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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

All journeys ask of us some substantial shift in perspective. To travel with any degree of interest in the unfamiliar means necessarily attuning yourself to such a variety of people, wildlife, landscapes, environments, languages and customs that the world feels irreversibly larger than any single measure of it could ever possibly contain. You learn a different light, the way it breaks in such unaccustomed, crystalline fashion over the frost-steepled sides of a mountain or falls in amber waves across the boot-splintered boards of a Midwest saloon in late summer. You learn a different music, heard on a southern wind that murmurs ceaselessly through the starlit night or in the voices of lone fishermen, singing softly at sea. You  learn a different sky, built of bruised columns auguring the beginning of the monsoon or as vast and blinding as a desert, a shimmering white glare and incandescent with heat. And each journey, even when it returns you to a place you already know, will inevitably be coloured by a different set of longings, conditions and encounters.

A changeable lizard in Singapore’s Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, one of the last remnants of mangrove remaining in the city state.

One of the countless glittering insects found in this tropical region.

Researching a chapter for my next book this summer, I travelled to Singapore and the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Bali. It was my first time in the truly tropical world – and all the muggy effervescence and densely canopied depths of the many islands, jungles, mangroves and mountains that compose the natural, though often threatened, foundations of south-east Asia’s land masses seeped beneath my skin. This equatorial region was welcoming and friendly; richly layered in complex stories, rites and relationships that I’d known little about prior to arriving; spread across glittering blue seas as an archipelago of cultural and linguistic multiplicity. And it was home to some of most spectacular and captivating wild creatures I’ve encountered anywhere in the world, a bridging place, or crossroads, between the floras and faunas of the Indomalayan and Australasian ecozones. These biogeographical regions, first popularised by the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace through an idea that came to be known as the Wallace Line, an invisible barrier that largely demarcated the geographical extent of the two zoological belts, trailing at an angle through the waters of Indonesia and most strikingly placing the two near islands of Bali and Lombok on either side of the divide, added to the overall sense of fusion within the landscape. This composite quality was lent a social aspect when I was joined at a table in Singapore’s Little India by two men who’d asked if they could eat at one end: “We’re Muslims,” they said after we began sharing stories of origins over our meals, “but here in Little India we have Hindus, Buddhists and Christians as well. We support and help each other as a community because we share the place, but also because the place would be less than it is without anyone of us.”

A Balinese long-tailed macaque, one of a troop that lives in caves around the crater of Mount Batur’s active volcanic cone.

A lilac kingfisher, one of the Indonesian archipelago’s 37 kingfisher species, this one a tropical jungle specialist.

The wildlife of the region astonished me for a number of reasons, partly due to its wondrous beauty and often unique lineage, the region, for example, hosting more endemic species of birds and fish than anywhere else on the planet, largely due to the composition of the landscape (seascape is perhaps a more accurate term), 18,000 often far-flung islands making up Indonesia itself, but also because I was so unaccustomed to the compound processes of their natural habitats and environments. I’d been levered free from my usual point of reference so definitively that I couldn’t help feel that I was experiencing an entirely new world rather than an already existing portion of the one we all share. The red-knobbed hornbills, archer fish and spectral tarsiers of the region were a lesson in many things: for a start, they acted as specific guides to belonging, beauty and persistence in an environment inherent with its own troubles and travails, but they were also symbolic of the ways in which this world has generated a remarkable fund of diversity, a great deal of which is steadily being sluiced from its surface like grains of sand rinsed away by rains. The concept of tropical fecundity, despite its great losses, is both visibly and audibly well founded.

A milky stork in the Straits of Johor, between Singapore and Malaysia.

Able to reach a size of two metres in length, the enormous Malayan water monitor lizard often spends its days roosting in trees. I only discovered this one when a second fell clattering from the same tree, slowly ambling off through the mangrove jungle like a modern-day dinosaur.

On the northwest coast of Singapore are found some of the city state’s last remnant mangroves. The small nature reserve where they shelter, Sungei Buloh, provided enough enrichment that the hours dwindled to dusk while I was there, a fact that startled me even more when I realised that the route could be counted in mere minutes when I hurried back along the boardwalk to catch my bus. But then that’s the beauty of being there, wherever there is: the countless possibilities of engaging with place, unearthing its many meanings like a core of ancient pollen being pulled from the bed of a lake. At low tide the relict mangroves had absorbed my attention entirely, revealing a sequence of secretive wild creatures as if a film reel were being projected over the mire and muck. There were mudskippers lounging at the edge of their self-dug swimming pools and tree-climbing crabs scuttling about rotting logs; there were enormous Malayan monitor lizards slipping from branches as they slept to crash loudly down, shredding leaves that spun like slow fans in the still air on the way; there were crocodile eyes peering like periscopes from the low-slung river.

