To listen to an audio version of ‘An Uncertain Country’ click the play button
To near the coast in April is to stray into uncertain country. At times a hot sun bathes the orange groves until they glow. Then the lashing rains return, hurled by the wind across the hills like ragged grey sheets. Mist and cloud roll cold over the plain where green seedlings stand shivering to their knees in drowned fields. A burst of sun sheers open the sky, only to be snapped shut by a lid of dark clouds.
The uncertainty stretches to more than just the weather, though; there is a sense of things hanging in the balance when we arrive. Birds make landfall throughout the day, so that at any moment a silent and secluded pool might be riffled with the murmur of wings. Migrating across the Mediterranean, they turn up anywhere on the salt marshes and lagoons that frill the Ionian coast across the strait from Corfu, steering out of the bleak storms or flung hurtling ahead, aiming for these small islands and edges of refuge, the dwindling places of wild necessity.
The Kalamas estuary spreads between the mountains and sea, an in-between world where salt and silt entangle. But however impressive these wetlands can be, they’re only an echo of their original size and substance, like pockets without a coat. Diminished by draining and dumping, and the pollution from fertiliser run-off, they still sparkle with concentrated life. Spoonbills huddled like the first fall of snow. Heads lowered together, they trawled the waters as if they’d been cinched into a pure white circle by rope. Cattle egrets rode the backs of cows like they were droving them home. Marsh sandpipers riddled the mud and herons speared the shallows, all feeding with the eagerness that follows a long journey. In places I could see how the fields claimed for farming were filling with wings as well, the salt water seeping back in, rising along its native course to restore an ancient equilibrium.
The wild world has a way of returning. Scattered across the mountains above the estuary were the silhouettes of empty houses. Whatever small sounds our steps made as we climbed to the ruins of old Sagiada were swallowed by the rain, sealed up by the squalling April weather. A pair of ravens hung as if black commas in the sky and Judas trees blazed like candles from the dark forest. The village had been torched by German forces in 1943, and its inhabitants fled their homes for Corfu, striking out across the narrow blue waters from the harbour far below. Through the grey mist that layered the strait I tried imagining the ragged line of boats escaping through the swells, the flames the passengers would have seen engulfing their homes as they sailed away, the sound of weeping trailing across the sea.
Having left behind their fields of sesame, rice and cotton, along with their animals and belongings, some villagers returned from Corfu at the end of the war to the handful of homes that weren’t completely destroyed. But as if forever condemned they were forced to leave a year later when the Greek Civil War swept brutally across the mountains. From that day the village has stood empty, an isolated home to the church and its fading frescoes. All that remains are the echoes of the ruins, the wild arbour of vines spreading like a fan across the walls and the fig shoots growing from old kitchens with no one to steep the young, budding fruit in syrup to be stored in jars for winter sweets. Stone arches clad in ivy mark a way between rooms, or passages from the houses into lanes that once led to the market square. The earth was furrowed with the habits of forgotten days.
Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers. Driving the edge of a coastal lagoon the day before, yellow wagtails had fallen about us like rain. Wearing fresh lemon coats for the new season, they dropped out of the storm in their hundreds, as though a door in the clouds had swung open to release them. Spilling from the marsh tussocks and tamarisks lining either side, they were joined by swallows that swooped and swirled, circling us on our slow journey like chaperones from the skies. The air was woven with wings as we inched along; movement sustaining a stillness, a moment poised around our shared and unexpected laughter, the singular and irrepressible joy of being a part of the world. Our lives come and go with these moments, diving at depth or buoyant the next. And like birds or villagers making landfall after the uncertain crossing of seas we never know what we’ll find until we arrive.
“Where there are borders, there are bridges.” I’d been researching a cross-border eco-tourism project on the Albanian side of the lake when Myrsini Malakou, director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, suddenly said this during an interview. Her words crystalized for me a vague idea that I’d been carrying around throughout the time I’d spent in the poor village of Zagradec, a village mostly empty of men from spring until the beginning of winter as they sought agricultural labour in Greece. It was a place where the poorly irrigated fields were tilled by donkey and plough, where eerie communist bunkers perched unnervingly in the landscape. It was a village “forgotten even by God” according to one of its residents. And yet amidst the signs of impoverishment a frail hope could be found, a faith that things could change. A few people on both sides of the border were working together, building bridges for the sake of a forgotten place and community. I had the opportunity to watch the project develop, to see what happened and what the future might hold, over the course of a year. And I met a group of women who were trying to change the place where they lived.
I’m delighted to announce that the third of these tales from around the lakes, that resulted from my experiences in the village of Zagradec, has been chosen as the winner of the 2011 Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize. For readers already familiar with Terrain.org you’ll know that it presents a wonderful range of writing and images relating to our place in the world. And if you’re new to the journal, you’re in for a treat! My essay can be found through its permanent link at ‘Faith in a Forgotten Place’ or on the journal’s homepage at www.terrain.org. The piece is accompanied by a slideshow of photographs from Albania and an audio recording of me reading the piece.
Please feel free to add any thoughts, ideas or comments beneath the essay on the Terrain.org site, or any experiences you might wish to share about borders in your own parts of the world. I’d like to say a big thanks to the many people in both countries without whose help this essay wouldn’t have been possible. Hope you enjoy and thanks for taking the time to read!
To listen to an audio version of ‘The Light of Birds’ please click on the play button.
They’re returning, wave after wave of them spilling over the delta of the Evros River. The sky is streaked with sharp-winged falcons, with storks whitening the meadows when they descend, with flocks of ibis that close like black umbrellas on the lagoons. The air is awash with wings.
The delta belongs to the sea as much as any continent, and its light reflects the confluence of the two, the land shot through by both water and the sun’s incandescence. Shorebirds shimmer and then turn invisible, flashing like shoals above the shallows. The languorous white drapery of an egret’s plumes shines like crystals in the snow and isolated shrines taken on a glimmer of warm stone. The delta glows with the light of birds.
After days of rain the dark reefs of cloud have been swept away by a cold northerly and migrating birds have resumed their journeys, crossing this watery realm that clasps Greece to Turkey, the Middle East to southern Europe. Raptors rise and fade like passing smiles, brief and wheeling in the wind. Pelicans circle towards the sun, shards of white light barely visible from below. Lark song trickles down from the sky and hoopoes unfurl their frilled and regal crests. Terns screech and sail by, moving back and forth on the air like kites being pulled from whatever lands and seas they’ve left behind.
What maps I would need to chart these trajectories. And as many again to sketch the birds’ destinations: impenetrable reed beds lining the Danube’s estuary; a mist-wreathed marsh in a Polish oak wood; a scrape of sand on a Scandinavian shore. These birds stitch the hemispheres together, and within seconds many of them are gone, streaming north along invisible rivers that wend only through air. Just an afterimage of wings in their wake, and the sky hanging still.
Joshua Foer has written that “remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice” so I try to etch each moment and brilliantly glimpsed bird as if the day held no others. But there’s no hope of holding on to them all. I could twirl forever beneath this burnished sky swept clear by storms and remember but a fraction of what it contains today.
Some days out on the delta aren’t filled with moments to remember but successive waves of light and flight. You are washed and wakened by wings. Brought into the company of creatures adhering to scarcely believable rites. Enduring storms, wild seas and starvation. Following stars and winds, ancient encoded memories. They pass over this place as they have countless others along the way – pushing north according to ancestral longings and taking the warm season with them. And the light that swells over the delta seems to lift the birds in the same way as the furrowing wind. Edging them over the salt marshes and shallow pans, making them buoyant after days of wrecking weather, spinning them on across the sky.
To listen to an audio version of ‘The Wonder of Ordinary Places’ click the play button.
Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us. They’ve vanished from our lives, become extinct. But they’ve disappeared not because of urban sprawl or the pressures of tourist development. They haven’t disappeared due to deforestation or a toxic accumulation of pollutants. Nor have they vanished because of weak legislation or the lack of political will and the funds necessary to secure them. Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us because they’re invisible. We don’t see them for what they are.
While nations may try to preserve and protect a handful of ecologically significant areas within their borders, the total area these parks and reserves amount to in relation to a country’s land mass is minute. Much of Europe, much of the world perhaps, is actually composed of what could be described as ordinary landscapes. They’re the everyday places, like the fields and hills we pass on the way to work. They’re the areas at the edges of our cities and villages, such as old orchards and weedy wastegrounds. They’re the places we might visit on a summer’s afternoon –a small urban woodland or a pond to picnic beside, perhaps the ordinary shore of a lake.
