The sky is a harbour all of a sudden. Wherever I look there are wings leaving a wake in the air. Having sailed northwards to reach here, swifts, swallows and housemartins dive through the teeming insect feast laid on for their arrival, swirling through pools of clouded blue. Golden orioles flare from the lakeside willows, brief as lightning on the pale skin of the sky, and bee-eaters pass overhead in a parade of bright feathers – lemon, cinnamon and teal. I watch them snare sunlight as they fly, glinting like the dazzle of rings.
These are days of dancing light. Caught somewhere between spring and summer, it’s a season of startling, hypnotic clarity, a time when even wind seems refulgent, rippling silver through meadow-grass, racing in waves across the lakes like glimmering shoals of fish. The oak and beech leaves are so pale and tender that they could be translucent, awaiting the sun to fill their sails with billowing green promise. The mountain meadows are a constellation of colours: the white spires of asphodels nestled in glades of mauve orchids; wild yellow tulips entangled in trailing purple vetch; blood-red poppies splashed across the grasses. It’s as if a wild pageant had swept across the slopes.
There are only so many days of such light at this latitude, when far mountains are telescoped into near focus, their ridges etched sharply against sky and gullies steeped emerald with trees. There is a sense of ceremony to this precision; all the coiled brilliance of winter unfurling like ritual, a lustrous lengthening of days. Poplars in the valley bend like bows in the wind, and I watch them launch magpies clear across the tumbling river, spiralling in sunlight with an iridescent gleam to their feathers, a glaze of dark, reflective glass. Soon summer will strip the air of intelligibility, all the fine details of those far mountains turned shapeless and vague by heat haze, as if veiled by the driftless smoke of fires. The sky will simmer through the dry months, drained of colour like the meadows grown pale beneath it, but for now the light falls as clear as water. Borrowing its glitter for songs, nightingales shimmer through the dark.
Clouds spin past like old cinema reels as I walk the last of the valley, their shadows chasing light across the hills. I follow the old ways home: the ancient slow meander of tortoises across the sandy slopes. Brimstone butterflies waver over the meadows like buttercups shaken by wind. Everything in this nameless, radiant season is transformed and turned magnetic by light. Even in the garden the grasses sparkle and elderflowers are crowned with a white burst of stars, catching the falling rain of light. I watch evening lower to a burnished glow as bees gather gold about their legs. And what the light knows is this: there are days when the world should sway.
For an audio version of ‘Being in Mysteries’ click the play button
The petals are like stiff velvet against my fingers, and the entrancing colour of blood. There is something otherworldly about this parasitic species; they don’t seem to belong to the surrounding community of plants. They’re amongst the rarest flowers in Europe and yet so conspicuous, so revealing, that they’re easily distinguished by being the exhibitionists of the meadow, as though having compressed all the bright and possible vivaciousness of their entire genetic lineage into a few scattered specimens, sacrificing plenty for personality. They seem to bask in their unusual difference, catching the eye from afar.
Diphelypaea boissieri are known from only two locations in all of Europe; this meadow where in May and June I find them thinly strewn and another some hundreds of kilometres further north. That’s all there is to their European presence: a car park or two would take them forever away.
Rising on a dark stalk and without the aid of chlorophyll, a scarlet flower opens into the sun. It’s as distinguished as a Remembrance Day poppy pinned to a veteran’s lapel. And inside nearly every bloom in hot weather nuzzles a small beetle coated golden by pollen dust. No one really knows what kind of beetles they are, or whether their relationship with the plant is mutually exclusive and of necessity to each species; whether they’re as rare and unusual as each other. In fact Diphelypaea boissieri occupies a blind spot in floral knowledge; there’s no certainty as to the precise plant that it’s parasitic on, or what constitutes its life cycle and span. It is an isolated enigma, further deepened by appearing in two far-flung places.
Tethered to a single territory, endemic species suggest something whole despite their limited range, like a long-settled clan or like-minded tribe, a sustained and stoic tenure, a sense of belonging to the land. But a species that exists in two distinct localities, separated by a wide geographic gulf, reminds me of a line divided, or a forked trail you might meet in the woods, conscious that each choice carries with it the negation of the other, the path forever untaken.
