Archive for the ‘Prespa’ Category

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.


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 Stone CoastFor centuries men cloistered here, monastic, remote, alone. Men who’d shed some of the world as a way of contemplating its essence, stricter in their spiritual devotion to it. At the edge of this high mountain lake, they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made recognisable by what is no longer there. Made meaningful by the things that are let go.

Pale as the winter moon at its tip, this crescent coast mottles to mineral brown as it bends south. A curve of limestone bluffs, trellised with creepers and fugitive trees, an anchor for the ancient junipers that grow gnarled and woven on its surface. A few weeks ago, when I last stood on the peninsula, the lake was bathed in pewter light, misted and mysterious. Ahead of me, like a moat-ringed citadel, rose the island of Golem Grad, dark and magnetic in the distance. Thousands of great crested grebes floated on the worn glitter of the waves, drawn to this singular place, the deepest part of Great Prespa Lake, to feed on the endemic bleak that dwell there in winter. Each year the fish gather in deep uvalas, the karstic underwater depressions that lay off the tip of Cape Roti, enticing the grebes with their vast, shoaling presence. A siren song from beneath the waves.

Looking south

It’s long been a dwelling place, this stone coast. The stilted cliffs are fissured with caves that house colonies of chambered bats and otters course the shore, denning in dark, coastal hollows. But the relics of human residency can be found here as well, seen in the collapsing monks’ cells and fading frescoes of saints on the cliff faces, the peninsular chapels enclosed by stone. The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis was raised in the 13th century, built into the cliffs at a time when the lake’s water level was almost certainly higher. Encircled by high mountains, and more isolated than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this peninsula, including two further hermitages built along its shore in the 15th century, became a centre for spiritual solitude, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Rock flowers

Hermitage, at distance

They dwelled in stone, these men. While some hermits homed inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. In the summer crush of light, all the heat of the season is gathered by the suntrap of the cliffs, reflected until it wearies with its sharp intensity, its arid indifference. The sun is no consolation at its height here; it is as relentless as winter. The white stones could be coals underfoot, and sunlight fires the cliffs to a brilliant, blinding glare. The heat is dry and withering, and I wonder if that is what the monks sought here: to live with the light of their desert fathers.

Winter light

The monks’ lives were composed of prayer and contemplation, a persistent devotion to scriptural study, and the constant toil for provisions. They must have sown seeds on the surface of the cliffs, nurturing sparse crops in the thin soil between stones and trees, and journeyed across the water to collect stores from lakeside villages. But mostly they must have fished to survive on this seam of rock. As they rowed away from the hermitages, they would have passed pygmy cormorants standing like dark crosses on the stones, their still, outstretched wings drying in sunlight and wind. They’ll have heard the whirr of wings when pelicans kept close to the coast, as if charting its bends and bays, marking a map held in ancestral memory. A memory that once told of monks.

Hermitage, close up

Across the lake

In winter, the vaulted sky over the peninsula can be a bruise that doesn’t heal, the clouds edged for days in violet and dark blue. The monks would have shivered into a thicker, rougher set of robes with the coming of the cold, facing the wail of snow until the skin around their eyes was raw from it, scraped into red weals as if with the edge of a blade. They would have rowed from the hermitage to the waters off the cape, to the same deep places where thousands of grebes still gather for the same reason, in search of silver glinting fish long after the monks have gone. With fingers gone numb from hauling their iced nets into boats, and no longer able to endure the cold needling ever deeper inside them, the men landed their catch on the coast, dragging their skiffs through deepening snow, tying them down with rope. Some say smugglers bring cigarettes ashore in this place now, and the rings of black, fire-singed stones that I sometimes find could be evidence of those landings. But it’s the older tenants of these cliffs that I think of when I’m there. Somewhere on that peninsula, where it tilts into the blue bowl of the lake or beneath the ancient, woven junipers foresting the flats, some of these monks must be buried. A nest of bones in a dark clot of earth; given to the place that became their world.


Hermitage of the Metamorphosis

At night, during winter storms, I sometimes imagine the murmur of their voices from long ago. It’s quiet at first – a shallow rise and fall that could be the sound of water on a summer shore. But gradually it deepens, gathering strength as more monks leave their stone beds to climb the stairs to the chapel. Saints flicker in candlelight, smoke blackening the arched ceiling while snow billows across the peninsula, flailing over the lake and deepening in drifts against the fishing boats. Wind shreds the walls to whistle inside the chapel, guttering the flames. But the voices of the monks, secluded for years on this stone coast, never lessen; together their words are woven, air becoming sound and soaring, angling towards eventual light.

