The 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.
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.
For an audio version of ‘The Sum of Quiet Abundance’ click the play button.
Insects are contagious, both in their profusion and appeal. In the cool hours of early spring they are few and far between, like solitary wanderers striking out across a desert. A roving ground beetle might rise into view, clambering with slow deliberateness over the dunes of bare earth. A bee occasionally drones across the March garden, its sound a solo when it will soon be orchestral. With the first flowers unfurled by the warming air insects multiply beyond all calculation, waking from a winter torpor or hatching out from safely-stowed eggs and pupas. The world fills with the most fruitful of things.
The lilac in the garden sways with more species of bees than I can count on my hands. The perfumed bundles, purple and drooping with the weight of their splendour, are an irresistible magnet in the brief span of most insect lives, like the bright lights of cities are to youth. They taste urgently, diving into the depths of what must be the insect equivalent of ecstasy: bees weighted with pollen grains, dusted and furred about their legs like they wore anklets of gold; the emerald sheen of chafers glinting in the sun, drunk on nectar and nuzzled into pillows of soft petals or moving woozily about the leaves. Time slows like a ceremony when I see this sweet ardour.
Around the lilac butterflies lose some of their timidity, having weighed up the gains of such riches and shed their natural caution to make the most of it. The delicately furred swallowtails, their cream-white wings ribbed with black veins and flecked with eyes like blue summer seas, almost touch my nose as I edge nearer. The proboscis works like a mechanical drill, plunging into the purple tubes in search of a sweet nectar seam. Carpenter bees swarm around the aquilegia; despite their size and heavy flight, they hover without being awkward, drawing shy and lazy circles about the hanging lamps of rose, mauve and maroon flowers. On a walk a sea of baby grasshoppers part with my steps like waves before a boat, jumping as though one. And amidst this brash and brazen plenty hunting spiders lie in wait, sharing in the prosperity. Still and unseen behind a petal, the spiders await the inevitable moment when an insect strays to the chosen flower in its random and roaming way, poisoning their prey into paralysis.
Each afternoon a hush descends on the village with siesta, when farmers draw curtains against the sharp mountain light and birds relinquish their songs until evening. Even the dogs curl quietly into the shadows cast by trees. But it’s a surface hush that I’m aware of, swimming in the foreground of my consciousness – a silence that is neat and obvious. At the edge of the world is a murmur, the thrumming cadence of untold other lives, small and often inconspicuous affairs. The insect song drones throughout the hours, like the heat haze that wraps itself about the day. I listen in – perhaps tuning in would be more accurate, like it were a radio signal, fainter and more distant than birdsong and machinery, nearly out of range in the ebbing afternoon. But as I still myself it clears, focusing into the notes of a complex, creaturely music, as varied as their kinds.
There are few things as numerous as insects. About a million species have been discovered, named and described, and each year more of them are found throughout the world. Their number is greater than all other known fauna put together, comprising perhaps as much as 80% of the animal species present on the planet, an abundant sum whose total weight would easily dwarf the biomass of man. Whether it’s mosquitoes rising from warming ponds, a trail of ants sending intricate signals with a touch of their antennae or the entrancing work of butterflies opening for the first time to fill their fragile wings with blood, building them up into weightless scaffolds of flight, insects are about us at any moment in numbers beyond our knowing, in water, in earth, in air. But despite their achievement, their pervasive presence across the planet, insects are as vulnerable to threats as the less numerous mammals and birds. In recent years the mass die-off of bees has shown us how fragile abundance and diversity can be. Colony collapse disorder has decimated bees throughout Europe and North America, putting at risk an insect crucial to crop pollination and the health of plant communities. Amongst a litany of probable causes, the intensive use of pesticides and diminishing numbers of wildflowers due to habitat loss are high on the list. There is no safety, necessarily, to be found in numbers.
When everything seems still I listen for the buzz and the hum, the murmur of a million things. Across the sunlit hills and meadows, the rain-soaked garden and plain, this chorus of trilling and clicking leads to some of the most commonplace and charismatic creatures about us, the countless minor lives burnished with a brief beauty, blazing through the afternoons with no time to live any other way. And while spring pulls us into summer, the quiet is more song than silence, abundant, rich and full.
To listen to an audio version of ‘First Things’ click the play button
You hear the long, quavering call of a blackbird and open the window, stiff after the swelling snow. The song slips inside, spins and swirls for a few moments, and then steals you from the room. Standing outside, warmth lilts about your fingers and face for the first time in months. You sense the sap rising to the apple buds, the stars of white blossom on the cusp of erupting.