To describe a landscape as ordinary is to say that it is considered to be common and, on the surface at least, undistinguished. Generally it’s a place that’s not protected in any real sense. It rarely contains any significant cultural monuments, nor is it the focus of international work on habitat preservation or rare species protection. It’s a place that is of little conventional value and often not even particularly aesthetically attractive, being made up of an odd assortment of habitat fragments or existing on the fringes of agriculture and development. But these ordinary landscapes are of extreme importance, not because of their abundance, but because it is where connections with the natural world can most easily and enduringly be made.
Prespa is full of such places. Although Prespa as a whole is seen as extraordinary, there are many less-celebrated landscapes within it. While Lesser Prespa Lake, with its important breeding colonies of rare water birds and its island of rich Byzantine monuments, is rightly regarded as both the ecological and spiritual heart of the lakes basin in Greece, there is an extensive ‘body’ that surrounds it. The Prespa basin is a great mosaic of landscapes that continue to evolve, both naturally and as a result of human activities. These range from the steep surrounding mountains once terraced by hand to agricultural fields only recently claimed from wet meadows. There are dense forests of beech and oak, and stands of old junipers; along with orchards, hedges and river corridors that break up the agricultural plains.
But there is one particular Prespa landscape that I find myself returning to year after year, and season after season: the shore of Great Prespa Lake in Greece. The lakeshore landscape is a recent phenomenon. Although the exact causes are unknown, the water level of the lake has dropped considerably over the last half-century. While the water loss is mourned by many it is only one of a number of transformations taking place along the lakeshore: a progression of new habitats is quietly taking the lake’s place. In essence, the ancient lakebed is rising to the surface. As you approach the coast from the isthmus that separates the two lakes you are in fact passing over a series of old shorelines, each flavoured according to the conditions when it first emerged, and the flora and fauna that subsequently made it home.
These emerging habitats occupy a long, curving ribbon of land adjacent to the shore. There are wide bands of sandy scrubland, dotted with wild roses, brambles and a variety of wildflowers. A dense forest of silver birch and poplars has sprung up towards one end of the shore, where the silver birch reaches its most southern distribution within Europe. Reedbeds spread thickly in places. A long line of willows follows the river to the lake, where an ever-changing estuary remakes itself each day. A seasonal string of clear-water pools lie close to the lake and, in recent years, an extensive marsh system has claimed parts of the shore.
This landscape has come to feel like home to me. What first led me to it, though, was its unprepossessing nature. It was rarely visited and I heard few people speak about it. It appeared to be a landscape of little distinction, an ordinary place. But even ordinary places contain wonders.
When it comes to wonder and the natural world, children are the true specialists. They are particularly open to that state of astonishment that we associate with awe. A child, in the most common of landscapes, is capable, through a combination of intense perception and imagination, of discovering an entire world in the smallest fragment of nature. It might be among wildflowers and weeds at the edge of a scrubby field where an iridescent emerald beetle or the bright flight of a butterfly can hold a child’s attention for several minutes. It could be along a river bank where a child excitedly follows an oak leaf as it travels downstream. It might simply be the prints of an animal, perfectly preserved by snow, that captures a child’s imagination.
What is so remarkable about children’s perception, even more so than its intensity, is that it is characterised by an equality of interest. Everything a child encounters in nature, no matter how small, offers possibility and is therefore equally fascinating. Children make little distinction between major and minor motifs. A feather found on the beach is as wondrous as the creature it belonged to.
As childhood is left behind, adults tend to shed that capacity for curiosity, that spirit that animates the smallest of things. We yearn for greater and faster excitements; we seek larger vistas, grander views. But in a contemporary Western world increasingly obsessed by speed, style and seduction, there is perhaps all the more need to reclaim the ordinary, to celebrate the everyday. Because the ordinary, when perceived in the spirit of curiosity, is actually extraordinary.
The American writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, once wrote that ‘with the loss of self-consciousness, the landscape opens.” This, I believe, can be understood in two ways. First, when we let go of our constant self-awareness and regain something of a child’s immense curiosity and interest in the world ‘out there,’ the world around us, we become more attuned to its wonders. Leaving something of our self behind, other lives arise in its place. That is when the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary, and a landscape like the shore of Great Prespa Lake becomes something else.
