In The Small Heart of Things (2013) Julian Hoffman writes about the Prespa Lakes, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come together in the middle of a stretch of water. History and politics divide this landscape but artificial frontiers 'make no allowance for the mobile lives of people and animals, for shifting water currents, for the ways of wind and wing.' In one of the interconnected essays that make up the book he writes of finding bear tracks on the damp sand at the edge of the lake. 'Walking in the bears' steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.' He follows them in his imagination through the marsh grass and down from the high mountains, past migrating butterflies and apple trees seeded by storms, over a land bridge once used by refugees and through a quiet wood of oaks and junipers where white ribbons on the trees mark the paths of migrant labourers making their way at night across the border. Finally, 'passing the wide-open eye of a long blind bunker, the bears move off into darkness.'
Two of the essays in the book can be read in the journal Terrain - one centred on the work of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, another on time spent recording the movement of birds for an environmental assessment on the region's karst plateau. These online versions are illustrated with photographs but the book relies solely on its vivid descriptions of landscape and nature. Reading it I sometimes felt as if I had entered a Poussin painting...
enigmatic ruins, trees stirring in the wind, light penetrating storm
clouds, a shepherd playing a flute, a snake choking a heron. The book is full of chance encounters with animals and birds - dolphins cresting the surface of the sea, kestrels sheering across the grasslands, snipe exploding out of a marsh, a fire salamander, a caterpillar, an old collection of micro-moths, 'delicate as filaments, ephemeral as dust.' Such moments, he suggests, arise from a receptivity to experience: 'everything beckons us to perceive it'. This line, from one of Rilke's poems, is 'an invitation to openness, encouraging us to let in the wild and unpredictable, the ordinary and overlooked, the fleeting and unexplained.' It is possible to find more mystery in 'a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.'
Last year Julian delivered a presentation on the Hoo Peninsula at the Shorelines Festival that I didn't get to see but have heard a lot about (Diana Hale called it 'mesmerising' on her blog). It sounds like he had a kind of Hendrix-at-Monterey impact - Gareth Evans described this entrance into the New Nature Writing scene as so electrifying that Robert Macfarlane, next on the bill, had an almost impossible job following it. Gareth was talking at the LRB Bookshop this week, introducing Julian as part of a panel there to discuss 'Place Writing Now'. They were joined by Ken Worpole's, whose New English Landscape I featured here last year, and Philip Marsden, whose recently published Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place I've not yet read. It was a fascinating discussion ranging across language and representation, regeneration and displacement, ritual and memory. Julian's short talk, prepared specifically for this event, felt perfectly pitched. I'll be looking out for news of future gigs, although this current four-stop tour will soon be over and he'll be heading back home to the Prespa Lakes. You can follow him there on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.