Glimpsed, In Passing: 2011

You’d be quite right in thinking that this isn’t part two of our journey to Szczecin in Poland. And rather than have you looking for it, or wondering whether I’ve deleted the subtitle of the previous post and therefore the obligation to write a follow-up, I’ll confess to not having written it. Not yet anyways.

Much of this past year has been taken up with putting together a book-length collection of essays called The Small Heart of Things, and the wonderful but slow process of writing, revising, arranging and shaping it. Followed by the same again, and then again. It’s a process that I deeply enjoy and which reminds me of the way stones are polished smooth by the endless interest of waves. But this book project has also meant that I’ve had less time than I would have liked to devote to Notes from Near and Far. As December sped on and snow began falling across the mountains I realised there was little chance that I could do justice to the experience of being in Szczecin before the year’s end. My apologies for the delay, and I’ll do my best to take us back to that fascinating port city in the new year.

While watching the hours slip by in recent weeks I was reminded that I’d marked the end of last year with a post called ‘Glimpsed, In Passing,’ which borrowed a quote from V.S. Pritchett about the fragmentary nature of short stories which I’d adapted for photographs. Recalling some of the highlights of this year, the striking moments that still lingered with me at its end, I began thinking how curious a concept time can be, and to what degree we each forge a relationship with it that goes beyond a common sense of measure. The duration of a particular moment is different for us all, calibrated according to the depth of the experience. Sometimes a moment can expand until it fills with a light that will keep it burning for years. Or it might stand out from a crowd of other moments through its rarity, or the suddenly seen beauty of its everyday quality. Virginia Woolf described these as “moments of being,” memorable because they are so different from the ordinary stretches of time bookending them. Moments that bring us fully into awareness, enduring long beyond their insignificant span.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who’ve followed Notes from Near and Far this year. I’m grateful to all who have taken the time to read the blog or any of the longer essays posted here like Faith in a Forgotten Place, with an especial acknowledgement to those who’ve lent their thoughts and shared their experiences here. Your gifts have enriched the blog by making each post a conversation, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

And on that note I’d like to wish you all a wonderful end to the year, and plenty of joy, inspiration and creativity for the coming one. Here are a few glimpses of the past year that will stay with me for a while. Thanks again…

 

The year began with a January walk above the cliffs of Great Prespa Lake. The stillness of the day was absolute, born of cold and cloudless skies. The lake was as smooth as glass, timeless and blue. There was the clarity of silence about it. That evening I opened a book of Chinese wilderness poetry and unknowingly found the words of Liu Tsung-yuan as if they’d been summoned by the lake itself.

“A thousand peaks; no more birds in flight.
Ten thousand paths: all trace of people gone.

In a lone boat, rain cloak and hat of reeds,
an old man’s fishing the cold river snow.”

– Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819), ‘River Snow’

 

We turned a corner on a remote forest walk this summer to find a cluster of lizard orchids unrolling their marvellous forked tongues in the sun. Though they’ve never been previously recorded in the Prespa National Park, other small clusters of this most remarkable of wildflowers, Himantoglossum hircinum, were discovered in varying places over the following week. Whether it was simply coincidence, or they’ve all been biding their time for this rare and unlikely display, it just goes to show what extraordinary species we sometimes unknowingly share this world with, and what you can stumble upon at any time.

We were on holiday nearly 400 kilometres from home when we decided to stop into one of the many shops selling homemade honey on a peninsula reaching out into the sea. From the dozen or so shops we chose the closest, and were then led around the workshop by the owner as she explained the process of honey-making, including the crafting of candles from the wax. Finally asking us where we were from, she laughed when we told her we lived in Prespa. “Then you’ll know the beehives that produced this honey. We keep them on a hill just beneath your village.”

Greece’s eastern province of Thrace is dotted with Turkish Muslim villages, a relic community from when the two countries exchanged minority populations in 1922. The only exceptions to the agreement were the Turkish villages of Thrace and the Greeks of Istanbul. Visiting one of these villages for the first time we immediately saw how different it was; it was unquestionably poorer than its Greek neighbours, and all of the houses were fronted by high walls so that the village looked inward rather than out. Within seconds of arriving a young man raced over with a smile. He took my hand in his own and began shaking it with great enthusiasm. After the traditional Muslim greeting of Salam alaikum – May peace be upon you – he welcomed us by saying how pleased he was that we’d come. Please enjoy your stay in our village, he said, and thank you so much for visiting. It was one of the most heartwarming welcomes I’ve experienced anywhere in the world.

