The Sum of a Place

“They always say the best way to see the Gwent Levels is with a microscope or a helicopter”. I was walking through the stunning June meadows and dense willow copses of Magor Marsh Nature Reserve with Sorrel Jones, a conservation officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. The last relic fenland in south-east Wales, Magor Marsh was my first port of call on the protected Levels, and it hadn’t taken long to understand its significance – the place thrummed and buzzed with summer life. “You’ve either got to get right in and go, Look, this is amazing down here, or you’ve got to get up high and see this vast, extraordinary landscape from above”, said Sorrel, carrying her young son on her back as we walked, who kept irrepressibly pointing out cygnets and baby mallards in the water at the edge of the meadows. As much as the thought of experiencing the Levels from on high appealed to me, seeing them as a buzzard or a peregrine might, an ancient, hand-crafted mosaic of fields, villages and grazing marsh riddled by narrow waterways that has been reclaimed from tidal saltmarsh since Roman times, I was fairly sure that my debit card wouldn’t stretch to a twirl in the sky and decided that getting as near as I could was the best way of coming to know this place.

Meadow light

Close up of reen


Besides, that practice of looking attentively and up close at things, whether through the lens of a microscope or simply by getting your hands dirty in search of the rich particularities of a place, has the weight of successful precedence behind it. It’s enabled scientists to establish the extraordinary ecological diversity and vitality of the Gwent Levels, home to an enviable range of species from the totemic otter to the rootless duckweed, Wolffia arrhizal, the world’s smallest flowering plant that’s found nowhere else in Wales, so tiny that you could hold thousands of them in your cupped hands. And it’s a technique that’s allowed archaeologists to painstakingly sift through alluvial silt to reveal boats from the Roman period buried miles inland or the astonishingly preserved Mesolithic footprints of the intertidal zone, the 7,500 year-old steps of adults and children off the coast, as well as those of various wild animals, including the common crane, a bird that until quite recently had been extinct as a breeding species in Britain for over 400 years. It’s a place that comes into clearer focus as you near.

Reen near seawall


Afternoon on the seawall

But even at a distance the Levels are mesmeric, beguiling beneath wide, estuary skies. They shape-shift with the weather as you walk them, borrowing the magical sea-light of the Severn Estuary when it’s struck by sun, or turning as dark and dramatic as a storm-tide. By a set of lagoons near the coast, I watched a pair of those magical, rare cranes drop slowly through a bloom of late afternoon sunlight, lowering on vast open wings like they were descending by parachute, the glint of a scarlet crown on each of their graceful heads. For the past year this pair of cranes has been regularly crossing the Severn Estuary from a reintroduction project on the Somerset Levels, restoring the tie of antiquity between their species and the Levels landscape that’s been memorialised by those relic steps beneath the tide. There’s hope that in the future cranes will breed there again, and if they did they would join some of the other charismatic species that dwell on the Levels, such as avocets, little egrets and water voles. The water vole occupies an unenviable position in modern Britain; it’s the nation’s fastest declining wild mammal, its population having nose-dived by as much as 90% since the 1970s. For a period of nine whole years it had gone unseen on the Gwent Levels until a successful reintroduction scheme returned the mammal to its native home in 2012. From those small beginnings at Magor Marsh the water vole has spread over three miles on its own, journeying outwards across its former habitat by reen, like the ripples from a stone dropped suddenly into still water.

Water vole

Common cranes, Gwent Levels

Reen, from the Welsh rhewyn, is the local word for the watery ditches that criss-cross the landscape like arteries, the primary feature of a complex drainage system that was dug over many centuries, and which included a subtle variety of components, from parallel field depressions known as ridge and furrow to shallow surface grooves called grips. On a map of the region the reens appear in bewildering blue numbers, like a dense grid of city streets, carrying water from the uplands and local springs safely out to sea in order to protect the reclaimed land from flooding. And it’s these earthen-banked ducts that set the Gwent Levels apart, making them both culturally and ecologically unique. Sculpted on top of an older Roman landscape of reclamation which was buried by alluvium some 1500 years ago after sea defences failed, the Levels reflect the long and evolving relationship between coastal people and the sea. Most of the present-day reens are medieval in origin, some of them the work of monks who lived and worshipped on the Levels. Such is the uniqueness of the historic, human-shaped landscape, including an evocative line of majestic old sallow trees that are believed to have sprouted from the willow mats laid down by monks attached to Tintern Abbey when crossing a particularly wet field to reach their grange farm near Magor Marsh, that the Gwent Levels are a designated cultural monument in Wales, a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest. And like those woven wands of willow that have sprouted into trees, culture and nature are deeply entwined across the landscape, giving rise to the wild diversity of the reens.

