Across the Sky

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve MillsIn 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.

Snow 4

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.

Dalmatian pelicans, by Steve Mills
Dalmatian pelicans, by Steve Mills

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.

White pelican, by Steve Mills
White pelican, by Steve Mills

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.

Snow 2

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.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills
Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

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.

Snow 3

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.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills
Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

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.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills
Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

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.

27 thoughts on “Across the Sky

  1. Beautiful post, Julian. Always a gifted writer, your prose style has subtly matured over the last few years into something quite exquisite.

    Wind farms are a contentious issue, especially when it comes to their impact on habitats and birds. Unbelievably, the Scottish government has rubber-stamped plans for a sizable array of turbines in the Park area of the isle of Lewis – home to 12 breeding pairs of golden eagles. How large is the array planned for Prespa?

    Great pics by Steve Mills.

    Tweet x

    1. Thanks for the good words, Pete. They mean a lot to me.

      Yes, there are a range of issues surrounding wind farms, and birds are one of them. The ridge we’re working on at the moment has 34 turbines, and they should be operational soon. At the southern end of the lakes, where we’ve worked in previous years, there are two proposed projects, which will total around 60 turbines if they go ahead. That particular area, the Sfika plateau, is astonishingly rich in wildlife and I worry what will become of it. But government policy gives out subsidies not only for renewable energy production but for development work on the country’s borders, which just happens to be where some of the most important, mountainous habitat is predominantly located. With double subsidies, as one energy company manager told me, there doesn’t even have to be much wind in an given area to still go ahead with a project. In monetary terms, the unsound becomes viable, and I worry that the loss of landscapes and species will bring little renewable return anyways.

  2. Yes, I can only agree with these comments – lovely writing, that leaves one wondering, as though in writing we can only nod to the numinous, without being able to explain it (indeed, without wanting to). Thanks once again

    Ian

    1. Thanks, Ian. I love your phrase, a “nod to the numinous,” and it seems to be where my writing leads me more and more often: to those moments which can only be glimpsed through language, never truly understood. Delighted you liked it.

      Julian

  3. Yes, it’s a wonderful reminder that awareness is boundless; that “what glimmers at the edges..” is murmering to be percieved (thanks Rilke) if we accept the invitation..
    A lovely way to start the day on this damp, sullen Devon morning. Thanks sid!

    1. The Rilke quote says so much about perception in so few words; it really is a wonderful guide to opening oneself to experience. And I’m so pleased this post opened your day well!

  4. I am grateful to receive this gentle admonition to look around, to look up and observe the seldom noted. It’s a reminder we can all benefit from, especially presented in this marvelous collaboration of evocative word pictures and images.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Cindy, for this lovely comment. I’m delighted you enjoyed this collection of words and images. It’s such a personal pleasure to share the page with Steve’s evocative photographs.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful meditative gem, Julian. You have such a nice, gentle way of reminding me about the things that are most important in life; a conscience, of sorts.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear from you, Paul. I’ve missed your thoughtful and considered posts this past year or so and hope this finds you well. Many thanks for your generous compliment – I’m delighted you enjoyed the read.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  6. A reminder of “the need to let go and lean into the sky.” Love this and how the meteors, the pelicans and the silence of winter all thread together to give a sense of that wider universe in which we dwell.

  7. The pelican images by Steve Mills are stunning, and coupled with your thoughts about their migrations, I found myself wondering what it might be like to fly over a mountain in the winter. I also enjoyed how you describe your meteor sighting… Once I saw a meteor arc high over the stage during a Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of Romeo & Juliet – it was a thrilling moment, leaving me star-struck. As you point out, not many things “pass into the narrow orbit of our experience, the tiny span of our sentient presence on this planet” but when we get a glimpse into our infinite unity with the universe, it can leave us breathless.

    1. Thanks, Barbara, for the wonderful comment and compliments. Steve’s photos really are quite special, and it’s been a pleasure sharing the page with them.

      Like you, I’ve often wondered about flying over a winter mountain! And I love your description of a meteor while watching Shakespeare – a wonderful weave of beauty there! That universe, as you rightly say, is infinitely full of possibilities for breathless connection.

