped in from the east, other wolves joined the first, a chorus of mysterious howls funnelling upwards like smoke between the towering pinnacles, reflected and echoing off the encircling stone drums until it billowed into the air as if a sail. As the wolves moved off with the arriving light, sheltering from the sun that would soon burn across the sky, the stone pedestals and prominences of the Meteora took shape in the silence of their leaving, as if they’d been called into presence by those wild and plaintive songs.

Kastraki

Ravine

Great Meteoro

The nearest anyone has come to explaining the origins of the remarkable rocks of the Meteora – meaning suspended in air in Greek – is the German geologist Alfred Philippson. In 1897, he suggested that a river once ran into an ancient lake that covered what is now the plain of Thessaly, depositing in the same place where the Meteora have risen its rippling debris of silt, gravel, mud and water-smoothed pebbles and stones. Some 60 million years ago the river’s estuary was an alluvial fan that opened and spread from its point of entry into the lake. Over the course of thousands of years the layers of the fan deepened, eventually being compressed by the immense forces of water and earth into conglomerate – a type of sedimentary rock composed of the pre-existing stones that the river had washed into the lake – that was concreted together by hardened sandstone. When a massive earthquake emptied the Thessalian lake by cleaving open a channel to the Aegean Sea, the deltaic cone at the end of the river was raised from the lake bed into the sky. Loose sandstone was rinsed away by rain and the stone pillars were further worn into their present sinuous forms, riddled and pocked with caves and fault lines, by wind, weather and subsequent movements of the earth.

Rocks from Kastraki

Stones caves

From Roussanou

The stones are beguiling in their shapes – an entrancing skyscape that lifts eyes from the surrounding plain to continually peer upwards into the vaulted air. It must have been this same numinous sensation, pleated together with a longing to be nearer the heavens, which enticed the first hermits to live precariously on the rocks. It’s impossible for me to even imagine how it might have been done, but from as early as the 9th century Orthodox hermits retreated into seclusion in the Meteora, somehow climbing these sheer towering stones to live inside the clefts and fissures of the cliffs. Like the peregrines, Egyptian vultures and black storks that still nest on the virtually inaccessible rock faces, they became sky dwellers, at home in a world of soaring stone.

By the 14th century the hermitic community at Meteora had become so large that monasteries were founded on these high pedestals and plinths. As a measure of how bewildering the ascents – let alone the construction – would have been, St. Athanasios Meteorites, the founder of the first monastery, the Transfiguration of Christ, was said to have reached the top on the back of an eagle. A conservationist I spent time with in the Meteora told me that when rock climbers – using all the modern equipment and technology available to them – finally ascended one of the highest and most demanding pillars in recent years they found tortoises roaming its grassy top. It’s believed they were placed there by monks who had somehow ascended the sheer wall of stone as potential food sources during long seasons of solitude.

Old hermitages

Inset cross

St. George

The monasteries are astonishing. Not only in the rich patina of centuries-old frescoes that adorn the churches’ walls, arches and cupolas, but in the staggering nature of their creation. They cling to the sheer cliffs as if extensions of the stone, the brickwork and masonry fitted seamlessly to the ancient, existing forms. They are a perfect example of affinity with place, built with such extraordinary and imaginative skill. Until the 1920s and 30s, when steps were eventually cut into the stone towers, the only way of gaining entrance to the monasteries was via a ladder that was raised up whenever the monks felt threatened, or to be wound upwards in a rope net by a windlass operated from the ascent tower. When an abbot was once asked how often the rope was changed, he was said to have replied: “Whenever it breaks.”

In his book Roumeli, Patrick Leigh Fermor writes of his journeys in the Meteora in the 1950s. By then he was already describing a vanishing, dying world. The great monasteries – totalling 24 at the height of their magnetic influence amongst the Orthodox – had been in decline since the 1800s, and by the time Leigh Fermor stayed at St. Varlaams, perched high on a lofty eagle’s nest of a plinth, there were only a few monks and nuns that remained cloistered in the Thessalian sky. There was no road winding between the monasteries as there is today, just paths to be walked, climbed or ridden over on horseback and donkey. Describing the incremental decline of the monastic tradition, the abbot of St. Varlaams says to Leigh Fermor that in the old days there was “a hermit in every hole in the rock, like hives full of bees.”

Agios Antonios

St. Varlaams 1

Ascent tower

Since then the fortunes of the monasteries have radically changed, though there can’t be many more monks or nuns living inside them than there were all those decades ago. Instead the Meteora has become one of Greece’s premier tourist attractions. Listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites, they draw visitors from around the world to these rocks. But after reading the chapter about the Meteora in Roumeli, I’d wondered what might still be found of the old monastic tradition. In an out-of-date guide book to the region I’d seen that a solitary monk was, at the time of publication at least, in attendance at a remote and rarely visited monastery on the far side of the soaring dark rocks and so I left the crowds for a path that swung clear across a hill of burnished grasses smouldering golden under the sun. A procession of old and knowing tortoises kept me company on the way. I walked out along piers of dark stone, tracing my fingers over the pebbled surfaces, and looked out across the distant plain shimmering in haze. I passed the ruins of earlier monasteries and hermitages, their long abandoned shells clinging to the edge of canyons. Alpine swifts, peerless in their artful swirl about the high crags, danced at the tapered edge of the sky and ant-lions flared from the grasses like blown glass, their translucent wings lifting and spinning, glittering helicopters of light.