Through the window, the world

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The two Prespa Lakes are split by a flat isthmus, a spur of sand which pelicans glide across in summer as they swap one body of water for the other. Those two lakes, though, were once one, a single blue bowl encircled by steep slopes. Over thousands of years, silt and sediment from the mountains were sluiced down their gullies and creeks into the river that drains the valley. As the river emptied, spilling its mountain hoard into the lake – all the spoil of sand and silt that had been worn down by wind, rain and time – those tiny grains built up in a slow process of accumulation until they spread out across the water, building a bridge one particle at a time, turning one lake into two.

Those sandy levels are a favourite place of mine to walk, and at this time of year a marvellous spectacle unfolds across the flatlands. With the arrival of autumn, starlings begin gathering in large numbers, lining up like dominoes on the electricity wires slung along the road. I hear their chatter from a distance, the gossip of a gathered clan. The starlings tumble as I near, falling together to sheer away across the sky. The flock somehow stays together in these aerial dances, these murmurations of many wings, bending and turning as one, a dark and swaying figure, like they were simply a sheet being rippled by wind.

The Small Heart of Things

I’m delighted to announce that The Small Heart of Things was officially published yesterday, making its way in the world through the University of Georgia Press. While a book might appear to be a singular thing, in fact it more closely resembles those flocks of starlings, or the isthmus spanning the lakes; it’s composed of many pieces, a multitude of feathers and sand. The writings of authors such as Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Nan Shepherd and Giorgos Catsadorakis – amongst many others – have greatly influenced the thinking and language of the book with their elegant explorations of the world around us; the discussions with readers here at Notes from Near and Far have helped clarify ideas or opened up paths in new and enriching directions; and the wonderful work of other writers, artists, bloggers and naturalists that I’ve been privileged to discover since starting this blog have expanded my sense of place immeasurably. The Small Heart of Things has been shaped by many people, and I’m grateful to the readers of Notes from Near and Far for being part of it all. Thank you.

Great Prespa Lake

I’ve been asked in recent weeks where the book will be stocked, so for those interested in purchasing a copy, it’s available from a variety of different sellers. In the United States, where it’s published, it can be ordered through a favourite local bookshop or by visiting the wonderful IndieBound to find your nearest independent community bookstore. The book can also be purchased directly from the University of Georgia Press, or bought from online sellers like Barnes & Noble, Powell’s City of Books and Amazon.

In the UK and the rest of Europe, the book can be purchased through Foyles Books in London and online at Books etc., The Book Depository, Amazon and Bol.com. Copies will also be available at Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex where I’ll be speaking in November.

In Canada the book is being stocked by Another Story bookshop in Toronto, as well as being available online at Chapters Indigo. For countries outside those mentioned, I believe online stockists, just as Booktopia in Australia, are the best way to find the book. An electronic version is available for Kindle.

Many thanks for your interest and continued support of Notes from Near and Far. If you have any questions about the book or where it can be found please leave me a message below and I’ll do my best to help out. Until next time, happy wanderings…

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I’m extremely excited to have received the cover art for The Small Heart of Things, and I’m deeply grateful to the University of Georgia Press for creating such an elegant and attractive design from my photo of a fire salamander taken here in Prespa. The tale of this particular salamander walking off into snow is one of the stories told in the book, so it’s especially pleasing to see that he or she made the front cover! Many thanks to the readers of Notes from Near and Far for being part of the book’s journey. The Small Heart of Things will be published on October 15th, 2013.

The Small Heart of Things Book  Cover

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To the IslandI’ve looked at the island from the first day we arrived here, set like a dark stone in a band of glittering blue water. It seems to float within reasonable reach, catching the eye with ease when you walk along the shore, but it’s remained steadfastly remote all that time. The island of Golem Grad is anchored to another country, over the invisible line in the lake that forms the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the consequent difficulty in getting to it has lent it a magnetic and dreamlike cast.

Islands can alter us; unmoor us from the mainland of our minds. A span of shimmering spring water separates me from the bold, uninhabited rock, and as we stream away from shore I start to feel that the crossing is where any island begins. The water skimming past is a prelude, like a door swinging wide onto an unseen room. The air riffles through my hair; cool on my skin. A few pelicans glide away from us, sheering the lake into rivulets of silver. The island nears, looms large over the water, distinct in its mood to the rest of the basin.

