Posts Tagged ‘Landscape’

The Bugling SkyThe steppe spilled away into the distance, marsh-green and silvered with pooled rain. The morning air was cold and misted, and our breath turned to fog when we spoke. As clouds sealed the plain with grey light, the land seemed eerily still until a hare sprang to its feet. From its concealing flat crouch against the ground, the animal suddenly loomed large on the unbroken plain, its ears spoked like a tuning fork above its head. Seen against the strictly horizontal, anything vertical in a level landscape is lent greater prominence than usual, magnified by the lack of competing features and the desire of the human eye to connect with something solid in all that space. There is less to dilute its presence in the emptiness, its seemingly lone tenancy is magnetic. The hare snapped out of stillness again, sprinting across the wet plain, flinging a necklace of bright water into the air with each step. When it jerked to a sudden stop, a second hare appeared where the first one had been, kicking up water into the distance, parting a path of scattered light through the grasses. I followed its run as it splashed west, shrinking into the distance until I saw a set of ghostly figures in the mist, a family of cranes against the horizon.

Wet puszta

The Hortobágy National Park is the second largest unbroken steppe west of the Ural Mountains and home to such rare creatures as the imperial eagle, saker and steppe polecat, as well as the improbable pageantry of the great bustard, a bird species whose males weigh up to 21 kilos, making them the world’s heaviest flying animal. But, like the remnant prairies of the American plains, these vast Hungarian grasslands are as significant for their cultural history as for the rich wildlife they sustain. Called the puszta by Hungarians, the steppe was once a world of semi-nomadic horsemen and pastoralist herders steering their animals beneath big skies across the sweeping sway of the grasslands, and it remains to this day an important site for the continued husbanding of the nation’s emblematic and ancient breeds of livestock such as the corkscrew-horned Racka sheep and the long-horned Hungarian grey cattle. Utilising the far-reaching visibility of an open landscape for communication, shepherds developed a unique grassland language, operating the evocative and isolated water wells that are dotted about the plain as a messaging system. As told by Dirk Hilbers in the excellent Crossbill Guide to The Hortobágy, the shepherds would position the bucket and the wooden dipping pole, called the sweep, in specific configurations to convey to others on the plain anything from news of a death or the arrival of the police to the time for driving animals to a watering place or that a meal was ready. It was a language made possible by geography, the braided tongue of people and place.

Hortobagy water wells

Long-horned Hungarian grey cattle

The space between earth and sky is where much of the larger life of the steppe takes sudden shape. Despite its seemingly obliging openness, the level land in autumn can be unexpectedly deceptive, sealing its creaturely secrets inside shifting mists and bouts of muddy, deflecting light. Squalls of northern winds and lancing rain often keep birds pinned to the deep grasses in wait for more beneficent days. Even the faintest of furrows can be as concealing as a canyon until an approaching eagle raises geese into the air like wreaths of smoke from a wildfire. But in whatever temper of weather or unforgiving light you find the place, the elegant cranes of the plain are its unmistakeable graces. They claim the puszta with regal authority, the adults reaching well over a metre in height and wearing a scarlet crown on each of their smooth, rounded heads. Magnificence is their kingdom: the long, sinuous neck and plume of lavish feathers about the tail, the stately and stilted legs. Even when just standing they soar.


European tree frog

Each October up to 135,000 common cranes gather around the Hortobágy during migration, assembling from points as far north as Scandinavia and the northwest of Russia. They spend their autumn days in flocks and family groups dispersed across the vast plain, feeding on left-over agricultural spoils such as maize and potatoes until hard frosts in November spark their journey further south. Throughout the day we encounter these small parishes of cranes, roaming the dark earth as slowly as shadows lengthening steadily throughout the afternoon. Their movements could be meditations as they glean the fields, precise, measured and spare. But for all the beauty of seeing them in the fullness of light, it’s the enclosing end of day that we await.

Sunset cranes

As the sun begins to slide towards the horizon, the evening reverie begins. In all directions, cranes unfurl and fan their wings, lifting themselves from countless fields across the plain until the sky fills with long ribbons of magnificent creatures. Seeking refuge from nocturnal predators, they cross the steppe to reach a series of fish ponds to roost in shallow water, following the same aerial paths each night during their stay. As though watching the sea roll in along a shore, wave after wave of them pass overhead, a seemingly endless swell of movement against the dimming sky, carried along by the deep breathings of their wings. As the glow of the slipping sun hits the cold autumn plain, tens of thousands of cranes bugle in beautiful unison as their young whistle beside them in flight. There is no space for silence between waves, no room for thought or wishes or worries amidst such abundance, just the trembling beauty of their passing: all the gathered light and geometry of dark lines etching the horizon, the burnished sky and its evening riders. Even in darkness, long after the last sliver of sun has dropped away, you can still hear those trumpeting calls of longing that keep their family groups intact. The cranes push on above the plain into night, a river of song as bright as stars across the sky.

