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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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Beatrice HarrisonOn May 19th 1924, the BBC made history with its first live broadcast of a wild animal, setting its microphones and sound equipment in the leafy Surrey garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison as she performed a duet with a nightingale. Against all of the expectations of BBC founder Lord Reith at the time, who reluctantly agreed to the idea despite believing the nightingale would be an uncooperative prima donna in its role, the broadcast proved profoundly entrancing, commanding an estimated audience of a million listeners and making Harrison internationally renowned. She was the recipient of 50,000 pieces of fan mail in response to the serenades, some of them addressed simply to The Nightingale Lady. Staying faithful to the precise date and place —even after Harrison eventually moved houses and the nightingales became the sole performers— that day marked the beginning of a yearly broadcast tradition that lasted until 1942 when the Second World War abruptly intervened. On May 19th of that year, as BBC sound engineers were about to go live to an expectant audience with nightingales on the airwaves again, a squadron of RAF planes loomed into the Surrey sky. Comprising 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers, the squadron was flying east towards Mannheim in Germany on a bombing raid at the height of the war. Realising that a live broadcast of the aircraft could easily compromise the mission if being listened to in Germany, the sound engineers swiftly cut the feed.

Bee orchid

Although that temporary confluence of bombers and nightingales was never aired, an archive recording of the day still exists. On one side of the disc can be heard the drone of the departing aircraft as they pass over the garden, while the other has them returning in the aftermath of the raid, minus the eleven planes that went missing on the mission. Both are woven with singular and soaring song. I know of few more poignant and haunting sounds than those brief minutes when nightingales, singing in search of a mate after their long and arduous journey from Africa, share the spring air with a dense flock of bombers. There is a compressed fragility to it all — a tense, suspended beauty, as if that particular point in time was held momentarily in balance, tilted so easily into oblivion. Above the ecstatic, pulsing songs gathers the murmur of distant aircraft on the horizon. Merely a purr at first, something at the very edge of hearing, the sound rises to an ominous drone until it’s nearly equal to the nightingales in volume, underpinning their songs with a deep and continuous thrum before fading like smoke into the distance. Theirs is a brief and unusual unison, the strange, hypnotic braiding of sentience and machine, a moving threnody to life, struggle and death.

Victorian munitions vaults

That recording, now 74 years old, resonated greatly with me this past June when I joined a group of artists, ecologists, writers, historians and photographers in Kent for a project entitled Reimagining Lost Landscapes. Brought together by a charity called People Need Nature, we’d been asked to explore and reflect upon the former military base of Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsula, recording and documenting its cultural and natural aspects while considering its various values, whether historic, environmental or spiritual. Along with eleven other military bases, Lodge Hill is mothballed and being disposed of by the Ministry of Defence as it aligns itself with new strategic realities and financial concerns, shedding some of its extensive portfolio in the process. Currently in the hands of the government’s Homes and Communities Agency and, depending on the outcome of a public inquiry in 2018, potentially slated to be the site of a new town consisting of up to 5,000 houses according to proposals by Medway Council, it’s a large and extraordinary place spread along the ridge of the peninsula and partially nested within a wooded vale. Utilised by the military for a variety of purposes over the decades, Lodge Hill also teems with impressive natural habitats that are inextricably bound up with spaces of human use. So interwoven are they that it’s impossible to untangle them, much like those two strands of sound that coalesce on the recording, a recording that never seemed far away as we explored the base in sharp sunlight and drenching summer rains. As the stronghold of Britain’s dwindling nightingales, Lodge Hill is listed as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest on their behalf, supporting 1% of the nation’s entire population. And so those few, unrepeatable minutes in a Surrey garden, magnified by time and lent depth by distance, came to embody the place for me, the long-twined histories of nature and war.

