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To the IslandI’ve looked at the island from the first day we arrived here, set like a dark stone in a band of glittering blue water. It seems to float within reasonable reach, catching the eye with ease when you walk along the shore, but it’s remained steadfastly remote all that time. The island of Golem Grad is anchored to another country, over the invisible line in the lake that forms the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the consequent difficulty in getting to it has lent it a magnetic and dreamlike cast.

Islands can alter us; unmoor us from the mainland of our minds. A span of shimmering spring water separates me from the bold, uninhabited rock, and as we stream away from shore I start to feel that the crossing is where any island begins. The water skimming past is a prelude, like a door swinging wide onto an unseen room. The air riffles through my hair; cool on my skin. A few pelicans glide away from us, sheering the lake into rivulets of silver. The island nears, looms large over the water, distinct in its mood to the rest of the basin.

Towards Albania

Juniper forest

View from Golem Grad

Stepping ashore, I see a venomous horned viper slither between rocks, its zigzagged tail disappearing like the last of a rope being hauled up into a boat. It’s the first sign, in a place known as the island of snakes, that we’ve entered a different order of experience. White blossom loosens its perfume into the air, so that it hovers over the island like the dust of winter rugs shaken out in a spring clean. The scent is so dense that it seems the very air is forged from the fragrance, sweet and impossible to ignore, like the pressing attentions of a youthful affair. Alpine swifts swirl and scream overhead, circling always above us, as if each bird were a balloon that had been tethered to the island. Nightingale song swells from deep in the trees, an excited flight of sound, a musical scale to be climbed into air. The island quivers with a ceaseless, creaturely murmur; it’s the sound of an arriving season, and all the pulse and hum of wild profusion.

Spring blossom

Spring fungi

The view north

There is a dazzling warmth about us, the island being the beneficiary of a micro-climate peculiar to its shores. Such heat and humidity leads to a startlingly lush surface: the ancient junipers clad in an extravagant wardrobe of lichens and mosses; the forest floor an emerald weave. Euphorbia spokes from the coast like a protective green moat and birds nest across the island in the dense shroud of trees. Golem Grad is small, though, measuring merely two square kilometres in total. Yet it supports an astonishing wealth of wildlife for such a miniature realm; its tally of certain species unfathomable at first glance: 1,700 Hermann’s tortoises; 1,200 pairs of nesting cormorants; 120 horned vipers; and more than 10,000 dice snakes. Wherever you walk you are in the presence of a snake, somewhere close by, a slithering or sunning shape that’s laid claim to the island.

Cormorant

Spring colour

Hermann's tortoises

The wild has made this island its world, but like most places in the region it’s also traced by an antique human history, recording more than two millennia of tenure. Centuries worth of ruins break the surface of a sea of moss. Relict churches and monasteries cling on in the absence of parishioners, and the walls of a Roman villa and cistern dating from the 5th century hold fast to this solitary citadel of stone. The rocky white coast is festooned by a blaze of purple and yellow blooms, where a cross was chiselled above the water line long ago. All the sunlight of a wakening spring bathes the water and stones, until the refracted, glimmering light touches even the shade.

Church of St. Demetrius, 14th century

Church of St. Peter, 14th century

Roman cistern 5th century

Sea-dazzle sparkles off the spray of the boat. The air is thick with the dark forms of cormorants launching from the canopy of the trees as the boatman picks up speed. We slide through the still and graceful lake, moving out of the sway of the island, and I wonder how it would have felt to have lived there over the centuries, like the Roman owners of the villa or the monks kneeling at prayer, peering out at the mainland as though that were an island. As if the place apart was over there, the strange, unvisited shore in the distance. As the boat crosses the blue beneath a tracery of whirling birds, I sense that each of us harbours an island inside, whether real or in the mind, and we leave this one behind with the brimming light, to its saints and swifts and snakes.

With many thanks to Oliver Avramoski and Dejan Dimidjijevski from the Galicica National Park, of which Golem Grad is a part, for their gracious hospitality in showing us around, and their willingness to share their intimate knowledge of this remarkable island. 

Golem Grad

Euphorbia

Cormorant colony

Forest mosses

Leaving the island

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You’d be quite right in thinking that this isn’t part two of our journey to Szczecin in Poland. And rather than have you looking for it, or wondering whether I’ve deleted the subtitle of the previous post and therefore the obligation to write a follow-up, I’ll confess to not having written it. Not yet anyways.