Reen 1

Pond weed

Line of willows

I sat in on a reen-dipping session with a class of schoolkids at Magor Marsh run by Kathy Barclay, an inspiring community education officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. It’s not only scientists and archaeologists who get up close to things, for it’s also the native and intuitive approach that children take to the natural world when given the opportunity. It’s how they’re able to engage with it so richly and perceptively, responding to creatures and sensations of all shapes and sizes with an equal degree of interest. I watched as the 9 and 10 year-olds scooped water, weeds and a wealth of aquatic creatures from the reen with enviable delight, scrutinising the plastic tubs where they’d sloshed the contents of their nets with rapt fascination. They pored over delicate ramshorn snails, tiny, flickering bloodworms, and the startlingly large beasts that are dragonfly nymphs. Racing back and forth with their dripping nets, hollering to each other about a particular discovery or laughing when someone returned with an arm wreathed in weeds, that small reen of their fascination and focus was nothing less than a world to them, which happens to be scientifically as well as imaginatively true.



“We have 144 Red Data Book aquatic invertebrate species across the Levels”, Sorrel had said when she handed me a net a couple of days earlier, encouraging me to go dipping for the first time since I was a child. “That’s the diversity and rarity that you’re looking at here, because each reen is subtly different. You get fast ones, slow ones, shaded ones, not so shaded ones, so you have this massive variety of reens which suits a massive variety of invertebrates”. Once I got started, I found it hard to stop, twirling my net through the water in a figure eight as Sorrel had suggested, peering into the tub at the treasure I’d hauled up. Looking closely at them, every single one of those myriad blue lines on the map is wholly unique, supporting a singular cast of aquatic organisms according to the reen’s physical characteristics, as if each waterway were a stage for a different play.


Severn Estuary near Goldcliff

In hindsight, though, I wish I could have taken that helicopter ride after all, because there’s no better way of appreciating scale than from height. In recognition of the remarkable ecological richness of those reens, the Gwent Levels are listed as a suite of eight adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest, encompassing most of that beautiful, ancient place and supposedly safeguarding it against development. From above I’d have been able to see how that nearly seamless stretch of protected land on both sides of the River Usk reaches all the way to the estuary, a glittering green sweep threaded by living waterways and studded with church spires. And while I was up there, I’d have had a clear view of what 14 miles of motorway would look like when driven like a stake through its secluded heart.

Magor Marsh

Tiny gem

Despite the protective measures in place to preserve them, the Welsh Labour government intends to lay six lanes of concrete and asphalt over the Gwent Levels, building a new section of the M4 to ease rush hour bottlenecks where the current motorway is pinched from three lanes to two in the Brynglass Tunnels north of Newport. Their chosen route -named the Black Route in proposals- would carve open four of those SSSIs and the Special Protection Area of the River Usk, as well as fragmenting the Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest at a cost of at least one billion pounds to the taxpayer. The M4 relief road would irrevocably alter the unique character and integrity of the Levels, something that even the great flood of the Bristol Channel in 1607 (1606 in the Old Calendar), movingly commemorated by a high-water mark chiselled into the outer wall of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in the village of Redwick, couldn’t manage, despite the terrible tally of death and destruction that those rising waters wrought.

Redwick Church

Bristol Channel Flood, 1607

The motorway would spell the end of the Levels as an intact repository of cultural and natural wealth. As the study for the characterisation of the Gwent Levels as a historic landscape makes clear, “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of each part”. Along with the direct loss of habitat beneath the concrete footprint of the motorway, one of the largest single losses of SSSI land anywhere in the UK, the M4 bypass would rupture the essential cohesion of the place, acting as an impermeable barrier to all flightless wildlife, snapping protected habitat like a cracker in two, and isolating wild animal populations on either side of the divide. “It seems ironic”, said Kathy Barclay, “that we’re reintroducing water voles and re-establishing a population that’s going to be cut in half. Nothing’s going to go beyond the motorway”. While little wildlife will travel beyond the looming barrier once construction has begun, it’s likely that the effects of the motorway will seep everywhere, as each of the unique reens is coupled to another, linking up in a vast, interconnected drainage system that takes water southwards to the estuary. Any pollution from the motorway that enters one of the reens –whether from noxious fumes or a hazardous spill- would likely enter them all, carried along like disease in a bloodstream, fouling each of those singular, underwater worlds that the extraordinarily sensitive invertebrates are entirely dependent upon.