Those untrodden ways become more discernible as we age, easily recognisable as our choices are increasingly compromised by dwindling time and the nature of our lives. Certain paths will never come into view again. But the mystery of not knowing how they might have unfolded, or where they might have led, lends life some of its depth – a sweet sadness intangible and shifting as mist, an awareness that, given immeasurable days, so many lives might be lived.
Mystery is a measure of our imaginations. When Venus recently passed in a poignant dark arc across the surface of the sun I was astonished by what its smallness signified for the enormity of our star. Roughly the size of the Earth, the black disc was dwarfed by the seething sphere that breathes life into our planet. Whatever knowledge we have of the universe, whatever we’ve pieced together of its form and complexity through observation and experiment, can’t diminish its raw and ineffable immensity. No calculation of distance, or explanation of orbit, could make sense of that dark, dawn trajectory for me. We are a few grains of sand amidst a startling desert.
In a letter to his brothers in 1817, in which he was critical of what he saw as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elevation of knowledge over beauty, John Keats wrote: “I mean, Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” While I take great pleasure in fact and reason, whether from trying to understand the intricacies of bird behaviour or the elemental forces and time it took for marine creatures to be transformed into ancient limestone beds, it stirs the deepest part of me to know that in this day and age mystery still exists, that a strange flower can hang on to its secrets, that a passing celestial sphere has the capacity to raise our eyes from our labours and leisure and distractions, put us in touch, if only for a few minutes, with the vast and baffling extent of existence. Perhaps Keats knew that to clasp the two would hold us better in place.
I leave the meadow with the glow of unknowing. Wrapped up in the Diphelypaea is the wonder of what is and the mystery of what might have been. Whether these flowers are the relics of a wide dominion, ragged bands of survivors from the age of glaciation, or adapted to such nuanced peculiarities of place that only a couple of meadows across an entire continent meet its specific, parasitic needs, we have no way of knowing at present. I turn back at the last moment to see scarlet scattered like stars across the slope, a constellation of rare things brethren and beholden to a distant congregation that unknowingly makes up the night sky of their kind. And for a few seconds I long to see that other meadow, to know the sibling field that sustains this flower. But my desire soon passes like Venus before the sun, dimming as it moves out of the glare. Being in the mystery of other paths is enough.
Notes from Near and Far will be on hiatus for the next month or so as I set out with my father to walk half of the Coast to Coast path (that’s England rather than Canada for anyone whose eyes just popped!). It’s been an idea of ours for the best part of a decade, and with neither of us getting particularly younger, we’ve finally set it in motion. Beginning at the edge of the Pennine hills at Kirkby Stephen in northern England, the route will take us over moors and dales, bogs and becks, with plenty of country pubs for sustenance all the way (and to shelter out of the rain), before ending, at least theoretically, at Robin Hood’s Bay and a dip in the North Sea (well, a splash anyways…). The ten days should take us about 180 kilometres in total, but as John Muir so wonderfully put it, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I’ll be writing about whatever the journey reveals when I return. Until then, happy wanderings!
To listen to an audio version of ‘First Things’ click the play button
You hear the long, quavering call of a blackbird and open the window, stiff after the swelling snow. The song slips inside, spins and swirls for a few moments, and then steals you from the room. Standing outside, warmth lilts about your fingers and face for the first time in months. You sense the sap rising to the apple buds, the stars of white blossom on the cusp of erupting.
A lizard skitters madly along the wall, darting over the stones as if they were coals. Crocuses purple the dark earth and water runs as if in a race, unlocked from snow and ice to stream down the mountains and pour as a river into the lake. Tree sparrows fumble in the branches of the quince, shuttling old leaves and grasses, sometimes shiny candy wrappers dropped by kids, to furnish a nest in a stone cranny of the house. Pale green shoots are spearing through the ground. You look down to see you’re standing on a new season.
Brimstone, tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain fritillary: the names of butterflies on the tip of your tongue, forgotten there all winter like the handsaw you set down and didn’t find until the shrinking snow returned it, wet and rusted on the grass. But seeing those first flights – the early and uncertain flutters of amber, lemon and orange wings glinting in the sharp sun – and a whole language falls into place, a homecoming book left dusty on a shelf. You turn the pages of returning things, feel the shape of their names in your mouth. Swallowtail, wheatear, nightingale. You let them linger on your lips, trembling and ready to fly.