Much of this past year has been taken up with putting together a book-length collection of essays called The Small Heart of Things, and the wonderful but slow process of writing, revising, arranging and shaping it. Followed by the same again, and then again. It’s a process that I deeply enjoy and which reminds me of the way stones are polished smooth by the endless interest of waves. But this book project has also meant that I’ve had less time than I would have liked to devote to Notes from Near and Far. As December sped on and snow began falling across the mountains I realised there was little chance that I could do justice to the experience of being in Szczecin before the year’s end. My apologies for the delay, and I’ll do my best to take us back to that fascinating port city in the new year.

While watching the hours slip by in recent weeks I was reminded that I’d marked the end of last year with a post called ‘Glimpsed, In Passing,’ which borrowed a quote from V.S. Pritchett about the fragmentary nature of short stories which I’d adapted for photographs. Recalling some of the highlights of this year, the striking moments that still lingered with me at its end, I began thinking how curious a concept time can be, and to what degree we each forge a relationship with it that goes beyond a common sense of measure. The duration of a particular moment is different for us all, calibrated according to the depth of the experience. Sometimes a moment can expand until it fills with a light that will keep it burning for years. Or it might stand out from a crowd of other moments through its rarity, or the suddenly seen beauty of its everyday quality. Virginia Woolf described these as “moments of being,” memorable because they are so different from the ordinary stretches of time bookending them. Moments that bring us fully into awareness, enduring long beyond their insignificant span.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who’ve followed Notes from Near and Far this year. I’m grateful to all who have taken the time to read the blog or any of the longer essays posted here like Faith in a Forgotten Place, with an especial acknowledgement to those who’ve lent their thoughts and shared their experiences here. Your gifts have enriched the blog by making each post a conversation, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

And on that note I’d like to wish you all a wonderful end to the year, and plenty of joy, inspiration and creativity for the coming one. Here are a few glimpses of the past year that will stay with me for a while. Thanks again…

 

The year began with a January walk above the cliffs of Great Prespa Lake. The stillness of the day was absolute, born of cold and cloudless skies. The lake was as smooth as glass, timeless and blue. There was the clarity of silence about it. That evening I opened a book of Chinese wilderness poetry and unknowingly found the words of Liu Tsung-yuan as if they’d been summoned by the lake itself.

“A thousand peaks; no more birds in flight.
Ten thousand paths: all trace of people gone.

In a lone boat, rain cloak and hat of reeds,
an old man’s fishing the cold river snow.”

– Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819), ‘River Snow’

 

We turned a corner on a remote forest walk this summer to find a cluster of lizard orchids unrolling their marvellous forked tongues in the sun. Though they’ve never been previously recorded in the Prespa National Park, other small clusters of this most remarkable of wildflowers, Himantoglossum hircinum, were discovered in varying places over the following week. Whether it was simply coincidence, or they’ve all been biding their time for this rare and unlikely display, it just goes to show what extraordinary species we sometimes unknowingly share this world with, and what you can stumble upon at any time.

We were on holiday nearly 400 kilometres from home when we decided to stop into one of the many shops selling homemade honey on a peninsula reaching out into the sea. From the dozen or so shops we chose the closest, and were then led around the workshop by the owner as she explained the process of honey-making, including the crafting of candles from the wax. Finally asking us where we were from, she laughed when we told her we lived in Prespa. “Then you’ll know the beehives that produced this honey. We keep them on a hill just beneath your village.”

Greece’s eastern province of Thrace is dotted with Turkish Muslim villages, a relic community from when the two countries exchanged minority populations in 1922. The only exceptions to the agreement were the Turkish villages of Thrace and the Greeks of Istanbul. Visiting one of these villages for the first time we immediately saw how different it was; it was unquestionably poorer than its Greek neighbours, and all of the houses were fronted by high walls so that the village looked inward rather than out. Within seconds of arriving a young man raced over with a smile. He took my hand in his own and began shaking it with great enthusiasm. After the traditional Muslim greeting of Salam alaikum – May peace be upon you – he welcomed us by saying how pleased he was that we’d come. Please enjoy your stay in our village, he said, and thank you so much for visiting. It was one of the most heartwarming welcomes I’ve experienced anywhere in the world.

