Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Wind, WaterIn the absence of sunlight flickered a different kind of brilliance. It was brief and beautiful, an iridescent bead at the edge of a strange and moving place, a lonesome cemetery sloping towards the shore. There were cherry-red candles and sticks of incense left as offerings, sea-mist like a shawl. In the shallows, the sleek ripple of a seal broke the surface, and then that bead of bright and whirling light caught our eye, glittering from a tree.

I’d crossed the Puget Sound from Seattle to Victoria by ferry that morning. All the braids of blue water and knots of winter-green islands that I’d seen earlier in the week as my flight lowered over the Pacific Northwest had been stripped back by coastal weather to a series of spectral shades. The sky was tarnished, the colour of old cutlery sold out of shoeboxes at car boot sales. Rain hung across the sound like a ghostly, shifting veil, the air stippled with spray from the dark waves rising against the hull. Wherever I looked, sky had joined sea. There was no distinction other than the line of their entwining, like a thin seam of solder sealing them together in place.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

I watched that grey line for much of the journey, knowing that clear weather would eventually undo the illusion of union. And I wondered about the effects of separation. Sometimes we’re let go of place, released from an embrace we’ve long known. In Seattle I’d met a fellow birder while scanning the foreshore for sea ducks. During our conversation about the species of the area, he told me to look out for Anna’s hummingbird. So redolent of simmered sunshine, a hummingbird was about the last creature I’d imagined finding in the midst of a wet and unforgiving northwest winter, but that tiny pulse of a bird, hypnotic as the glow off a summer lake, has expanded its range considerably in recent years. Once confined solely to northern Baja California and southern California, Anna’s hummingbirds have spread as far north along the Pacific coast as British Columbia and eastwards into some of the interior deserts of the west. The reason for this is simple: residents are planting more and more exotic ornamentals in their gardens, providing pioneering sources of nectar outside the native staples of the bird’s southern heartland. Crucially, especially in the northwest, where even exotics struggle to bloom in the wet winter mire, garden hummingbird feeders, devoutly topped up with a solution of liquid sugar whenever low, have enabled a once strictly southern species to become year-round residents of the north. “You’ll probably hear it before you see it,” said my new acquaintance. “Listen out for its faint buzzes and whistles.”

Chinese cemetery, Victoria

As my ferry slowed into Victoria, my friend Lorne met me in the harbour. After a late breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee in a warm and homely diner, we set off through mist and drizzle. “There’s a place I’d like you to see,” said Lorne, steering us towards the coast. We pulled over above a crescent bay, then sank down a winding rocky path into a meadow of scattered stones flanked by a few houses, a cemetery at the edge of the sea. Everything was saturated. Mosses and lichens had sponged up the rain, swelling into bright winter flowers on the graves. Each name on the stones was etched in Cantonese, and within moments of being there I felt that strange, magnetic hold that some places have over us. A seal cleaved the grey waters close to shore; a harlequin duck, exquisitely turned out in black and maroon, hugged the rim of a tide pool; a black oystercatcher fanned itself along the coast. Amidst all the movement of the breathing world, though, was the ineffable stillness of the departed.

Chinese grave

In the 19th century, the Chinese community of Victoria was forbidden from burying their dead alongside the city’s other residents. Instead their graves were dug in a separate, racially segregated section of the Ross Bay cemetery. Allocated a low-lying quadrant prone to erosion, the graves were occasionally swept into the winter sea by storms, so in 1903 a Chinese community association in the city purchased a plot overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Harling Point, guided by the principles of feng shui.

For the ancient Chinese, feng shui – meaning wind, water – was a philosophy of orientation, a way of seeking harmony between earthly existence and the surrounding environment. It sought to locate significant human structures, such as homes, buildings and tombs, in places of vital, life-affirming energy. It looked upon the natural world as essential to our well-being. I can’t pretend to understand the complex symbolic underpinning of the philosophy, nor the intricate reading of the heavens that it would have entailed before the invention of the compass, but I do know something of that desire we have to orientate and align our lives with the natural environment, seeking affinities with landscapes, places and wild creatures that deepen the significance of our brief presence here. Our lives wedded, in wonder, to the world.

Archive photo

Despite the auspiciousness of the site, the dead were only intended to be temporary residents of the Harling Point cemetery. Chinese belief at the time maintained that a body’s soul would hover over its tomb and remain homeless unless returned to its natal village. After a period of seven years, the bones of the dead were exhumed, cleaned and stored in a ‘bone house’ until they could be packed in crates and eventually repatriated to China by ship. This practice ceased permanently in 1937 when, with the start of the Sino-Japanese War, ships were unable to make the crossing. In the 1960s, the bones of nearly nine hundred people, stored until then in the ‘bone house’ and originally intended to be returned to their ancestral homeland, were buried in thirteen coastal graves on Harling Point, stranded, both in and out of place. Despite the sparseness of visible markers, the sea-sloped earth is weighted with loss, with only the consolations of wind and water to leaven it.