Monaster

High rocks

Agios Pnevma

I dropped down through a bone-dry oak grove into a ravine. At times the path left the earth out of necessity, continuing in a smooth groove over stone. Countless others had walked this line into place, together with its myriad tributaries that branched off like echoes of the original river across the landscape, and yet I met no one on the way, just a few far figures glimpsed high about the hills. All of the tracks were well-worn, cutting cleanly through sunblown grasses or curling tight to the curve of stone with the certainty of sure-footed mountain goats. These were ways kept groomed by regular passage, but who used them? If not now, at the height of the summer tourist season when hundreds of buses and cars spilled their passengers into each monastery, on a day when it was impossible to find anything resembling solitude in the crowded interiors, then when? I would like to think that pilgrims and parishioners make this journey out of season, keeping these paths mostly to themselves. “All the most sacred places,” as Roger Deakin once reminded us, “are secret.”

Agios Anapafsas

Offerings

Lower Meteora

I climbed a long set of steps to reach the monastery wedged like a nest inside a cleft of high cliff only to find its door closed and bolted. I listened for movement or sounds from within, but heard only the constant song of cicadas that rose from the oaks below. On the lip of the door sat an envelope. Crimped and curled by the sun, it felt brittle when I picked it up, even though it had only been there for four days according to the date written on the front. It was addressed simply To the Monastery in English. The envelope had been hand-delivered by its writer, and when I turned it over I saw another message on the back: “You forgot a pen down at the cross, so I bring it back to you. So you can go on writing and studying.”

I weighed down the envelope with a stone, the tip of a black Bic pen poking from a corner. There are still some, it appeared, willing to dwell nearer the sky, at least part of the time. I descended the steps and took a last long look at the monastery, the elegant Byzantine brickwork of the church and living quarters recently restored. It inhabited the rock as if indigenous, as suited to the cliffs as vultures and eagles perched on the rim of their caves and ledges. Stone become home. I turned onto the path as dark clouds eclipsed the sun and threatened rain. It was time to cross this ancient stone estuary again, to be deeply engaged with this improbable geology.

Towards Roussanou

St. Varlaams 2

This improbable geology

 

PoppiesThe sky is a harbour all of a sudden. Wherever I look there are wings leaving a wake in the air. Having sailed northwards to reach here, swifts, swallows and housemartins dive through the teeming insect feast laid on for their arrival, swirling through pools of clouded blue. Golden orioles flare from the lakeside willows, brief as lightning on the pale skin of the sky, and bee-eaters pass overhead in a parade of bright feathers – lemon, cinnamon and teal. I watch them snare sunlight as they fly, glinting like the dazzle of rings.

Grasslands

These are days of dancing light. Caught somewhere between spring and summer, it’s a season of startling, hypnotic clarity, a time when even wind seems refulgent, rippling silver through meadow-grass, racing in waves across the lakes like glimmering shoals of fish. The oak and beech leaves are so pale and tender that they could be translucent, awaiting the sun to fill their sails with billowing green promise. The mountain meadows are a constellation of colours: the white spires of asphodels nestled in glades of mauve orchids; wild yellow tulips entangled in trailing purple vetch; blood-red poppies splashed across the grasses. It’s as if a wild pageant had swept across the slopes.

Sub-alpine meadows

There are only so many days of such light at this latitude, when far mountains are telescoped into near focus, their ridges etched sharply against sky and gullies steeped emerald with trees. There is a sense of ceremony to this precision; all the coiled brilliance of winter unfurling like ritual, a lustrous lengthening of days. Poplars in the valley bend like bows in the wind, and I watch them launch magpies clear across the tumbling river, spiralling in sunlight with an iridescent gleam to their feathers, a glaze of dark, reflective glass. Soon summer will strip the air of intelligibility, all the fine details of those far mountains turned shapeless and vague by heat haze, as if veiled by the driftless smoke of fires. The sky will simmer through the dry months, drained of colour like the meadows grown pale beneath it, but for now the light falls as clear as water. Borrowing its glitter for songs, nightingales shimmer through the dark.

Ekklisaki

Clouds spin past like old cinema reels as I walk the last of the valley, their shadows chasing light across the hills. I follow the old ways home: the ancient slow meander of tortoises across the sandy slopes. Brimstone butterflies waver over the meadows like buttercups shaken by wind. Everything in this nameless, radiant season is transformed and turned magnetic by light. Even in the garden the grasses sparkle and elderflowers are crowned with a white burst of stars, catching the falling rain of light. I watch evening lower to a burnished glow as bees gather gold about their legs. And what the light knows is this: there are days when the world should sway.

What the Light Knows

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.

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