Towards Albania

Juniper forest

View from Golem Grad

Stepping ashore, I see a venomous horned viper slither between rocks, its zigzagged tail disappearing like the last of a rope being hauled up into a boat. It’s the first sign, in a place known as the island of snakes, that we’ve entered a different order of experience. White blossom loosens its perfume into the air, so that it hovers over the island like the dust of winter rugs shaken out in a spring clean. The scent is so dense that it seems the very air is forged from the fragrance, sweet and impossible to ignore, like the pressing attentions of a youthful affair. Alpine swifts swirl and scream overhead, circling always above us, as if each bird were a balloon that had been tethered to the island. Nightingale song swells from deep in the trees, an excited flight of sound, a musical scale to be climbed into air. The island quivers with a ceaseless, creaturely murmur; it’s the sound of an arriving season, and all the pulse and hum of wild profusion.

Spring blossom

Spring fungi

The view north

There is a dazzling warmth about us, the island being the beneficiary of a micro-climate peculiar to its shores. Such heat and humidity leads to a startlingly lush surface: the ancient junipers clad in an extravagant wardrobe of lichens and mosses; the forest floor an emerald weave. Euphorbia spokes from the coast like a protective green moat and birds nest across the island in the dense shroud of trees. Golem Grad is small, though, measuring merely two square kilometres in total. Yet it supports an astonishing wealth of wildlife for such a miniature realm; its tally of certain species unfathomable at first glance: 1,700 Hermann’s tortoises; 1,200 pairs of nesting cormorants; 120 horned vipers; and more than 10,000 dice snakes. Wherever you walk you are in the presence of a snake, somewhere close by, a slithering or sunning shape that’s laid claim to the island.


Spring colour

Hermann's tortoises

The wild has made this island its world, but like most places in the region it’s also traced by an antique human history, recording more than two millennia of tenure. Centuries worth of ruins break the surface of a sea of moss. Relict churches and monasteries cling on in the absence of parishioners, and the walls of a Roman villa and cistern dating from the 5th century hold fast to this solitary citadel of stone. The rocky white coast is festooned by a blaze of purple and yellow blooms, where a cross was chiselled above the water line long ago. All the sunlight of a wakening spring bathes the water and stones, until the refracted, glimmering light touches even the shade.

Church of St. Demetrius, 14th century

Church of St. Peter, 14th century

Roman cistern 5th century

Sea-dazzle sparkles off the spray of the boat. The air is thick with the dark forms of cormorants launching from the canopy of the trees as the boatman picks up speed. We slide through the still and graceful lake, moving out of the sway of the island, and I wonder how it would have felt to have lived there over the centuries, like the Roman owners of the villa or the monks kneeling at prayer, peering out at the mainland as though that were an island. As if the place apart was over there, the strange, unvisited shore in the distance. As the boat crosses the blue beneath a tracery of whirling birds, I sense that each of us harbours an island inside, whether real or in the mind, and we leave this one behind with the brimming light, to its saints and swifts and snakes.

With many thanks to Oliver Avramoski and Dejan Dimidjijevski from the Galicica National Park, of which Golem Grad is a part, for their gracious hospitality in showing us around, and their willingness to share their intimate knowledge of this remarkable island. 

Golem Grad


Cormorant colony

Forest mosses

Leaving the island

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To listen to an audio version of ‘Embers’ please press the play button 

EmbersThey appear out of the silence and snow without sound, without any sign of foretelling that I can decipher. Arriving as if by magic, they flare from reefs of pale and brittle reeds like they’d been pulled from a hat, or lance over the furrows and fields in a sudden, windswept whirl. The hen harriers ghost into view like fireflies at night, unseen until they glow so close. These winter months are marked by the wild signature of their flights. Breeding mostly in the far north of Europe, these raptors migrate from the bogs and taiga of their nesting grounds through the autumn to settle in the south until spring. Some winters we’ll see only a few take up the offer of tenure around the wetlands, patrolling the perimeter like lone sentries, but in other years, when fierce, chilling weather pushes the birds farther south, many more will come hurtling out of the cold skies to bracelet the lakes on the wing. But no matter how many pass the season in our midst, they always appear as if out of nowhere, falling out of the silence and snow, out of the weightless, misted air which settles like breath on a windowpane. As if these birds were shaped and gifted out of nothing.


Stable in snow

The male hen harrier, or northern harrier as he’s known in North America, entrances me. As much as I marvel at the female that sweeps brown and tawny over the snows, parading the white ring that’s been thrown like a horseshoe around her tail, it’s her counterpart that I await with the excitement of a homecoming. Seeing one waver at the edge of the winter lake, pearl-white and grey with black fingers at the tip of his wings, pulls me deep into a pool of mystery. It took me some years to unravel my fascination for this particular bird, and when I finally did it was after waking to snow that fell densely across the valley. A low smouldering cloud lay draped across the mountains, pillowed above the village. Snow was banked against the dark stone like a frozen lean-to. The fields and slopes spread white into the distance, edged with pewter mist. The day carried the narrowest possible range of colour tones, like a sparse and simple etching. Dark trees were pinned to the bleached mountain ridges, grey haze clouded the sky, and chimney smoke corkscrewed though the drifting snow. They were the common tones of a mountain winter – white, black and grey – and it occurred to me then that the male hen harrier had made them his own. Ghosting over the snowfields strung with skeletal dark trees, the hen harrier appears as an aerial interpretation of the season, a spectral reflection, an amulet worn over the year’s cold, hibernal hours.