The eagle owl is easily Europe’s largest of the owl family, and this particular bird was found injured near Thessaloniki. It recovered, arrived in Prespa in a cardboard box after a three-hour journey in the cargo hold of a bus, and was released one November afternoon amongst a stand of ancient junipers. As dusk fell about us it hissed wildly to be free. Hearing the gasps from the gathered children and adults as the five-foot span of its wings took it away through the trees was a sound that will linger for a while.

For nearly two days rain lashed the Evros Delta while we tried to watch birds on their spring migration. Low grey clouds tumbled over the wetlands, obscuring all but the nearest species. We trudged through the mud, leaning into cold winds. Birds suspended their journeys and kept cover close to ground. But when the sun found a way through, revealing a brilliant blue sky rinsed by rain, the birds rose in waves. Pelicans spiralled in their thousands like a great white bowl spinning on a wheel. Storks walked the emerald meadows and raptors sliced open the sky. And as the sun spilled over the delta it was as though the place had never known rain, as if light was all that had ever been, as if light was all that would ever be. 

Certain species have a tendency to elude us; whether it’s a particular bird you’ve always wanted to watch or a mammal that others say is easy to see, we’re sometimes missing the necessary luck that is a big part of observing the natural world. For years I’ve tried to photograph the marbled white butterfly but have instead compiled a large archive of out-of-focus images, to the point that I began calling the butterfly the blurred white in homage. But while out one day this summer there was a single individual that stayed still amidst a cloud of swirling others, allowing me to get close enough for the first time to its delicate beauty. Though it’s one of the most common butterfly species in Greece I felt like I’d glimpsed the rarest of gems.

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And you know it’s time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning
Lights in the distance
And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, desire time
– U2, ‘A Sort of Homecoming’

Whenever I monitor birds on the lower hills I pass what is left of the village. I stay with a path that dips into a bowl of grassy slopes, edged with the echoes of homes. The ruins are thinly scattered, a rumour of earlier lives. The stone walls that once enclosed gardens and dining rooms run like flat silver streams branching into myriad tributaries. In place of wild trees there are domesticated varieties, now wild and ungovernable themselves: plum, apple and pear. The village church, a great bulk of honey-coloured stone in evening’s slanted light, is the only building worth the description. Nothing else holds a shape, nothing else fills its intended form. But even the church has been sheered off along its walls, so that it’s become a nursery for trees, a wild and elaborate enclosure.

On the last weekend of August I worked from a whale-backed hill that rose softly from the rim of the ruins. As usual only birds and summer’s drowsy silence encircled me. So when I soon heard voices drifting across the parched and weary hills I searched with great interest for their source. I found four men sat in the shade of a tree, unexpectedly dressed in their casual best. A trio of women hoved into view, the last in the line armed with a black umbrella as a shield against the sun. Other figures soon emerged along the path I had walked, a ribbon of different ages carrying the tools of the day, video cameras and mobile phones. A man led the unlikely congregation, throwing his arms to the left and right of him as he spoke, emphasising this or that in the landscape, or so I assumed – I watched the procession through a telescope from a few slopes away. But when a Greek police jeep crawled into view along the road, stopping to observe as well, I had a feeling these people had once belonged here. Everywhere, in the most unexpected moments, there are stories.

I met one of the men as I wove down the slope. He looked up from the ground and greeted me in Slavic. When I replied in Greek he slowly answered with the same. “I was born here,” he said, sweeping an arm towards a few scattered stones. “This was our house. I was five years old when we left in 1948.”

The end of a terrible decade, made worse in Greece by a Civil War that followed straight on from the other. As Hitler’s armies fell away, the two Greek resistance movements that had so valiantly opposed him returned to their ideological roots, seeking control of the country’s direction in the absence of a defining leadership. The pro-royalists, backed by the American and British governments, sought to restore the monarchy through the return of the exiled King of Greece while the Communist partisans believed the country’s secular future was to be found in the establishment of a leftist state.

The Greek Civil War cost around 158,000 lives, though immeasurable others were swept from their lands and villages, divided from their families, left homeless and bereft. The traumas still linger close to the surface of Greek society. By the end of the vicious, communal conflict, the pro-royalists had gained the advantage through the enormous support of external states, and some of the war’s final battles were waged around the Prespa basin as soldiers and civilians funnelled north in the hope of fleeing the country from the bombardment and shelling.