Lodge Hill meadowDyer's greenweed

From the moment we began our obligatory safety induction at the gatehouse, the worlds of natural and military history appeared to coincide, like parallel lines running together in the distance. As though a field guide to an unfamiliar country, we were shown through a ring binder of explosive ordnance that could still be potentially encountered on site. We might have been leafing through a book of orchids, waders or wildflowers the way each of the images entranced —the subjects of the photographs as startlingly vivid in their forms and features as their natural history equivalents— but the security guard named a checklist of species that had none of their sensuous appeal: artillery projectile, anti-personnel landmine, area denial sub-munition, air-dropped high explosive. It was a field guide that focussed awareness more than most, revealing the essence of the site’s history right back to its beginning.

Grizzled skipper

Designed as a naval magazine for the storage of munitions in 1870, Lodge Hill brims with the historical signifiers of its times. As an active base for over 130 years, being there is like watching archive film projected onto the landscape, gathered together and sequenced by era. From the grand Victorian vaults of elegant brickwork and arched windows to Britain’s first anti-aircraft battery, built to protect the munitions stores and still standing in ghostly ruins atop a ridge since 1913, the place takes you through successive ages within a matter of steps. There is no forewarning or sign as to what you might discover next. By the time you reach a replica street, screened by dense woodland and scattered with bee orchids and wild bee hives, you’ve arrived in Belfast during the Troubles. By then Lodge Hill had been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Navy to the Army, and this facsimile housing estate, as detailed and convincing as a Hollywood set, was raised to train soldiers in guerrilla tactics, urban warfare and bomb disposal techniques before being stationed in Northern Ireland. The scene is unnervingly authentic down to its smallest touches — the neighbourly back gardens where it’s easy to imagine people chatting across fences over morning tea, the block of public toilets graced with Ladies and Gents signs, and the startling IRA mural of a Republican fighter painted on a wall at one end of the terraced houses. Only a few hundred feet away, or one street over in the scheme of things, the base’s Newry Road, signposted in the same manner as the parallel world that exists outside the base, must have been recast in the 1990s in light of new military priorities and done up with corrugated metal siding and flypostered with fading images of Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Conjuring the mirage of a Middle Eastern city for Gulf War training purposes seemed futile amidst the sheeting English rain, the inescapable absurdity of imitating a region of deserts amidst the lush tangle of brambles and wild roses, yet those posters of bin Laden and the Ayatollah, their eyes scrapped away to the silver metal beneath, chilled all the same. Wherever you go in Lodge Hill, you feel as though you’re somewhere else as well.

Osama bin Laden, Lodge Hill

For obvious strategic reasons, military bases have an essential secretiveness about them, a discreetness that wraps them like bark. It’s what lends an element of the surreal to exploring one, where an ominous and unnerving street from conflict-scarred Belfast can sit alongside more commonplace sectors where wall-building and truck-loading are practiced, the utilitarian, but no less essential, aspects of warfare within a training regime. Though heavily invested in their operations as citizens of the nation they’re meant to protect, we know very little of the minutiae that compose a military site. They exist necessarily beyond the public gaze, publicity-shy places cordoned off behind high metal fences and barbed wire, and kept insulated from the larger tides of livelihood and land use that have swept across the countryside. They’re of our world, and yet different – managed in accordance with rules and requirements not reliant on the chemical needs of intensive agriculture or the economic pressures for growth and development. They’re maintained for combat and conflict in their many guises, and sometimes that essential difference in intent inadvertently produces habitats especially conducive to wildlife.

Northern Irish street

Soon after stepping into a sloping meadow beyond the gatehouse, species which are uncommon, or in serious decline, across Britain began appearing as we walked. In bursts of scattered June sunlight, dyer’s greenweed glowed yellow amidst the grasses, increasingly rare grizzled skipper butterflies skimmed the flowers of creeping buttercup and stitchwort, and a brown-banded carder bee was swept up in a net by entomologist Steven Falk, a species that has vanished from most counties and declined by as much as 70-80% since the 1950s. As well as being rich and important repositories of military history, sites with significant cultural value where important aspects of the nation’s military and political past, and in many cases its future, have been forged over a long period of time, active and former bases often exist as islands of diversity in a sea of increasing biological paucity. They’re places that, in more ways than one, remember the past, frequently acting as home to creatures that are being gradually cast out from the countryside. “Scarcer bumblebees speak a lot about landscape quality,” said Steven, holding the carder bee in a plastic tube for us all to see. “They need large amounts of the right flowers from spring until autumn across vast areas, so bumblebees effectively act as barometers of environmental quality.” Steven removed the lid from the tube. “This is as important as a nightingale,” he said, releasing the bee on the wind.

