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Coyote RoadWithout divination of their unveiling or any sense of a near and impending trajectory, the unexpected crossing of paths with a wild animal can arise as a profound surprise, a sudden braiding of ways both beautiful and bewildering, as though a brief dazzle of magic had detonated across the surface of the ordinary world. These encounters can be as strange and magnetic as those inexplicable old mysteries passed down through the ancestral line, odd happenings and surreal stories that, while both distant and dislocated, appear simultaneously fitting as well, resonant of things intended, as though two hands had been laced together in a clasp. But such wild moments of wonder as animal encounters never materialise intact and isolated from time, however much the experience might seem pure while in their presence; instead they are born of a restless sequence of events, given necessary breath and momentum by the messy pedestrianism of our lives, the stray and seemingly superfluous pieces of existence that tend to go untold in the larger telling. The small and simple fragments that carry us, always and without fail, farther down the road.

Mourning cloak

We’d left Kingston later than any of us had planned to, starting the journey back to my parents’ house in Eastern Ontario beneath a brilliant mid-afternoon sun after a weekend away. The five of us—my mum and dad, my brother, my wife and me—hadn’t been able to reach an agreement on where to eat before heading for home, and so we’d eventually peeled away from the highway to trawl the fast food options at the unappealing edge of an out-of-town shopping mall. After about ten or fifteen fruitless and frustrating minutes we abandoned the idea and picked up a quieter road northwards, my parents remembering a wayside restaurant they’d once dined at on the way. No sooner had we slowed when glimpsing its sign in a rural hamlet than we saw it was closed. We were so much nearer to home by then that we considered just waiting out our hunger and fixing something to eat upon our return, but only a handful of miles further on a roadside diner loomed in the crisp spring light of the dwindling day, one of those large but homely places where supersize motorbikes stand in ranks outside and desserts are racked up on white metal shelves within the shelter of a curved plexiglass case, great wedges of lemon meringue and coconut cream pie, deep bowls of creamy rice pudding. After strong coffees and burgers, and a reluctant rain-check on desserts, we waved goodbye to the waitress as we swung the door wide and hit the road again, one of those unassuming back roads of Ontario that crisscross the province in strictly parallel and perpendicular lines like a sheet of graph paper had fallen from the sky, laid over a land of farms, fields and forests in a transparency of regimental order. And that’s when we first saw it, so sudden and surprising to us that its presence felt oddly unreal, like a decoy compelling drivers to slow.

Amherst Island

But if I think about it for a moment, I have to go back even further to understand the context for our being there at that precise time, for long before we’d struggled to find somewhere to eat, delayed here and there by a combination of indifference, indecision and closed businesses, we’d caught a later ferry than we’d intended, crossing from Amherst Island to Kingston on a boat that furrowed a glittering seam of white-edged blue through the chilled waters of Lake Ontario, having missed our ideal departure time because we were still searching for snowy owls and northern harriers on that windswept swell of land. And if a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks hadn’t appeared while we scoured a tangle of bare branches—the male’s startling scarlet bib so alluring as it pulsed through the worn brown woods that it kept us pinned to the path for a good quarter of an hour—we might just have made it. In fact, the more I think about it, we should have been on that earlier ferry irrespective of the rose-breasted grosbeaks but for the fact that we’d lost an entire hour in the morning by missing our crossing to Amherst Island from the mainland, badly misjudging the time it would take to reach the dock after relying too heavily on memory instead of the satnav and a map, both of which unequivocally told us that our remembered route would terminate in a dead-end nowhere near our destination, leaving us too little time to backtrack on our supposed certainties and follow our non-human guides to the ferry point in time. And if I’m really honest, I would need to scroll back to the night before the ferry if I’m to untangle the collective lack of clarity when it came to our chosen route that morning, back to the snug Kingston pub where we’d celebrated Mother’s Day with large platters of food, a cake and candles that we’d smuggled inside without my mum knowing, and a few too many beers and wines, the after-effects of which had seeped into the morning and slowed our minds. But of course I could go on forever, rolling back across the years through the countless daily decisions, diversions, vacillations and actions that ultimately help account for where we are at any given time, all the near misses and untaken decisions, all the random developments and decisive steps that steadily accrue into something resembling a narrative. But it’s a narrative that, but for a second or two here and there or a missed ferry and an extra drink, could be radically different in its composition and extensive catalogue of experiences. An entire lexical area in the dictionary has even been assigned to defining the possible nature of these minor yet consequential happenings: coincidence, good luck, bad timing, happenstance, accident, providence, chance, serendipity, fate, fortune and destiny. There are far fewer terms, however, to describe how the astonishing can regularly insinuate itself into the ordinary—how beauty and the everyday can easily blend.

