by Brenna Dixon
Julian Hoffman’s collection of essays, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, is the winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, selected by Terry Tempest Williams. In 2010, Flyway published his essay, “The Memory of Land and Water,” a piece exploring the Prespa Lakes region in the Balkan peninsula—its history, its ecology, and its role as meeting place for the borders of Greece, Albania, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Hoffman uses this region to lead readers through an examination of home, community, and the ease with which we’ll find both if we only pay attention. Check out the book trailer, here.
Flyway: I’m especially interested in the hard-to-draw lines that define, and differentiate, “home,” “place,” and “environment.” In the preface to your book you talk about place as being “hard to define…its rough edges and over-looked shades, the so-close-to-home that it’s easily missed.” I couldn’t agree more. You then argue that a person can turn any environment into a place by engaging with that environment and brokering a relationship with it. My question is this: after brokering that relationship, how does one turn a place into a home?
JH: Home, in its many guises, is founded on love, on a sense of care towards it that’s shaped by reciprocity. A house that feels like home – and not all of them do – provides safety and warmth, a shelter for growth and a store for familial memories. In return the family looks after that house, fixing broken beams and cracked tiles, shoring up after a storm. And that relationship is no different in the case of a place. Through a process of opening ourselves to the possibilities inherent in a place, which might be anything from a rare quality of light or the beautiful shape of a hill to its significance for wild animals and the cultural traditions that are embedded there, we can cultivate a love for a place which becomes part of a wider landscape of home. If a house can become home, why not the places that surround that house? Why not the places that we encounter at other times? Countless places across the planet are under threat from one human activity or another, and yet love can be profoundly protective, whether witnessed in parents raising a child or that family house that’s threatened by fire. We’ll go to any lengths to protect that child, that house. If that same kind of love can transform a place into a home, we may come to value its preservation through our own connection to it, and that of the wider environment over time.
There’s a worrying trend in the UK at the moment whereby we’re seeing more and more politicians advocating biodiversity offsetting. Developers are allowed to build on previously protected land as long as they “create” similar wildlife habitat elsewhere. Many of these politicians argue that it’s even a way to improve nature. George Monbiot has best encapsulated the dangers of this terminology: “Accept the principle of biodiversity offsetting and you accept the idea that place means nothing. That nowhere is to be valued in its own right any more, that everything is exchangeable for everything else…” Place is a unique composite of qualities, and if any of those places that politicians and developers are keen to level felt like home, then our cultural relationship to their loss would be completely different than it is at the moment.
Flyway: Speaking of home, in “Homing,” you write that “home is also an idea, a complicated human construct often built over unstable foundations…an idea formed by intricate cultural traditions frequently contingent on coincidence and unforeseen circumstances.” In the introduction to Finding Home, a collection of essays from Orion, Peter Sauer writes, “A society’s conceptual relationship to nature is at the core of its culture: it is a relationship that underlies what we believe and how we live.” Do you think this is a fair point for Sauer to make? If nature creates culture, and culture creates home, can there be home without nature?
JH: Human culture is responsible for how we’ve come to see home as both a physical place and an idea, but in the wider animal world there are a remarkable number of examples of how certain species settle down in a place in ways reminiscent of our own. A badger sett is a warren of burrows and dens not dissimilar to the rooms of a human house, sometimes providing shelter for centuries, reused and renovated with each generation. Or the way a male bowerbird builds an ornate structure that it decorates with brightly colored or glittering objects, an ostentatious offering to a mate that the might resonate with the fabulously wealthy. Wild creatures are more like us than we think and, conversely, quite often we are more like them than we would care to admit.
Alone on a mountain ridge last summer, I unexpectedly startled a brown bear, and those few minutes in its presence taught me more about our nature than years of reading about it in books had done. The immediate, visceral response of my body to the situation was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. My skin was electric and alive; my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level. Despite the rich cultures that humans have created and cultivated, we remain, in essence, simply animals, as reliant upon the same clean air, water and ecosystems as they are. Accepting that we are a part of the natural world may well be the only way of finding home in a future clouded by environmental damage.
Flyway: In your essay, “The Other Shore,” you say of people, “bonds that last years can be forged within minutes.” Later, in “Shadow Grounds,” you talk about your “short, but emotionally rich, period of time” on the moors. Do you find that lasting bonds between people and places can be made just as suddenly and quickly as those formed between two people?