Brown-banded carder bee

From the flower-spun meadow I’d heard a few snatches of far nightingale song followed by silence, the kind of silence that H.E. Bates described in 1936 as the “breathless hushed interval,” but it wasn’t until we’d dropped down through the rippling grasses that we finally heard one up close. It’s a song that’s irrevocably slipping away, like sand in an hourglass. Having “lost 43% of its former range and declined over 90% since the 1960s,” the British Trust for Ornithology believes the nightingale could be extinct in the UK within the next two to three decades. But despite its staggering national decline, Lodge Hill remains home to a significant number of its kind, hosting around 80 pairs, the most to be found in any one place in Britain, partially as a result of the former military management of the land for bomb disposal training. Clear-cuts were mown in parallel lines through scrub where soldiers practiced the craft of defusing, leaving dense thickets to develop between them, unintentionally producing the ideal habitat for nightingales, a suite of dense scrub and clearings, a world of multiple edges where the bird can easily command territory, nest and feed in safety. While the base has emptied of soldiers, the nightingales, for now, remain.

Bomb-defusing zone

Storage bays

There is no wild song in Europe that’s been more revered down the centuries that the nightingale’s, honoured and praised by such poets and philosophers as Keats, Milton and Pliny, and tuned in to by a million people on their wireless sets in 1924 to hear a single bird duet with a cellist, or listened to down phone lines to the living rooms of relatives by those without radios that day. In his book The South Country, Edward Thomas encapsulates this veneration when he writes that nightingale song reminds us that “earth is something more than a human estate, that there are things not human yet of great honour and power in this world.” And yet while much of the country falls increasingly silent of their irrepressible and celebrated refrain, becoming reliant on poems, recordings and stories of the bird instead, as if solely a museum piece rather than a living, breathing creature, here was a place where it still rings as clear as water from the copses and scrub each spring, that spill of rolling, trance-like notes and staccato trills, the swelling and mesmeric spell cast by such a small and physically inconspicuous thing.

Sedum

Republican mural, Lodge Hill

Though we were meant to be considering loss during our time on site, what might vanish if Lodge Hill is to be developed into a town of 5,000 homes, it was the currency of gain that seemed more appropriate to acknowledge. Behind those high fences and walls that have sealed Lodge Hill from public view for over 130 years is a place of singular and unexpected wealth, a mosaic of deserving historical value, natural profusion and remarkable military interest. It’s a reminder of times long gone, but also a place of refuge and resilience in a contemporary sense, harbouring a richness that has often gone missing from other landscapes as a result of agricultural practices and development. And in the case of a remarkable wild bird it’s a place of strange fortuity, where bombs and nightingales are once again entwined, enabling a species to locally thrive amidst its national diminishment. As we explored Lodge Hill I couldn’t help but think of that day in May of 1942, how together the bombers and birds evoke something other than their individual sounds customarily do, those things of “great honour and power in this world.” Instead it’s a hymn to fragility, to all that is insubstantial and unrecoverable about these lives and environments, reminding us of how tenuous everything is. But as those eleven aircraft fell flaming to earth, and explosions tore open the city of Mannheim from the sky, the nightingales continued to sing loyally into the Surrey air for a mate, a world away, yet unmistakeably belonging to it and necessary as well.