The first things of spring are ancient and repeated, and yet somehow uniquely new. No matter how many springs have preceded it, the season always feels like it’s arriving for the first time. There’s a quality of the ecstatic to it all, like the spell of first love wild and requited. But a first love that’s recurring. All that appears shares the mystery of being simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, the paradox of a circle that turns, bringing the same season back to us after a lengthy absence. The same season seen differently. You feel the sun that’s unfurling the world and know it could be the first you’ve ever felt. You hear the long, quavering call of the blackbird and let its song slip inside.
To listen to an audio version of ‘The Circumference of a Second’ please press the play button.
for Dimitris Noulis
Sometimes just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a 17th century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. There was something luminous and of great value in the line, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of ‘Eternity’ with the rather commonplace ‘the other night’ – radical in its ordinariness, as if the poet had said, “I saw Edwin the other night,” or “I saw a boat the other day.” Didn’t a vision of such significance, of eternity itself, demand a more grandiose delivery? Clearly Henry Vaughan didn’t think so.
A few days later Julia and I went looking for orchids. The lake basin where we live in Greece is divided geologically in two. On one side, where our village nestles in the crook of an alpine valley, the land is underpinned by dark, brooding granite. The other side, however, is composed of limestone, and fits easily with the country of myth – simmering, dry slopes awash with butterflies; bundles of wild thyme crushed underfoot; junipers twined like coiled lovers, rooted there for centuries. It’s a place of lucid, Mediterranean light.
The parched, stony earth of the gods is home to a wild profusion of flowers. They strike out in spring for the bright, Homeric light; a brief twirl in the splendour of the sun. Bee orchids hovered beneath trees while electric blue anchusa lit up the glades. We steered through a dream of coloured blooms: love-in-a-mist, wild geranium, forget-me-not.
A half-day later and the heat had drained us; we were tired and hungry, slipping on sand and loose stones. We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk and started back, doggedly combing the last slopes for overlooked flowers. When a nightjar rose from the earth we were only a step shy from standing on it. It lifted itself on wings the colour of old leaves, hovered at knee-height for a breathless second, and then arrowed off.
The nightjar spends its camouflaged days on a branch or the ground, waiting patiently for the gathering dark when it begins hawking nocturnal insects. The bird we had startled from sleep settled on a low, leafless branch a few metres from us, blending into the wood until it was nearly invisible. It folded its scythed wings back in, which left only its dark eyes to distinguish it. Then it closed them slowly, as though having seen enough of the day, and sealed them against the light.
We left the nightjar to its dreaming and stumbled down the slope, ecstatic in the moment that had just passed – a rare glimpse, gifted to us in the midst of the everyday. The wide dirt road we came out on was hard-panned by the heat. Moving across its bare, blasted surface was a caterpillar of one of the bagworm moths. What is remarkable about these caterpillars is how they carry their homes along with them. Each tiny creature spins a silken tube around itself which it layers with fragments of debris. This one was a piece of mobile forest floor, built from bits of bark and twigs and leaves that far outsized the insect itself. The caterpillar inched across the grainy surface by extending a small length of its body, and then dragging the woodland sleeve behind it in the heat. Again and again it crept forward, towing its marvelous home on miniscule legs.
I lowered myself to its height, entranced by an inconceivable life. The day suddenly stilled while I watched, held in place by the mesmeric sunlight: orchids in purple splashes across the pale slopes; the insistent insect drone; the scent of ancient junipers unfolding on the air. In that simple moment, Henry Vaughan’s opening line became clear. Eternity can be anytime, any day or night, seen in the closing of a nightjar’s eyes. While something as small as a bagworm’s home can house the infinite.
As the year wanes I’d like to mark its end with a few photographs. While place can be dense with the layers of our living, with the accumulated histories of wild creatures, cultures and faiths, the tightly knit webs of ecosystems or urban architecture, sometimes we’re afforded merely a glimpse of it. These images are such glances.
Photographs remind me of short stories, briefly seen worlds, vivid and atmospherically incomplete. The English writer and critic V.S. Pritchett once described the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” There is something ephemeral about the nature of an image, a moment stolen and suspended out of sequence, a life passed through. While we can never hope to plumb the intricate depths of a place through a single photograph, there is something intangibly evocative about them as well: the fragile intimacy of a moment.
Many thanks to all of you who’ve read Notes from Near and Far this year and brought your breadth of insight and experience to the posts with thoughts, comments and ideas. These connections have been greatly appreciated, and I’d like to wish you all a rich and illuminating coming year.
