To listen to an audio version of ‘An Uncertain Country’ click the play button
To near the coast in April is to stray into uncertain country. At times a hot sun bathes the orange groves until they glow. Then the lashing rains return, hurled by the wind across the hills like ragged grey sheets. Mist and cloud roll cold over the plain where green seedlings stand shivering to their knees in drowned fields. A burst of sun sheers open the sky, only to be snapped shut by a lid of dark clouds.
The uncertainty stretches to more than just the weather, though; there is a sense of things hanging in the balance when we arrive. Birds make landfall throughout the day, so that at any moment a silent and secluded pool might be riffled with the murmur of wings. Migrating across the Mediterranean, they turn up anywhere on the salt marshes and lagoons that frill the Ionian coast across the strait from Corfu, steering out of the bleak storms or flung hurtling ahead, aiming for these small islands and edges of refuge, the dwindling places of wild necessity.
The Kalamas estuary spreads between the mountains and sea, an in-between world where salt and silt entangle. But however impressive these wetlands can be, they’re only an echo of their original size and substance, like pockets without a coat. Diminished by draining and dumping, and the pollution from fertiliser run-off, they still sparkle with concentrated life. Spoonbills huddled like the first fall of snow. Heads lowered together, they trawled the waters as if they’d been cinched into a pure white circle by rope. Cattle egrets rode the backs of cows like they were droving them home. Marsh sandpipers riddled the mud and herons speared the shallows, all feeding with the eagerness that follows a long journey. In places I could see how the fields claimed for farming were filling with wings as well, the salt water seeping back in, rising along its native course to restore an ancient equilibrium.
The wild world has a way of returning. Scattered across the mountains above the estuary were the silhouettes of empty houses. Whatever small sounds our steps made as we climbed to the ruins of old Sagiada were swallowed by the rain, sealed up by the squalling April weather. A pair of ravens hung as if black commas in the sky and Judas trees blazed like candles from the dark forest. The village had been torched by German forces in 1943, and its inhabitants fled their homes for Corfu, striking out across the narrow blue waters from the harbour far below. Through the grey mist that layered the strait I tried imagining the ragged line of boats escaping through the swells, the flames the passengers would have seen engulfing their homes as they sailed away, the sound of weeping trailing across the sea.
Having left behind their fields of sesame, rice and cotton, along with their animals and belongings, some villagers returned from Corfu at the end of the war to the handful of homes that weren’t completely destroyed. But as if forever condemned they were forced to leave a year later when the Greek Civil War swept brutally across the mountains. From that day the village has stood empty, an isolated home to the church and its fading frescoes. All that remains are the echoes of the ruins, the wild arbour of vines spreading like a fan across the walls and the fig shoots growing from old kitchens with no one to steep the young, budding fruit in syrup to be stored in jars for winter sweets. Stone arches clad in ivy mark a way between rooms, or passages from the houses into lanes that once led to the market square. The earth was furrowed with the habits of forgotten days.
Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers. Driving the edge of a coastal lagoon the day before, yellow wagtails had fallen about us like rain. Wearing fresh lemon coats for the new season, they dropped out of the storm in their hundreds, as though a door in the clouds had swung open to release them. Spilling from the marsh tussocks and tamarisks lining either side, they were joined by swallows that swooped and swirled, circling us on our slow journey like chaperones from the skies. The air was woven with wings as we inched along; movement sustaining a stillness, a moment poised around our shared and unexpected laughter, the singular and irrepressible joy of being a part of the world. Our lives come and go with these moments, diving at depth or buoyant the next. And like birds or villagers making landfall after the uncertain crossing of seas we never know what we’ll find until we arrive.
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.
A few days ago our winter warmth arrived. Eight tons of beech were unloaded at the foot of the garden, having been hauled from the mountain forests behind our home. It’s now been bandsawed by the woodcutters who do the rounds of the village with a tractor-mounted blade, the rising metallic whine starting with the light each day. They worked on into the dark, sawing their way through decades of fibrous life in seconds. When Julia took a lamp to them at dusk they declined it with a shrug. Whether they were comfortable with not seeing or just crazy I couldn’t say, but come morning the wood and sawdust was ridged along the drive and glazed with frost. Now it’s awaiting our labours.
