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.