“Call me Jimmy” was how he greeted us, a few remembered words of English after spending some weeks in New York in the 1960s. Jimmy is a Prespa fisherman, and one of only two remaining year-round residents of the village of Konsko on the shores of Great Prespa Lake in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The fire salamander was found at the bottom of a well in winter, unable to climb out of the concrete shaft. We lifted it from the water on a pale and ghostly maple leaf and watched it walk off across the February snow.
Each Sunday, on the outskirts of the city of Korce in Albania, men and women gather to trade and barter the animals they own. They arrive along the narrow roads on carts drawn by mules, meeting on an open plain to try to sell a donkey, a cage full of rabbits, a goat or two. By the end of the afternoon the roads are again full of animals travelling in all directions.
The cardinal butterfly is one of the larger butterflies to visit our garden, especially in late autumn when it is attracted by flowering echinacea and geraniums. This one clung to the edge of a flower, where I watched it throughout the day. By evening I realised it was dying and turned it over to discover its abdomen had been pierced and was now being hollowed out by insects.
Subsistence farming remains common in much of Albania. This farmer in the village of Zagradec on the shores of Mikri Prespa Lake is emptying his barn of hay by donkey, carrying it to his house to feed the sheep stabled in his yard during winter.
The spring crocus begins flowering early. But in the high mountains of the Balkans, where winter hangs on in the shadows of alpine valleys, the crocus crests through the snow to cast its mauve colour about the still white hills.
In 1972 the writer, Annie Dillard, began assembling hundreds of index cards, where she’d jotted down thoughts and quotations from a range of readings, meticulous observations of the seasons, notes on the natural processes that she’d witnessed near her home in the mountains of Virginia, and crafted them into a whole. The resulting book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a luminous and rhapsodic work that delves with great honesty into both the beauty and the violence of the natural world. At times quiet and contemplative, Dillard’s writing also reaches incandescent heights when her youthful, exuberant eye and sensual perception engage with the mysteries and specifics that surround her. The book invites us to partake of an intimate and closely observed world.
Just like the present, that mercurial moment that so often seems tantalizingly just out of reach, and to which Dillard devotes a great deal of attention, spring can be a difficult thing to grasp. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard finds herself chasing the seasons, especially spring, seeking the epiphanic in every movable moment. “Catch it if you can” she says of the brimming season, daring herself and her readers to make the embrace, to latch on to the myriad transformations. It is a refrain heard throughout the book – catch it if you can -and upon which she stakes much of her alluring language.
From the moment it begins spring unfurls like spooled ribbon, picking up speed the closer it gets to its end, until it blurs by in the flash of an eye. Where deciduous forest in winter holds light in equal measure to wood, the meadow-green canopy seems to enclose so swiftly in spring that only a few small hollows of light sparkle their way in before it seals. Rivers swell with the waning snow, raising ponds and marshes from the ground you once walked. For all its descriptions, accolades and clichés spring remains a season of surprise.
The transformations that most entrance me are the waves of colour that sweep through the season. These are wildflower days, when any place, be it rural, urban, or industrial, has a shot at being decked with new tints. The colours streak through meadows and over hilltops, burrowing into the forest depths. They brighten the cracked pavements and vacant lots slumped at the edge of town, funnel along beside railway lines and factory yards. Wildflowers will themselves into place through an ungovernable determination, an audacious resilience. And there is energy within it all, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas so evocatively put it. But there’s the rub: the energy needed to flower is so intensely focused that it tends to wilt quickly, shifting gear into the making of seed. Skip a few days in any one place and certain colours will have come and gone, replaced by others in spirited succession.
Across the hills and meadows of Prespa wildflowers have been racing for weeks – orchids, fritillaries and asphodels; primroses, geraniums and irises; all mingling and moving on, their vacant spaces taken up by something equally entrancing. Like every other year when I’ve walked the spring land, I’ve again missed many flowers, arriving too late to their places of bloom. But I prefer to think of those I’ve been fortunate enough to find, those brief seasonal sparks like grace notes embellishing the earth. Spring is winding down and nearly finished for another year, its colours fading to summer’s dry grain. But there’s a little time in the season yet, and its last, unfolding songs are ecstatic. Catch them if you can.
Many thanks to Jan Jordan for her help with the flower identification…
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.