A lizard skitters madly along the wall, darting over the stones as if they were coals. Crocuses purple the dark earth and water runs as if in a race, unlocked from snow and ice to stream down the mountains and pour as a river into the lake. Tree sparrows fumble in the branches of the quince, shuttling old leaves and grasses, sometimes shiny candy wrappers dropped by kids, to furnish a nest in a stone cranny of the house. Pale green shoots are spearing through the ground. You look down to see you’re standing on a new season.
Brimstone, tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain fritillary: the names of butterflies on the tip of your tongue, forgotten there all winter like the handsaw you set down and didn’t find until the shrinking snow returned it, wet and rusted on the grass. But seeing those first flights – the early and uncertain flutters of amber, lemon and orange wings glinting in the sharp sun – and a whole language falls into place, a homecoming book left dusty on a shelf. You turn the pages of returning things, feel the shape of their names in your mouth. Swallowtail, wheatear, nightingale. You let them linger on your lips, trembling and ready to fly.
The first things of spring are ancient and repeated, and yet somehow uniquely new. No matter how many springs have preceded it, the season always feels like it’s arriving for the first time. There’s a quality of the ecstatic to it all, like the spell of first love wild and requited. But a first love that’s recurring. All that appears shares the mystery of being simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, the paradox of a circle that turns, bringing the same season back to us after a lengthy absence. The same season seen differently. You feel the sun that’s unfurling the world and know it could be the first you’ve ever felt. You hear the long, quavering call of the blackbird and let its song slip inside.
Ever since I was a boy summer has seemed synonymous with flight. Whether a figurative lift coinciding with the end of school when my brother and I would take to our bikes or the fields with equal delight and spend endless, consuming hours exploring whatever was there to be discovered, or an actual journey through air, travelling from our Ontario home on holiday to the northeast of England where we’d lived before my parents emigrated across an ocean. In every sense summer was an airy embrace.
Years later and the hot, burnished months still summon a desire for flight, but never my own. Instead it’s a time for staying still, to let the season spill over and layer the long days with its sheen. To let light cast its spell. In the breathless hours that enfold the Mediterranean siesta I’m drawn to the movements of the few creatures willing to risk the kindling sun.
The flights of butterflies peak with the drowsy heat. They waver over the dry garden grasses, finding flowers or just passing through. Tiny blues like chips of lake ice, the myriad rusty hues of fritillaries, the metallic glaze of the green hairstreak. It’s like sitting in the garden for a matinée, watching a reel of old tinted celluloid unroll.
Seeing a meadow brown riding back and forth about the potatoes, bouncing sideways and at cross-purposes before curling back the way it came, it’s hard to imagine that butterflies were ever intended for flight. Yet some, like the monarch of North America and the painted lady of Europe and Africa are compelled to journey vast distances, migrating like birds during their fragile and short-lived existence.
To see one in the garden is to sense an urgency, a powerful compulsion that sends brittle creatures across the seas, spanning lands as varied as the many species adorned with wings. Unknowingly, butterflies now act as crucial environmental indicators as well. Due to their short life cycles, food-plant specialisation and intimate reliance of weather and climate, butterflies are sensitive to minor environmental changes. They can be read like a catalogue of possible loss; a place without their presence is rarely a positive thing.
So many of us seek the light: flocking to seasides in summer; lifting as seedlings from the forest floor; basking like seals on stones. But it is equally flight that distills a seasonal essence, a desire to move on, leave things behind, take to the skies. As the naturalist Miriam Rothschild once said: “Butterflies add another dimension to the garden for they are like dream flowers – childhood dreams – which have broken loose from their stalks and escaped into the sunshine.” In the wake of each butterfly’s wings trails a memory, a weightless passage from one moment to the next, a kindred dance in the sun.
Notes from Near and Far will be back sometime around the middle of August. Until then, many thanks for reading and I wish you all an enriching season – whether it’s summer in the north or winter in the south. Happy wanderings…
To listen to an audio version of ‘The Wonder of Ordinary Places’ click the play button.
Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us. They’ve vanished from our lives, become extinct. But they’ve disappeared not because of urban sprawl or the pressures of tourist development. They haven’t disappeared due to deforestation or a toxic accumulation of pollutants. Nor have they vanished because of weak legislation or the lack of political will and the funds necessary to secure them. Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us because they’re invisible. We don’t see them for what they are.