In spring the ponds at the edge of the lake fill up with terrapins sunning themselves on sticks, electric blue damselflies skate through the air above them and millions of tadpoles wriggle past water snakes coiled beneath the surface. The willows along the river resound with the liquid calls of golden orioles and bee-eaters fly overhead like a scattering of gems. At times a dusky red fox will scour the beach in sunlight alongside egrets and herons, all slowly circling each other as though in a dance. But these wonders are perhaps too obvious. They are emotionally fulfilling and difficult to miss; they are bright with beauty and colour and grace.
Barry Lopez’s assertion about landscapes, however, provides a second clue to engaging more deeply with place. To be self-conscious means not only to be aware of one’s own mind and actions, but to be conscious of being observed and therefore embarrassed as a result. Self-consciousness prevents us from doing many things, but in the case of a landscape it can stand in the way of knowing it.
Landscapes are best learned through proximity. Wherever children go, they are tempted to climb trees. They slither through long grasses like snakes, eyeing up insects excitedly from their own height. They make hide-aways in dense shrubs. Children catch frogs in their hands and then slowly open their fingers to reveal them. They collect caterpillars in jars, fascinated by the coming transformation. Children’s inquisitive experience of the natural world is hands-on, intimate and utterly without self-consciousness. They are part of a place, not distinct from it.
When we approach similarly, with a sense of freedom unburdened by embarrassment, we open ourselves to the quieter aspects of a landscape. How the light falls through the willow leaves, passing through them like waves. How bear prints and otter tracks lead us first along the beach and then into their lives. The way tiny, resplendent butterflies gather around a flower. There are the curious sounds of water and reptiles in the marsh. How the wind breathes mysteriously through the reeds, their seeds catching the light as they float above the river. The way the bark of a silver birch feels like ancient paper in our hands. Walk into any pocket of the shoreline landscape and there is a world of new moments unfolding.
All landscapes contain the seeds of astonishment. Whether we let them take root or not is up to us. But if we become aware of the wonders within easy reach, those close at hand and part of our daily experience, then the everyday places that we live amongst become less easy to dismiss. The greatest threat facing many landscapes is their assumed irrelevance. When a place is perceived to hold little of interest or importance then a whole landscape can turn invisible, and be treated accordingly. Though any child will show you there is no such thing as a place without interest.
A landscape deemed irrelevant can be regularly threatened by damaging activities. Along the length of the Great Prespa lakeshore in Greece sand is continually being illegally extracted to make cement, eradicating the fragile ecosystem of wildflowers and grasses. The dumping of household and building waste is common. In recent years, shepherds have moved their flocks into the area on a nearly permanent basis, upsetting the traditional pattern of rotational herding, and the consequent overgrazing, tree felling, erosion of the river banks and random reed and tree burning has greatly disturbed the integrity of the place. There is increasing waste washing ashore from fishing boats and visitors leave behind a great volume of garbage that is not collected by the municipal authorities. Many common landscapes suffer this casual disregard, and Prespa is no different. The old notion of ‘out of sight means out of mind’ seems perfectly suited to our relationship with ordinary places.
To discover wonder in a place is to begin to feel affinity; it offers the possibility of approaching all landscapes with equal interest. Ultimately landscapes can be transformational. As much as the large Prespa lake is changing and making way for something else, to enter that shoreline world in a spirit of curiosity and attentiveness is to allow ourselves to be changed. Each time we engage with a landscape we are offered the opportunity to remake it through awareness, by being open to the extraordinary within it. Even the most common of places can come alive and take root in our inner lives. A single small spark, as children demonstrate so very well, is often all it takes. And when a landscape is no longer invisible but revealed for what it truly is, then that landscape stands a chance of connecting with our lives. If that happens, we are less likely to let it disappear.
In response to the diversity of fascinating comments and thoughts regarding ‘The Fragile Forest’ post I decided to rework a presentation I gave here in Prespa at a conference concerning wetlands and conservation a couple of years ago. I was honoured to be asked to participate among a range of scientists and academics working to preserve wetlands throughout the Mediterranean basin. Coming from southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the speakers helped me realise over the course of the conference how varied the approaches to conservation must inevitably be to deal with localised issues, traditions and specific, historic relationships to the land. Reflecting the plurality of peoples and places about us, a diversity of preservation and sustainability methods is required, including economic, educational, political and artistic approaches. One particularly inspiring idea that I learned about from Assad Serhal, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, concerns the restoration of the Arabic ‘hima’ system to parts of the Middle East, a traditional form of land use reaching back to the 7th century and aimed at economic well-being along with the protection of biodiversity. For anyone interested in learning more about the ‘hima’ there is an excellent article here together with a gallery of wonderful photographs.