A close friend who visits most years is helping me with the work. Along with carting the split wood into the garden, we’re building a gate to replace the slumped boards that no longer swing open but grind reluctantly out of the way. Chris and I have known each other for many years, having lived, worked and travelled together at various stages over that time. The essence of a close friendship is its already established intimacy. There’s no need for a conversation to begin for it never ended; the wheel keeps turning while we’re away. We talk while we work, catching up with the lives of mutual friends and acquaintances, the journeys we’ve made during the year or those yet to begin; we discuss Chris’s deepening meditation practice and the multitude of possibilities for engaging with the natural world.
We both catch sight of the shifting light on the hills as we measure up the wood or barrow beech along the path. We turn away from our labours when a bird cleaves the blue sky, when a butterfly drifts near, finding enough of the November sun to stay afloat. Without the need to speak about it, we both hear the call of the land and the pull of the light, the twin sparks steering us along the day’s undiscovered course.
Chris and I leave the tools in the shed one morning and step out through the broken gate, past the hill of waiting wood with barely a look at it. We meet up with François, a French environmental educationalist living in the village, and carry on down to the lowland plain where a willow-fringed river can be followed through a spread of dense reeds, where wet meadows pool with young frogs and the tilled fields hold on to their harvest stubble. It felt as if spring had suddenly risen when we arrived; on such days of layered and trembling light, when the very air itself seems within reach, I’m reminded of a line by the American naturalist John Muir: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
We each walked at our own pace, absorbed by a particular set of connections unique to our internal worlds. We were picking up different signals from the landscape, sifting and reshaping them, allowing them in. These differing sensitivities dictated the ways that we wandered until we gathered by something of mutual interest: the sharp notes of a cetti’s warbler calling invisibly from behind a barricade of weeds, the glistening stand of fungi sprouted by autumn rains or the reed song rising and falling, finding its way on the wind. The morning resolved into mystery, something just beyond the edge of my reckoning. I have no language for that mystery, at least no words that do it justice. And I’ve learned to stop looking, simply to embrace it while it’s there.
On a walk along the same river last winter, François and I had watched a European wildcat navigate the glittering snow while hunting in daylight. The cold weather must have edged it out of its nocturnal world to seek sustenance beneath the sun. Now François turned to me as we walked beside the fields where we had seen it and said, “So far no surprises. But there will be.” The fields were furrowed and splayed with light while geese streaked above the reedbeds, their strident calls sounding like a homage to home, guiding them back down to their grounds. A raptor flushed from a gully beside us and trailed off into a poplar at the end of a field. We offered guesses to the bird’s identity, but none of us had seen it well enough to tell.
We crabbed forward through the fallow mud until the bird slowly focused with each step, wedged between two branches like it had been set in a sling. There was a silence that I wasn’t even aware of until much later; the bird’s orange breast materialised in the tree, the dark mantle of its head. When it arrowed from the tree we followed its course. Its sharp-edged wings knifed the air, a dark and hurtling form shying away from us. Its smallness was suggestive, along with its striking agility. Having summered as far north as Siberia, the bird was a wintering male merlin that will stay in Prespa until spring. The raptor curved beyond the reeds, spilling into the mystery. It was only the second time I’d seen a merlin in over a decade, and although it was gone within seconds its echo still shimmered. “There is today’s surprise,” said François, smiling his way to the end of the track.
Chris and I are back at the wood today, stacking it to face the cold winter sun. And the gate’s nearly finished, though until we set it into place there’s an empty space where the old one had been. It’s reminding me to keep things open, to let the things of the world unfold. And though we’ve returned to our garden labours, trying to get the wood in before it rains, there’s a part of me that’s still going out.
Any thoughts regarding the identity of the mushrooms would be much appreciated. We’d at first thought they were Field Blewits, but are now having doubts. Thanks…
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.
I woke to the scent of wildfire. The curtains stirred faintly while I rose from the bed, but by the time I reached the window the night breeze had taken back its hint of smoke. The dim outlines of the moonlit mountains were smudged against the sky and the village lights lay scattered across the dark. There were no flames as far as I could see, and no other smoke drifting with the wind. But there were wildfires out there somewhere.