JH: Yes, absolutely. Place works on us in mysterious ways; we never really know when a connection will be made. But the more open we are to our surroundings, the more curious we are about them, the greater chance of forging a bond. The relationship between people and place is very much about the quality of our attention. You could spend your whole life in one place and not necessarily develop an affinity with it, but you could equally spend a day somewhere and through the “process of experiencing deeply,” as Alan Gussow suggests, cultivate an immediate attachment. Of course a single day isn’t sufficient to plumb the depths of any given place, but it’s a beginning – a beginning that might lead on to something else, a beginning that might endure.
I’ve recently been visiting a place called the Hoo Peninsula on the Thames Estuary. I’d only ever intended to spend a single day there interviewing some people for a project I was doing, but in those few hours, amidst slanting slow and winter-cold winds, the place cast a spell on me. The longing calls of geese fell from the sky and the marshes misted over with an evocative, ghostly haze. I heard that place calling to me, in its unique and unmistakable voice. Now I find myself returning to that same spur of land at the edge of the sea again and again, to explore it and, hopefully, come to know it more deeply, but it all began with a glimpse, nothing more.
Flyway: Okay, here’s a lighter question (maybe): Reading your book—maybe because I’m a birder, too—made me want to immediately jump on a plane and fly off to explore the Prespa Lakes. Then Edward Abbey appeared in the back of my mind, chastising me. “Leave it alone!” he cried. “More humans means more damage!” Are you nervous about bringing attention to the Prespa Lakes landscape?
JH: This is a great question, with no easy answer. Going back to the Hoo Peninsula for just a second: that place at the edge of the sea is a remarkable landscape –both culturally and ecologically – that’s under threat of being flattened after a proposal was put forward to build Europe’s largest airport on top of it. Part of the reason that a proposal like that was able to happen was because the area was so unsung; for whatever reason – despite it being the setting for Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and the home of centuries-old marshland communities and being protected by a host of protective measures because of the vast number of wild species it supports – it remains so little known. It seems to occupy a blank space on the map of southern England and that invisibility, that lack of attention, makes it all the more vulnerable. It’s far easier to get the go-ahead for development, regardless of what might be potentially lost, when a place is non-existent in the public imagination.
Of course there needs to be balance in an ecosystem as delicate as this, but I would like others to be able to experience something of this wonderful place called Prespa as well. Those visitors not only experience something of great beauty, as rare pelicans circle over the lakes and ancient hermitages glint in the afternoon sun, and but they provide business for local people who run guest lodges and tavernas, and support, through their presence here, the idea that nature conservation can have a positive effect on remote livelihoods instead of being a hindrance to them, as is often perceived to be the case.
Flyway: At the beginning of “The Memory of Land and Water” you mention that the Prespa Lakes region is the first transboundary park in the Balkan peninsula. The leaders of Albania, Greece, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia pledged to protect the area while “maintaining a peaceful collaboration between countries.” It sounds like land, then, becomes a peacekeeper, acting as the great unifier, surpassing differences between peoples. Do you see land as an equalizer? A cultural safe zone, so to speak?
JH: Land is, or can be, a great unifier. And so can water. The lake basin is a shared resource that straddles the borders and neither the fish nor the water that local communities are reliant on understands these distinctions. The European Union’s Water Framework Directive, which was adopted in 2000, had a great bearing on the cross-border agreement. The directive is premised on the fact that “rivers do not stop at national frontiers.” It’s an enlightened legislative approach to a shared resource, based not on national or political delineations, but instead on natural geographical and hydrological formations, like river basins and catchment areas that can be found across borders in a place like Prespa. So people are talking across the territorial lines to each other increasingly more often here, trying to find a way to jointly manage these resources. Of course there remain serious divisions in general – about logging, fishing, irrigation, migration, to name a few of them, together with the differences in language and ethnicity – and I worry, not just here but throughout Europe, as we witness a resurgence of populist nationalism, that those border lines could harden again. Land can unify or divide, and our tendency as a species has long been towards the latter. But as the water directive has shown, and as Myrsini Malakou says in one of the essays in the book, “Where there are borders, there are bridges.” We should always be on the lookout for those bridges.
Flyway: While writing “The Memory of Land and Water,” published in Flyway in 2010, did you imagine it as part of a larger narrative?
JH: Not really, to be honest. Pieces of writing had been emerging in response to living here and “The Memory of Land and Water” was another of those snapshots, a glimpse into the lives and landscapes of this place. But it wasn’t for another year or so that I began to see that these snapshots might fill an album; they were connected by themes that I hadn’t actually seen at the time of writing. They were being threaded together without me being aware of it. In many ways, the process of writing them was as much a part of the journey towards home as physically living here and settling into this place.