After last week’s deluge the river ran wild with rain. It had transformed overnight from a sinuous set of bends where kingfishers flared like blue flames to a wild and churning tempest. The mud-brown water was washing off the mountains and cascading through steep granite galleries to roil across the plain towards the lake. The thrum and roar were recognisable, storms having altered the shape and nature of the rivermouth before.
It’s easy to arrive somewhere and imagine it from only that moment on, as if it were set in its ways, fixed and immobile. For the same reason we sometimes find ourselves looking at old photographs of friends and family, even ourselves, and not recognising the earlier incarnations, unable to twine the past and the present together, the unknowable processes of growth.
Over the years I’ve watched the river rise and fall, weave and wend its way along a channel of ghostly willows before spilling into the lake. I’ve crossed it in the lucid light of June when it harboured sinkholes that swallowed my steps. I’ve crept along its edges in summer when pelicans gather at its shallow mouth, the sun-reflected water glistening about their feathers. I’ve seen the sandy banks sheered away and trees carried downstream; I’ve watched sandbars reach out and then withdraw as if unsure of the intimacy. But more than anything else, I’ve observed the river’s bewildering ability to change, the unforeseeable shaping of its ways.
A few days before the rains a friend wrote to me about C.P. Cavafy’s poem, ‘Ithaca,’ and I was reminded of it again as we walked beside the rising river. Cavafy was born in cosmopolitan Alexandria in 1863, a Greek well-versed in the Hellenistic history of the Egyptian city and the works of antiquity. Inspired by the journey of Homer’s Odysseus back to his native island of Ithaca in The Odyssey, Cavafy wrote his poem with the journey of the soul in mind, sensing that Ithaca – a spiritual as well as geographical entity – was the end of our days, a place to arrive at in good time. A great white egret flashed from a sandbank and struggled into a headwind over the lake. We watched the swirl of brown water needle the blue, translucent edge.
I’d become attached to the river in our first season, finding birds and reptiles and wildflowers of all kinds in the lagoon that encircled the estuary. Squacco herons and glossy ibis lowered into the marsh and grey herons patrolled the shallows. Marsh plants thrived in the warm waters and the ponds chorused with frogs; the still surface suddenly rippling with snakes. It was a luminous and enriching place to pass the hours.
By the following summer, though, the lagoon was gone, displaced by the river’s mercurial course. A sandy escarpment was all that remained and I was dismayed that the wetland could have vanished so quickly. But when the currents soon shifted again, enabling unexpected species to take root in new lagoons along the shore, I began to understand how the river was remade each day. As the surge of wild water pours through the channel, emptying the mountains of rain, the shape of its banks is changing, being sluiced away and streaming endlessly into the lake. The river is always arriving, beginning again and again, never reaching its Ithaca.
As you set out for Ithaca hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them: you’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one. May there be many a summer morning when, with what pleasure, what a joy, you come into harbours seen for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind- as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaca always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey. Without her you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
– C.P. Cavafy, 1911 Translated by Edmund Keely and Phillip Sherrard, C.P. Cavafy Collected Poems, 1992
Back home in Prespa pelicans are huddling on their nests. From dawn till dusk they criss-cross between the lakes, flying from their fishing waters on the large lake to their breeding grounds on the smaller. Prespa is home to both of Europe’s pelican species, the white and the Dalmatian, and is one of the few places where the two breed alongside one another.
Nesting communally on reed islands, the Prespa population of around 1200 pairs of Dalmatian pelicans is the largest congregation of their kind in the world, making up between 7 to 10 percent of the species’ international numbers. While they began arriving in mid-winter, the white pelicans have only just returned, having made a long migratory journey from Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the Balkans via the Bosphorus. The 500 or so pairs that nest in Prespa are of European significance. The surge in pelican numbers over the last two decades has been a major success story for the Society for the Protection of Prespa, the NGO working to preserve the natural heritage of the region. The pelicans have become the essence of the lakes in summer, rising up from the glimmering waters or coasting overhead on still wings. No matter how often I see them, they continue to amaze me with their grace.