Ritso now lives in Skopje, the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. “The war destroyed the village. My mother and father took our family out through Albania when I was five.” He pointed to a haze-shrouded ripple of hills. “After that we lived in Czechoslovakia, and then in Tashkent for a while. It was Soviet back then, of course. But the whole village burned, from the napalm.”

Along with aircraft and financial support, the American and British governments – determined not to allow Communist control of Greece, and therefore critical access to the Mediterranean – also gave the Royal Hellenic Airforce napalm to be used against the partisan guerrillas fighting from the mountains of the north. Some of the forested slopes that were napalmed and razed by fire in the 1940s have never recovered, and neither have the villages.

“There were about six or seven hundred people living here,” said Ritso.
“But where are all the stones from the houses?”
“They were taken for building houses in Greek towns.”

Ritso filled in a map from memory, possibly his own from the age of five, but more likely that of his parents. A map re-inscribed over time, lent depth and detail through stories voiced in exile. He showed me how the houses in his neighbourhood stood close up to the next, where the lane passed between them, how the village fields rose up the slopes.

“And this was the cemetery.”
“Where?” I asked, looking helplessly around.
“Right here.” An empty flat of grassy earth spread away from us, where a few stunted trees had staked a tenacious claim.
“But what happened to the graves?”
“Most of them were destroyed because they had Slavic names on them. Many people in our village supported the Communists. They only left the church alone because we’re both Orthodox people.”

Emerging from over half a millennium of Ottoman control, the many nascent countries of the Balkans emphasised nationalism, along with cultural and linguistic homogeneity, as the foundation for a new state. In the wake of this limiting idea countless acts of violence and abuse were committed on all sides. And some of them still are; in place of plurality the modern fragmentation of the region into smaller and more easily defined states testifies to the endurance of the idea.

“While the Greeks were fighting the Turks so were we. During the Ilinden Uprising in 1903 a committee of men from this village met in a cave just up there to organise resistance.” Ritso pointed to the limestone hills where I often work. “Somehow the Turks found out and sealed the cave with stones while they were still inside. They killed them alive.” Everywhere, in every stone and hollow, in every stretch of empty grass, there are stories.

“We always come on the last weekend of August.”
“Why then?”
“It’s the village saint’s day.”
“Which saint is it?” I asked Ritso.

Ritso couldn’t remember the name in Greek and I couldn’t think of any major saint’s days that fell at the end of August.
“The mother of Christ,” he suddenly said.
“Mary?” I found myself saying in English.
“Yes, Maria.”

For a moment I was confused. The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is one of the most celebrated days in the Greek calendar, falling on the 15th of August. But then I remembered that some countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church still follow the Julian calendar so that Christmas falls on the 7th of January. In this case the devastated village was being honoured a full thirteen days after all the other villages in Greece which shared the Virgin Mary as their saint, further isolating its identity. It stands noticeably apart from the others.

Finally Ritso asked me what I was doing among the ruins of the village, and I told him that I was surveying the birds of the area.
“Make sure you tell them there are people here, as well as birds,” he said. But even then, as we clasped hands outside his house of fallen stone, I knew that by the following day only echoes of their presence would linger. A spray of dying flowers by a grave; footfalls in the dust; a dropped wrapper or rind.

The police jeep had moved on by the time I’d finished my shift and I walked out past the few remaining graves and then along the road. Looking down into the bowl of village ruins I saw the entire group that had travelled on this Orthodox saint’s day – those who’d come by chartered bus as well as car – gathered in the long shadows of shimmering poplars, picnicking beside what was left of a home.

This is the second in a trio of tales from around the lakes, loosely concerned with the nature of borders. Many thanks to Cait at the wonderful Farmhouse Stories for penning the elegant phrase, “explorations along the intersection of three countries,” which has inspired me to place these pieces together. In the next post we’ll travel from Greece to a village in Albania where a few committed individuals and organisations are working at bridging the many differences that so often accompany borders. Until then, happy wanderings…

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To listen to an audio version of ‘The Circumference of a Second’ please press the play button.

for Dimitris Noulis

Sometimes just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a 17th century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. There was something luminous and of great value in the line, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of ‘Eternity’ with the rather commonplace ‘the other night’ – radical in its ordinariness, as if the poet had said, “I saw Edwin the other night,” or “I saw a boat the other day.” Didn’t a vision of such significance, of eternity itself, demand a more grandiose delivery? Clearly Henry Vaughan didn’t think so.