This piece was written for People Need Nature after visits to Lodge Hill in Kent in 2015 and 2016. This non-profit organisation celebrates the connections that exist between humans and the natural world, recognising the myriad benefits of our varied relationships to it, and seeking to renew ties where they’ve come undone, frayed or threatened. The fate of Lodge Hill and its rare nightingales, alongside its protected landscape and valuable mosaic of military and historical features, will be decided by a public inquiry in 2018. In the meantime, if you wish to add your voice to the discussion of the future plans for Lodge Hill, Medway Council in Kent has announced a public consultation regarding their proposals for building homes on the site which will close on March 6, 2017. You can send a message through the RSPB’s Lodge Hill e-action, email directly to the Medway Council at futuremedway@medway.gov.uk or by filling in the online form at Medway Council’s own website.

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“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”  

                                            ~ Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928           

All images can be enlarged by clicking on them:                                        

Murmuration, Brighton Pier

Murmuration 2

Murmuration 4

Murmuration 5

Murmuration 6

Murmuration 7

Murmuration 8

Murmuration 9

Murmuration is the word given to congregating starlings, those beautiful and mesmeric gatherings that mark nightfall in winter as the birds shoal together before vanishing as if they were long ribbons being spooled into their communal roost. In recent years, though, these astonishing and graceful assemblies have thinned across the starling’s native European range as the species has suffered a steep decline due to a loss of pasture, the increased use of chemicals on agricultural fields, and fewer nesting and feeding sites being available in a rapidly changing landscape. In the UK alone, as much as 80% of the nation’s starlings have been lost in recent years. While billowing black clouds of them could once been seen swirling over London, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast, only a few urban flocks of such significance can still be witnessed today. And the beauty of the murmuration off the coast at Brighton is as much about the large number of people that stop to watch the dance and weave of birds over the sea at dusk – people of all ages, colours and backgrounds, most of them on the pier for the fun fair, fish and chip stands, arcade games and ice cream stalls that are strung along its length, a reminder of the wild and transformative spells cast by those “other nations,” the animals in our midst, “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

Click on the image below to see a short video of the Brighton Pier starlings:

Murmuration 10

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Next month I’ll be travelling to North America for a series of book readings on behalf of The Small Heart of Things. Full details are listed on the events page and all readings are public, so do come along if you’re free and in the area. I’d be very grateful if you could share the events with any friends who might be interested as well. Looking forward to seeing some of you soon – many thanks!

April 6th: 57th Street Books, Chicago, 6PM
April 8th: Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA, 7PM
April 10th: Iowa State University, Ames, IA, 7PM
April 14th: Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 7PM
April 21st: Another Story Bookstore, Toronto, ON, 7PM

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Bee-orchidThere are days that fall easily into two seasons, opening with a shimmer of spring heat before leaning back into winter-cold skies and bitter winds by their end, as if at the last moment a set of scales was tilted with the addition of a final, decisive weight. There’s little that is predictable about this span of turning time; perhaps uncertainty itself is the only thing we can be sure of when it comes to the weather – that a day of sunburn and sandals in the garden can just as easily be followed by a fall of brilliant snow as by another decadent show of burnished light. At times it can feel like we’re riding a seesaw throughout the day, never gaining more than a few hours of stillness at either end. Inconstancy is the mid-season’s sole promise.

PrimrosesEdges

Yet beneath this vivid and unsettled surface of weather, the abrupt and dramatic variations that visibly define this in-between time, there’s a constant murmur of transformations, the unseen but steadfast shift towards spring. Birds set sail on their long migratory journeys out of sight from us, triggered for the most part by changes in the length of daylight at their departure points, arriving with us one day as if conjured out of thin air after crossing countries, continents and countless travails. Sap rises invisibly through trees, the roots sponging up water, nutrients and minerals from the deep dark earth until we notice the swelling green buds and remember the shape of leaves. The streams in the valley ripple fast, suddenly bolstered by snowmelt that has trickled into rivulets and ravines from the high surrounding slopes, each flake condensed into a cumulative cascade of water by warming air. Even beneath us, after snow squalls and throughout ice-fastened nights, corms, bulbs, rhizomes and roots are pushing new shoots through the cold soil to spear towards a far star. Cusped on the threshold of a new season, we’re witness to just a sliver of this wondrous becoming.