Evening cranes




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The Marble Shore“Whoever raises the great stones sinks.” ~ Giorgos Seferis, “Mycenae”

Like a river on a map, I trace the sinuous line with my finger as it meanders over the stone. The crystallised vein is rust-orange in a shadowy white expanse. The marble is rougher than I’d imagined, more like a sheet of compressed salt, baked solid by sun. A few succulents flower in the fissures, sustained by grains of soil wind-spilled into the cracks – enough to send up a shower of pale yellow stars. I hear the sighs of the sea beside me, whispers of wind through the pines. I’m standing in an abandoned quarry, hemmed in by its high cathedral walls, seawater licking the cove. A flight of herons steers eastwards across the sky. I follow that weaving line in the marble until the mineral seam slips out of reach, rising up the cliffs like a lit fuse, imagining all those hands that have worked this shore.

Marble The shore

It’s hard to reconcile the empty extravagance of the coast with the scenes that preceded it, when hundreds of men laboured here. On the southern tip of the island of Thassos, the marble shore is an ancient workplace, first quarried for its prized deposits in the 6th century BC. For 1,200 years, until the quarries were suddenly deserted in the 6th century AD, marble from this cape travelled the known world. Vast blocks of the valuable stone were loosened by a series of closely-spaced nails and blocks hammered in strict lines, then levered out by a complex system of winches and pulleys, the entire mechanism turned like a mill by men, most probably slaves, running inside enormous wooden wheels, or walking all day in circles around a horizontal turn crank. Freed from the cliffs, the stone tablets were hoisted onto boats lashed to the coast, which set sail for ports throughout Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. The Thassos marble was then chiselled, shaped and sculpted, transformed from its raw, sea-washed beauty into a suite of artful elegance: statues, columns, arcades, porticoes, walkways and edifices. Wherever it is still found, the marble must carry the light of this island.

Nail holes Shelving stone

There’s a melancholy edge to the day, a warm wind freighted with speckled rain. The storms that lashed the island overnight have been rinsed away, leaving a low grey sky spread across the sea. The marble is mute in this cast of light, solemn and ungiving. But later on, when sunlight returns the last days of summer to us, the marble begins to glow. The stone simmers into a hot glare. The tide pools brim with sudden glitter, reflecting the sun-scorched brilliance to a pure white profundity. I stand on a shore of light, ripples on the sea like fired glass. Absorbing it all, the marble seems to burn. To work this coast must have blinded, as if forever condemned to stare sightless at the sun.

The empty flats Stone cairns

This landscape is an echo, cryptic and obscure. It’s a mysterious resonance of the original, much larger, cape. A submerged marble reef suggests its earlier shape, ringed by an archipelago of lonesome rocks set apart from the island, as if the bed of worked stone sank from the weight it relinquished. I walk southwards, rising and falling between the coves of mined stone. The marble slopes in tilting planes ahead of me, a white world sliding into the sea. I drop down into a bay and find a vast, fluted column, a relic of the ancient works. It’s enthroned in stark beauty, as if the ruin of some obliterating catastrophe. Being in its presence casts a strange mood about the bay. It looks to have toppled straight from a pedestal, as if this was always its intended destination. Abandoned on a midden of broken stone, where sea-round pebbles have been mounded into cairns, the column summons the memory of those enslaved to this shore, who gave their lives to the sun, to this ancient marble light.


Stone column

I’m delighted to announce that The Small Heart of Things is now out in paperback, available from independent bookstores and online sellers. On behalf of the book I have a few upcoming events in England. Full details for the readings can be found on the events page or via the links below for anyone in the area, or if you wish to share with friends who might be interested. Many thanks!

November 18th: LRB Bookshop, London, with Philip Marsden and Ken Worpole
November 19th: Caught by the River Social Club, London
November 22nd: Kendal Mountain Festival, Cumbria, with Ian Hill
November 25th: The Book Case, Hebden Bridge

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

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

Looking south

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

Rock flowers

Hermitage, at distance

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

Winter light

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

Hermitage, close up

Across the lake

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


Hermitage of the Metamorphosis

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

Through the window, the world

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“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.”

~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

“Large terminals, operational buildings, offices, roads and car parks will interrupt the broad open scale of the marsh landscape… The network of ditches and creeks running through the marshes will be severely affected or destroyed…Existing open views out over the Estuary will be lost and replaced by terminal buildings, aircraft hangers and extensive areas of paving…The low hills of the Hoo Peninsula rising out of the surrounding marshland will be lost entirely.”