It’s fire season in the Balkans. The hillsides are as dry as dust, withered pale and hazy by heat. The forest trees are turning early; not ripening into their fulsome autumn glow but becoming brown and brittle. In an effort to conserve moisture the trees are stopping the flow of water to their leaves, needless accessories in an age of austerity. The last half of summer has felt like one long desert day, a cloudless and desiccating drought. It hasn’t rained for weeks, since the 26th of July to be precise, and the strain is becoming evident. There are arguments over water; the river is a stagnant groove; sleepless nights are followed by fractious days. The delicate purple spears of autumn squill are rising a month early and dying back within days. There is tension tied up with the lassitude.
After more than a month of temperatures wavering between 30 and 36°C the land is raring and ready to go: tinder, kindling and seasoned wood all wrapped up in one and waiting for the spark to fall. It might be lightning or a thrown cigarette, a bored and cynical arsonist, the sun finding the right angle on a shard of glass. But fall the spark does; there were at least seven fires in Prespa over the last week alone.
One began while we were bird monitoring on the plateau, but because of the undulating hills and hidden valleys it was impossible to tell exactly where the smoke was coming from. The only thing we were sure of was its proximity to the only road out. In the handful of minutes between deciding to abandon the shift and packing up the telescopes and gear, the smoke had shifted from a thin white stream to a foul brown funnel mushrooming above the hills. We met shepherds hurriedly rounding up cattle, aware of how quickly a grass fire can spread. The fire was about a kilometre away when we finally reached the road after having rounded the pass. Dark smoke roiled like breakers on a beach, led on by the orange crests of flame. Police were stationed on the road and we soon passed fire trucks as we left the plateau. We drove for home with an uneasy feeling of what we’d return to in a few days.
In the end the fire never reached our survey area, but swept swiftly over a large area of similar stony grassland close to the Albanian border. The summer hills were branded with a large black welt and I tried imagining what it might mean in terms of habitat and ecosystem. Like most things in nature fire is a complex phenomenon. It can both destroy and restore. Some forests are fire adapted, especially pine, so that their seeds are dependent upon flames in order to germinate. They lay dormant, waiting for fire, or as Colin Tudge says in The Secret Life of Trees, until they are certain of growing in the “nutrient-rich ash provided by their immediate predecessors.” And for certain ecosystems – such as the native prairies of North America (or what’s left of them) – fire is an integral part of their evolutionary development, fueling the rich renewal of sweet, wild grasses that supported buffalo in such vast numbers. The roots of native prairie grasses run deep, protecting them from the fire which clears old growth and allows new shoots to emerge.
A few years ago a fire raced over the August hills where I often walked. I was swimming in the lake when it began and I remember my odd and contradictory instincts while watching it. Along with an abject sense of loss I experienced an inescapable fascination, absorbed with the immense energy on display. And so I decided to follow up the fire. For a year I returned each month to the same hills to observe and record the transformations bestowed upon them by the blaze. I walked the curious border that outlasts the flames, the meandering line that divides the charred world from the spared; I came home covered in ash from the outings.
Along the way I found dozens of tortoises burnt inside their shells and wildflowers flourishing from the ashes in unexpected profusion. I watched grasses return with spring vigour and resinous junipers skeletal beyond repair. Ants marked out myriad trails in the black aftermath; jays buried future saplings in the burnt earth in the shape of acorns, while old oaks keeled over from the strain. I found a fox skull at the foot of a tree and migrating birds skimming the air for insects. The whole hillside habitat was undergoing an extraordinary moment of change, and both of my earlier feelings were born out by the process: the loss and fascination of it all.
Fire is a natural component of our planet. Fewer and fewer fires are naturally started, however, and the delicate balance established over time between adaptation and flames becomes more precarious. Even well adapted ecosystems can’t weather a succession of storms, and global warming will result in greater periods of drought spread over a larger proportion of the planet, making catastrophic blazes increasingly common. Wildfires are an opportunity to rethink what we’re doing.
I woke to the stirring of the curtains again last night. The hot wind carried smoke on its back. I dreamt of fields ablaze, wisps of burnt grass and reeds and trees floating down in my restless sleep. But come morning the sky was clear.
Stepping out into another parched and blazing day, though, I’m aware of the endless possibility of fires igniting. Through the haze that already graces the early hour I sense the immense energy stored up and summoned by the sun. Everything feels on edge, and the air is taut. I’m waiting for the spark to fall.