Flyway: Where did this book come from? What first urged you to write it?
JH: It took me a long time to come to terms with the necessary commitment to be a writer. For many years I’d been more in love with the idea than the practice. And I think much of that was about an inner restlessness; I constantly felt like I was searching for some place to live that was meaningful. Moving here to the Prespa Lakes, though, I began to see how my restlessness arose from within. Instead of acknowledging the interiority of my struggles, I’d essentially mapped them onto the outer world, moving on and on in search of somewhere to belong. I began writing about this one place in order to see how I might look at all places.
Flyway: In your essay, “A Winter Moth,” you write, of Artistide Caradja’s micro-moth collection, “according to its contents, a collection reflects back something of the collector himself, some intangible glimpse into the quality of his fascination.” I can’t help but apply this apt statement to writing, too. Do collections of prose and poetry speak about their authors in the same way?
JH: Very much so. I love the constancy of an author’s voice when reading essay and short story collections; how it’s an abiding presence, but one that’s refracted through a set of different lenses, so that the focus of attention is always shifting, revealing new facets and angles on an overall theme or preoccupation. This is very much the case with the book I’m reading at the moment, Elizabeth Dodd’s Prospect. In it she wonderfully circles the Kansas landscape from varying heights, telescoping in from different geological and historical ages, but throughout the essays I’m always grounded by her voice. You end up with a mosaic, a brilliant image built slowly from the smallest, individual pieces.
Flyway: You’ve lived in Toronto, London, Greece… Is there a place that has shaped you most as a writer? How has living in such vastly different places influenced your writing?
JH: Each place has shaped my writing in different ways. There is a store of memories of initial engagements with landscapes, people and place from my childhood in Canada and summer holidays in England that are crucial, in sometimes unknowable ways, to my work. Like finding a small shark washed up on a beach in northern England while I was with my Uncle as a young boy. The image of that shark – bruised about its head from being battered against rocks; the feel of its rough, gray skin; the dark, open eyes – remains vivid. What role it plays I’ll never know, but these resonant memories linger, and have helped shape my relationship with the natural world in a larger sense over time, eventually filtering into the writing on some level.
But it was living in Greece that shaped my writing in a practical sense. We spent five years as market gardeners after moving here, working a set of fields at the edge of the mountains. Each day some new story emerged from those fields, whether it was a falcon sheering over the crops, finding an old Ottoman coin while turning the soil, or a conversation with an itinerant shepherd as he led his flock through the valley. I felt that the stories of this place were important, but for first time I began to realize how the stories of any place are important. That was a significant shift for me, and living a rural life here enabled me to eventually have the time and the quiet – both internal and external – to put some of them down on paper, a time and quiet that had been difficult for me to find when I’d been living in cities.
Flyway: What do you see as the writer’s role in regards to the subjects of home, place, and environment?
JH: I see the writer’s role as the same for any subject he or she approaches: to tell a good story. Ideally one that reaches out to a reader in some meaningful way about our place in the world. But story, that weave of language and imagination, is the essential heart.
Flyway: In “An Accumulation of Light,” you turn to Rilke “to illustrate a method of seeing”: “The art of perceiving is more about reception than it is vision. We don’t have to struggle to see things, Rilke suggests, for they are already there, calling us. The difficulty lies in unlearning our tendency toward indifference.” What advice do you have for those attempting to better ground themselves in place by unlearning this indifference?
JH: The great guides to experiencing place are children. You can watch a young child utterly absorbed in a small square of meadow or a patch of scrubby ground where she might be fascinated by a butterfly or lost in watching a solitary insect wriggle along a stem. A child can connect so deeply, so intensely with whatever she’s watching that there’s no longer a distinction between her and the observed. She’s absolutely part of the very place she’s standing in.
What’s so remarkable about children’s perception, even more so than its intensity, is that it’s characterized by an equality of interest. Everything a child encounters in nature, no matter how small, offers possibility and is therefore equally fascinating. Children make little distinction between major and minor motifs. A feather found on the beach is as wondrous as the creature it belonged to. As childhood is left behind, adults tend to shed that capacity for curiosity, that spirit that animates the smallest of things. We yearn for greater and faster excitements; we seek larger vistas, grander views. But as a child can show us, all places contain the seeds of astonishment.
Flyway: If you could have readers take away one thing from The Small Heart of Things, what would it be?
JH: That rich possibility, or “murmurs at every turn” in Rilke’s words, can be found in the places around us when we look at them with curiosity and openness. I would be delighted if a reader wanted to step outside into a place of their own after reading the book.