An Uncertain Country

To listen to an audio version of ‘An Uncertain Country’ click the play button

To near the coast in April is to stray into uncertain country. At times a hot sun bathes the orange groves until they glow. Then the lashing rains return, hurled by the wind across the hills like ragged grey sheets. Mist and cloud roll cold over the plain where green seedlings stand shivering to their knees in drowned fields. A burst of sun sheers open the sky, only to be snapped shut by a lid of dark clouds.

The uncertainty stretches to more than just the weather, though; there is a sense of things hanging in the balance when we arrive. Birds make landfall throughout the day, so that at any moment a silent and secluded pool might be riffled with the murmur of wings. Migrating across the Mediterranean, they turn up anywhere on the salt marshes and lagoons that frill the Ionian coast across the strait from Corfu, steering out of the bleak storms or flung hurtling ahead, aiming for these small islands and edges of refuge, the dwindling places of wild necessity.

The Kalamas estuary spreads between the mountains and sea, an in-between world where salt and silt entangle. But however impressive these wetlands can be, they’re only an echo of their original size and substance, like pockets without a coat. Diminished by draining and dumping, and the pollution from fertiliser run-off, they still sparkle with concentrated life. Spoonbills huddled like the first fall of snow. Heads lowered together, they trawled the waters as if they’d been cinched into a pure white circle by rope. Cattle egrets rode the backs of cows like they were droving them home. Marsh sandpipers riddled the mud and herons speared the shallows, all feeding with the eagerness that follows a long journey. In places I could see how the fields claimed for farming were filling with wings as well, the salt water seeping back in, rising along its native course to restore an ancient equilibrium.

The wild world has a way of returning. Scattered across the mountains above the estuary were the silhouettes of empty houses. Whatever small sounds our steps made as we climbed to the ruins of old Sagiada were swallowed by the rain, sealed up by the squalling April weather. A pair of ravens hung as if black commas in the sky and Judas trees blazed like candles from the dark forest. The village had been torched by German forces in 1943, and its inhabitants fled their homes for Corfu, striking out across the narrow blue waters from the harbour far below. Through the grey mist that layered the strait I tried imagining the ragged line of boats escaping through the swells, the flames the passengers would have seen engulfing their homes as they sailed away, the sound of weeping trailing across the sea.

Having left behind their fields of sesame, rice and cotton, along with their animals and belongings, some villagers returned from Corfu at the end of the war to the handful of homes that weren’t completely destroyed. But as if forever condemned they were forced to leave a year later when the Greek Civil War swept brutally across the mountains. From that day the village has stood empty, an isolated home to the church and its fading frescoes. All that remains are the echoes of the ruins, the wild arbour of vines spreading like a fan across the walls and the fig shoots growing from old kitchens with no one to steep the young, budding fruit in syrup to be stored in jars for winter sweets. Stone arches clad in ivy mark a way between rooms, or passages from the houses into lanes that once led to the market square. The earth was furrowed with the habits of forgotten days.

Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers. Driving the edge of a coastal lagoon the day before, yellow wagtails had fallen about us like rain. Wearing fresh lemon coats for the new season, they dropped out of the storm in their hundreds, as though a door in the clouds had swung open to release them. Spilling from the marsh tussocks and tamarisks lining either side, they were joined by swallows that swooped and swirled, circling us on our slow journey like chaperones from the skies. The air was woven with wings as we inched along; movement sustaining a stillness, a moment poised around our shared and unexpected laughter, the singular and irrepressible joy of being a part of the world. Our lives come and go with these moments, diving at depth or buoyant the next. And like birds or villagers making landfall after the uncertain crossing of seas we never know what we’ll find until we arrive.

19 thoughts on “An Uncertain Country

  1. Julian, Is that your marvellous voice reading today’s post ? I so very much enjoyed listening to it. Oh, your words and pictures fit so beautifully. “Like a coat without pockets” was such a surprising description, among many other surprising descriptions.

    1. Thanks kindly, Sybil! It is indeed me reading the piece, and I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it. Hope all is well with you and thanks for the lovely compliments!

  2. Is that a nature reserve? Are those tired hungry birds at least safe from hunters? I HATED seeing hunters going after migratory songbirds on Malta. So much I loved about that island, but the songbirds!!

    1. It is a protected area on paper, Diana, but there are also serious problems regarding illegal hunting throughout Greece. Though I don’t believe it’s on the same scale as on Malta, it is nonetheless significant. Each year songbirds, herons, orioles, raptors, pelicans etc. etc. are shot and killed or injured on the mainland and islands. Only through education and a greater sense of empathy towards the creatures we share this world with will this change, and I’d like to think that, slowly, that is happening.