Porcupine

Whatever words and ideas we might cleave to, all I know is that we were on that road at the precise moment our path intersected with another’s, a coyote struck with a cast of spring light known only from certain latitudes, the raking, slanted, longing light of the north, gin-clear and distilled from the memory of snow. We pulled over at the side of the road, called into the compressed stillness of the moment, the dense intangible solidity of space that seemed to inflect that simple field with grace as it rose from its grassy edge to a swell of coniferous trees. The coyote’s eyes as they watched us were bright and glimmering, as though they’d sieved sunlight from the air to save for seeing at night. And its strikingly large build, the brindled pelage of long rufous and grey fur and its prominent ears hinted at a possible descendent of the original coupling between the smaller coyote native to the southwest United States as it spread northwards around a century ago and the gray wolves of eastern Canada that were rapidly dwindling in number, the result being the eastern coyote, a substantially larger animal in its hybridised form.

Trout lily

Together we sat in the hushed spill of mystery, all eyes on this forceful presence that imbued the afternoon with a quality of wonder that’s easy to forget exists when faced with the routine aspects of a day, and I realised then that it was the first wild coyote I’d ever seen. If I were to subscribe to the idea of destiny it would be tempting to see all our previous diversions and distractions and delays, even the drinks at the pub the night before, as somehow redeemed by meaningful purpose, as though they were essential aspects to the eventual convergence, governed by a greater need. But what then of the coyote? Is its trajectory defined by destiny as well, or did it face the ordinary challenges of its day, leading to decisions and misjudgments that subtly recalibrated its way? What moments in those preceding hours, seasons and life it had led conspired to guide it to that field at such a time? Had it reluctantly shied away from its usual route that morning because a trio of lorries shipping timber from the vast forests of the north had barricaded the road when the first of them broke down? Did it decide to warily advance through a meltwater pool, usually too deep with spring tricklings from winter’s vanished snows to be safe, to a new hunting ground at the expense of one more secluded? Or did a tenacious vole evade capture by slinking further into the matted pale grasses in the sunless shadow of the trees, frustrating the coyote for a full half-hour, more time than its eventual reward was perhaps worth? And if so, if those minor details in the coyote’s life need to be considered in the context of our encounter, then what of the vole? What events in its brief, fevered existence had colluded in placing it in the coyote’s way at that particular point in time? And if the vole, then what? The lives of the lorry drivers and that year’s quanity of snow that led to the meltwater pool? There is no end to the web of connections.

Snowy owl

The coyote detached itself from the stillness and we watched it rise through the wet and shining field like a leaf flashing upwards through water. It wore light as if a garment, fitted seamlessly to skin. Shouldering its way towards the treeline, the coyote leaned back on its haunches like a family dog when it reached the top and faced us again, raising a back leg to scrape at some irritation behind its ears before yawning as if bored. We knew then that our roads were diverging again, steering us in separate directions. As the sun slipped further towards tomorrow, the sky beginning to flare with orange and red embers against a vault of cobalt blue, the coyote twisted round as it rose and slid as silently as smoke into the woods, each step the start of an unknowable new path. And our own way home, when we eventually let go of the field and carried on in the light of our crossed paths, had been remade in the shape of the world’s wonder.