The eagle owl is easily Europe’s largest of the owl family, and this particular bird was found injured near Thessaloniki. It recovered, arrived in Prespa in a cardboard box after a three-hour journey in the cargo hold of a bus, and was released one November afternoon amongst a stand of ancient junipers. As dusk fell about us it hissed wildly to be free. Hearing the gasps from the gathered children and adults as the five-foot span of its wings took it away through the trees was a sound that will linger for a while.

For nearly two days rain lashed the Evros Delta while we tried to watch birds on their spring migration. Low grey clouds tumbled over the wetlands, obscuring all but the nearest species. We trudged through the mud, leaning into cold winds. Birds suspended their journeys and kept cover close to ground. But when the sun found a way through, revealing a brilliant blue sky rinsed by rain, the birds rose in waves. Pelicans spiralled in their thousands like a great white bowl spinning on a wheel. Storks walked the emerald meadows and raptors sliced open the sky. And as the sun spilled over the delta it was as though the place had never known rain, as if light was all that had ever been, as if light was all that would ever be. 

Certain species have a tendency to elude us; whether it’s a particular bird you’ve always wanted to watch or a mammal that others say is easy to see, we’re sometimes missing the necessary luck that is a big part of observing the natural world. For years I’ve tried to photograph the marbled white butterfly but have instead compiled a large archive of out-of-focus images, to the point that I began calling the butterfly the blurred white in homage. But while out one day this summer there was a single individual that stayed still amidst a cloud of swirling others, allowing me to get close enough for the first time to its delicate beauty. Though it’s one of the most common butterfly species in Greece I felt like I’d glimpsed the rarest of gems.

30 thoughts on “Glimpsed, In Passing: 2011

  1. I love your thoughts on time. It’s definitely non-linear, despite what consensus reality would have us think. These moments that you’ve captured in your photographs are crystals sparkling in the river of time. Thank you for posting them.

    1. Thanks ever so much for the beautiful thought of the images being like “crystals sparkling in the river of time.” I’m quite touched by your words, and delighted you liked the post, Janet. My many thanks for reading and best wishes to you,

      Julian

  2. What an excellent invention NFNaF is! Beautifully recorded and recounted ‘moments’, Hoff. They are of course also testament to your great sensitivity and receptiveness.

    How’s it all going with The Small Heart…?

    Have a cracking 2012. Much love to you and Joules.

    Tweet xx

    1. Thanks, Tweet! You’ve been a cornerstone throughout this Near and Far project with the fine thoughts and ideas you bring to it. Many thanks for your continued interest, my friend. The Small Heart of Things is theoretically finished and I’m searching for a publisher at the moment. A long process, as I’m sure Fiona will know, but I’m keeping positive and getting on with other writing ideas in the meantime. Will let you know as soon as I hear any news.

      Much love to you both and best wishes for a delightful 2012!

      Julian

    1. And I, in turn, am captivated by your image of sea and storm in regard to the creative process. Thanks for planting this seed, Diana, and many thanks for reading. Delighted you enjoyed it. Best wishes,

      Julian

  3. Your posts have inspired me, and many other people this past year, Julian, so thank you for that! I love your comparison of the editing process with the way the waves of the sea polish stones. The next time I’m in the midst of editing something, I want to remember this. Your photos are incredible – the lake, the owl and the elusive “blurred white”! Looking forward to more of your wonderful writing and photography in the New Year.

    1. Thanks for the lovely words, Cait. Your beautiful photography continues to be an inspiration to me so I’m especially pleased to hear that these posts and images speak to you. Glad the thoughts on editing might be of use as well – it’s a process that I find increasingly entrancing. Looking forward to having you along in the coming year and to following your own fascinating trails, wherever they may take you.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  4. Julian, grateful for your being and making it possible for us to wander with you! All the best to you and those you love! As always, looking forward to more, near and far! Michele

  5. I’ve been writing a year-end post as well, frustrated and unhappy with it, but I now must go back to sit patiently as a stone and let the waves smooth out the words. You teach, you inspire, you generously give the gift of special moments, moments that “can expand until [they fill] with a light that will keep [them] burning for years”. Treasured gifts for those who recognize the value of taking the personal time to absorb your words.

    Thank You, Julian.