                                                                        ~ Foster + Partners, Thames Hub Airport Proposal to the Airports Commission, 2013

The Marsh Country

The Greek mountain sun fades to a mellow glow in September, casting a burnished crown of light over the valleys and lakes. The sloping meadows have been turned wheaten by long months of heat and the land looks spent, worn down to a layer of pale dust. The sky thins of birds until it’s nearly silent, but I still hear the chatter of a few departing swallows and the bubbling notes of bee-eaters sounding their summer leave, sun-glints of cinnamon, lemon and teal as they streak south across the seasons. I watch them skim over the house and garden, emptying the air behind them, but as I stand there in the warm dazzle of sun I find myself thinking of somewhere else, a place where the sky will soon be awhirl with wings.

The Hoo Peninsula is a rich weave of water and land at the edge of the Thames Estuary. Only 30 miles from central London, the peninsula takes its name from a word meaning ‘spur’ in Old English, jutting, as it does, into the widening waters like the prow of a boat. It’s bordered by two rivers, the Thames and the Medway, and has been preserved from the tides that sweep up both waterways by a seawall that protects its lowest and most vulnerable edges. The peninsula is a mosaic of landscapes, a mingle of intertidal mudflats, grazing marsh, 13th century flint churches, pockets of woodland where nightingales still thrive, centuries-old villages, shingle beaches, dikes, creeks and lagoons. It’s a place where a set of complex habitats, both human and wild, are woven into one.


But wherever you go, water is at the heart of the Hoo. It lifts boats from the river bed with the rising tide, seeps up creeks like a slowly moving cloud and fills deceptively deep hollows with quickening mud, as if the whole place were still under the jurisdiction of the sea, just like it’s always been. The poignant charnel house that overlooks the marshes from the churchyard of St. Helen’s in the village of Cliffe is a reminder of that long, maritime history, and the intrinsic relationship that lends this place its unique character. Victims of drowning were often caught up in a particular set of currents in the Thames that beached them on the rim of the peninsula; once pulled from the river, their bodies were carried across the marshes and temporarily laid to rest inside the ventilated stone building until they could be identified and buried. This watery world has long been noted for its wild edges.

Cliffe charnel house

Sunlit marsh

It’s these wild edges that have made the peninsula home to such a spectacular array of birds. Over 300,000 of them winter around the estuary, arriving in autumn from their summer grounds far to the north to feed from the extensive mudflats and salt marshes that are restocked daily by the tides. In recognition of this richness, and its significant populations of breeding species like avocets, lapwings, shelducks and oystercatchers, the area has been designated a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, carrying the same status as the Prespa Lakes where I live in Greece. While it’s the rare pelicans and pygmy cormorants that make Prespa so significant, the estuary is renowned for its spectacular skeins of wildfowl and waders, the aerial rafts of grey plover, knot and dunlin that twist and turn over the water like a spool of ribbon being unravelled by the wind. The estuary also hosts a number of scarce plants and invertebrates, Britain’s largest heronry and the RSPB’s oldest nature reserve, as well as a species that has recently been discovered to have declined by a fifth in the UK since 2011, the water vole. A map of the estuary reveals an expanse almost entirely covered by large swathes of colour, each one related to a different protective measure intended to preserve it, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and RSPB nature reserves.

Wild edges

Taken together, the Hoo Peninsula has been accorded the highest level of protection shy of being designated a National Park. Despite this, and the unique rural character of its historic countryside and communities, the place finds itself under considerable threat. “If someone came along and said, ‘We’re going to build an airport on the New Forest’, people would be absolutely outraged.” I stood amidst slanting snow, peering out through a mire of weather as Joan Darwell did her best to speak above the whistling wind. “But they can, because this area is so little known for its importance.” We looked out over the marshes, faint in the mist. The unspoken question that hung heavy in the air was this: how meaningful are any of these protective measures anymore? As was witnessed in 2008, when Donald Trump convinced the Scottish government to ignore the SSSI designation of a rare strand of shifting sand dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast, the fifth largest sand dune system in all of Britain, so that he could build a luxury golf course in an area recognised for its unique ecological and scenic importance, protection means little without the intention to honour it, the desire to value a place for what it already is.


Water channel

I’d chosen Easter to travel back to England, mistakenly expecting those April days to have blossomed into spring. Instead I was welcomed by a deep winter clasp, when temperatures stayed locked beneath zero for much of my stay. I was researching some ideas for a book, and much of my time was taken up by walking a range of landscapes in and around London while at the same time meeting and talking with people who felt a strong sense of connection and attachment to the areas where they lived. Little did I know, as I journeyed by train through a veil of snow that morning towards the Hoo Peninsula, how profound and lasting an impact the place I was heading to would end up having on me as well.