Eastern coyote

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A Fragile Blue EdgeWreathed in egret-white waves, the rippled hills of the coast glittered in hot light. The sky was a flawless blue, a near match for the glazed and glistening sea. We walked on warm sand, sinking into the smooth sweep of dunes that were slowly on the move, cartwheeling south with the wind and waves towards Monterey Bay, one of the few active dune fields on the Californian coast. Songbirds called out a new season as our docent led us along a winding track towards Point Año Nuevo, a windswept spur of mudstone about 90 kilometres south of San Francisco. The docent stopped us in a saddle of sand to talk about the single species we’d all come to see. Ravens stitched a black weave across the sky as he spoke.

Dune and Sky

In The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle asks a question as relevant now as it was when he wrote the book in the early 1990s: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren.” In the book, Michael Pyle gives voice to an idea he calls the extinction of experience, the cycle of “disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavours of sensation in our own immediate surrounds.” He takes his childhood in Denver, Colorado as an example: a place where as a boy, and a budding lepidopterist, he came to know and love the natural world while recording an astonishing variety of butterfly species in the city spaces that had held on to the wild. He compares that diverse richness to the impoverished inventory of species which he records later in life after the rampant expansion of the city’s suburbs. Entire species that were common to him as a boy, and provided a way into relationship with the natural world, had completely vanished. As we stood in the hollow of the dunes, listening to the docent describe the fragile history of the species we were about to encounter, I realised that just beyond the ridge, where turkey vultures trailed shadows over the sand, was an animal which for a period of time had been both the condor and wren of Robert Michael Pyle’s analogy: a creature once common to the coast taken to the very edge of extinction, nearly paling into memory.

Ano Nuevo

After nearly two centuries of killing, only a hundred northern elephant seals existed in the entire world by 1922. They were the sole survivors of countless massacres of their kind, when entire sedentary colonies were slaughtered for the oil stored in the animal’s blubber – oil which helped fuel the Gold Rush and rapid expansion of settlement across the American West. Those hundred seals discovered on Guadalupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico, were declared a protected species by the Mexican government in 1922, a move followed by the United States a few years later. Since then, elephant seal colonies and numbers continue to grow, so that there are around 175,000 – 190,000 present in the world today, all tracing their lineage to a small island in the Pacific, an ancestral relict once common along the coast.

Elephant seal

We rose above the dunes, sharp light scattered like glass across the sea. Although it was the end of the breeding season, a number of elephant seals were still sprawled across the shore. Breeding was first recorded at Año Nuevo in 1961 and this year’s pups lay like plump sausages on the sand, occasionally humping forward with the flap of small, wing-like flippers to bask at a new angle. Mothers raise a single pup each year, fattening it with milk so rich her young will gain 150 kilos of weight in less than a month. When they finally push off from land, the young will run the gauntlet of great white sharks in the strait, the primary reason why only 50-60% of them will survive their first year. Until that race across the strait, they’re settled in sunlight and sand beside a few males and females still lingering at the end of the breeding season.

Island and strait

A male rode in like a king coming ashore. We’d seen him in the distance, bobbing and breaching with a twist of white water until he caught a necessary swell. Even the enormous energy of this ocean couldn’t carry him far. A male will weigh between 1800 and 2300 kg when it arrives at the beginning of the breeding season, losing around 500 kg by its finish. This one seemed stranded between worlds: the buoyant blue gloss of sea and the inflexible gravity of shore. The seal reared up in sudden, lumbering movement, a muscled torque of motion that held it steady on its torso. It was sphinx-like at the edge of the sea, gleaming in spray. The long, pendulous nose of its name was now visible as it heaved forward, a blubbery shuffle that brought it another metre onto shore.

