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“The least I can do is keep my eyes open. Attention is what I want to spend. I don’t ever want to feel inside me a whole storehouse of unused binoculars, magnifying glasses, telescopes.”

~ Barbara Hurd, ‘Sea Stars,’ Walking the Wrack Line

Walnut in snow

Here in the mountains of northern Greece, we never know what kind of a winter we’ll have until it’s over. In some years deep snow mantles the valleys and slopes like a rippling white sheet has been thrown over the world, the temperatures steadily sinking until the smaller of the two nearby lakes is glazed with ice and our village water pipes freeze solid until spring. In other years, though, winter simply feels like a long extension of autumn, when lizards continue to scatter over the stony hillsides and butterflies drift through the pale and slanting light, worn to a faded memory of their earlier sheen, as if in deference to the supposed season.

This winter has been one of the hard ones so far; the kind of winter when wild snowstorms are followed by a piercingly cold brilliance – the night skies so deep and refulgent that the clarity of vaulted starlight is haunting. But these winters, however beautiful and stilling I find them myself, are tough on the wild species we share this valley with, and so just before Christmas I hung our bird feeders from the snow-sleeved apple trees in the garden and loaded them with seeds. It took a few days for any birds to find them, the feeders swaying like censers in the whistling mountain winds, but when they did, their calls went out across the valley, echo after echo until a carnival of winged creatures turned up one morning in the snow.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

The main beneficiary of the bird feeders is the great tit. A relative of the North American chickadee, the great tit is one of the commonest species that exists here, an everyday sight around the village in any season. It’s joined in these roving winter flocks by birds that are no less unusual to this valley – chaffinches and tree sparrows that love to feed on the spill of small seeds at the foot of the trees. We’re so used to these particular birds that it’s easy for them to go unremarked, to see them simply as part of the outdoor furniture. The usual suspects – that’s what my wife and I often call them when we ask one another if there’s anything on the feeders.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last March I travelled down the west coast of the United States on a book tour. It was my first time in that particular part of the world and everything about the journey – the people, places, landscapes and wildlife – was new to me, brushed with a unique light, the unmistakeable signature of first experience. My days carried a corresponding intensity. One of my stops that month was in Corvallis, Oregon, where I stayed with my friends Charles and Kapa. Along with their generous hospitality, and our long conversations and shared laughter, something else of that stay stands out for me: my time spent watching their bird feeder.

Charles has a ground-floor study facing the garden and he’s hung a bird feeder just beyond the window. Leaving for work one morning, he kindly said I could use the space to get a close view of its visitors. I settled in that morning with a mug of coffee and a field guide, and within minutes that simple pane of glass that framed a feeder had become a window onto another world. Something small flew in and foraged seed from the ground. It was black-eyed and shy, keeping close to the edges, the same cryptic colour as falling dusk. Another bird arrived, sporting rich chestnut flanks and startling ruby eyes beaded black at their cores. I watched, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of these birds that were new to me. As I turned the pages of the field guide, trying to assign names to a cast of colours, shapes and sizes, a bright flash caught my eye. I looked up from the book to see a large bird of deepest azure peering in from the other side of the glass. It carried the wash of a glacial lake on its head, tail and wings, as if an emissary from the far north. It sprung from the feeder and oared away on its own river of blue, but those few seconds in its presence were magnetic.