Joan Darwell, Gill Moore and George Crozer are parish councillors for the Hoo Peninsula, and loyal to a place they call home. As campaigners for Friends of the North Kent Marshes, this isn’t the first time they’ve been trying to raise awareness of this remarkable and unsung part of southern England.  In 2002, a proposal was put forward to build an airport at Cliffe marshes where a set of large saline pools managed by the RSPB host a variety of wildlife, including the organisation’s symbol, the avocet, a species driven to extinction in Britain in the 19th century which only returned again after World War II. Although the airport plan was quashed on largely economic grounds by the Labour government in 2003, the idea of an estuary airport hasn’t gone away.

Hedge path

In the year that the Airports Commission is looking at aviation options in the south-east of England, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested building a floating airport in the heart of the estuary. Now he’s also backing Sir Norman Foster’s proposal to build Europe’s largest airport on the Hoo Peninsula, a four-runway hub with enough capacity for 110 million passengers per year, with the possibility of that figure rising to 150 million over time. The airport platform, which would be partially built over the intertidal mudflats and water of the Thames itself and capable of hosting 140 flight movements per hour, would be 5.2 km long and 4.5 km wide, connected to London by a six-lane motorway which would carve open the rural landscape, a high-speed rail link and a Cross Rail extension, together with the vast acres of asphalt required for cargo facilities, car parking, aircraft and maintenance hangers and the inevitable infrastructure that springs up in their vicinity – an Airport City as it’s referred to in the plan – including housing, shops, offices and hotels. In order for a hub airport to be viable, Heathrow, already Europe’s busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers and its third busiest for flight numbers, would be closed and redeveloped. According to the Foster + Partners’ proposal, Heathrow would be turned into a mixed housing and commercial zone to “rival London Docklands,” making the communities already dependent on Heathrow redundant in the process; in essence, then, the plan would be to shut down an operational airport near London in order to build another airport on some of the last open green space anywhere near the city.

Summer marsh

Winter marsh

“You’ve got this kind of magical place that’s the North Kent Marshes and nobody knows about it. Nobody’s celebrating it. And we should be. We should be putting this in the hearts and minds of people.” George had picked me up from a nearby railway station and we immediately fell into conversation. As we drove through a billow of Easter snow onto the peninsula to meet Joan and Gill, I asked him if he’d always been interested in wildlife and nature. “Not at all. All the years I’ve lived here and I never even went to the RSPB reserve down the road from me.” I asked him if there was a particular experience that had changed that. “It was the first year that two egrets came back and I went to the pools and saw this mating dance of theirs. And for me it was like being in Africa on the Serengeti. Just this kind of seminal moment. There are over 300,000 birds here in the winter; it’s an amazing thing.”

Like nearly everywhere in modern Britain, the Hoo Peninsula is far from untouched; it’s a region with a long history of human use. The lagoons arose out of Victorian quarrying; power stations and gas terminals anchor one end of the spur; the ruins of a 19th century defensive fort and World War II munitions testing zone are still visible. Yet each of these exists within the scale of the peninsula; the place absorbs them into its whole. Walking out from the villages is to enter an emerald land of grazing marshes used by farmers for cattle and sheep; along the spine of the peninsula stand the stone clock towers of rural churches.

Grassland stone

Gill was keen to show me the church at Cooling that morning, and in particular a set of small gravestones in the churchyard. “We want to preserve the Dickens landscape as well,” she said as we walked through the churchyard. The Hoo Peninsula is at the heart of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the setting for many of its scenes. It’s the landscape that the author himself often walked, living, as he did, in nearby Gad’s Hill towards the end of his life. And from the churchyard where I looked at a bundle of poignantly small grave markers, Dickens took his inspiration for the “little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long” which marked the graves of the orphan Pip’s “five little brothers,” nestled together beside those of his mother and father. And it was the very landscape, the flat expanse of marshland veined with creeks and dikes at the edge of the Thames, where Pip would encounter Abel Magwitch, who’d escaped from one of the prison hulks that were anchored in Victorian times at Egypt Bay where the marshes join the river, a meeting which radically alters the course of the young boy’s life, one of the most celebrated characters in British fiction. Other literary landscapes in Britain, like the area of Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived, wrote and took inspiration from, are seen as nearly sacred, but it seems that this one, for the most part, has been largely forgotten.

Cooling church graves

Peninsula blue

Walking away from the church, Gill said, “What kind of world are we going to leave to our children and grandchildren in the future? We can’t destroy absolutely everything.” Quotes can never quite conjure the passion of a person’s voice, but as I braced myself against a lancing wind that morning while looking across the misted expanse with Gill, Joan and George, their commitment to this place, this home of theirs and habitat for immeasurable wild creatures, was both immediate and inspiring. There was a warmth in their voices that was absent from the day.