Although a species of fish, the mudskipper has a number of qualities more commonly associated with amphibians. Needing to keep its skin wet at low tide, it uses its strong pectoral fins to dig a personal swimming pool, but…

…when the tide rises, it avoids deep water by using suckers on its pelvic fins to climb up roots and even into trees themselves.

And when the tide in the Strait of Johora turned, the shining span dividing Singapore from Malaysia, where great gleaming skyscapers were being raised along its rim, it shuttled warm brown waves between the arched and stilted legs of the mangroves, threading the airy spaces and remaking the raw, mudded landscape. All the creatures I’d already seen ––the mudskippers, the crabs, the monitor lizards—began reacting to the flow, the measurable tendency of the sea to shape the things that it encounters, whether habitats, life forms or infrastructure. And all those organisms, ostensibly at home in the tideless world, began to transfigure their futures in reply, responding to the rising waters in their own inimical ways, reaching a new equilibrium with the altered shape of their dwelling place. Purple-tinged crabs clambered high into trees and mudskipper fish fanned their fins, using a ridge of suction cups to piggy-back up the roots of mangroves like leaping amphibians to stay dry. The monitor lizards, unlike the reluctant mudskippers, took to the water and swam with graceful ease, making broad greens swells in the newly formed ponds. The crocodile slowly shifted position, angling itself into the incoming current, its white-toothed maw sensitive to the slightest of movements. Anything that triggered its jaws, even by accident, would be doomed. The muggy heat pooled inside my clothes, a blizzard of insect bites itching and blistering across skin, but the countless unfolding changes across the landscape were too enthralling and engaging to leave. They were changes that reminded me of the nature of travel itself, myriad minor alterations and recalibrations of our inner rhythms induced by external circumstances, a world that plays off the surface of our lives like that surging tide, levering open a wider province of experience, reflecting its light and music and skies. Journeys can stir expectations, muddy certainties. And the perspectives we’ve chosen to carry, those personal affinities, opinions and convictions that can be as wide as a prairie horizon or as slim as a late summer creek, can be refashioned in its wake as well.

A changeable lizard in Singapore.

One of the critically endangered Celebs crested macaques in Tangkoko National Park in Indonesia. To watch and hear them descend from the sunlit canopy as the jungle steamed with tropical heat was one of the most remarkable experiences of the journey – adults, young and babies, often acting separately but all connected as a movable community, roving the jungle together, some 40-50 of the 5,000 still remaining in the north Sulawesi wild.

 

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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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Image by Rama: Creative Commons

Image by Rama: Creative Commons

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There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

For a number of years in the 1960s Leonard Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra. It was there, close to the glittering sea of the Saronic Gulf, that he found the solitude and space he needed for the poems, novels and songs he’d dreamed of writing after leaving his native Montreal. It was there that he discovered, in the white-washed and cobblestone village where he’d settled, a way of life and people that moved him deeply. And it was there on the island that he also met one of his great loves, Marianne Ihlen, forever to be remembered in songs such as “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” Before going their separate ways at the end of the 1960s they shared their love of the island for years, and shortly before Ihlen died this past summer a friend read out a final note to her from Cohen, who wrote, “I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Cohen kept returning to Greece in later years, as well as paying homage to it in new songs, poems and interviews, acutely aware of how instrumental his time on Hydra had been to shaping his vision of the world, both creatively and personally. It had lent a sensuous grace to his words and music, encouraging a style of song that could be as intimate as prayer or as raw as a sea-storm sweeping over his island home, but it wasn’t until I moved to Greece myself that I understood something else that he’d gained from the country. It had showed him the splendour of light.