As of this morning oil from the Gulf of Mexico disaster has reached the outer islands of Louisiana. For 18 days straight, since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig 80 km of the coast, oil has poured from the offshore well. Despite the promises of BP, and the slim hope placed in protective booms and a giant underwater funnel lowered over the well, there is little that can be done for the habitats, wildlife, fishing grounds, delicate ecosystems and livelihoods already being affected by the scale of the disaster. The first birds, pelicans and gannets, are coming ashore coated in oil, but more will steadily follow. The unmitigated environmental and economic catastrophe came only weeks after President Obama, to the dismay of many within his own party, pledged to increase the amount of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The irony, however, was probably lost on the pelicans; they have a troubled history of their own in Louisiana waters.
The brown pelican nested in large numbers on the coast and barrier islands of the southern US state until the 1950s and 60s. Over the course of a decade the number of birds plummeted dramatically, and by 1963 the brown pelican was extinct throughout Louisiana. The cause of the loss was eventually traced to DDT. Used with enthusiasm mid-century throughout the American heartland, the agricultural pesticide made its way to the Louisiana coast in the bodies of small fish after draining into the Mississippi River. The DDT slowly accumulated in the tissues of the pelicans while they fed on the fish in the coastal lagoons until the chemical eventually reduced the hardness of the bird’s eggshells. Each nesting season the brown pelican unintentionally crushed its offspring until the species no longer existed in its native waters.
A change in the pelican’s fortune came with the banning of DDT in the 1970s, a restocking programme and the restoration of habitat on the barrier islands where they bred. Until now the return of the brown pelican has been a story of successful intervention after the great loss effected by human activity. The bird breeds in healthy numbers along the rich, coastal wetlands and outer islands. But, coming at the height of the nesting season, the Gulf of Mexico spill could alter that patient process of restitution. Whether the images of dead pelicans or the devastation of oyster beds and unemployed fishermen will have an impact on the decision to increase offshore drilling is another matter. The relationship we have to place, humans and non-humans alike, is easily disturbed. And the disturbance inevitably results in loss.
Driving home yesterday along the isthmus that divides the two lakes, I watched pelicans grappling with the air. A fierce spring wind had galed over the lakes all day, tufting the waves with white crests. The willows along the water’s edge were curved back like taut bows and lengths of reed were being launched through the air. The pelicans were returning from a day of fishing the big lake, steering into the wild wind in order to cross back to their islands of reed nests. But the wind kept them adrift. They hung suspended in the air, held in place through elemental tension, the opposing push of wind and wing. Their feathers flayed down, lifted, and came down again, but the birds stayed in place. It seemed that nothing would come of their immense struggle, that they would eventually tire and slip away. But knowledge of the nesting ground is magnetic; they wouldn’t easily be dissuaded from home. They held their ground, balanced precariously in mid-air, until a sudden shift in the currents gave them purchase again. Their wings rose and fell, and the pelicans pressed forward. A slight shift in the nature of things had sent them on their way, arrowing towards home.
Having lived with the Prespa Lakes for almost a decade now, I feel a fierce love and allegiance towards them. It seems a natural exchange for what they’ve provided me over time, the give and take of long tenure. Yet there is one other wetland in northern Greece that attracts my attentions now and then; I suppose it feels like infidelity.
When Julia and I first journeyed to Lake Kerkini a few years ago, we spent our evenings talking over wine after long days of walking, birdwatching, and exploring. We spoke in quiet tones, equally feeling the pull: “What would our lives be like if we’d chosen to move to this lake, instead of those lakes.” Like most infatuations, though, it passed. But the lake had left a mark on us, and it sparked a torch that lit imagined lives.
For the first time since then, we returned to Lake Kerkini a few weeks ago with friends. Unlike Prespa, which was just emerging from its winter chrysalis when we left, Kerkini was brimming with spring. About 800 metres in altitude separate the two lake systems, and the difference was startling. Trees were in leaf on the hillsides lifting from the lake edge; lesser spotted and short-toed eagles circled overhead; butterflies traced the air, following invisible currents.