It’s exhilarating out on the marshes, within earshot of the rising river. A few months later I watched summer breeders circle and sheer across the meadows, flushing from sandy scrapes or lifting like wind-shivered flags from deep in the grasses. Avocets, redshanks and lapwings marked their nesting territories with a chorus of pulsing songs. The wild estuary light continually shifted, filtered through salt air and sea-funnelled clouds, so that the mood of any moment could twist and turn, sinuous as the river itself. The wind poured in from the north or rode up the Thames on the tide, like the centuries-worth of ships that have followed its promised course. On other days, when the sun burned like a hot coin in the saddle of the sky, the marsh grasses danced with a hazy shimmer, rolling towards the river, an English prairie slanting to the sea. These wide open spaces lend the peninsula its particular and unique appeal – the way the sky over the estuary seems uncommonly deep, the way the drawl of a tugboat’s horn or the call of curlews as they arch overhead are gathered up by the air and held there for longer than usual, so that the sound sifts down as slow as snow. Brought together, these expanses encourage a corresponding openness within; they leave space for weather and light, all the tangible atmospheres of our living, breathing world. To be out there on the peninsula, at the edge of the spangled sea, can be as liberating as it gets in a landscape.

Dark sky marshes

Estuary boats

But what value do these qualities of place carry in this age? What credence is given to open skies, to the ability to experience a place that hasn’t been turned entirely to our own use? In a statement to support the submission of their proposal to the Airports Commission, Sir Norman Foster said that “we have reached a point where we must act, in the tradition of those Victorian forebears and create afresh – to invest now and safeguard future generations. Why should be fall behind when we could secure a competitive edge?”

Their proposal would have us believe that the plan is brave and courageous, radical in its scope. Yet little has changed since the Victorian age they evoke; our approach to economic growth has long been premised on extraction and building, to level and reshape on a vast scale in order to spur and stimulate economic activity. Whether skyscrapers, motorways or airports, large-scale building is the status quo, and has been since the dawn of the industrial age. Foster + Partners’ plan merely follows a well-trodden route, breaking ground with old ideas.

Foster + Partners insist their plan is a way to “safeguard future generations,” but the obvious question in reply is what will be safeguarded for them? Given the increasing ease with which global firms feel they have the right to propose the development of unique and protected landscapes, what of the world will be left for those future generations to cherish other than a “competitive edge?” Those Victorian forebears of ours that Foster + Partners extol were equally well known for their enthusiasm for empire, and perhaps that is a more accurate comparison: a sense of rightful dominion over local communities, landscapes and wildlife. In a week that the IPCC, the UN’s climate panel, released its most comprehensive findings to date, stating that “unequivocal” global warming “threatens our planet, our only home,” a proposal to build Europe’s largest airport seems less about safeguarding future generations than it does economic opportunity.

Summer grasses

“They can talk about community, but the government thinks it can pick us up, bricks and mortar, and move us somewhere else. But it’s not like that because a place is inside you. A place is in here.” Gill tapped at her chest as she spoke. Drinking tea at George’s house, out of the cold and snow, I was able to sit in on a more intimate conversation. We still discussed the airport proposal – the serious risk of bird strikes in the estuary, the prevalence of fog – but we moved on to more personal things as well. George talked a little about his love of motorcycle touring with his wife while Gill spoke about her volunteer work at the church in Cliffe, and Joan told me how she’d once been very much a “classic Essex girl,” showing up years ago for her first trip to the marshes wearing high-heels and fancy trousers totally unsuited for the wet terrain. Each of them, in their own way, had come to make a connection with the wider landscape of home where they lived. “I walked up to the viewpoint one day and just looked at the landscape,” said Joan. “It was stunning; it was so beautiful, all the wildlife, the birds. It actually brought a tear to me. And I just thought, it cannot be destroyed. It just can’t.”

St. Helen's

London Stone

I had only ever planned on spending a single day on the peninsula, but sometimes a place finds its way unexpectedly inside you, holding fast to some ineffable interior so that it leads you back again and again. Like a magnet, a compass. Two days after shivering amidst snow at the edge of the marshes I returned to the peninsula in the company of a friend and her son. We walked our way into spring that day, the first of my stay when sunlight eclipsed the clouds, bringing a hesitant warmth to the land that summoned the first movements and murmurs of insects.

We followed the seawall from the lagoons at Cliffe towards the river, the marshes to the right of us, speckled with cows, sheep and lambs. A corn bunting trilled from the tangled tip of blackberry canes and a marsh harrier courted the sudden warmth, wavering over a slim pocket of reeds, tipping its wings from side to side like a seesaw being ridden slowly by kids. Skylarks rose up to rain song from the deep blue, a shower of bright notes. Birds such as the skylark and corn bunting are in steep decline across much of the UK these days and yet there, only 30 miles from central London, on a peninsula that could fill with mechanical flight, the sky was dense with songs once common throughout the country.