A few days later Julia and I went looking for orchids. The lake basin where we live in Greece is divided geologically in two. On one side, where our village nestles in the crook of an alpine valley, the land is underpinned by dark, brooding granite. The other side, however, is composed of limestone, and fits easily with the country of myth – simmering, dry slopes awash with butterflies; bundles of wild thyme crushed underfoot; junipers twined like coiled lovers, rooted there for centuries. It’s a place of lucid, Mediterranean light.

The parched, stony earth of the gods is home to a wild profusion of flowers. They strike out in spring for the bright, Homeric light; a brief twirl in the splendour of the sun. Bee orchids hovered beneath trees while electric blue anchusa lit up the glades. We steered through a dream of coloured blooms: love-in-a-mist, wild geranium, forget-me-not.

A half-day later and the heat had drained us; we were tired and hungry, slipping on sand and loose stones. We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk and started back, doggedly combing the last slopes for overlooked flowers. When a nightjar rose from the earth we were only a step shy from standing on it. It lifted itself on wings the colour of old leaves, hovered at knee-height for a breathless second, and then arrowed off.

The nightjar spends its camouflaged days on a branch or the ground, waiting patiently for the gathering dark when it begins hawking nocturnal insects. The bird we had startled from sleep settled on a low, leafless branch a few metres from us, blending into the wood until it was nearly invisible. It folded its scythed wings back in, which left only its dark eyes to distinguish it. Then it closed them slowly, as though having seen enough of the day, and sealed them against the light.

We left the nightjar to its dreaming and stumbled down the slope, ecstatic in the moment that had just passed – a rare glimpse, gifted to us in the midst of the everyday. The wide dirt road we came out on was hard-panned by the heat. Moving across its bare, blasted surface was a caterpillar of one of the bagworm moths. What is remarkable about these caterpillars is how they carry their homes along with them. Each tiny creature spins a silken tube around itself which it layers with fragments of debris. This one was a piece of mobile forest floor, built from bits of bark and twigs and leaves that far outsized the insect itself. The caterpillar inched across the grainy surface by extending a small length of its body, and then dragging the woodland sleeve behind it in the heat. Again and again it crept forward, towing its marvelous home on miniscule legs.

I lowered myself to its height, entranced by an inconceivable life. The day suddenly stilled while I watched, held in place by the mesmeric sunlight: orchids in purple splashes across the pale slopes; the insistent insect drone; the scent of ancient junipers unfolding on the air. In that simple moment, Henry Vaughan’s opening line became clear. Eternity can be anytime, any day or night, seen in the closing of a nightjar’s eyes. While something as small as a bagworm’s home can house the infinite.

– first published in Wild Apples: A Journal of Nature, Art and Inquiry Fall/Winter 2011

 

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To listen to an audio version of ‘The Light of Birds’ please click on the play button.

They’re returning, wave after wave of them spilling over the delta of the Evros River. The sky is streaked with sharp-winged falcons, with storks whitening the meadows when they descend, with flocks of ibis that close like black umbrellas on the lagoons. The air is awash with wings.

The delta belongs to the sea as much as any continent, and its light reflects the confluence of the two, the land shot through by both water and the sun’s incandescence. Shorebirds shimmer and then turn invisible, flashing like shoals above the shallows. The languorous white drapery of an egret’s plumes shines like crystals in the snow and isolated shrines taken on a glimmer of warm stone. The delta glows with the light of birds.

After days of rain the dark reefs of cloud have been swept away by a cold northerly and migrating birds have resumed their journeys, crossing this watery realm that clasps Greece to Turkey, the Middle East to southern Europe. Raptors rise and fade like passing smiles, brief and wheeling in the wind. Pelicans circle towards the sun, shards of white light barely visible from below. Lark song trickles down from the sky and hoopoes unfurl their frilled and regal crests.  Terns screech and sail by, moving back and forth on the air like kites being pulled from whatever lands and seas they’ve left behind.

What maps I would need to chart these trajectories. And as many again to sketch the birds’ destinations: impenetrable reed beds lining the Danube’s estuary; a mist-wreathed marsh in a Polish oak wood; a scrape of sand on a Scandinavian shore. These birds stitch the hemispheres together, and within seconds many of them are gone, streaming north along invisible rivers that wend only through air. Just an afterimage of wings in their wake, and the sky hanging still.

Joshua Foer has written that “remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice” so I try to etch each moment and brilliantly glimpsed bird as if the day held no others. But there’s no hope of holding on to them all. I could twirl forever beneath this burnished sky swept clear by storms and remember but a fraction of what it contains today.

Some days out on the delta aren’t filled with moments to remember but successive waves of light and flight. You are washed and wakened by wings. Brought into the company of creatures adhering to scarcely believable rites. Enduring storms, wild seas and starvation. Following stars and winds, ancient encoded memories. They pass over this place as they have countless others along the way – pushing north according to ancestral longings and taking the warm season with them. And the light that swells over the delta seems to lift the birds in the same way as the furrowing wind. Edging them over the salt marshes and shallow pans, making them buoyant after days of wrecking weather, spinning them on across the sky.

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Some of you reading Notes from Near and Far may remember that Julia and I have been working in the hills high above the Prespa Lakes monitoring birds as part of an environmental assessment for a proposed wind farm. It is there that I had the good fortune to meet Stavros, an Albanian shepherd who plays the flute as he wanders the limestone hills with his herd. I revisited that unique place and landscape in a longer piece of writing which I’m delighted and honoured to have had published online at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.

Since 1998, Terrain has published a themed issue twice a year that explores the world around us through words, images and sound. Taking up such themes as The River’s Turn, The Suburban Frontier, Community Sustained and Islands and Archipelagos, the journal strives to uncover the “soul of a place.” It is a “celebration of the symbiosis between the built and natural environments where it exists and an examination and discourse where it does not.”

My piece can be found on the home page at Terrain.org or through its permanent link at ‘Time in the Karst Country.’ The essay comes with a series of photographs detailing something of the extraordinary place that I was able to spend so much time in and an audio recording of me reading the piece (including a few clicks from the wood stove roaring away in the background!). Comments are encouraged across the site so feel free to add any thoughts or ideas at the end of any contribution, including my own. There’s some wonderful work throughout the issue so please take some time and explore some of the fascinating relationships to place that exist in the world. Many thanks!

“The soul is a region without definite boundaries:
it is not certain a prairie
can exhaust it
or a range enclose it:”

– from “Terrain” by A.R. Ammons

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As the year wanes I’d like to mark its end with a few photographs. While place can be dense with the layers of our living, with the accumulated histories of wild creatures, cultures and faiths, the tightly knit webs of ecosystems or urban architecture, sometimes we’re afforded merely a glimpse of it. These images are such glances.

Photographs remind me of short stories, briefly seen worlds, vivid and atmospherically incomplete. The English writer and critic V.S. Pritchett once described the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” There is something ephemeral about the nature of an image, a moment stolen and suspended out of sequence, a life passed through. While we can never hope to plumb the intricate depths of a place through a single photograph, there is something intangibly evocative about them as well: the fragile intimacy of a moment.

Many thanks to all of you who’ve read Notes from Near and Far this year and brought your breadth of insight and experience to the posts with thoughts, comments and ideas. These connections have been greatly appreciated, and I’d like to wish you all a rich and illuminating coming year.

“Call me Jimmy” was how he greeted us, a few remembered words of English after spending some weeks in New York in the 1960s. Jimmy is a Prespa fisherman, and one of only two remaining year-round residents of the village of Konsko on the shores of Great Prespa Lake in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The fire salamander was found at the bottom of a well in winter, unable to climb out of the concrete shaft. We lifted it from the water on a pale and ghostly maple leaf and watched it walk off across the February snow.

 Each Sunday, on the outskirts of the city of Korce in Albania, men and women gather to trade and barter the animals they own. They arrive along the narrow roads on carts drawn by mules, meeting on an open plain to try to sell a donkey, a cage full of rabbits, a goat or two. By the end of the afternoon the roads are again full of animals travelling in all directions.

The cardinal butterfly is one of the larger butterflies to visit our garden, especially in late autumn when it is attracted by flowering echinacea and geraniums. This one clung to the edge of a flower, where I watched it throughout the day. By evening I realised it was dying and turned it over to discover its abdomen had been pierced and was now being hollowed out by insects.

Subsistence farming remains common in much of Albania. This farmer in the village of Zagradec on the shores of Mikri Prespa Lake is emptying his barn of hay by donkey, carrying it to his house to feed the sheep stabled in his yard during winter.

The spring crocus begins flowering early. But in the high mountains of the Balkans, where winter hangs on in the shadows of alpine valleys, the crocus crests through the snow to cast its mauve colour about the still white hills.

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