While nations may try to preserve and protect a handful of ecologically significant areas within their borders, the total area these parks and reserves amount to in relation to a country’s land mass is minute. Much of Europe, much of the world perhaps, is actually composed of what could be described as ordinary landscapes. They’re the everyday places, like the fields and hills we pass on the way to work. They’re the areas at the edges of our cities and villages, such as old orchards and weedy wastegrounds. They’re the places we might visit on a summer’s afternoon –a small urban woodland or a pond to picnic beside, perhaps the ordinary shore of a lake.
To describe a landscape as ordinary is to say that it is considered to be common and, on the surface at least, undistinguished. Generally it’s a place that’s not protected in any real sense. It rarely contains any significant cultural monuments, nor is it the focus of international work on habitat preservation or rare species protection. It’s a place that is of little conventional value and often not even particularly aesthetically attractive, being made up of an odd assortment of habitat fragments or existing on the fringes of agriculture and development. But these ordinary landscapes are of extreme importance, not because of their abundance, but because it is where connections with the natural world can most easily and enduringly be made.
Prespa is full of such places. Although Prespa as a whole is seen as extraordinary, there are many less-celebrated landscapes within it. While Lesser Prespa Lake, with its important breeding colonies of rare water birds and its island of rich Byzantine monuments, is rightly regarded as both the ecological and spiritual heart of the lakes basin in Greece, there is an extensive ‘body’ that surrounds it. The Prespa basin is a great mosaic of landscapes that continue to evolve, both naturally and as a result of human activities. These range from the steep surrounding mountains once terraced by hand to agricultural fields only recently claimed from wet meadows. There are dense forests of beech and oak, and stands of old junipers; along with orchards, hedges and river corridors that break up the agricultural plains.
But there is one particular Prespa landscape that I find myself returning to year after year, and season after season: the shore of Great Prespa Lake in Greece. The lakeshore landscape is a recent phenomenon. Although the exact causes are unknown, the water level of the lake has dropped considerably over the last half-century. While the water loss is mourned by many it is only one of a number of transformations taking place along the lakeshore: a progression of new habitats is quietly taking the lake’s place. In essence, the ancient lakebed is rising to the surface. As you approach the coast from the isthmus that separates the two lakes you are in fact passing over a series of old shorelines, each flavoured according to the conditions when it first emerged, and the flora and fauna that subsequently made it home.
These emerging habitats occupy a long, curving ribbon of land adjacent to the shore. There are wide bands of sandy scrubland, dotted with wild roses, brambles and a variety of wildflowers. A dense forest of silver birch and poplars has sprung up towards one end of the shore, where the silver birch reaches its most southern distribution within Europe. Reedbeds spread thickly in places. A long line of willows follows the river to the lake, where an ever-changing estuary remakes itself each day. A seasonal string of clear-water pools lie close to the lake and, in recent years, an extensive marsh system has claimed parts of the shore.
This landscape has come to feel like home to me. What first led me to it, though, was its unprepossessing nature. It was rarely visited and I heard few people speak about it. It appeared to be a landscape of little distinction, an ordinary place. But even ordinary places contain wonders.
When it comes to wonder and the natural world, children are the true specialists. They are particularly open to that state of astonishment that we associate with awe. A child, in the most common of landscapes, is capable, through a combination of intense perception and imagination, of discovering an entire world in the smallest fragment of nature. It might be among wildflowers and weeds at the edge of a scrubby field where an iridescent emerald beetle or the bright flight of a butterfly can hold a child’s attention for several minutes. It could be along a river bank where a child excitedly follows an oak leaf as it travels downstream. It might simply be the prints of an animal, perfectly preserved by snow, that captures a child’s imagination.
What is so remarkable about children’s perception, even more so than its intensity, is that it is characterised by an equality of interest. Everything a child encounters in nature, no matter how small, offers possibility and is therefore equally fascinating. Children make little distinction between major and minor motifs. A feather found on the beach is as wondrous as the creature it belonged to.
As childhood is left behind, adults tend to shed that capacity for curiosity, that spirit that animates the smallest of things. We yearn for greater and faster excitements; we seek larger vistas, grander views. But in a contemporary Western world increasingly obsessed by speed, style and seduction, there is perhaps all the more need to reclaim the ordinary, to celebrate the everyday. Because the ordinary, when perceived in the spirit of curiosity, is actually extraordinary.
The American writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, once wrote that ‘with the loss of self-consciousness, the landscape opens.” This, I believe, can be understood in two ways. First, when we let go of our constant self-awareness and regain something of a child’s immense curiosity and interest in the world ‘out there,’ the world around us, we become more attuned to its wonders. Leaving something of our self behind, other lives arise in its place. That is when the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary, and a landscape like the shore of Great Prespa Lake becomes something else.