Crocus in snow

Easter, Lesser Prespa Lake

Last week friends came to stay after days of blustery snow heralded the sunlit white blizzard of wild blossom. Their ten-month old son, Nojus, was at that in-between age when he craved more than just crawling but couldn’t yet walk on his own. Instead he hitched himself to a low table or chair for support, hesitantly stepping sideways while holding on with his hands, as if clinging to a narrow cliff ledge high above a canyon. Whenever his mother or father helped him, though, he would strike out with visible glee, jettisoning the table or chair as if it were unnecessary ballast, moving forward in thrall to procession, the simple and timeless joy of steps. I watched how his tiny legs wavered and wobbled, suddenly buckling and crumpling unexpectedly beneath him. And I saw how a deep and infectious smile spread brightly across his face when he rose up on each new attempt. Crawling no longer seemed to fit him whenever he scrambled across the floor again, as though it were just the last days of an old season before the new one began. And then one evening, while his father guided him away from the lamp in the corner of the room that endlessly fascinated him, there was something different about the way Nojus’ legs moved with each step. Something solid and articulate, something secure. “He has so much more strength in his legs,” said his father. “He couldn’t do this at all yesterday.”

Primroses in snow

Hellebore wearing a hat of oak leaves

The pale promise of primroses light the riversides like lowered lanterns. Overnight they could be buried by sudden snow, but at midday, in the sun-melted spaces, a soft petal-glow will shine through, a delicate and persistent gleam. Nightingales are back in the valley again, their bright, staccato songs splashed in a spill of sun; and the silence between phrases, the shaped and beautiful waiting. Swallows zing across the sky like gusts of wind and woodlark song falls like a slow and melancholy rain from the suddenly green hills, all those spears of grass angling skyward, just like the risen hellebore that I find wearing a hat of oak leaves. Willows are crowned by vernal light, each uncurling leaf inscribed by sun along its edges. Throughout the valley a snowstorm of white blossom froths in the cool winds that slope from the mountains, releasing a dazzle of sweet scent that hauls in bees like a net. We are at the edge of the turning world, when days waver like a spun coin until the weight of incalculable change finally tips us into spring. And when I next see our friends’ son he’ll be deep into a new season, walking his small corner of world on his own.

Sun sliver

Blossom season, Great Prespa Lake

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“The least I can do is keep my eyes open. Attention is what I want to spend. I don’t ever want to feel inside me a whole storehouse of unused binoculars, magnifying glasses, telescopes.”

~ Barbara Hurd, ‘Sea Stars,’ Walking the Wrack Line

Walnut in snow

Here in the mountains of northern Greece, we never know what kind of a winter we’ll have until it’s over. In some years deep snow mantles the valleys and slopes like a rippling white sheet has been thrown over the world, the temperatures steadily sinking until the smaller of the two nearby lakes is glazed with ice and our village water pipes freeze solid until spring. In other years, though, winter simply feels like a long extension of autumn, when lizards continue to scatter over the stony hillsides and butterflies drift through the pale and slanting light, worn to a faded memory of their earlier sheen, as if in deference to the supposed season.

This winter has been one of the hard ones so far; the kind of winter when wild snowstorms are followed by a piercingly cold brilliance – the night skies so deep and refulgent that the clarity of vaulted starlight is haunting. But these winters, however beautiful and stilling I find them myself, are tough on the wild species we share this valley with, and so just before Christmas I hung our bird feeders from the snow-sleeved apple trees in the garden and loaded them with seeds. It took a few days for any birds to find them, the feeders swaying like censers in the whistling mountain winds, but when they did, their calls went out across the valley, echo after echo until a carnival of winged creatures turned up one morning in the snow.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

The main beneficiary of the bird feeders is the great tit. A relative of the North American chickadee, the great tit is one of the commonest species that exists here, an everyday sight around the village in any season. It’s joined in these roving winter flocks by birds that are no less unusual to this valley – chaffinches and tree sparrows that love to feed on the spill of small seeds at the foot of the trees. We’re so used to these particular birds that it’s easy for them to go unremarked, to see them simply as part of the outdoor furniture. The usual suspects – that’s what my wife and I often call them when we ask one another if there’s anything on the feeders.