Sea wall

Emerald marshes

Those songs stayed with me until I returned again in early summer, unable to stay away. This time I spent a few days in the marsh country, and I encountered richness wherever I went, each step bringing some new quality of the peninsula into focus. But with it came a simultaneous disquiet, the knowledge of its fragility. Shifting estuary light spilled across the grazing marshes where the terminal buildings would loom. Little egrets swept across a shingle shore like a sudden squall of snow in the place aircraft would descend. And the London Stone stood sentinel and mysterious at the edge of the sea, marking a spot first measured out by the charter of King Edward I in 1285, a place that would become memorial, buried by runways built out into the river.

All that I walked across would be gone, either physically destroyed or irreversibly lessened to such a degree by the constant noise of a 24-hour airport and its attendant industries and infrastructure that it would amount to the same thing: the complete obliteration of a place and its communities. As I walked through rain and wind those days, through spectral sea-light splashed across the emerald grasses, I remembered the words of Gill from the morning I first met her, “We are custodians of the world, that’s all.” And then I remembered something else: the way that she said a place is in here as she tapped at her heart. From where I stood at the edge of the river, looking back to the villages that have lived beside the marshes for centuries, I struggled to fathom the sheer scale of it all. Not of the airport, but of the blindness, vanity and loss.

Cliffe pools

For more information about Friends of the North Kent Marshes, or to get involved with their campaign to stop an estuary airport, you can visit their website, or find them on Facebook and Twitter. Although the Davies Airport Commission, which will select a shortlist from the various airport proposals in late 2013, has just closed to comments from the general public, I understand that messages posted through this RSPB online email petition will still be sent.

I will be talking about the Hoo Peninsula on November 10th at this year’s Shorelines: Literature of the Sea Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend in Essex. There’s a terrific line-up of writers and artists looking at aspects of the sea over the weekend and I’ll be speaking in a session devoted to the Thames Estuary together with Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane, Ken Worpole and Jules Pretty. Directly across the river from the Hoo Peninsula, Leigh-on-Sea is a wonderfully atmospheric place to hear these writers (and I’m looking forward as much to being in the audience as to speaking!) so do come along if you’re around. For further information please see the festival programme

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

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

Towards Albania

Juniper forest

View from Golem Grad

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

Spring blossom

Spring fungi

The view north

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


Spring colour

Hermann's tortoises

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

Church of St. Demetrius, 14th century

Church of St. Peter, 14th century

Roman cistern 5th century

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

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

Golem Grad


Cormorant colony

Forest mosses

Leaving the island

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I stand in the midst of the forest, beneath a shower of leaves. It’s as though a treasure chest has been tipped from the sky, spilling its glittering riches. The woodland surface is woven in a pattern of copper and gold, stitched with the sharp shadows of trees. Sunlight pours into the hollows as if they were bowls, filling them until they brim over, pooling about the woods in a deep and mellow glow. I look up into the canopy and it could be a chandelier of lit leaves, swaying from the ceiling with a breeze.

Mistle thrushes rattle through the high branches and a pair of delicate treecreepers climb adjacent trunks, racing each other to their tips. A deep silence takes their place when they’re gone. This solitude of mosses and frayed lichens, of beeches rising high into the sky and fungi fingering slowly through the earth, calls me back every autumn, beckons me from my desk to climb up into its arms and be held there. To be a part of the relinquishing, the letting go. To see the forest shed leaves like flakes of old paint – though a few of them will hang on, stubborn and tenacious as memories, to see out a cold and snowy season alone on the trees.

I breathe in the wild autumn riches. All the smells of the wet and fallen leaves rise like mist off a lake, mingled with the rain-soaked earth, rotting wood slumped in a dell, a glade of dying ferns. They have such a particular and knowable aroma, these autumn woods. A persuasive odour that carries a distinct and melancholy edge. I’m reminded of other autumns by their scent, of heaped leaves and long smoky walks, a collection of unrelated impressions colliding into one. But scent has the capacity to call up stronger, more specific, associations as well.

Whenever I see them, I stop to smell roses, leaning forward to take in all that they hold. And with the first fragrant air that passes into me I’m in a garden with my grandfather. He’s risen from his chair in the house, where he would sit with a newspaper and magnifying glass, eventually pencilling a mysterious x on a grainy image of footballers playing without a ball. I don’t know if he ever won any of the ‘Spot the Ball’ competitions he used to mail in, having taken his time to judge from the position and angle of the players on the pitch the exact place he expected the invisible ball should be, but that didn’t stop him from trying, week after week, to divine the presence of an imperceptible thing. He taps ash from his pipe and shuffles to the garden, where the roses he’s tended and nurtured for years are in bloom, all compressed by the brief English summer into a wild explosion of scent. I stand beside him, and while cars and buses roll past on the busy road, the lingering scent of roses hangs heavy in the air, as invisible and elusive as the ball suspended somewhere in the photograph that my grandfather has folded and tucked in the wing of his arm.