Snow on the plain

Charles asked me how I’d got on when he returned from work that afternoon. My excitement and delight must have been noticeable as I rattled on about the birds that had graced my day, their names alone a litany of mystery to me: dark-eyed junco, rufous-sided towhee, scrub jay. It turns out – and I should have known, given that it was a garden feeder – that these birds are some of the commonest around, the everyday Oregon equivalents of our great tits, chaffinches and tree sparrows. But that morning, staring through a pane of glass at a suite of elegant and astonishing creatures that were completely new to me, they were anything but ordinary. We tend to honour the first of things in our perceptual experience, elevating newness over repetition, rarity over regularity. It’s the novelty of the encounter that often sharpens its impression for us. Of course no matter how frequently we see a particular bird, becoming so used to its presence that we can sometimes turn indifferent to it in the process, the bird itself never alters at all.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

Whenever I look out the window in the direction of the apple trees I try to keep that bird feeder in Oregon in mind, as if it were my first time in this snow-filled valley instead of being midway through my fifteenth winter here. I watch the great tits with the same keenness of eye that saw juncos, towhees and scrub jays blaze into my world as if forged new from a fire, resolving to be attentive not only to the things that are unexpected, but to those that are ever-present as well. The great tits are a blur of steely-blue wings against the snow, jackhammering sunflower seeds against the limbs of the tree. They send the bird feeders spinning like merry-go-rounds when they land on them at speed, twirling together until they finally slow, their feathers the colour of lemon peel and coal. I’ll see these birds throughout the year, long after I’ve cleaned the feeders and hung them from a beam in the shed, wondering what kind of winter will grace us next time around; creatures so commonplace that they’ll put in daily appearances as I sow and weed the garden and then harvest its fruits, but no less wondrous for their familiar and predictable presence.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

This post first appeared on Jana Svoboda’s Tiny Resolutions series on her blog Door Number Two. Many thanks to Jana for inviting me to write for it!

Wind, Water

Wind, WaterIn the absence of sunlight flickered a different kind of brilliance. It was brief and beautiful, an iridescent bead at the edge of a strange and moving place, a lonesome cemetery sloping towards the shore. There were cherry-red candles and sticks of incense left as offerings, sea-mist like a shawl. In the shallows, the sleek ripple of a seal broke the surface, and then that bead of bright and whirling light caught our eye, glittering from a tree.

I’d crossed the Puget Sound from Seattle to Victoria by ferry that morning. All the braids of blue water and knots of winter-green islands that I’d seen earlier in the week as my flight lowered over the Pacific Northwest had been stripped back by coastal weather to a series of spectral shades. The sky was tarnished, the colour of old cutlery sold out of shoeboxes at car boot sales. Rain hung across the sound like a ghostly, shifting veil, the air stippled with spray from the dark waves rising against the hull. Wherever I looked, sky had joined sea. There was no distinction other than the line of their entwining, like a thin seam of solder sealing them together in place.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

I watched that grey line for much of the journey, knowing that clear weather would eventually undo the illusion of union. And I wondered about the effects of separation. Sometimes we’re let go of place, released from an embrace we’ve long known. In Seattle I’d met a fellow birder while scanning the foreshore for sea ducks. During our conversation about the species of the area, he told me to look out for Anna’s hummingbird. So redolent of simmered sunshine, a hummingbird was about the last creature I’d imagined finding in the midst of a wet and unforgiving northwest winter, but that tiny pulse of a bird, hypnotic as the glow off a summer lake, has expanded its range considerably in recent years. Once confined solely to northern Baja California and southern California, Anna’s hummingbirds have spread as far north along the Pacific coast as British Columbia and eastwards into some of the interior deserts of the west. The reason for this is simple: residents are planting more and more exotic ornamentals in their gardens, providing pioneering sources of nectar outside the native staples of the bird’s southern heartland. Crucially, especially in the northwest, where even exotics struggle to bloom in the wet winter mire, garden hummingbird feeders, devoutly topped up with a solution of liquid sugar whenever low, have enabled a once strictly southern species to become year-round residents of the north. “You’ll probably hear it before you see it,” said my new acquaintance. “Listen out for its faint buzzes and whistles.”