Reen near Magor

Harvest time

The Welsh government’s own website admits that during its consultation process it received more comments against the motorway proposal than for it, but dismisses them without a trace of irony as possibly being “the result of interest groups’ initiatives” while simultaneously championing the support they’ve received from corporate business. Even the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has come out against the project, arguing that there are far better ways of spending such a colossal amount of money to develop the economy of south-east Wales. And despite its so-called need, no one I spoke to was in favour of a motorway across the Levels. Not bikers or birdwatchers, publicans or soldiers. Not even the taxi driver from Newport or the lorry driver from Port Talbot that I imagined might have more sympathy for the development in light of their working lives. Regardless of whether the people I spoke to lived on the Levels or elsewhere in Wales -and many of them regularly used the notorious M4 tunnels- they all articulated the same point of view, a deep concern about the project’s vast cost at a time when local services were being cut and a passionate belief that the place should be preserved as it is, just like it was meant to be, for its wildlife, historical importance and open character.

Severn Estuary

Pollard willows

“It’s hard to believe what these fields once were, and what they still are. When the tide comes in you get a real sense of their history”. I’d stopped for a coffee one afternoon at a café near the village of Goldcliff after seeing Wayne Mumford, the owner, standing on a picnic table while trying to photograph baby starlings in the eaves. “When I think that the Romans and the monks built this area where there’s so much history, and all the life that lives in the reens, I can’t understand why anyone would want to build a motorway through the Levels”. Wayne had shaken his head in the same dismayed way that Lisa Morgan had inside Donnie’s Coffee Shop in Magor where she’d been helping out the day before, though her voice was sharpened with anger and frustration: “I have to drive into Newport about five times a week and does the current motorway bother me? No. If I have to wait a little longer does it bother me? No.” She went back to wiping the countertop before continuing. “The sad thing is that politicians think they can ride roughshod over people and if they take a little bit, generally they’ll take a little bit more and the core of the place will have already been eaten into. And once it’s gone, we can never have it back again”.

Magor Marsh reen

Usk Lighthouse

What’s at stake with the Welsh government’s plan is not solely the unique and irreplaceable environment of the Gwent Levels, but the kind of future we wish to leave as our legacy. Do we honour protective measures for the purpose they were intended, leaving intact those places of natural and cultural significance, places that are necessary for both wildlife and our own well-being, or do we dismiss them as irrelevant, narrowing our focus until it excludes all but a relentless fixation on development at any cost, corroding the wider duty of care we’ve been entrusted with? In 2015 the Welsh government passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a bill that explicitly highlights sustainable development as the key to “improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.” When such gems as the Gwent Levels can be sacrificed for the sake of development, it reveals just how empty of meaning the concept of sustainability can be. “We have to think outside the box as it were,” said Kathy Barclay as we sat in the nature reserve office. “We need to think of different solutions. The history of this place, and the cultural aspects of it are irreplaceable, so once you’ve wrecked it it’s gone. It’s absolutely gone.”

Near the seawall

School kids

The Future Generations Act also obliges public bodies “to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.” After the schoolkids had finished reen-dipping, I walked back through the meadows towards the classroom with them. They carried a small selection of creatures in glass jars to look at under the microscope, to bring that captivating world beneath the surface of the water into even greater focus. As swallows curled through the dry summer air and dragonflies glittered over the meadow grasses, I asked a number of them what it was that they enjoyed about coming to Magor Marsh and the Gwent Levels. Each and every one of them, spoken to individually, gave me the same two reasons, as though they weren’t answering a question, with a range and diversity of possible responses, but had instead drawn on a well of common sense in kids. Firstly, they adored the wildlife – all the myriad bugs and birds and butterflies that they got close to on each visit, the very things that accord the Levels their celebrated, scientific designations. But secondly, and of greater surprise to me, they all said they loved the peace and quiet there, the silence away from home and school. That silence must be a strange and phantom thing for them: having already recognised its importance in their young lives, they’re witnessing its increasing disappearance from their experience, the same silence that would be lost alongside the wildlife they loved from large parts of the Levels with six lanes of cars, coaches and lorries roaring through it. Another piece of the place chipped away, leaving a lesser sum in its stead.


Ragged robin and visitor

In many respects the children that morning had been much like I’d imagined, a group of ordinary boys and girls who were simultaneously excited, noisy, curious, polite, pushing and laughing, and it was clear that this future generation already had an important stake in this present place, a set of emotional and imaginative connections that immeasurably enriched their lives, highlighting the enlightened reasons why landscapes like the Gwent Levels were originally protected. These were the citizens the well-being act was intended for, those who would inherit our decisions, who would grow up in a world diminished by the loss of unique places if we’re to sanction their destruction. As we crossed a bridge over the last reen before reaching the nature reserve classroom, the kids abruptly stopped talking and watched the water instead. That sudden, overwhelming hush of wonder when they saw a water vole swim across the reen might have been the sound of nature’s future, and hopefully an enduring element of their own.

