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.