Ever since a child I’ve been pulled magnetically towards maps. In school geography class I would peer up in fascination at the roll-down map of the planet fastened above the blackboard. There was the bold conglomeration of different coloured countries afloat on the blue oceans, the peculiarly shaped continents, the inset lakes. From its flat surface rose the compelling contours of imagined places. Though to be fair, it was as much the romance of strange names that first sparked my imagination.
One year South America was the focus of our study and I learned by heart the capital cities and their counterpart countries: Lima, Peru; Montevideo, Uruguay; Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following year we turned our young and nodding heads towards Africa and learned that the Nile was the world’s longest river, travelling over six and a half thousand kilometres from source to sea, and that the Sahara was the largest expanse of desert sands anywhere on the planet. Rather than a sense of place, it was the political unions and distinctions of scale that formed the template of our understanding.
Maps can change, of course; particularly those concerned with the political world. Perhaps nowhere more so than where I happen to live. For nearly half a millenium the three countries merging around the shores of the Prespa Lakes – Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – didn’t exist as actualities, but were in fact part of the Ottoman Empire, labelled on maps as the province of Macedonia and ruled from Istanbul. As recently as 20 years ago, the country that begins a couple of hundred metres from where I swam in the lake this afternoon reached as far north as Austria. So when a Slovenian friend visited us a few years ago she sat on the same stretch of shore where I laid my towel in the bright, sunburst afternoon, and stared at the red-roofed village of Dolno Dupeni, the first village beyond the borders of Greece, and said, “That was my country.” Two decades ago her country spanned the Balkan peninsula, absorbing a variety of landscapes, languages and peoples into its realm. But when Yugoslavia shattered into a patchwork of separate states, it radically realigned the cartography of the Balkan mind.
Years away from the classroom I began learning in the landscape itself, discovering that the maps of my childhood contained very little of detail. And it was to this detail that I slowly became attached: the small intricacies of place, the subtle substance that swings with the seasons. In short, I began studying the creatures and moods and light of the landscapes that surrounded me. So when a job offer came out of the blue, Julia and I knew it was an opportunity too good to decline. Over the last couple of years plans have been growing to erect wind farms on the mountains encircling the Prespa national park, and one company in particular had requested a full environmental assessment of the potential impact of their intended development. When the Hellenic Ornithological Society contacted us from Athens to ask if we’d be able to carry out a study of the birds in the project area we agreed with great interest, knowing that we were committing ourselves to a single place for 45 days of field work spread over many months. Along with the importance of the study and data itself, it was an unexpected chance to unravel some of the meanings in maps.
I studied the emailed maps of the research area before we travelled there, noting the proposed turbine locations and the transect lines and vantage points of our survey, but nothing prepared me for the unique quality of the landscape we arrived at. The high limestone plateau is a classic karstic topography, shaped by water and pitted with sinkholes. The limestone has been sluiced away at its weakest points over time to form narrow flutes and runnels that course over the land. The sinkholes, or dolines, have slumped into grassy bowls where groundwater has dissolved the rocky substrate. The stony grasslands sweep over the rounded hills, dotted with bunkers dating from the Greek Civil War that erupted in the aftermath of World War Two; they’ve been built by piling the pale grey rocks that dominate the land into protective enclosures.
Villagers come to gather wild mountain tea, the region’s warming winter drink. Lark song and butterflies lift from the grasses as I walk my transect lines, counting the different bird species breeding in the area. There is a meticulous and complex pattern to the land that I’m only beginning to unravel. It’s a mosaic of small possibilities.
Our most recent field day meant hours of monitoring the haze-drenched hills from a single vantage point. While Julia spent the afternoon on the highest ridge, I was stationed on a gentle hummock that looked out in all directions towards a sea of stony swells and tree-lined valleys. Marbled white butterflies skittered between fading flowers and a great banded grayling attached itself to my arm, its striking black and white wings opening and closing like vents. A pair of hobbies scythed the stone, revealing their scarlet underpatch when they rolled or tilted in flight. A hooded crow landed beside a long-legged buzzard in the skeletal arms of an oak. Through the telescope I watched the raptor swivel towards its new neighbour, beak the air for a moment before turning back to face the sun again, unbothered by the new arrangement. I then heard a flute being played by a shepherd to a chorus of cow bells, its light and airy sounds drifting on the wind. I could never have found that song on a map of the plateau, but its notes still reach me while I’m away.