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Last March I travelled down the west coast of the United States on a book tour. It was my first time in that particular part of the world and everything about the journey – the people, places, landscapes and wildlife – was new to me, brushed with a unique light, the unmistakeable signature of first experience. My days carried a corresponding intensity. One of my stops that month was in Corvallis, Oregon, where I stayed with my friends Charles and Kapa. Along with their generous hospitality, and our long conversations and shared laughter, something else of that stay stands out for me: my time spent watching their bird feeder.

Charles has a ground-floor study facing the garden and he’s hung a bird feeder just beyond the window. Leaving for work one morning, he kindly said I could use the space to get a close view of its visitors. I settled in that morning with a mug of coffee and a field guide, and within minutes that simple pane of glass that framed a feeder had become a window onto another world. Something small flew in and foraged seed from the ground. It was black-eyed and shy, keeping close to the edges, the same cryptic colour as falling dusk. Another bird arrived, sporting rich chestnut flanks and startling ruby eyes beaded black at their cores. I watched, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of these birds that were new to me. As I turned the pages of the field guide, trying to assign names to a cast of colours, shapes and sizes, a bright flash caught my eye. I looked up from the book to see a large bird of deepest azure peering in from the other side of the glass. It carried the wash of a glacial lake on its head, tail and wings, as if an emissary from the far north. It sprung from the feeder and oared away on its own river of blue, but those few seconds in its presence were magnetic.

Snow on the plain

Charles asked me how I’d got on when he returned from work that afternoon. My excitement and delight must have been noticeable as I rattled on about the birds that had graced my day, their names alone a litany of mystery to me: dark-eyed junco, rufous-sided towhee, scrub jay. It turns out – and I should have known, given that it was a garden feeder – that these birds are some of the commonest around, the everyday Oregon equivalents of our great tits, chaffinches and tree sparrows. But that morning, staring through a pane of glass at a suite of elegant and astonishing creatures that were completely new to me, they were anything but ordinary. We tend to honour the first of things in our perceptual experience, elevating newness over repetition, rarity over regularity. It’s the novelty of the encounter that often sharpens its impression for us. Of course no matter how frequently we see a particular bird, becoming so used to its presence that we can sometimes turn indifferent to it in the process, the bird itself never alters at all.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

Whenever I look out the window in the direction of the apple trees I try to keep that bird feeder in Oregon in mind, as if it were my first time in this snow-filled valley instead of being midway through my fifteenth winter here. I watch the great tits with the same keenness of eye that saw juncos, towhees and scrub jays blaze into my world as if forged new from a fire, resolving to be attentive not only to the things that are unexpected, but to those that are ever-present as well. The great tits are a blur of steely-blue wings against the snow, jackhammering sunflower seeds against the limbs of the tree. They send the bird feeders spinning like merry-go-rounds when they land on them at speed, twirling together until they finally slow, their feathers the colour of lemon peel and coal. I’ll see these birds throughout the year, long after I’ve cleaned the feeders and hung them from a beam in the shed, wondering what kind of winter will grace us next time around; creatures so commonplace that they’ll put in daily appearances as I sow and weed the garden and then harvest its fruits, but no less wondrous for their familiar and predictable presence.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

This post first appeared on Jana Svoboda’s Tiny Resolutions series on her blog Door Number Two. Many thanks to Jana for inviting me to write for it!

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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.

Succulents

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

Meteora

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.

Kastraki

Ravine

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.

Monaster

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

Offerings

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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