Bear steps

But seeing hen harriers haunt the white meadows reminds me that winter is alive, as well. Even amidst snow there are fires, sheltered flames kindled and coaxed from the frozen land, the murmurs of unseen sentience below the surface, locked up in the slowed and shallow breaths of hibernating butterflies and frogs, lizards and fish, all settled beneath or around us as we traverse the stark winter world. Black woodpeckers lower themselves from the high crystal forests to the relative shelter of the valley, their long, haunting cries curling through the chill air like smoke from the village chimneys. A dipper sculls through snow along the river. Moss fills with water to burst like a gleaming emerald meadow, secret lush crops in the cold, fallow fields. I follow the path of a bear leading her cub through the snow, chart the course of their dark foragings over stream and under bough, down the granite track that winds like a river towards the lake. A flock of goldcrests, one of the tiniest birds in Europe, takes up residence for a while in three stunted pines at the foot of the garden, their faint calls like long-forgotten school friends come back to whisper at the back of class. Whatever earthly presence is alive through winter is transfigured, made small by the vast silence of the season or concealed by dormancy, but it’s still there, glowing faintly as embers, or a light far out to sea.

Mountain snow


On cloudless mornings after storms there’s a brief, but brilliant, span of time when the snow, a revelation of night’s creaturely happenings, is fired by the rising sun. It clips the mountains at such an angle that every crystal, unique in its tumbling and settled shape, burns with a glittering intensity, a cupped flame inside each one. I watch a harrier gleam like snowlight through the air. It could be winter itself that’s on the move, the white and grey ghost passing though, the ice and snow set to buckle and shift beneath it when it leaves for the north. I listen as the bird sweeps silent over a stone-walled meadow, over the blazing shards of snow, and hear the crackling of the fire to come.


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Glimpsed, In Passing: 2012November rains lashed the valley, slanting from first light across the withered mountain folds, sinking the garden until a few last salads floated like weeds cast up by the sea. As I worked at my desk the woodstove clicked and hummed behind me, sometimes hissing at a wet seam in the beech or releasing smoke like a bloom of grey pollen into the room when a wild wind ransacked the chimney. No matter how many times I lifted my eyes to look out the window the sky was always an unfathomable knot of clouds, lowered like a curtain over the valley. Only a solitary crow occasionally stole across its surface, a dark line etched like charcoal on paper.

The ceaseless thrum of rain quietened to a murmur towards the end of day. The sky above the village had splintered and cracked open, like the two halves of a shell. I looked up from my desk to see a kernel of light nested inside. Grabbing my camera, I raced out the door, squelching through the soaked garden to climb onto a stone wall at the side of our house. With a last surge before dusk, sunlight had found an opening, rising like a river through the clouds to flood whatever was left of the day. Rainbows vaulted the valley, two arched bridges shaped by water and light, each droplet given a place in the spectrum, annointed by the leaving sun. I could have been standing inside a palace of light, the glimmering stars in the far heavens inscribed on the ceiling.

Rain fell steadily, spattering the lens. A fleeting orange flare was sent up by the sun that fizzled and fell behind the mountains. As unexpectedly as it came, the glowing cascade began to fade. The halves of the shell were brought together again, sealing the light inside. Colour drained from the sky, vanishing like water into cracked earth. The rainbows dimmed like worn glitter, like all the stars you could ever imagine, falling as one across the night, dissolving into dark at their eventual end. I let the rain sweep over me, watching it all go – all the mystery of bent and reflected light that gave way to the dying day, let go like a sigh at the edge of sleep, at the rim of the lit world. All the mystery to be found in a moment, glimpsed, in passing, through a window in the rain.

Glimpsed, In Passing: 2012

This last post of the year borrows from the writer V.S. Pritchett, who once described the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Earlier uses of his idea can be read for 2010 and 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity at the end of the year to thank the readers of Notes from Near and Far for your continued interest. I’m extremely grateful for the conversations and connections that have been made, for the sense of shared community. And I’m deeply honoured by the time you’ve given to reading these posts, for the thoughtful attention and expansion of ideas in the comments. With the last days of the year upon us, my very best wishes to all for a creative, inspiring and joyful 2013, wherever you may be.

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