Kerkini lies on a major migratory route, channelling birds from the Aegean towards the narrow opening of the Strymonas River that cleaves the high Rhodopi mountains on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Migrating birds follow the river through the alpine opening, fanning out over the Balkans. But they arrive by way of the lake. Many birds were already back – black kites readying to nest in the hills, egrets and herons filling the trees, hundreds of white storks in courtship atop village electricity poles. Equally there were those passing through, like the flock of hawfinches unfurling like a long ribbon over the meadows, their wedge-beaked, orange and brown forms bulleting through. A secretive black stork, the solitary and shy relative of the white, stood in an isolated field, a purple and green glaze spilling over its shoulders and head. Wildflowers sparked into colour, and creatures emerged from a long winter.
One of the striking features of Lake Kerkini are the herds of water buffalo farmed on the wet meadows around the water’s edge. Not only do they help maintain the ecologically rich meadows, they also provide the region’s noted culinary specialities: buffalo meat, cheese and yoghurt. They lend an epic presence to the lake-edge habitat as they wallow through the water, sloping through rivers up to their heads, then congregating in their hundreds on the flatlands, where birds gather around unconcernedly by their sides.
Talking of Kerkini as a lake is somewhat inaccurate; in fact it’s a reservoir. Historically the area was a great marsh, dotted with a number of sizable lakes, swamps and reed beds filled by the Strymonas River as it roared downed from its Bulgarian mountain source near Sofia. But in 1923, the future course of the wetlands was set in motion by a cynical political agreement. Four years earlier, the Greek government had embarked on an ill-advised war against Turkey in an attempt to wrest control of Constantinople back again. By the end of 1922, with the routing of the Greek army, the destruction of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the lost of countless lives, Greece’s war was over. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Greece and Turkey in 1923, set a terrible precedent that remains a framework for the resolution of ethnic strife. Called the Great Population Exchange, the agreement required the mass movement of ethnic populations between the two states, despite long histories and traditions grounded in regions on both sides. It is estimated that 1.3 million Christian Greeks exited Turkey, while 800,000 Muslim Turks were required to leave Greece. The only areas exempt from the exchange were the Christians of Istanbul (Constantinople) and the Muslims of Thrace, Greece’s eastern province.
What this colossal population exchange meant for many was a miserable arrival in a land they had little connection to, with little prospect of employment. Athens and Thessaloniki swelled beyond their available infrastructure; but many people tried to settle the land. In the extensive area around Lake Kerkini, 85,000 refugees are thought to have arrived in the years after the signing of the treaty. But trying to farm in the marshy sway of the Strymonas River was an unenviable task; the continual flooding decimated crops and the area was rife with malaria. An estimated 20% of the newly arrived died in the years 1923/24 alone.
The Greek government decided to act by draining the marshes and creating a reservoir. Along with containing the flood waters, in would also open up large swathes of arable land for the refugees to farm. An American company was hired and construction on the reservoir and dam began in 1928, which was intended to hold back the winter and spring run-off that could then be slowly released in summer for irrigation. What can’t be seen when travelling around the lake are the older villages that already existed amongst the marshes. They were sent to the bottom by the rising waters, lost to the visible world.
Lake Kerkini reaches its high water point in late spring and early summer, when it traps the melt-waters of winter. During the hot season water is siphoned off for agriculture, resulting in areas of the lakebed being brought to the surface again by autumn. The great film director, Theo Angelopoulos, used those areas to build a mud and stone village for his film, ‘The Weeping Meadow,’ that traces the difficult political history of Greece in the 20th century. Once the village was built, the crew waited for the rising waters of late winter to film the drowning of the houses.
This great ebb and flow of water levels has created a variety of unique habitats – mudflats, wet meadows, riverine meaders and marsh – but the most ghostly and alluring is the drowned forest. Located in the northeast corner of Lake Kerkini, it is a remnant of an earlier landscape – the boggy and alluvial edge of the river. The willows are now submerged for nearly half the year, and provide an astonishing refuge for pelicans, herons, egrets, cormorants, and terrapins. Willows naturally embrace water, but this inundation takes its toll – the area is under water far too long for offspring to survive. It is a landscape that will eventually go the way of the villages that nestle at the bottom of the lake.
When the waters recede at the end of summer the lake bed comes to the surface again. Marsh plants and grasses spring up, briefly and insistent, like my thoughts of the lake itself from time to time, and that never to be resolved question of what might have been.
Julian Hoffman is a writer living beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. Notes from Near and Far is his blog on the nature of place.
My book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Nonfiction. I'm deeply honoured by the prize, and the book was published by the excellent University of Georgia Press in October 2013. All photographs on the blog are my own, unless otherwise credited.