The light of Greece has long been praised for its unique and compelling properties. How it reflects off stone and sea with an unrivalled, crystalline gleam; how in high summer it can consume you so completely that you feel as though you’re swimming inside it, suspended in its tempered, liquid glow. It rivers across the mountains and plains of the country with incomparable clarity, as sharp as a blade but mysteriously deep and mesmeric as well. For centuries writers and artists have sought to understand its qualities and contradictions, devoting countless hours and painstaking efforts to its description through a range of inks, words, oils and watercolours, the elusive subject of their work having faded for the day long before they’d finished. And that’s part of its allure, that for all the beauty of its benediction, it’s also a light that easily hurts. There is an ache of longing and desire to it that can never quite be requited. To stand in a high mountain meadow or on an island in the Aegean as evening begins to fold the sun inside itself is to wish that moment to linger for as long as possible, to lengthen out like an endless road into the days ahead of you. The grasses and wildflowers are lent a glimmering lucidity, while the stones and sea shine with an untold and entrancing presence, something unspeakably beautiful but of course transitory as well. And it was this same poignant duality that Cohen’s music and writing offered in its most moving of moments – it was born of that desire for things to be stilled alongside an acceptance of the ephemeral. He was open to both beauty and its loss in this world, and his songs hold the ache of such bewildering light inside them.

To the tower of song, travel well – καλό ταξίδι.

How the light gets in

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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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Reed liIt reached me as an afterglow. We were walking on a cliff-edge path when a faint light glimmered at the corner of my eye. I stopped and looked down on the sea for a while, reluctantly accepting that it must have been the sparkling roll of a wave that I’d seen, a crest of bright water. I’d taken a few more steps along the path when I saw it again, fleetingly, like a vague memory dredged from the depths. Watching the sea more closely this time, I looked for disruptions in its undulating rhythms. But nothing other than sunlight played on the vast surface of the Black Sea. From seventy meters up, at the top of red sandstone cliffs, the sea was spread out in a shimmering blue glaze, brimming with polished light after the early-morning storms. Whatever I’d seen had subsided, gone back to its secret depths.

I was turning to join the others again when I saw an unmistakable shudder close to shore, a rippled undertow of motion. And I was still holding my breath when the silver arch of a dolphin broke the surface and caught the sun on its flukes. I must have yelled out because suddenly people were around me, my friends pointing joyfully toward the waves, and a few French tourists asking what all the excitement was about. Another dolphin leapt clear of the water, then two of them in perfect synchronicity. They climbed into the air, passing with graceful ease from one medium to the next, dragging sprays of water like silver harnesses from their tandem tails. They seemed suspended in an enduring moment, balanced on a high wire slung above the sea. Water droplets sloped from their sides like shards of light.

Gathered light

About a dozen bottle-nosed dolphins made up the pod. They crested the surface of the sea with their beaks, playfully nudging the lid of their world, and occasionally scribing arcs in the air. I later realised how time had dissolved while we watched the dolphins. Past and future, and all the weight they carry, had folded into one clear, immeasurable moment. Everything else had fallen away, brushed off like a scattering of crumbs. I was aware of feeling an ineffable joy, and lightness of being. Some days outlive others – they are lit differently in memory when recollected, brushed with an intensity that seems to suspend the customary passage of time. This was such a day. As the dolphins moved further out to sea, we watched them breaching in the distance like a range of receding hills.

Water light

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I’m delighted to be hitting the road in a few days time on behalf of The Small Heart of Things and thought I’d post this short excerpt from one of the book’s essays, ‘An Accumulation of Light.’ Along with events at the AWP conference in Seattle between February 26-March 1st, I’ll be reading at the following places:

February 27th, Terrain.org reading, Seattle, WA
March 4th, Russell Books, Victoria, BC
March 5th, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
March 7th, Grass, Roots, Books & Music, Corvallis, OR
March 10th, The Booksmith, San Francisco, CA
March 11th, Books Inc., Mountain View, CA
March 14th, Books Inc., Berkeley, CA
March 15th, Point Reyes Books, Pt. Reyes Station, CA

If there are any readers of Notes from Near and Far in the places I’ll be visiting, it would be a great pleasure to meet up. Or if you know of anyone who would be interested in attending one of the readings and book signings for The Small Heart of Things, I’d be deeply grateful if you could share the news. Full details of these and other events, including times and bookstore links, can be found on this events page. Many thanks, and looking forward to meeting a few readers along the way and exploring a new part of the world!

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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.