In spring the ponds at the edge of the lake fill up with terrapins sunning themselves on sticks, electric blue damselflies skate through the air above them and millions of tadpoles wriggle past water snakes coiled beneath the surface. The willows along the river resound with the liquid calls of golden orioles and bee-eaters fly overhead like a scattering of gems. At times a dusky red fox will scour the beach in sunlight alongside egrets and herons, all slowly circling each other as though in a dance. But these wonders are perhaps too obvious. They are emotionally fulfilling and difficult to miss; they are bright with beauty and colour and grace.
Barry Lopez’s assertion about landscapes, however, provides a second clue to engaging more deeply with place. To be self-conscious means not only to be aware of one’s own mind and actions, but to be conscious of being observed and therefore embarrassed as a result. Self-consciousness prevents us from doing many things, but in the case of a landscape it can stand in the way of knowing it.
Landscapes are best learned through proximity. Wherever children go, they are tempted to climb trees. They slither through long grasses like snakes, eyeing up insects excitedly from their own height. They make hide-aways in dense shrubs. Children catch frogs in their hands and then slowly open their fingers to reveal them. They collect caterpillars in jars, fascinated by the coming transformation. Children’s inquisitive experience of the natural world is hands-on, intimate and utterly without self-consciousness. They are part of a place, not distinct from it.
When we approach similarly, with a sense of freedom unburdened by embarrassment, we open ourselves to the quieter aspects of a landscape. How the light falls through the willow leaves, passing through them like waves. How bear prints and otter tracks lead us first along the beach and then into their lives. The way tiny, resplendent butterflies gather around a flower. There are the curious sounds of water and reptiles in the marsh. How the wind breathes mysteriously through the reeds, their seeds catching the light as they float above the river. The way the bark of a silver birch feels like ancient paper in our hands. Walk into any pocket of the shoreline landscape and there is a world of new moments unfolding.
All landscapes contain the seeds of astonishment. Whether we let them take root or not is up to us. But if we become aware of the wonders within easy reach, those close at hand and part of our daily experience, then the everyday places that we live amongst become less easy to dismiss. The greatest threat facing many landscapes is their assumed irrelevance. When a place is perceived to hold little of interest or importance then a whole landscape can turn invisible, and be treated accordingly. Though any child will show you there is no such thing as a place without interest.
A landscape deemed irrelevant can be regularly threatened by damaging activities. Along the length of the Great Prespa lakeshore in Greece sand is continually being illegally extracted to make cement, eradicating the fragile ecosystem of wildflowers and grasses. The dumping of household and building waste is common. In recent years, shepherds have moved their flocks into the area on a nearly permanent basis, upsetting the traditional pattern of rotational herding, and the consequent overgrazing, tree felling, erosion of the river banks and random reed and tree burning has greatly disturbed the integrity of the place. There is increasing waste washing ashore from fishing boats and visitors leave behind a great volume of garbage that is not collected by the municipal authorities. Many common landscapes suffer this casual disregard, and Prespa is no different. The old notion of ‘out of sight means out of mind’ seems perfectly suited to our relationship with ordinary places.
To discover wonder in a place is to begin to feel affinity; it offers the possibility of approaching all landscapes with equal interest. Ultimately landscapes can be transformational. As much as the large Prespa lake is changing and making way for something else, to enter that shoreline world in a spirit of curiosity and attentiveness is to allow ourselves to be changed. Each time we engage with a landscape we are offered the opportunity to remake it through awareness, by being open to the extraordinary within it. Even the most common of places can come alive and take root in our inner lives. A single small spark, as children demonstrate so very well, is often all it takes. And when a landscape is no longer invisible but revealed for what it truly is, then that landscape stands a chance of connecting with our lives. If that happens, we are less likely to let it disappear.
In response to the diversity of fascinating comments and thoughts regarding ‘The Fragile Forest’ post I decided to rework a presentation I gave here in Prespa at a conference concerning wetlands and conservation a couple of years ago. I was honoured to be asked to participate among a range of scientists and academics working to preserve wetlands throughout the Mediterranean basin. Coming from southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the speakers helped me realise over the course of the conference how varied the approaches to conservation must inevitably be to deal with localised issues, traditions and specific, historic relationships to the land. Reflecting the plurality of peoples and places about us, a diversity of preservation and sustainability methods is required, including economic, educational, political and artistic approaches. One particularly inspiring idea that I learned about from Assad Serhal, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, concerns the restoration of the Arabic ‘hima’ system to parts of the Middle East, a traditional form of land use reaching back to the 7th century and aimed at economic well-being along with the protection of biodiversity. For anyone interested in learning more about the ‘hima’ there is an excellent article here together with a gallery of wonderful photographs.