Back home in Prespa pelicans are huddling on their nests. From dawn till dusk they criss-cross between the lakes, flying from their fishing waters on the large lake to their breeding grounds on the smaller. Prespa is home to both of Europe’s pelican species, the white and the Dalmatian, and is one of the few places where the two breed alongside one another.
Nesting communally on reed islands, the Prespa population of around 1200 pairs of Dalmatian pelicans is the largest congregation of their kind in the world, making up between 7 to 10 percent of the species’ international numbers. While they began arriving in mid-winter, the white pelicans have only just returned, having made a long migratory journey from Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the Balkans via the Bosphorus. The 500 or so pairs that nest in Prespa are of European significance. The surge in pelican numbers over the last two decades has been a major success story for the Society for the Protection of Prespa, the NGO working to preserve the natural heritage of the region. The pelicans have become the essence of the lakes in summer, rising up from the glimmering waters or coasting overhead on still wings. No matter how often I see them, they continue to amaze me with their grace.
As of this morning oil from the Gulf of Mexico disaster has reached the outer islands of Louisiana. For 18 days straight, since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig 80 km of the coast, oil has poured from the offshore well. Despite the promises of BP, and the slim hope placed in protective booms and a giant underwater funnel lowered over the well, there is little that can be done for the habitats, wildlife, fishing grounds, delicate ecosystems and livelihoods already being affected by the scale of the disaster. The first birds, pelicans and gannets, are coming ashore coated in oil, but more will steadily follow. The unmitigated environmental and economic catastrophe came only weeks after President Obama, to the dismay of many within his own party, pledged to increase the amount of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The irony, however, was probably lost on the pelicans; they have a troubled history of their own in Louisiana waters.
The brown pelican nested in large numbers on the coast and barrier islands of the southern US state until the 1950s and 60s. Over the course of a decade the number of birds plummeted dramatically, and by 1963 the brown pelican was extinct throughout Louisiana. The cause of the loss was eventually traced to DDT. Used with enthusiasm mid-century throughout the American heartland, the agricultural pesticide made its way to the Louisiana coast in the bodies of small fish after draining into the Mississippi River. The DDT slowly accumulated in the tissues of the pelicans while they fed on the fish in the coastal lagoons until the chemical eventually reduced the hardness of the bird’s eggshells. Each nesting season the brown pelican unintentionally crushed its offspring until the species no longer existed in its native waters.
A change in the pelican’s fortune came with the banning of DDT in the 1970s, a restocking programme and the restoration of habitat on the barrier islands where they bred. Until now the return of the brown pelican has been a story of successful intervention after the great loss effected by human activity. The bird breeds in healthy numbers along the rich, coastal wetlands and outer islands. But, coming at the height of the nesting season, the Gulf of Mexico spill could alter that patient process of restitution. Whether the images of dead pelicans or the devastation of oyster beds and unemployed fishermen will have an impact on the decision to increase offshore drilling is another matter. The relationship we have to place, humans and non-humans alike, is easily disturbed. And the disturbance inevitably results in loss.
Driving home yesterday along the isthmus that divides the two lakes, I watched pelicans grappling with the air. A fierce spring wind had galed over the lakes all day, tufting the waves with white crests. The willows along the water’s edge were curved back like taut bows and lengths of reed were being launched through the air. The pelicans were returning from a day of fishing the big lake, steering into the wild wind in order to cross back to their islands of reed nests. But the wind kept them adrift. They hung suspended in the air, held in place through elemental tension, the opposing push of wind and wing. Their feathers flayed down, lifted, and came down again, but the birds stayed in place. It seemed that nothing would come of their immense struggle, that they would eventually tire and slip away. But knowledge of the nesting ground is magnetic; they wouldn’t easily be dissuaded from home. They held their ground, balanced precariously in mid-air, until a sudden shift in the currents gave them purchase again. Their wings rose and fell, and the pelicans pressed forward. A slight shift in the nature of things had sent them on their way, arrowing towards home.
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.