Elephant seal male

Seen here, hauled out and dozing on sand, the elephant seals give little inkling of their oceanic lives and migrations. It is to the sea that they belong, the place where they spend the vast majority of their time, only coming ashore for specific needs. Leaving Año Nuevo after breeding, the females chart a coastal course northwards to Vancouver Island before veering into the deep Pacific, feeding on rays, squid, eels, fish and small sharks. Once far out in the ocean, capable of diving to a depth of 1550 metres and holding their breath for a hundred minutes underwater, they’ll loop southward, boomeranging back to Año Nuevo. The males travel even further, journeying as far north as Alaska where their westward curve follows the sprinkled trail of the Aleutian Islands. They’ll be far closer to Asia than their natal shore when they eventually turn for home, spearing across the deep sea for the Californian coast. As remarkable as these migrations are, long pelagic peregrinations that return them to the precise place of their birthing and breeding, the elephant seals make the journey twice each year: returning not only to breed but also to moult in the summer months before setting off seaward again, following that Pacific sea-path encoded deep in their blood and bones.

Elephant seal 2

The sea-light glittered, caught up in the sway and swell of waves. A few shorebirds hurtled westwards, nicking the rising white crests like skipping stones. The elephant seals basked and rolled at the edge of the water; a dead pup was pecked at by ravens and gulls. There was a strange beauty to being in the presence of such relics – a species descended from a single, remote island. Dependent upon such limited genetic material, there are worries about the future viability of the species and what the evolutionary consequences of descent from that solitary population might be, but for now they flourish on these coastal strands.

Shell midden

As we left the seals to weave back through the dunes, our docent pointed to a slope of sand salted with pale grains. An ancient place in the lee of a ridge, it was a shell midden of the Quiroste people, a group of the Ohlone Indians who had lived here seasonally for 6,000 years – hunting, fishing and gathering abalones and other shellfish from the sea. Like the elephant seals, the Quiroste communities along the coast were part of a living landscape that endured until European contact in the late 1700s decimated their numbers and ways of life. Through forced baptism and settlement in Spanish missions around Santa Cruz, the Quiroste as a people disappeared to nearly nothing. A black oystercatcher whistled from the sea while we stood there, its rising song breaking the spell of sand and shells, leading us back into a day of brilliant, unbroken blue.

Blue beach

Sand

 

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For an audio version of ‘In the Eyes of a Bear’ please press the play button:

In the Eyes of a BearAs the sun rose over the mountains, I walked a treeless ridge that buckled into the hazy distance. A vast summer sky cradled a few threads of cloud and a warm breeze rolled over my shoulders. Skylark song sparkled like sunlit rain above the meadows. The alpine world was bursting into song, the brief, ecstatic season when the mountain’s granite bones are clothed in wildflowers and butterflies. It was a morning of bird monitoring for me, and as I neared the place where I’d spend the coming hours watching the skies around the wind farm for raptors, pelicans and ravens, a creature unexpectedly stepped into sunlight ahead of me.

I’d always imagined that my first real encounter with a European brown bear would unfold in a forest. It’s where our legends and myths tell us they live, deep in the dark and leafy heart of the remnant wild. And over the years, it’s where I’ve most often found their prints, large and looming in the yielding earth, big enough to make my hand suddenly resemble a child’s in comparison. Forest raspberry canes are stripped clean of their fruit within days of ripening and high claw marks decorate those trees chosen as scratching posts. Mounds of bear dung mark the woodland floor like native cairns, their varying constituents an inventory of the seasons: plum stones, beetle wings and rosehips; apple pips, wasp heads and fur. Seeing these signs is a reminder: that for all that is solitary about my walks, this world is shared and sentient beyond measure.

Skylark nest

So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the animal in the meadow that for the slenderest of moments I had no idea what I was looking at, whether some giant feral dog or a strange hybrid of creatures more common to me. It had lumbered into view from behind a rocky outcrop, stepping up onto a stone in front of me to settle in sunlight. That momentary flicker of uncertainty was eclipsed by a blazing clarity, as if the scene had suddenly been floodlit and telescoped into focus: only fifteen metres of mountain meadow separated me from a brown bear. My mind suddenly emptied, a clear and continuous space in which all I could hear was my heart, like the quivering thrum of an arrow in the moments after hitting its target. From its low saddle of stone the bear eyed me in the meadow, and the wild rushed in like a river.

