Archive for the ‘Geology’ Category

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


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“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


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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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The trajectory of a tree’s life is as unforeseeable as our own, determined as much by circumstance as intention. Like any living organism, it has its phases and difficult ages. It’s subject to environmental shifts and storms, to changing patterns of land use and arbitrary rains. A tree might be shaped by strict winds, the intimate attentions of animals, a spike of lightning striking from the sky. Fire can kill it, score its wood into a canvas of anger, germinate seeds in its shade that have lain dormant for centuries. And sometimes a tree can outlive its time, much like the preserved bodies of men that are unpacked from glaciers long after being lost.

Near the southern tip of Lesser Prespa Lake runs a seam of deep time. To walk across the fields at the edge of a village and then through a narrow, stony gorge is to step across the bed of an ancient sea. In places there are pockets of exposed shale and sheets of marl which can be opened like a book. Relic seashells are encrusted into the sediment, held in place where they were settled when the water receded some 1.8 million years ago. Amongst the leaves of ancient sediment, a library of geological time, I saw a branch poking through the shale while out walking with friends. I felt its dense weight the moment I drew the length of branch from the earth, and realised it wasn’t exactly as it appeared. It was a piece of petrified tree that I held in my hand, wood transformed to stone.

 The shallow sea in this corner of Greece rose about 5.3 million years ago at the beginning of the Pliocene period, and the watery inundation ended an age of dry land that had lasted 170 million years from the final days of the Lower Jurassic. The story of the petrified tree isn’t certain, but in imagining its journey we might approximate its essence.

In all likelihood the tree died off as the sea slowly rose around it over 5 million years ago. It then fell into the brackish waters where mud and silt quickly settled around it, sealing it away from oxygen and stifling any aerobic activity that would have led to its decomposition. Instead, mineral-laden water that was seeping through the sediment of the seabed entered the tree’s cells, replacing the cellulose and lignin of the living organism, and preserving the structure of the wood in the shape it had adopted while alive.

As the Pliocene period came to an end around 1.8 million years ago the sea drained away, and the tree was transformed through a process called permineralisation. When the mineral-dense sea water suspended in the tree’s cells evaporated it left only minerals such as quartz in its place. All the tree’s organic properties were turned to inorganic stone, as though they’d stared into the eyes of Medusa in their last moments. It’s not the same alchemy often associated with fossils – when we’re witness to an impression or compression of a once-living organism – but in fact a replica of the original. The shape and form, the very structure of the tree itself, has been preserved in an enduring, stone mould. I held in my hands something that both was and wasn’t wood; I held in my hands a fragment of far time.

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