Chinese cemetery, Victoria

As my ferry slowed into Victoria, my friend Lorne met me in the harbour. After a late breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee in a warm and homely diner, we set off through mist and drizzle. “There’s a place I’d like you to see,” said Lorne, steering us towards the coast. We pulled over above a crescent bay, then sank down a winding rocky path into a meadow of scattered stones flanked by a few houses, a cemetery at the edge of the sea. Everything was saturated. Mosses and lichens had sponged up the rain, swelling into bright winter flowers on the graves. Each name on the stones was etched in Cantonese, and within moments of being there I felt that strange, magnetic hold that some places have over us. A seal cleaved the grey waters close to shore; a harlequin duck, exquisitely turned out in black and maroon, hugged the rim of a tide pool; a black oystercatcher fanned itself along the coast. Amidst all the movement of the breathing world, though, was the ineffable stillness of the departed.

Chinese grave

In the 19th century, the Chinese community of Victoria was forbidden from burying their dead alongside the city’s other residents. Instead their graves were dug in a separate, racially segregated section of the Ross Bay cemetery. Allocated a low-lying quadrant prone to erosion, the graves were occasionally swept into the winter sea by storms, so in 1903 a Chinese community association in the city purchased a plot overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Harling Point, guided by the principles of feng shui.

For the ancient Chinese, feng shui – meaning wind, water – was a philosophy of orientation, a way of seeking harmony between earthly existence and the surrounding environment. It sought to locate significant human structures, such as homes, buildings and tombs, in places of vital, life-affirming energy. It looked upon the natural world as essential to our well-being. I can’t pretend to understand the complex symbolic underpinning of the philosophy, nor the intricate reading of the heavens that it would have entailed before the invention of the compass, but I do know something of that desire we have to orientate and align our lives with the natural environment, seeking affinities with landscapes, places and wild creatures that deepen the significance of our brief presence here. Our lives wedded, in wonder, to the world.

Archive photo

Despite the auspiciousness of the site, the dead were only intended to be temporary residents of the Harling Point cemetery. Chinese belief at the time maintained that a body’s soul would hover over its tomb and remain homeless unless returned to its natal village. After a period of seven years, the bones of the dead were exhumed, cleaned and stored in a ‘bone house’ until they could be packed in crates and eventually repatriated to China by ship. This practice ceased permanently in 1937 when, with the start of the Sino-Japanese War, ships were unable to make the crossing. In the 1960s, the bones of nearly nine hundred people, stored until then in the ‘bone house’ and originally intended to be returned to their ancestral homeland, were buried in thirteen coastal graves on Harling Point, stranded, both in and out of place. Despite the sparseness of visible markers, the sea-sloped earth is weighted with loss, with only the consolations of wind and water to leaven it.

Memorial markers

Drizzle turned to rain as Lorne and I left, winding our way up the path, turning every few steps to see the gravestones pitched at different angles against the endless pewter sea. I knew the cemetery had moved me in a way that certain places, however unexpected, sometimes do. Its resonance rang through me like a bell. Near the top of the steps, a series of faint buzzes and sharp whistles broke our stride. You’ll probably hear it before you see it. We turned and followed the sound to a leafless tree at the edge of the path, the cemetery and sea spilling away beneath us. At the tip of a branch whirled the emerald and rose glow of an Anna’s hummingbird, glimmering in the winter rain.

Votive offerings

Many thanks to the wonderful Caught by the River for first publishing this piece on their website. It was while I was about to fly to London a couple of weeks ago, partially to read at a Caught by the River event, that I learned that The Small Heart of Things had won a National Outdoor Book Award in the U.S. for Natural History Literature. I don’t think I’ve yet come down to earth. I’ve known of the National Outdoor Book Awards for some years ago now, and it was in 2012 that one of my favourite books in recent memory won the same award, David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Taking a square metre patch of old-growth Tennessee forest, Haskell tells an evocative and attentive story of the woodland world, weaving scientific precision with a vivid, poetic richness as he reveals the extraordinary lives and processes at play in such a small segment of earth. It’s a deep honour to be chosen this year for the award, and to be included in such good company as this remarkable and inspiring book.

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!

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