    Wishing you a fulfilling New Year,
    Cindy

    1. Cindy, I know that feeling of frustration and unhappiness well! For a long time I wanted to be able to write something and it be finished. That my creative urge should be enough to bring a piece to fruition. But over time I saw how little, for me, that part of the process meant in the overall scheme of things. The real work always begins some days, weeks, months, sometimes years later, when I’m able to “sit patiently” and listen to where the story needs to go. There remains plenty of frustration and unhappiness at times, but I feel at least that I’ve found a kind of stillness to work through some of the issues.

      I have no doubt as I’ve just seen a new post from you drop into the inbox that you’ll have found a wonderful way all your own yet again to mingle words and images about your part of the world. I savour my journeys there.

      Thanks kindly for your warm thoughts, Cindy, and wishing you an illuminating new year!

      Julian

  6. So thankful I found NFNaF, and so thankful for your generous spirit, Julian. All best to you and yours (including your book!) in the new year. Looking forward to all the words.

    1. Likewise I’m delighted to have found Landing on Cloudy Water, Emily. Your writing is an inspiration as it explores place with grace and sensitivity. Thanks for the kind wishes and the wonderful conversation this year. Looking forward to all the words indeed!

      Best wishes from here,
      Julian

  7. Thank you, Julian, for the lovely recap. It was nice to remember some of your stories fondly and discover new ones I’d missed. I was especially touched by your description of your welcome to Thrace. I can’t help but think that if everyone welcomed people to their homes in such a way, we’d be living in a much better world.

    Thanks for sharing your world with us and I look forward to continuing the journey. Wishing you new adventures and insights in 2012.

    Heather

    1. Thank you, Heather, for the wonderful comment and for sharing so much over this past year at Notes from Near and Far. Your insight and observations are always deeply appreciated. And I couldn’t agree more; the welcome we experienced in Thrace was a sign of how things could be. That experience was so notable for me precisely because of its rarity, though I have to say that over the years I’ve met with great hospitality in many parts of the Balkans.

      Wishing you a wonderful naturalist’s year, full of surprise and wild encounters!

      Julian

  8. Thank you, Julian, for sharing your 2011 “moments of being” with us. Your life in Prespa is full of the richness found in nature and in the people who live there. The owl was magnificent and the picture of Great Prespa Lake simply breathtaking! I’m looking forward to reading your book soon and continuing to follow your blog – you’re an amazing writer. Wishing you a most wonderful New Year!

    1. Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful words, Barbara. It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts and I look forward very much to keeping in touch either here, by the sea or elsewhere in the online world over the coming year! Delighted you liked these photos and would like to wish you a very creative and illuminating 2012. Thanks for sharing in these moments.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  9. Hello Julian:
    I look forward to your collection of essays.
    This is such a lovely post. I save your entries in my inbox until I can give them my full attention. They are to be savored.

    What a great idea to look back over the previous year with a few images and words, and all of the “moments” striking. One of my favorites is the Muslim man who greeted you so warmly.

    I feel we build writing around these moments that stand out to us. Did I say this last time? Well writing, essay writing, the process of writing seems to be about making connections between the “moments” that impress themselves upon our inner ear/voice and expressing those connections in a way that touches the reader, so that he/she recognizes something they believe in-something they wish for-something they love/appreciate. (I know I am leaving out the negative responses readers have sometimes).

    Your pieces are jewels. One cannot peer quickly, because jewels are multi-faceted, reflecting light in different ways.

    I’d like you to see this post on Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush.” My take on this New Year’s Eve.

    Happy New Year!

    http://mulesprings.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/the-darkling-thrush-leave-taking/

    1. Hi Sher! Will get back to you, your post, and this lovely comment over the weekend as we’ve had connection problems these last few days. Thanks for your patience and Happy New Year!

    2. This is such a wonderful comment, Sher, and I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to you. Busy time, these last few days, but your thoughts on this post and the blog in general have stayed with me since I first read your comment. I’m grateful for your appreciation and the beautiful words you’ve used to describe your experience. I agree completely with your thoughts on writing and moments; what I do find fascinating is how certain moments, or the intensity and depth of them, are only recognised well after the fact. While some moments call out at the very time of their happening, others unfold more slowly, reverberating over time until it is their wake that is strongest. Such are the wonders and mysteries of life.

      I’m on my way to the darkling thrush! Hope all is well and best wishes for a joyful and creative year…thanks again.

      Julian

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