  3. Beautiful, as always. Loved the bit of history mixed in with those perfect verbs. Also, the photos are rich with stories, Julian. Thank you!

  4. Somewhere I did not know of, brought right into my sitting room! Stunning images in words and pictures. I love estuaries and marshes and this is a particularly poignant place with that history.

    1. Thanks, Diana! Both for taking the time to read and for leaving such a lovely comment. Delighted to hear that the words reached you in this way, and it’s always good to meet a fellow lover of marshes and estuaries. Hope all is well with you!

  5. You’ve transported me once again with your words and photos. The trees and vines reclaiming those abandoned structures, built out of sturdy stone to last for generations, so beautifully echo and illustrate our illusions of certainty.

  6. Your words are as full of imagery as your wonderful photos, Julian! Earth’s wetlands are indeed in-between places, full of uncertainty. I like how you expressed this in these sentences: “Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers.” And I like how you described refuges as “dwindling places of wild necessity.” Who can know how the interplay of nature, history and people will evolve? We can only make educated guesses, try to do our part and keep our eyes open and our fingers crossed.

    I especially liked the pictures of the arches and the church, both its interior and the view from the distance. Living in town I sometimes forget how much open space there still is on earth, where, as you say, the wild world has a way of returning. Thankfully!

    1. Your comments are always such a delight to read, Barbara. They raise questions and connections about our place in things, and encourage me to pursue stray images and ideas that you’ve seeded like the evolving interplay of “nature, history and people.” So pleased you enjoyed this journey to the coast and, like you, I hope the wild world keeps returning. Many thanks for adding your graceful thoughts.

      Best wishes,

  7. Some of these photos remind me of the dear times I spent in Wales. Seeing castles set in green forests like jewels. Taking photos through windows that once housed arrows. The ‘forgotten days’ I then felt in the wind and that I now read in your beautiful post.

    1. All my years living in the UK and I’ve yet to visit Wales, but from your sublime descriptions of “windows that once housed arrows” you’ve crafted an image that will steer me in its direction. Thanks, as always, for your generous compliment and for taking the time to read. Hope all is well, Aubrey.

  8. Hello Julian – thank you for visiting my blog; I’m so glad you did – it’s been a highlight of my day to discover your wonderful writing and beautiful blog.

    I love the mindful beauty of your words here – the imagery is so vivid and arresting; it reaches a place of deep response. As does the truth and poignancy of your reflections on uncertainty and returning, the buoyancy and plummeting woven through the fortunes of place, wildlife and people’s lives. I love the way you sew together all this deeper significance in your words and your noticing.

    Thank you for taking me on a journey through such a wonderful landscape. I enjoyed so much the feeling of being there, and experiencing the wildlife all around (raining yellow wagtails and swallows – magical!) as I read and listened to your post. And your lovely photos all add to the feeling of being transported.

    I shall definitely be returning here often, and I very much look forward to exploring your blog further…

    Best wishes,

    1. It’s a delight to hear from you, Melanie, especially as it was such a pleasure discovering your blog via Diana Hale the other day. I’m really looking forward to further exploring your wonderful posts, and the connections you’re drawing between books, nature and our lives.

      Thanks ever so much for these kind and thoughtful words of yours. They’ve really touched me this morning; reading them was like a little post in itself, full of beautiful phrasing and images that echoed. It’s a great honour to know that they were written in response to my words. Thank you…

      Hope all is well with you, and it’s lovely to be in touch!

      Best wishes,

      1. What a lovely message! Finding it has been an added lift and upbeat to my day – thank you, Julian… It’s a real honour to know you’ve enjoyed reading my offerings – and it’s such an honour too to see my blog appear on your blogroll! That’s so kind, thank you…

        That’s great that you found my blog via Diana’s lovely blog (thanks Diana!) It’s a real wonder of blogging that networks and connections between people who share the same interests and concerns, can stretch all over the world, making the pursuit of those interests all the more rich and rewarding. I’m sure I’m going to learn so much from your blog, discovering the riches of places and wildlife I’ve never encountered before – as well as seeing more familiar wildlife in a new light and new context/ environment. Your posts have already stretched my learning about nature, place and wildlife to more immediately felt global levels of insight!

        Really pleased to be in touch!

        Best wishes,

  9. Lovely post, Hoff. Beautiful prose and fine pictures – your stock in trade! Anyone would think it’s easy…

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