Memorial markers

Drizzle turned to rain as Lorne and I left, winding our way up the path, turning every few steps to see the gravestones pitched at different angles against the endless pewter sea. I knew the cemetery had moved me in a way that certain places, however unexpected, sometimes do. Its resonance rang through me like a bell. Near the top of the steps, a series of faint buzzes and sharp whistles broke our stride. You’ll probably hear it before you see it. We turned and followed the sound to a leafless tree at the edge of the path, the cemetery and sea spilling away beneath us. At the tip of a branch whirled the emerald and rose glow of an Anna’s hummingbird, glimmering in the winter rain.

Votive offerings

Many thanks to the wonderful Caught by the River for first publishing this piece on their website. It was while I was about to fly to London a couple of weeks ago, partially to read at a Caught by the River event, that I learned that The Small Heart of Things had won a National Outdoor Book Award in the U.S. for Natural History Literature. I don’t think I’ve yet come down to earth. I’ve known of the National Outdoor Book Awards for some years ago now, and it was in 2012 that one of my favourite books in recent memory won the same award, David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Taking a square metre patch of old-growth Tennessee forest, Haskell tells an evocative and attentive story of the woodland world, weaving scientific precision with a vivid, poetic richness as he reveals the extraordinary lives and processes at play in such a small segment of earth. It’s a deep honour to be chosen this year for the award, and to be included in such good company as this remarkable and inspiring book.


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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

*     *     *

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

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

The Small Heart of Things

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

Great Prespa Lake

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

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

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

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

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The Small Heart of Things Book TrailerWith the end of summer, migrating birds make landfall along the shore of the lake. The dense thickets of alders and willows that have sprouted within reach of the water teem with tiny, flitting forms. Whinchats, warblers and flycatchers rustle through the silvered leaves or snare insects on the wing, taking enough from summer’s rich purse to last them until the next stop on their journey. A few pelicans – either too young or too old to migrate with the rest of the colony – glide over their own reflections, the water a mirror of blue glass in the September stillness. Hummingbird hawkmoths blur through the last of the flowers and blackberries by the lake hang heavy from months of sun. As I gather them I watch a warm wind fill the sails of a swallow’s wings, so that it tacks across the sea-green fields beside me. I envy its ease in the air, a creature styled for the open sky.

Like other summers, it’s again been a bit quiet at Notes from Near and Far. But while walking by the lake, I’m reminded by the presence of birds skimming south that there are seasons in each of our lives equal to those of the turning world. Like those species pushing on after a summer of nesting, there’s a time for creating and a time for journeying. And there’s a season, I think, for simply being, as well.

I’ll soon be putting up a Notes from Near and Far post about the Hoo Peninsula, a remarkable and threatened place in the Thames Estuary. But until then, I’m extremely pleased to be able to share the book trailer for The Small Heart of Things, as the book will come out in a few weeks time. With much gratitude to two very talented people, my good friend Miki Ambrózy for the terrific post-production work and generously pulling it all together and to Janis Strapcans for composing the beautiful, original music that accompanies it. Although both versions below are identical, the Vimeo HD trailer is perhaps best for those with good bandwidth, while the smaller YouTube version should be good for those (like us!) who don’t have great broadband. Hope you enjoy!

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

The Small Heart of Things Book  Cover

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For an audio version of ‘The Places That Shape Us’ please click the play button

Certain places follow us, like shadows. At times they lengthen and stretch implausibly tall until they tower above our lives, or slant decisively away as if trying to flee. Occasionally they appear not to be there at all – so exact is the overlay of self and place, so precise the meridian sun. Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves.

We were on holiday in the north of England when I first glimpsed what would become my own shadowing landscape. A flat grey sky sheeted above the mysterious, treeless moors as we drove a narrow road in North Yorkshire. On either side of us the heather unrolled like bolts of rough, dark cloth, its dull purple flowers scattered like a fall of ripened berries. I remember the pockets of spectral mist that dissolved the second they were seen; the solitary, wind-stooped shrubs; the beautifully forlorn light.

I was almost twelve that summer, and while I stared through the windows transfixed the land began tilting me away from the enclosed space of the car towards a different kind of interior: luminous, revelatory, confiding. As I watched the ghostly moorland dimple away into nothingness, eventually merging with the solemn proclamation of sky, I became aware of a close and immediate attachment, a need to return. The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me.

*     *     *

“…we are not strangers in the world if we remain open to awe…”
– Terry Tempest Williams

I’m thrilled to announce that my book manuscript, from which this short passage is taken, has just won the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World explores some of the myriad ways in which we come to be at home, and how connections to the natural world can be deepened when an equality of perception is applied to our relationships. From a caterpillar carrying its house of leaves to transhumant shepherds ranging the high Prespa mountains, from a quail seeking cover on a seemingly empty steppe to the plight of a Turkmen family emigrating from Afghanistan to Istanbul, the narrative spans the common, and often contested, ground that supports both human and natural communities alike. It seeks the smaller stories that sustain us. The book will be published in the autumn of 2013 by the excellent University of Georgia Press.

Not only am I extremely honoured by the award, I’m also deeply moved by the words of the judge, Terry Tempest Williams, who describes the book in such a generous and humbling way in the official announcement, a writer whose wisdom and work have long been a guiding spirit and inspiration to me. Many thanks to all of you who have supported, read and encouraged Notes from Near and Far these last few years. I’m deeply grateful for all your interest, and the time and thought you’ve given to these posts. I will be writing more about the book as it takes shape.

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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!

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