Juniper

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 lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, from ‘Ozymandias’

Where the River Meets the Sea

Only the evening before, a friend had warned me about the shifting sands of the estuary should I try to get close to the stone, confessing her own driven desire to seek out the totems and talismans of the landscape as we spoke. Off the coast of the Isle of Grain, the London Stone at Yantlet Creek had intrigued me from the moment I first read of it. It was one of the evocative boundary markers on the Thames that had delineated the jurisdiction of the City of London in former times. The stone stands where the river meets the sea, and is exposed on the shining mud flats when the Thames retreats. But being far from a specialist when it comes to the tides that envelop the estuary, and even less of one with regard to the strange alchemy of silt stirred with water, I had no plan to cross the river bed to reach it.

The tide was out as I curved along the seawall of the Hoo Peninsula, revealing a palette of worn browns and rinsed blues where the river had run. In places mud was ridged into the shape of the vanished waves. Seaweed slicked the shore, dark and glistening. The clouds in the wide estuary skies were in spate, streaming out to sea with a violent westerly. Rain slanted like a storm of arrows, cold and stinging as it fell.

Those lone and level sands...

The stone obelisk rose into view as I walked, far out and solitary on a midden of crusted rocks. I knew then, seeing it isolated by tides and exposed to the winds and rain that stampede across the estuary, that all my earlier intentions had been suspended. I suddenly wanted to be in its presence; near the barnacled base that has held it steady through nearly two centuries of swirling currents. I wanted to stand in the sway of the empty river.

What is it that forges these connections and correspondences, these strange allegiances that emerge between people and place? I have long been drawn to stones, like moths to flame; they speak to me in the same way as stories. Like the paths that have radiated and been remade across the land for millennia, they express meaning that is native to the places they are found in. Some of the commonest stones have been guides to a territory, set as signs to preserve a sequence of steps across moorland or marsh, marking a way for the traveller or tributaries of trade. Unlike the formal monoliths raised to commemorate empire and victory, the stones discovered along the edges of rivers and fields speak a vernacular tongue. They are ancestral and confiding, bequeathing to us a pattern of past use.

Yantlet Creek

The water in Yantlet Creek was trickling out to sea when I reached it, like sand in an hourglass. I made up my mind when I saw the tide was still running out, but knew it was best to be quick, unsure how swiftly it might race back when it turned. The slick sides of the hollow creek were shiny with mud and my first step nearly sent me spilling down the slope. Finally I found a litter of crushed bricks that led to a narrow waist of water. A few rocks had been tipped into the stream as a makeshift bridge. When I hit the beach on the far side, the clouds were suddenly pulled like a curtain from the sun. In the hot white light, those lone and level sands stretched away, a mire of tidal flats that touched the distant, silver sea.

Shining sands...

The sun-fired shore curved away in the shape of a swift’s wings. I crunched over a reef of countless sea creatures, their shells as bright as cleaned bone. Large ships slid into the distance, surrounded by a shimmering haze that made them appear to float through the air. I walked fast along the beach and finally out onto the river bed, stepping slowly across a watery glaze that was pitted with black rocks. A skirling wind spun shadows ahead of me. Nearly at the stone, the sands started to give way, parting with each step so that my boots sank into the sudden, deepening folds. I turned back to shore, eyeing the elusive stone column that stood sentinel off the coast. Working my way around the headland I eventually found a path, a causeway of small rocks and clinker laid down over the years that lead me across the sinking sands.

The London Stone

The London Stone marks a place first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285. Standing 54 kilometres from London Bridge, the stone – linked by an invisible line to the Crowstone at Chalkwell on the north side of the river – once marked the extent of fishing rights on the lower Thames. Although the obelisk itself is Victorian in origin, it’s probable that a marker of some kind has existed at this site for the past seven centuries.

To stand beside it opened the old river to view. The stone markers of a landscape work like memories, reminders of their makers, of the ways of life that governed the age, from the histories of dockers and lightermen criss-crossing the teeming Thames to the bootleggers and fugitives that hid in the marshes alongside it. This lonesome curve of coast has steered generations of men and women out to sea or returned them at journey’s end and this column, caught in the tangle of salt water and fresh, seemed to speak for them all. I reached up and pressed my palms against the weathered stone, where other hands had held it to shape and raise it tall, before I turned and headed for shore. I followed the watery path that my feet had dimpled across the sands, and safely re-crossed the creek. And as the sun paled into grey light I could hear the song of the far river, rising with the tide.

The tide returning

The Thames: three colours

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