Water vole watching

Further information regarding the Gwent Levels and the campaign against the M4 motorway bypass can be found on the Gwent Wildlife Trust’s action page as well as at CALM, an alliance of organisations opposed to road-building across the protected landscape. You can write to your Welsh AM with your thoughts regarding the proposal here, while a petition against the motorway can be found here

The Gwent Levels is one of the places that will feature in the book, called Irreplaceable, that I’m currently writing. The book will celebrate a range of unique and threatened places that are both significant and essential for wildlife and our own well-being. Whether ancient woodland that’s being lost to make way for service stations or urban allotments being turned into car parks, the book will champion the voices of those who are resisting their loss. Please feel free to use the comment box below to add any places of importance to you that are currently threatened in one way or another, regardless of how large or small they are, no matter how well known or unsung. Thank you.

A Time of Turning

Bee-orchidThere are days that fall easily into two seasons, opening with a shimmer of spring heat before leaning back into winter-cold skies and bitter winds by their end, as if at the last moment a set of scales was tilted with the addition of a final, decisive weight. There’s little that is predictable about this span of turning time; perhaps uncertainty itself is the only thing we can be sure of when it comes to the weather – that a day of sunburn and sandals in the garden can just as easily be followed by a fall of brilliant snow as by another decadent show of burnished light. At times it can feel like we’re riding a seesaw throughout the day, never gaining more than a few hours of stillness at either end. Inconstancy is the mid-season’s sole promise.


Yet beneath this vivid and unsettled surface of weather, the abrupt and dramatic variations that visibly define this in-between time, there’s a constant murmur of transformations, the unseen but steadfast shift towards spring. Birds set sail on their long migratory journeys out of sight from us, triggered for the most part by changes in the length of daylight at their departure points, arriving with us one day as if conjured out of thin air after crossing countries, continents and countless travails. Sap rises invisibly through trees, the roots sponging up water, nutrients and minerals from the deep dark earth until we notice the swelling green buds and remember the shape of leaves. The streams in the valley ripple fast, suddenly bolstered by snowmelt that has trickled into rivulets and ravines from the high surrounding slopes, each flake condensed into a cumulative cascade of water by warming air. Even beneath us, after snow squalls and throughout ice-fastened nights, corms, bulbs, rhizomes and roots are pushing new shoots through the cold soil to spear towards a far star. Cusped on the threshold of a new season, we’re witness to just a sliver of this wondrous becoming.

Crocus in snow

Easter, Lesser Prespa Lake

Last week friends came to stay after days of blustery snow heralded the sunlit white blizzard of wild blossom. Their ten-month old son, Nojus, was at that in-between age when he craved more than just crawling but couldn’t yet walk on his own. Instead he hitched himself to a low table or chair for support, hesitantly stepping sideways while holding on with his hands, as if clinging to a narrow cliff ledge high above a canyon. Whenever his mother or father helped him, though, he would strike out with visible glee, jettisoning the table or chair as if it were unnecessary ballast, moving forward in thrall to procession, the simple and timeless joy of steps. I watched how his tiny legs wavered and wobbled, suddenly buckling and crumpling unexpectedly beneath him. And I saw how a deep and infectious smile spread brightly across his face when he rose up on each new attempt. Crawling no longer seemed to fit him whenever he scrambled across the floor again, as though it were just the last days of an old season before the new one began. And then one evening, while his father guided him away from the lamp in the corner of the room that endlessly fascinated him, there was something different about the way Nojus’ legs moved with each step. Something solid and articulate, something secure. “He has so much more strength in his legs,” said his father. “He couldn’t do this at all yesterday.”

Primroses in snow

Hellebore wearing a hat of oak leaves

The pale promise of primroses light the riversides like lowered lanterns. Overnight they could be buried by sudden snow, but at midday, in the sun-melted spaces, a soft petal-glow will shine through, a delicate and persistent gleam. Nightingales are back in the valley again, their bright, staccato songs splashed in a spill of sun; and the silence between phrases, the shaped and beautiful waiting. Swallows zing across the sky like gusts of wind and woodlark song falls like a slow and melancholy rain from the suddenly green hills, all those spears of grass angling skyward, just like the risen hellebore that I find wearing a hat of oak leaves. Willows are crowned by vernal light, each uncurling leaf inscribed by sun along its edges. Throughout the valley a snowstorm of white blossom froths in the cool winds that slope from the mountains, releasing a dazzle of sweet scent that hauls in bees like a net. We are at the edge of the turning world, when days waver like a spun coin until the weight of incalculable change finally tips us into spring. And when I next see our friends’ son he’ll be deep into a new season, walking his small corner of world on his own.

Sun sliver

Blossom season, Great Prespa Lake

“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.


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.


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


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.



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.


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


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.


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.


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


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