  8. Ah Julian, I don’t know which to comment on first – the portraits of these majestic birds, with lives so different from our own, or your words that entwine our lives with theirs. Your words about our tiny span of sentient presence on this planet lead me to deeper thoughts about deep time, time as an immensity we have no scale to understand, time out of which comes meteors arcing across the sky and crashing into our illusions that our planet spins in the solar system purely for human benefit. This is beautiful writing, as always, that prompts my soul to breathe deep in wonder, as always.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear from you, Janet, and I’m deeply touched by your beautiful compliment. So much of what you say here about time speaks to me, and I find myself increasingly drawn to what you describe – the depths mostly beyond our reckoning. I find it brings scale to my life and, consequently, a greater appreciation of all the wonder and beauty to be found here. Hope this finds you well, and thanks again.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  9. Julian, those pelican shots are marvellous. I always think of them as a gentle, benign sorta bird but that Dalmation one makes me wonder …
    The contrasting snow and bird shots are quite dramatic.

    1. Ha! Those beady, watching eyes. So pleased you liked the post, and I’m in complete agreement about Steve’s photos. Quite stunning. Thanks for reading, Sybil, and I hope you’re well!

  10. What a treat to find this blog, Julian. I’m a writer living in northwest BC in Canada – in what we call “the bush” – birds are of keen interest to me. My son is a bird biologist who has worked on the east and west coasts of Canada studying birds at risk, so reading such lovely writing from someone who is caring for such beautiful creatures is a wonderful blend. Thanks.

    1. It’s a pleasure to be in touch, Sheila, and thanks ever so much for your kind words. I’m so pleased you found the blog. I grew up in Ontario as it happens, but never made it out west, though I would dearly like to explore that part of the world someday. Your son’s work sounds really interesting and important, and I’m looking forward very much to stopping by your blog and having a read of your work. Thanks again – much appreciated!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  11. Julian I meant to comment sooner on this beautiful piece! I love the juxtaposition/contrast here of white birds and white snow. My mother always told me pelicans were my favourite bird when I was a baby but I don’t know where I saw them – Western Australia perhaps? (we lived there for about 18 months before I was three years old) Or maybe in a zoo somewhere. I saw them in South Carolina more recently and loved them still. They have all sorts of symbolic associations I now know too, mainly religious, but they look like a visitor from the deep past to me.

    1. So sorry for the late reply, Diana! Between travels and work I somehow didn’t see your lovely comment until just the other day. I love the story you tell of pelicans being your favourite bird as a baby, even if you don’t remember it yourself. Visitors from the deep past is precisely how I see them myself, these ancient, enduring relics of another age, still thriving in flight and mythic in their appeal. They’re a blessing to see anywhere. Thanks for kind words, Diana, and for adding this personal touch to the post!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  12. Yes! Always look up and let wonder embrace you. The sky has many gifts.

    I adore pelicans. Here we only get the brown ones – the ones that hunt by diving into the water from hypnotic heights. They circle, pause and hurl themselves down, turning a slight angle to capture the air.

    Boyfriend and I love to watch them fly – there is nothing to equal it: they skim inches above the water, dignified, motionless and magnificent. Once he was sitting on his surfboard, and a pelican came right at him: nearly beheaded him!

  13. Thanks kindly, Aubrey, for the wonderful words! I’ve only ever been able to read about the brown pelican and would love, one of these days, to witness that diving splash into the water when they’re hunting. Watching the way pelicans skim the surface is about as joyful as it gets.

  14. A stunning weave of words, journeys of the mind and layers upon layers of experience and thought, following the connections that somehow pinpoint the awe and break through into deepest consciousness. Thank you so much, Julian, for another expansive journey into far horizons and the closest of details; for this profound and beautiful reminder of the revelations that surround us in the ‘near and far.’

    Such a treat to see Steve Mills’ photos too. There is something so earthy and primeval about pelicans – and yet something almost unearthly too. Their eyes seem to be full of other worlds somehow… or at least with the other world that is their life – connected and yet distant to the human hum of existence.

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