Wild slope

Although the sun was still low in the sky, it was rising with summer fire. The sunlight reached my back and flared past, illuminating the bear in fine detail, its eyes magnified to dark pools. In his book Becoming Animal, David Abram says that “reciprocity is the very structure of perception.” To look into the eyes of a wild creature is to enter into a relationship, a shared exchange carried out over common ground. For all that we praise and rightfully honour the other senses, sight remains for humans the most elevated of perceptual tools. It’s how we tend to map and render the world. Peering into the reflective gleam of a frog at ease on both land and water, or to look between the ancient, knowing lids of a tortoise sheltered within its shell, is to be offered the possibility of empathy, of imagining a remarkable life and lineage vastly different to our own. But there in the bright meadow, looking back at the bear as it stared at me intently, I felt no tingle of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Awe and fear had filled me, in equal measure, leaving no space for anything else.

Mountain road

The light poured over the mountains until the bear was enthroned in summer glow. Its fur was more grizzled than brown, sleek and shimmering, as if each length of hair was tipped by a silver shard. Dark rings encircled its eyes and waves of muscle rolled through its shoulders when it moved. It nodded the air with its black muzzle, picking up whatever traces of adrenaline and fear were seeping through me. Although on all fours it would have stood waist-height against me, it appeared to be a young bear on the very cusp of adulthood, and I was sure its mother was near. I turned slowly in search of her, the space between the bear and I seeming even smaller than before when I considered the consequences of coming between the two – all that a threat to a mother’s long labour of blood and nourishing would entail – to see only an empty meadow rippling with wildflowers and wind. Feeling the bear’s stare deepen inside me, I began backing up slowly into sunlight.

Wildflower meadow

For as long as we’ve depicted animals on cave walls and shared language around fires, stories of our relationship to the wild kingdom have helped render this world sensible and meaningful to our human consciousness. They’ve also been practical guides, of vital importance for survival. But on that ridge of rising summer light, only a short and startling distance from an animal more than equal to myself, I finally understood something of what the philosopher Krishnamurti meant when he wrote that “the description is not the described, the word is not the thing.” No amount of stories about our wild inheritance could prepare me for its actuality, the arising of our animal essence. From the moment the bear appeared my skin was electric, every last hair bristling and alive. My entire body felt charged with a taut pulse, as if no longer flesh but a conductor of pure, necessary energy. I acted with little thought, my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level, the same kind of instinctiveness that our ancestors must have experienced. That immediate, visceral response to the near presence of the bear was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. I was no longer the dominant species, all the assumptions and riches of human culture fallen away, like the stripped-back bones of these mountains before summer brings its flourish of colour. All that was ever wild remains within us.

Fritillary

For whatever reason, the bear suddenly startled. There’d been no sound or sign of a mother in the end, so that only the two of us shared that alpine world. It may have finally seen my dark silhouette emerge from the blinding glare as the sun rose higher, or picked up an additional scent on the wind, some pungent, primitive smell of mine that resonated with its genetic inheritance, the stories its species carries in blood and bone. The bear padded off the rock to hit the meadow in full flight, charged with electric intensity as I retreated with slow steps. It thumped across the unfolding summer flowers, scattering butterflies that drifted up into the air. Silence welled up to fill the long, hollow seconds until the bear sheered away, hurtling down the slope of bilberries and meadow grasses. The echo of its run beat like a drum across the miles, and all I could do was stand still in the sunlight, breathing, breathing, breathing, as skylark song fell about me like rain.

Varnoundas wind farm

It’s been a quieter year at Notes from Near and Far, so I’d like to take this opportunity with the last post of 2013 to thank you all for sticking with the blog. The Small Heart of Things, and an upcoming book tour on the west coast of North America on its behalf, has taken up much of my time this year, so my apologies for the less frequent posts. I’m extremely delighted and honoured by the positive reception the book’s been receiving so far. For anyone who is interested, or who would like to know a little more about the book, recent reviews for it can be read via the following links at The Rumpus, The Iowa Review and The Baptist Times, or via the Press page here on the blog.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued interest in Notes from Near and Far. I’m extremely grateful for the conversations and connections that have been made here, and for the sense of shared community. With the last days of the year upon us, my very best wishes to all for a creative, inspiring and joyful 2014, wherever you may be.

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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…

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Between winter and true spring are days of strange emergence. The landscape is in limbo, neither one season nor the next. Mammals explore the light, as well as the night. Only a few meagre wildflowers surface into the world, but when they do they do so with extravagance. And each year, around this time, I walk a stretch of the coast that runs along the southern edge of Great Prespa Lake to see what I can find.

The wildcat was hunting in the open, at the edge of the scrub. When I crested into view it vanished without a look. Just the memory of its fleeting, muscular presence and dark, ringed tail lingered behind. But the fox wasn’t nearly as wary. I spotted it along the strand, pawing at the beach for grubs. It casually roamed the wrack, a fluffed-up, rust-red tail trailing each of its steps. The animal was gradually making its way towards me, interrupted by lengthy investigations of the shore. I crouched down into thick reeds that backed away from the water to wait. I watched newly hatched marsh flies tangling in the air, the early spring light skimming the still water.

Twenty minutes later and there was no sign of the fox; it must have turned back or burrowed into the reedbed. I stood slowly and peered around the corner of the reeds. The fox had halved the gap between us and was walking on water, using pieces of driftwood as a series of pontoons. When it slipped, and a foreleg slid into the lake, it gave up its quest. Turning back for the shore, it started my way again.

I retreated into the reeds. I didn’t have to wait long this time; the sound of shifting beach shells grew steadily louder. When the fox turned the corner where I hid we were only a  few feet apart. It’s head was held at a curious angle, an inquisitive slant. I suppose mine must have looked quite similar. For a few, suspended moments there was no trace of fear in its small, black eyes. We stared at one another with what seemed like mutual surprise – a shared encounter at the edge of the lake. The fox then straightened its head and bolted swiftly away, racing along the shore the way it had come.

There were so few wildflowers, or colour in the land at all, that the wild almonds near the lake flamed like a beacon far and wide. Thousands of awakened wasps and bees fizzed around them, congregating on the only blossom they could find.

After a winter of heavy rains and snow the lake level was far higher than usual. I’d brought rubber boots, and needed them immediately. Trudging along the shore, I waded through deep, marshy pools. The fox reappeared after a crashing dash through the reeds, streaking at speed into the distance. I soon came to a deep thicket of reeds myself – they’d cut off the shore, spanning the marsh on my left and the lake to my right. I stepped into them, not wanting to turn back, and kept my head down as I went.

I began breathing in reed seeds and hacked them back up. Bits of chaff found their way inside my clothes; I felt the rashes rising. There seemed to be no end to the reed bed. Unlike other years, when I’ve walked the length of the coast, the lake level had left me stranded in a difficult habitat, without knowing a way out. I decided to carry on, and a few minutes later a path appeared by my side. It had been hewn neatly from the reeds, the tall brittle stalks flattened like fallen trees. It was an otter path, a slim corridor from den to dinner table. The path was too serendipitous to ignore; it was, after all, the otter’s place, not mine. Their knowledge is far greater than anything I might learn here. I walked on otter ground, grateful for its exacting ways.

At the edge of the marsh I saw that my rubber boots would be of no use; the water was far too deep for them. So I removed my boots and socks, rolled up my trousers as far as they would go, and waded in. The water was winter-cold and numbing, but the otter had crafted a clear route to the other side. Emerging from the marsh, I walked on a path of flattened reeds again and wondered, come evening, what the animal would make of my strange, intruding scent.

The silver birch forest beside the lake was still awaiting leaves. The branch tips blazed red, and the white bark glowed with the lowering sun. The silence of the damp woods was magnetic, like an electric pulse or energy circulating invisibly within it. I’d thought of threading through the trees, forging a way back via the forest, but something in the silence changed my mind. I wished to leave the stillness intact.

When I started back on a track beside the woods a brown hare thumped from the reeds, tattooing a long crescent in the sand before dissolving back into scrub. Dusk flooded the day and a crisp, still-winter chill swept in with the dark. I picked up a path that took me away from the lake and left the shore, the silence and the secrets behind.

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