It’s hard to define place with any precision; each of us comes at it from a different angle. It can be suggestive of anything from a home or neighbourhood to an exotic and distant land. For some it might be wilderness, for others civilisation. It could equally be a meeting ground of the two. In fact, it’s hard to define place at all, let alone precisely. And that’s what makes it so inviting – its rough edges and overlooked shades, the so-close-to-home that it’s easily missed.
Nearly ten years ago my partner, Julia, and I left London to move to a mountain village beside the Prespa lakes in the southern Balkans. It’s been an astonishing decade on many levels. The lake basin holds a remarkable range of wildlife, and a diversity of landscapes, from the two lakes themselves to the high surrounding mountains. In between are beech, oak and juniper forests, alpine meadows and dense reedbeds. Three countries come together around the water as well – Greece, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
But over the course of many seasons I became drawn to what was close to hand. I learned that I didn’t always have to cross the borders where each of the neighbouring countries retains unique cultural ways. I didn’t even have to go down the valley to the lakes, or up into the mountain forests, though I continue to do all of these with as much fascination as ever. The point was, I didn’t have to go very far at all. Sitting on the porch on a June morning when butterflies flood the flowers and the sun strikes a mineral seam in the stone wall until it begins to glow is sometimes enough.
Last autumn, while putting the shopping in the back of our truck, I watched a kestrel arrow low over the supermarket carpark, snatch a small mammal from a vacant lot of piled debris and settle on a hummock of broken concrete beneath a streetlamp to feed. It was so close that I could make out the black fretwork on its cinnamon back. When its head suddenly swivelled our eyes locked together. Shoppers pushed their trolleys past me, but I was so caught up in the eyes of the kestrel that I just stood there with a bag dangling uselessly from my hand.
The carpark and adjacent lot looked like nothing at all, but then nothing is what we expect of it. That, perhaps, is the beauty of place, even if I can’t define it. The way anywhere can take hold, and burrow deep within. The way it can dance when we allow it to. Any old place will do. Which is why these days I prefer to think of place as wherever I happen to be, and the nature of the relationship that can be brokered with it.
I hope to keep this blog true to the spirit of place, tracking back and forth from the near to the far, and stopping off in between. It’ll crisscross a variety of terrains, and along the way I hope to post observations, book reviews, landscape and wildlife notes, images and animal encounters, and other writers’ reflections and impressions of place. Now and then I’ll post some links to my own work as well. If there’s a bias in all of this towards the natural world, it’s because much of my joy in life stems from it, but there’ll be other forays as well. I’ll try to keep an eye on whatever emerges from place. Until next time then – cheers, and happy wanderings.
10 thoughts on “The Impressions of Place”
Great to hear from you. I love your writing Julian. You have made us a bit homesick!
I guess we are still feeling a bit raw about dealings with the book project which was such a compromise… enough said.
Please submit some stuff to Birds magazine about Prespa.
Frankly, tour companies we have talked to have had such difficulties in dealing with Greece in the past ( bus hire, hotels etc) that we would have to carry so much responsibility. A bit off putting. However if we can encourage intrepid independent travellers so much the better for prespa.
Great hearing from you as well, Ruth. And thanks for the kind words…has the homesickness eased a little???
I think Prespa is ideal for the independent traveller who is looking for something different, who’s looking to engage with a landscape and place in its entirety. And the Walking Guide, despite any problems that may have arisen, is an extremely valuable contribution to the literature of the area. A great many people are already telling us what a useful and beautiful book it is….and I wholeheartedly agree!
It’s so true that place can burrow itself deep within. Sometimes, you can pinpoint reasons why an area endears itself to you personally, such as your encounter with the kestrel, but often it’s more difficult to explain. It may be just the way the light shines at a certain time of day.
Though it was many years ago, I once fell in love with the island of Ikaria during a visit to Greece. The light and the smell of jasmine were beyond beautiful. The rocks in your welcome photo remind me of the rocks in similar old structures there.
With all best wishes,
Thanks for dropping by, Amy-Lynn. I couldn’t agree more, that it can be “the way the light shines at a certain time of day.” Any place, even in the same season, can be radically transformed by the wonders of light. Until it feels as though it’s somewhere else. Over the last few days here we’ve moved from a dark storm-light to the lucid light that follows, and the mountains that surround our home have never appeared more differently magnetic.
The islands offer another take on light, reflected off the blue Aegean, and I can imagine the delicious scent of the jasmine!! Looking forward to the next of your wonderfully intimate observations at Flandrum Hill…
Best wishes to you,
Sorry for all the quotes, but you have reminded me of two:
“Awareness is becoming acquainted with environment, no matter where one happens to be. Man does not suddenly become aware or infused with wonder; it is something we are born with.”
~ Sigurd Olson
“Within walking distance of any spot on Earth there’s probably more than enough mystery to investigate in a lifetime.”
~ Alix Kates Shulman
Barbara, no need to apolgize! These are wonderful quotes; I’ve already jotted them down in my notebook. Which reminds me that I wanted to look at your page of quotes as well. I think drawing connections between different writings is of great importance. It can be a way of clarifying and deepening ideas. Keep them coming!!
Barbara, I love these quotations. I think wonder is one of those special traits that makes us human. One that we’re indeed born with.
Wherever we live on the planet, there is more than enough to keep us busy and engaged within walking distance. If only we had the patience to slow down and appreciate what’s at our doorstep.
You’re right; slowing down is essential. Wonder is one of those things that seems to come most naturally in childhood, when the world is endlessly fascinating. As we grow older I believe it is easily lost, and therefore twice as important to keep the connections to mystery and interest and “the luminosity of what is always there,” as Jim Harrison says.
“Distance is not the measure of remoteness. The wall of our own garden may enclose more secrets than the Wall of China…” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It’s great to go back and read your introduction. I don’t know why I haven’t before, except that usually when I sit down specifically to read it’s with a book in my hand. I’m so glad you began this blog, Julian. I may never otherwise have encountered your unique and humbling work. Even here, at the beginning, you remind me to see my town itself with open eyes, a task I find particularly difficult after nearly 30 years of wishing just this and that were different. But you have reminded me and I will approach the view with renewed effort to see anew, again.
Sorry, Cindy, but I thought I’d replied to your lovely comment! Oops! It’s quite strange for me to even think about when the blog started, but it’s been such a wonderful journey on so many levels. One of those has certainly been getting to know you as a friend and your marvellous work exploring your part of the world. It’s been an honour to connect with people through the blog, and a real source of joy. Thanks ever so much for all your support and generous thoughts, Cindy…glad you’ve found something of interest in this early post.