In the pale light of a February morning, a meteor flared unforeseen across the Russian sky. The fireball burned through the cloudless blue, weeping a contrail of smoke in its wake, before eventually crashing into the Ural Mountains and leaving hundreds of people injured by shattered glass from its shockwave. Recorded on myriad photographs and video clips instantly uploaded to the ether, the sharp, blinding light of the meteor’s trajectory was made visible around the world. The footage is startling, like seeing a rocket in the moments before its explosive, murderous impact, or some returning space vessel disintegrating upon re-entry. But those comparisons are of our world, our creations. Some footage revealed the winter morning being swept aside by blazing light, as if the sun had passed out of eclipse, or a door had suddenly swung open onto summer. Soaring over the city of Chelyabinsk at a speed of thirty kilometres a second, that incandescent rock brought us, if only for a moment, into touch with a universe beyond our usual experience, the vast and unfathomable space we sit inside. It was a visitor from afar.
Prespa is still shrouded in winter. Frost and snow clad the high hills and water wends through a palisade of icicles as it plunges downstream. Signs of the season’s turning are few and far between, and yet Dalmatian pelicans have been returning to their nesting sites on the lakes since January. Migrating from Turkey, the Middle East and other parts of Greece, the birds continually astound me by timing their arrival with falling snow, bitter mountain winds and a possibly frozen lake. They endure the ice and cold with commendable constancy, always homing in on the islands of reeds at the heart of the wetland before any other species. Over the years I’ve come to see the pelicans as having an inseparable connection to the lakes, gliding across the still waters or shoaling in the hazy summer light. They seem made for this life, floating in the blue bowl of the basin with an elegant and native ease, a part of the watery weave that holds this place together.
Last summer, however, altered my perspective on their world. As wind turbines are being staked on the high surrounding mountains, our monitoring work consists of charting the passage of birds across the sky, trying to determine to what extent their existence is imperiled by the whirling white blades. Along with their migratory journeys, the Prespa pelicans – both Dalmatian and white – often travel great distances throughout the breeding season to feed in other wetlands before returning over the staggered peaks. Standing in mountain meadows, knee-deep in flaxen grasses swept slantwise by wind, I watched pelicans parade all summer. I would see them skim low over the adjacent plain, glide across the fields and scattered houses like stones sent sliding across a frozen pond until they reached the edge of the mountains. And then they would climb.
As sunlight poured from the hot summer skies, I timed the rise of the white birds, their ancient, circling patience carrying them higher into the blue. Like many other large-winged birds, pelicans require thermals to carry them the tremendous distances they travel. I counted off the minutes as they rose like it was a choreographed dance, until I could barely see the birds at all. Just dim spots, flecks of paint on the high ceiling of a vault. From that cradle of warm air high above the earth they let go of the harness, beginning their long descending glide to the gleaming lakes beyond the peaks, like meteors stealing across the sky.
It was near midnight one summer when I saw a meteor cross the Prespa sky. The scent of night flowers had floated up like a net to catch pollinating moths. Fireflies sent their secret codes pulsing through the dark while cricket song swelled into a chorus from the grasses. I was sitting in the garden with friends, sharing stories and reminiscences, talking in the open and intimate way of long acquaintance, when the black skin of the sky suddenly split open, unzipped by a line of fire above the mountains. As the meteor sailed overhead our eyes lifted as one, like we were honouring the sky gods of old. The hurtling flame pulled a chariot of smoke across the black expanse, blazing over the lakes where pelicans huddled over young on their summer nests. We peered into the distance until the flickering light finally grew small and dim in our eyes. Wisps of smoke hung like banners over the night, and for a moment or two we were sealed inside a spell, a deep silence cast down from above, until we broke into giddy laughter. There are no words in any language to express the sheer depths of awe – sometimes laughter is all we have in the midst of such mystery.
The mountains are cloaked with cold, and the return of the pelicans means we’re monitoring them from the ridge again. But a day after the Russian meteor filled the flat sky of our screens we arrived to find our vantage point hazed by winter cloud. Our breaths pillowed ahead of us with each step. Hoping for a better view farther along, we climbed through a beech forest deep with drifted snow, each twig and branch sealed in the glass of a hoar frost. We’d entered a crystal mountain palace, an ice-world veiled in mist. Cloud sifted across the slopes, and all about us the silence and snow ensnared us.
It’s not easy remembering to look up. Standing amidst cloud and snow brought home to me the forgetful tendencies of the eyes. Our lives are lived primarily on the ground, in the here and now of our immediate concerns and surrounds. We’re so used to keeping our eyes ahead of us, focused on the next step – on work and worries, our daily routines – that whatever glimmers about the edges, or passes high above, can easily slip unnoticed through our days. As far as the human mind can fathom, what arches above the clouds is virtually endless, a universe of other worlds and stars and galaxies beyond reach. Comparatively few things pass into the narrow orbit of our experience, the tiny span of our sentient presence on this planet, and yet we’re part of something indescribably vaster all the time.
Wrapped in the white shroud of the clouds, I found myself wondering whether pelicans were passing above us on their way to the lakes, beating snow from their feathers or effortlessly sailing. I thought about them following their ancient, millennial trajectories high across the granite peaks, or circling up into the deep summer blue like the sky was another sea, where they floated with the same elegant ease. These passing travellers are reminders: to be open to faint glimmers that appear in the distance; to look up and let wonder lift me from the surface of the earth; to let go and lean into the sky.
It’s a great pleasure to be able to feature some of the beautiful pelican images of Steve Mills with this Notes from Near and Far post. Steve is the winner of the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in the Bird Behaviour category for this stunning image of a merlin and a snipe. Together with his wife, Hilary Koll, Steve runs BirdWING, a tremendous non-profit organisation which aims to raise awareness of birds and work on behalf of their habitats in northern Greece. There’s plenty of information on their website, and if you’re interested in getting involved or receiving an occasional email newsletter with updates about their conservation work and details of the birds of Greece there’s a place to subscribe on the homepage. The photos in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them.