Just before Christmas I was invited once again by the lovely folks of Caught by the River to write my “Shadows and Reflections” for 2013 as the year comes to an end. I got down to it on the train back to Berlin from Munich, and my thoughts as the German countryside rushed beside me outside the window turned to this land and its landscape, and feelings of home and belonging:
“So in this year of journeys, to England, but also through Germany to the Baltic coast, the Oder River and the forests and lakes around Berlin, I reflected a lot on belonging and what it means to be home… as I conjured images of the Welsh coast and mountains, the Yorkshire moors and dales, the Dock Road in Liverpool and the potato fields of West Lancashire – that this was more an exercise in memory and nostalgia than anything else. And the thing with memory and nostalgia is that even when you go back, return for a visit or even to stay, you realise that not only is the place subtly different than you remember it, but you are also not the same person as the one that was there before.”
A week or so after I wrote the piece for Caught by the River, and on the day it was published on the website, we left Berlin again for a small village by a lake in Brandenburg, about an hour out from the city. In our house with a view of the water, surrounded by the extended family, I picked up a book that has been featured on Under a Grey Sky but which, thanks to the challenges of international distribution (i.e. waiting for my mum to come and visit) I had not had a chance to read. The Small Heart of Things by Julian Hoffman is a book that I knew I was going to be interested in from the moment I saw the trailer, but what I had not expected was how much it was going to resonate with the very things I had been mulling over in my mind as we travelled north through Germany.
The series of essays in the book centre on the place he calls home, the Prespa lakes that occupy the border between Greece, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, and Albania, and the life and customs of those lakeshores, but the book journeys beyond this fascinating corner of the world to include encounters with people and nature in a variety of locations, such as visiting a young man a long way from home in Istanbul, tales of migrating butterflies and Enver Hoxha’s 750,000 paranoid bunkers, the timelessness of a karst landscape and the possibilities of the wastelands of childhood surburbia, and of how they can stimulate a passion for understanding a place and everything that is in it. He may have been writing about a childhood in Canada, but the words took me back in my mind to a place in northern England, and the dead railways and canal banks of my own childhood in West Lancashire.
There are mentions of W.G. Sebald and Nabokov, of the tentative development of eco-tourism in Albania, and the astonishing lepidopteral collection of Aristide Caradja in Bucharest, and all the while Julian Hoffman is never anything less than fascinating and informed company, with an evocative descriptive style that in and of itself provides evidence for one of the books central themes; that the place where you belong is not necessarily fixed, and that what is important is our awareness of our surroundings and our willingness to be “at home in the world”. This idea that that we can find wonderment and fulfilment wherever we may be is summed up in a couple of lines that could also be the tagline for Under a Grey Sky – and articulate extremely well what I have felt it has always been about, as well as many of the other blogs, websites and projects that I have discovered through this project over the past couple of years:
“There is possibility in the smallest of things; the most innocuous of moments. More mystery can be found in a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world”
It is fair to say then that The Small Heart of Things is, well, a book after my own heart… and I even had to smile to myself when I read the essay on developing a love for trees and woodland as it echoed my own experiences since I moved to the flatlands of Germany that are explored in the piece linked to above. Again, Julian’s words give voice to some of the feelings that I myself have been having in recent years:
“I’m coming to love woods as well it seems, but slowly, more carefully, as if we were widows getting to know each other later in life.”
Is that not just fantastic? All I can say in summary is that if you have enjoyed reading this website and the different pieces contained here, if you are interested in place, whether people, birds, landscape, history, butterflies or whatever it is that makes us fascinated by our surroundings in the first place, and perhaps if you are searching for a way to be at home in the world wherever you may be, then all I can say is go buy this book. I cannot imagine you will regret it.
Happy New Year.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig