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The Small Heart of Things

The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World

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  • Book Info
    The Small Heart of Things
    Book Description:

    In The Small Heart of Things, Julian Hoffman intimately examines the myriad ways in which connections to the natural world can be deepened through an equality of perception, whether it's a caterpillar carrying its house of leaves, transhumant shepherds ranging high mountain pastures, a quail taking cover on an empty steppe, or a Turkmen family emigrating from Afghanistan to Istanbul. The narrative spans the common-and often contested-ground that supports human and natural communities alike, seeking the unsung stories that sustain us. Guided by the belief of Rainer Maria Rilke that "everything beckons us to perceive it," Hoffman explores the area around the Prespa Lakes, the first transboundary park in the Balkans, shared by Greece, Albania, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. From there he travels widely to regions rarely written about, exploring the idea that home is wherever we happen to be if we accord that place our close and patient attention. The Small Heart of Things is a book about looking and listening. It incorporates travel and natural history writing that interweaves human stories with those of wild creatures. Distinguished by Hoffman's belief that through awareness, curiosity, and openness we have the potential to forge abiding relationships with a range of places, it illuminates how these many connections can teach us to be at home in the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4635-9
    Subjects: History, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Shadow Grounds
    (pp. 1-5)

    IT WAS THAT TIME AGAIN; each year it occurred as an unexpected grace note, a sudden flourish to accompany the slow fading of summer, like the lifting of haze from the lake, the leaving of birds. Increasingly, though, it was a quieter affair, signaled by the heaving chorus of fewer and fewer animals. The Sarakatsani were on the move again, bound for their winter quarters, and they were taking with them the cows, goats, and sheep that constitute their livelihood. The fully loaded trucks and trailers had wound their way down the frosted mountain valley early that morning and were...

  5. Homing
    (pp. 6-17)

    THE HOUSE FEELS LIKE ICE when I wake. Julia is still asleep, so I stick to ritual and make tea before lighting the woodstove. Waiting for the water to boil, I open the curtains onto a frosted world. Snow has hugged the village overnight, replacing the lavender and thyme with smooth white hillocks in the garden. The limbs of the peach and quince trees are ridged in white, and the dried sun-flower heads wear hats of snow. The willows along the river loosen a mist with each brush of wind.

    The garden is far from still despite the cold and...

  6. The Other Shore
    (pp. 18-21)

    SOME DAYS the other shore seems far away. It rises in the blue distance like a mirage until it eventually untangles from the haze, only there if you look long enough, staring across the lake as though seeking land in an empty sea. But other days don’t ask patience of you, the kind of stillness to see things through. They open willingly, fortuitously, revealing unforeseen moments nested within, encounters that linger long after their closing.

    It was a June afternoon, and as a friend and I neared the lake we’d heard a rustling about the reeds. We stopped to listen...

  7. The Memory of Land and Water
    (pp. 22-37)

    IN FEBRUARY 2000, the Prime Ministers of Albania, Greece, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia signed a joint declaration making the Prespa Lakes region the first transboundary park in the Balkan peninsula. The leaders pledged to “protect the unique ecological values” of the area while maintaining a “peaceful collaboration” between countries.

    Tracks are an ancient, magnetic language—pulling us in with possibility. The elusive poetry of a print, unlike the muscular certainty of a border line inked in an atlas, reveals details of a life being lived. A tracery of passing impressions, tracks can be as delicate as the...

  8. An Accumulation of Light
    (pp. 38-47)

    IT REACHED ME as an afterglow. We were walking on a cliff-edge path when a faint light glimmered at the corner of my eye. I stopped and looked down on the sea for a while, reluctantly accepting that it must have been the sparkling roll of a wave that I’d seen, a crest of bright water. I’d taken a few more steps along the path when I saw it again, fleetingly, like a vague memory dredged from the depths. Watching the water more closely this time, I looked for disruptions in its undulating rhythms. But nothing other than sunlight played...

  9. Gifts
    (pp. 48-50)

    THE ANCIENTS named them the halcyon days, the irrepressible interlude. They arrive in the depths of winter like an unexpected friend, and for an unseasonable week or so a radiant warmth spills over the land. The hours swell with the prospects of spring, the luxurious light notching smiles on the most reluctant of faces. The days then slip out like a wistful sigh, fading as quietly as they came, and winter stills the land again.

    The brazen warmth jostles the senses while it stays, upending occupations. In the air is an immediate change: the hum of rural industry. Tree sparrows...

  10. Among Reeds
    (pp. 51-58)

    THE OLD ADAGE about finding a needle in a haystack could just as easily refer to a bittern in a reed bed. As long as the bittern in question is European, that is. The American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus—as I was amazed to discover on a spring trip to Canada when three of them sailed over a boardwalk in a single morning—is far less secretive than its transatlantic cousin. The European bittern, Botaurus stellaris, on the other hand, could be a synonym for shy; it is a bird more imagined than seen, and, as such, is spoken of in...

  11. Time in the Karst Country
    (pp. 59-69)

    THIS HIGH, ROLLING PLATEAU is wedded to water, though that’s not easy to divine. Other than a month or two of flaring spring flowers drawn from winter’s lingering well, the karst country assumes an aspect of drought. No streams silver the valleys, no pools or ponds collect snapshots of the sky—just a sun-raked expanse of dry and lilting hills shimmering into the distance, a place of stone and swept grasses, wild tantrums of dust.

    I dip a hand into a stone bowl and fish out a few grains of lichen, ash-gray and flecked with jade; they’re blown easily from...

  12. The Distance between Us
    (pp. 70-78)

    NOW AND THEN I see him again, though I never know precisely when the moment might be. He has a tendency to arrive unannounced. For nearly seventeen years our relationship has existed this way, fugitive and unreliable. But it remains charged with such significance that I’m willing to forgive its frustrations. We rendezvous on his terms, not mine, and always in the same remembered place. It’s a whale-backed hill overlooking Morecambe Bay, and the season is never anything but spring.

    I’d been living amidst the moors of northern England when I first saw him. Having some time off work, and...

  13. A Family Field Guide
    (pp. 79-81)

    OVER THE ECHOING Skype line my parents mention seeing a northern harrier on the outskirts of Ottawa. Perched on a post as they drove along, it had leaned into the air to sail off across the fields, a pearl-gray ghost slipping away. Still speaking, I pull The Sibley Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America from the bookcase beside me. I leaf backwards through the waders and rails, overshooting the raptors to land amidst ducks and geese before paging my way forward to find the harrier. I then press the illustration up to the webcam, trying my best to...

  14. On Passage
    (pp. 82-93)

    ON THE DESK where I write sits a small spice box. It is circular, and fitted with a lid that reminds me of a Chinese peasant’s hat. Made from inexpensive wood, the spice box is unfinished on the inside, where a swirl of red paint makes its way around the underside of the bare lid. On the outside, the box’s design is conveyed through two colors: oil-black and a worn scarlet. It is a simple, yet beautiful, motif of red sunflowers centered in black arches, surrounded by a forest of leaves. Originating in Afghanistan, the box would have held salt,...

  15. The Wood for the Trees
    (pp. 94-102)

    IT’S STRANGELY HUMID for November, overcast and sullen with clouds. Though overcast isn’t quite right—it suggests something flat and immovable, like an iron lid. In fact the gray clouds are lancing overhead, the entire sky swept up in a wild, mercurial chase. Where it briefly splinters apart I can see clear through to a higher ceiling, classic cotton balls scattershot with blue. The turquoise flakes glimmer at this distance, sparking in sequence like a string of charges, before being swiftly doused by the reassembling sky.

    The beech woods rise before me, banks of tinted trees on the mountains behind...

  16. A Winter Moth
    (pp. 103-113)

    A SHADOW DANCED through the room as we sat down to dinner. We traced the dark movements skittering across the pale walls to the bulb hanging outside the window, where an unseasonable moth circled the light, projecting its silhouetted presence deep into the room. It was December, and Julia said, “Amazing. A winter moth.”

    Those three final words stayed with me. I liked the unusualness of their sound, coupled with the rarity and significance of the occasion. In recent years we’d noticed increasingly strange animal appearances and unexpected phenomena. Our evening visitor seemed an apt messenger for a warming and...

  17. The Circumference of a Second
    (pp. 114-116)

    SOMETIMES just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a seventeenth-century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. The line contained something luminous and of great value, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of “Eternity” with the rather commonplace “the other night”...

  18. The Small Heart of Things
    (pp. 117-128)

    THE FRAIL WARMTH of March was gone long before we reached the river. I watched the afternoon recede with the mountains, the steeply forested Carpathians shrinking in the wing mirror. Ahead of us lay villages scattered across the plain, ethnically Hungarian or Romanian, and separated by centuries of distrust. A Romanian field biologist, George Sârbu, spoke enthusiastically about his work as he drove the van. Employed by ICAS, a wildlife institute based in the Transylvanian city of Braşov, he’d agreed to show me around one of their project sites. George had chain-lit each cigarette from the last since we’d set...

  19. Faith in a Forgotten Place
    (pp. 129-145)

    FOR SUCH A commonly used word, faith isn’t easily defined. It cleaves to concepts that are shifting and difficult to pin down, stemming from as many sources as there are relationships of any kind. Our most fundamental, as well as pedestrian, connections—to people, places, and philosophies—are built upon unique articulations of the word. Faith can encompass trust, constancy, and belief, religious or otherwise. It hints at fidelity and kept promises, duty, and exactitude. At times faith might be summoned to express allegiance, honesty, and confidence, but it’s mutable all the same, a word significantly narrower than its needs....

  20. Shifting Shadows
    (pp. 146-150)

    AUTUMN’S FIRST SNOW spanned the ridge, laid like a cloth over a table to hang down evenly on both sides. A thin blue sky skimmed the mountains and frost glazed the grasses on the lower slopes, worn out by summer’s shimmering heat to bristle pale in the wind. The sun swung low in the sky, so that its light clipped the smooth and rounded peaks to break sharply across the meadows. The cold of the snow spilled off the ridge with the wind, wild and wintry.

    While I’d lingered in the shaded valley to take a few photos and listen...

    (pp. 151-154)