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.
Despite its colour having faded to a pale relic of its name, the lavender in the garden remains an illuminated host. For much of the summer its spires of scented stems attract the bright and the beautiful: the glazed and glossy greens of chafers drowsily clambering about the flowers; red admiral and swallowtail butterflies clinging with filament limbs to the bursting blooms; the tail of a green lizard swishing beneath a branch; the thrum and dance and swagger of bees.
But autumn brings change and a subsequent shift in the creaturely calendar. Although a few late lavender flowers rise expectantly through the rain they soon slump from the weight of it. The leaves darken with the wet weather and the whole plant carries an aspect of seclusion, a cold-season refuge harbouring the garden solitaries, the reclusive creatures that withdraw into its autumnal wreath of fading shades.
October shimmers with the spinning of silk, brilliant orb-webs slung between stems by the Argiope bruennichi spider. What is unusual about the web of this beautifully banded black-and-yellow arachnid is the ‘stabilimentum,’ a vertical zig-zag of reinforced web used to strengthen the silken snare. They’re spun near the eggcases that suddenly appear in autumn as well, mottled sacs tucked down amongst the lavender stems and suspended within a gossamer cage. They’ll hang there through frost and snow, through the winds and rains of winter until the first warmth of spring brings thousands of spiders the size of sand grains hatching their way through. The baby spiders are so small that the lightest breeze will carry them away with ease, swinging them on strands of silk through the vast and uncharted garden world to renew their kind again.
A praying mantis haunts this lavender world. Perhaps even two or three. Despite scouring the plants I easily lose track of them as they blend into the tangle of bent stems, only to resurface hours or days later. ‘Mantis’ comes from the Greek, meaning prophet, and the common name which has come to be regularly used for many of the world’s 2000 mantis species is derived from the prayer-like stance of the insect’s arms held clasped together before its face.
While watching the mantis, however, it occurs to me that the name might originate from an aspect of the creature’s character rather than its posture: the nature of its stalking. The praying mantis barely moves while it hunts small insects such as grasshoppers, shield bugs and wasps, waiting until they come within reach before unfolding its hands from prayer to snare its slowly closing prey. And when it does move, its appendages shift meticulously and its head swivels with such precision that I’m immediately reminded of the realm of the contemplatives. There is something monkish and devoted about its deliberateness, expending no energy other than necessary. There’s no frivolous fussing about; each turn of its compound eyes is graceful and without waste, as though its true purpose were of another, higher and invisible, order.
Standing beside the lavender I hear a deep hum circling what’s left of the blooms. It’s a hummingbird hawkmoth traplining the flowers, returning at the same time each day to a particularly rich store of nectar. There’s no certainty on how this memory-route is encoded, or even achieved, which seems apt for a moth blessed with such a mysterious form of hummingbird flight.
I try photographing the day-flying moth but eventually put my camera away without success. It seems that some things I’m not meant to slow. The hawkmoth blurs through the images, a ghostly apparition, a streak of flared and fading light that arcs over the wet gardens and pale meadows of the village at the dying of the day. So I crouch beside the lavender plants instead, waiting until the hummingbird hawkmoth eventually nears, as it always does, without any concern for my presence or proximity. It’s balanced on the very air itself, a stillness in unending motion fluttering beside my eyes. I watch its proboscis unroll into a flower like a river finding its way. I think of cupping my hand tenderly around its body to feel the pulse of 80 wingbeats a second vibrating through my veins. When its nectar gathering is finished it arrows off into dusk where it will settle with its wings at rest on a stone for the night. But tomorrow evening, by whatever complex internal map of flowers and scents it stores, it will make its way back to this same nectar patch, this straggle of fading flowers, this undimmed lavender world.
I’m pleased to have a new piece of writing published this month in The Redwood Coast Review. Set up to support an independent and volunteer-run community library in Gualala, California, it’s a terrific publication whose efforts support a dynamic local initiative. My piece, ‘The Distance Between Us’, can be read in an online version here, beginning on page five.
Julian Hoffman is a writer living beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. Notes from Near and Far is his blog on the nature of place.
My book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Nonfiction. I'm deeply honoured by the prize, and the book was published by the excellent University of Georgia Press in October 2013. All photographs on the blog are my own, unless otherwise credited.