Scents can trigger specific memories, to people and places, moments and events. They can elaborate a complex and immediate shape to distant happenings, sometimes long forgotten and deeply buried. The olfactory bulb, the structure responsible for the perception of odours, is a component of the limbic system, an area of the brain closely associated with memory and feeling. Along with having access to the amygdala, the brain structure which processes emotions, the olfactory bulb is also connected to the hippocampus which, in part, is concerned with associative learning, and crucial to the encoding of memories. In a sense, the olfactory bulb – our immediate cognitive connection to the world of scent – is nested beside the very structures that form the heart of our remembering. Our brains forge a link between a scent and the experience of it, often when we first encounter a particular aroma, a response which becomes conditioned and twined forever in our minds. Which is why so many of our most compelling scent memories return us to our childhoods.

I imagine this neural system as a map, traced with the routes of our remembering. It’s crisscrossed with rough tracks and roads that fan out across the past, the wild byways and overgrown lanes that led us here out of youth. We journey along these paths, spun backwards like a wheel over the accumulated tracery of our time on this planet. Scents bestowing memories; paths bringing our lives back to us.

When I breathe in a salt sea I’m suddenly on a shore with my uncle. Not the smooth and seductive coasts of the Mediterranean, whose scents pull other memories in nets from the depths, but the heaving North Sea, where the smells of seaweed and bladderwrack blend with the raw and briny wash. My brother and I are young, and back from Canada on summer holidays in the English port town where I was born. Uncle Harry has taken us crabbing, searching the vast archipelago of rocks at low tide. In the salt pools brim miniature marine worlds. Creatures caught out by the retreating sea find solace in these pockets of water left behind. There they bide their time, stowing away in remnant shelters to await the returning, rising rush.

We riddle the crabs from dark crevices with fire pokers, unveil them beneath a bloom of green seaweed, scooping them in gloved hands to drop in a bucket where they cluster and crowd at the bottom. Steadily our bucket grows heavier, and my brother and I haul it over the slippery rocks, led on through this exciting, watery world by our uncle, adding to our doomed hoard as we go. Ahead of us, past the next bank of barnacled rocks, we see a shark splayed grey on the sand. It’s still young, only a few feet in length, and bruised purple and blue about its head. Washed up and pounded by the sea against stone; the same sea that sustained it. I watch my Uncle Harry lower a hand to the shark’s side. He touches the creature with only a thumb and three fingers, just like my grandfather when he shows me the roses, both having lost their little fingers in accidents at work, so there’s just a nub at the edge of their hands. I touch the sleek grey skin after him, mimicking what he does, and stare into the shark’s bloody eye.

I’m back in the forest, beneath a sky of leaves. They tumble and float like our experiences, some settling within reach, others rising on a wind to be carried off and never seen again. Summer’s green and unfolding promise is gathered about me in deep reefs, all faded and fallen. I’m reminded of other autumns while I’m here, whole seasons of scattered moments like these leaves in a beech wood, the myriad subtle notes that compose a life. We never know when any of them will be carried with us, catching a ride in an upturned cuff or on the bottom of a boot, taken unknowingly along on one of those paths that make up a map of remembered things. Years may pass before we find that leaf again, still clinging to our clothes. Only with time can we learn what memory will sift from these moments.

There are a few changes around here that some of you may be aware of. And for those who aren’t, just to let you know that I’ve changed the Notes from Near and Far URL address back to its original (julianhoffman.wordpress.com) if you’d like to update your bookmarks or blog links. The other address, julian-hoffman.com, is now being used for my new website, Words, Images, which I’ve recently put together. Along with a bit more information about my book, The Small Heart of Things, due out next year, there are some audio recordings and a gallery of landscape and wildlife images. There’s also a place to sign up for a newsletter for updates on the book as it makes its way towards publication. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see there. Thanks for reading!

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For Nina, whose mountain spirit inspires.

It’s rare that I meet people in the mountains. In all that space it’s not often that our slender human paths cross and twine at the exact same time. Instead there are wheeling raptors to fill the expanse, and ground-nesting birds to either side of me. Ravens darken the skies, their deep, guttural calls cast out of the blue to fall like shadows on the land. Skylarks cannon from the grasses with a flurry of wings, and clouds of ringlet butterflies, dark and rimmed in burnt orange, swirl densely around so that I’m never entirely sure if I’m being followed or being led. There are lizards basking on stones and plenty of infuriating flies, as well as the bear that materialised to eye me in the morning’s warm glow. Sometimes there’s just the wind to stir me, or the flooding southern light.

So when I do meet another person there’s something of the unexpected about the encounter, like a gift received without occasion. There’s an intimacy bestowed upon the moment, a possibility for sharing that’s less common in places more peopled. As though encouraged by the empty space, and knowing we’re unlikely to see one another again, we open more surely, confidently, trading stories of our lives that might otherwise take time to be told; we go from being strangers to acquaintances, without ever leaving the hillside.

I’d noticed Samir’s flock long before I saw the shepherd. Keeping an eye on the inevitable accompanying dogs – whose bites are generally worse than their barks – I skirted my usual route, climbing higher up a slope to circle round and come out on the far side of the sheep. Regaining my path, I heard a voice behind me. I turned to see a man in the shade of a stone cleft, waving wildly and beginning to stand. And at the same time we began closing the gap between us.

We shook hands in the sunlight, and Samir asked me what I was doing in the mountains alone, clearly bewildered by my sudden appearance. As I explained my bird-monitoring work to him he asked questions about eagles which he’d seen, and how they might be affected by the wind turbines. “Anyways,” I said, eventually returning to the earlier question. “You’re alone here as well.” He laughed at the very idea. “How can I be alone?” he asked, pointing behind him. “With all these dogs and sheep I can never be alone!”

For the past seven years Samir has lived in the village at the foot of the mountains, but he’s originally from Tirana, the Albanian capital. Over the years I’ve met many men and women from Tirana, or other large Albanian cities, who were once lecturers, economists or chemists, among other things, but who, in having fled from poverty and hopelessness, now lead sheep across meadows, harvest fruit or dig ditches in Greece. It’s a transition that’s long troubled me; not for the relative value commonly accorded to the different work, but for what it signifies for the county’s future. All that promise that’s gone.

I told Samir that I might see him here again as we said our goodbyes. “Not in the next month you won’t.” His face brightened with his own words. “I haven’t been with my family for a long time and I’m going back home to Tirana to see them. We’ll spend a month together at the seaside.” We each went our way, an image of the blue Adriatic in tow.

Arriving at my vantage point for the morning shift, I could see a few horses and a handful of people scattered about the steep adjacent slope. Usually it’s an empty expanse, a tilting meadow where some weeks earlier the bear finally hurtled at full pace, leaving me alone with the aftershock of its sudden presence. But now the wild blueberries had ripened.

Drijan and Ritem were young, still in their teens at a guess. They came from over the other border, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and were living in a Greek village for the summer doing whatever seasonal work they could find. They’d climbed the steep alpine folds on horseback, having saddled up at dawn. Working throughout the day, they were gathering the tiny wild blueberries clustered among the low-lying plants, filling bowls until full, then transferring the berries to sacks that were loaded onto the horses for the return journey.

“We get 2 Euros per kilo when we take them back to the village.” Drijan tilted the bowls for me to have a closer look. I wanted to scoop the dark fruit in my hands.

“And how much do you have here do you think?” I asked. “It might be two, two and a half kilos, but it takes a long time.” Ritem’s mouth had turned blue from eating the berries while he worked, and he smiled shyly each time I looked at him. I had a feeling I’d do the same – eat my way through a good part of my pay.

Employing close-tined hand rakes, the boys bent over the tangled mat of plants to rake the berries into their bowls, moving up and down the slopes. The berries came free remarkably easily, carrying with them only a small amount of leaf and stem. But it was slow work; the berries too small to amount to anything very quickly.

I asked the boys if I could take a few photos of them, and they immediately adopted a formal, brotherly stance more often associated with the early age of portraiture. But then they were from a rural part of a poor country, where easily produced images and digital cameras are far from common. It’s a response to the camera that I’ve witnessed before, in both Albania and FYR Macedonia, a mark of respect for what has become so casual for so many.

Originally from a small village at the northern edge of Great Prespa Lake, Drijan told me how much he enjoyed walking in the Pelister Mountains that flank the border with Greece. Having been there a few times myself, we talked about the towering pine trees that the mountains are synonymous with. “When you next go walking in Pelister, could you please bring one of the photos for us?” I thought of the alpine massif, its countless ridges, gorges and valleys, and I was touched by his innocence, his naive expectancy. But then, as I’m gratefully aware, our slender human paths do sometimes cross. In those moments, as unexpected as desert rain, the most simple of experiences are there to be savoured like the wild berries themselves: a few words shared in the sunlight; a brief glimpse into another’s life; the world nudged open just that little bit more.

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