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Time in the Karst Country

by Julian Hoffman : Essay and Photographs
 

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  Image Gallery: Sfika Plateau, Prespa, Greece
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“If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water.”
    — W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone”

 

This high, rolling plateau is wedded to water, though it’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. There are no streams silvering the valleys, no pools or ponds collecting 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-grey and flecked with jade; they’re blown easily from my fingers by a breeze. A deep rent in the stone surface beside me shelters a stunted wild rose, its single scarlet hip the fruit of its meager season. Sliding my finger into a limestone fissure I feel the chalky abrasions that are the relics of an ancient sea.

Limestone is largely composed of the fragmented remains of marine organisms, the compressed micro-skeletons and shells of antique sea creatures dating from when this land lay beneath an ocean. As though in fidelity to its origins limestone is also soluble: it lets water in, so that the stones scattered about me are all gradually dissolving, each fluted channel and etched meander, each steep abyss and overhanging lip the result of rock being rinsed away.

Looking up I see limestone spilling over the hills, rising up the ridges in serried walls or fallen to the hollows. The sculpted silver rocks are the essence of karst, a landscape characterized by worn and porous limestone or dolomite that’s being continually reshaped into new and arising designs. It’s a place of disordered complexity, where each singular surface spread out across the plateau contains a range of permutations like the ones beside me. The infinitely slow artistry of water.
  

I’m alone, and waiting for birds. When they come—singing in the near dark or fledging from the meadows—I record their names and details, then transcribe their positions, heights, and flight paths onto a series of maps. By the end of the day the maps are cross-hatched and circled with lines, some arrowing to the very edge of the page, others curving with the thermals into a gradually expanding helix. The result of the many pencil marks is a complex cartography of space, revealing the ways in which the birds that breed and hunt on the plateau use the very air itself, and what might happen if something were to alter that emptiness.

That something is a series of fiberglass blades spinning with the wind. An energy company envisages 24 turbines standing in three orderly rows atop the ridges, reaching 120 meters high with a blade span 80 meters wide. There are costs associated with alternative energy, just as there are with conventional forms of production. Collisions and casualties caused by wind turbines are common, particularly amongst species that rely on thermals for their slow, circling flights such as pelicans, storks, eagles, and other large raptors. Breeding territories are also susceptible to disruption when the accompanying infrastructure is trucked in on newly broken roads and laid over sensitive habitat, resulting in decline, dispersion, and occasionally even the disappearance of a rare bird or plant.

My partner, Julia, is invisible beyond a steepled ridge, rooted to a vantage point on the highest shelf of the plateau. Hired to survey the birds of the area, we’re spending 45 days in these limestone hills spread out over the seasons, compiling the data for an environmental assessment that will determine the likely ecological impact of the proposed wind park. Working from a series of observation points and line transects walked at different times of the day, we chart the movements and kinds of birds we encounter, but like any opportunity for intimacy with place the birds are only part of a larger, illuminating entity. Whole days can pass in the karst country without seeing a soul, the ridges ebbing away in the haze. Secluded at the very edge of Greece, only an hour’s walk from Albania, our phones rarely work; their signals, like our view of each other, blotted out by the undulating land. So we are left alone with the stone and arched sky, the mysterious winds and clamor of wings, the unending passage of time.
  

 
Road in the karst countryScanning the sky I find a short-toed eagle floating at the end of the telescope. I look up into the vast blue vault with just my eyes to try and fix the bird’s position against the land, but it’s far too high to place clearly. Returning to the telescope I catch the eagle before it falls, parachuting down without any discernible effort. Its legs hang like loose tassels, the dark muzzle of its head tipped forward. The pale wings are swept back and angled in such a way that they carve through the air unhindered. The bird would be sinking if this were still a sea.

I follow the eagle as it plummets, growing larger with each moment. The blue sky blurs into a backdrop of grassy hills and then stones begin to focus in the telescope as the distance to the ground rapidly narrows. When the eagle pulls up, its wings flaring into a pair of speckled fans, it is only a second shy of the earth. Feeding almost exclusively on snakes, the coiled or shifting target spied from an immense height must have slithered away a moment before the spiked impact of talons. The eagle brakes on the air and waits, floating with the span of its deeply fingered wings while it eyes the empty grass. I keep watch alongside it, but know there are things I’ll never see.

Two-hundred and forty-five million years ago the land spread out around the eagle and I lay on the floor of the Tethys Ocean, a vast body of water suspended between the ancient super-continents of Gondwana and Laurasia. The debris of dead marine organisms settled in deep reefs on the seabed were compacted and transformed over the course of another 70 million years into solid, sedimentary stone. When the ancient land masses eventually began shifting toward one another the limestone deposits layered beneath the Tethys Ocean to a depth of 400 meters experienced a period of intense pressure; they were played like a concertina between the continents. The ocean floor buckled and staggered inexorably upwards, driven by the force of displacing tectonic plates until the water drained steadily away, eventually bringing mountains into the sky and transporting this limestone seabed to the surface.

The short-toed eagle drives its wings through the air, working them like bellows. It’s so near that through the telescope I can make out the black centers to its fire-swept eyes when it raises its head from the empty ground. The eagle turns my way and heaves forward, wavering over the mounds and hollows to the rise and fall of its wings. Its sheer size becomes apparent in proximity to the wildflowers and scattered shrubs shrinking beneath it. I watch it glide over the grasses and I’m struck by being caught up in a process, part of a vast continuum spanning stone and sea. However brief the life of an eagle, however frail my own, we coexist in this moment within a stream of time unwinding, in a place both eroding and reshaped, transformed as it wears away. We are the inconstant ones, W.H. Auden proclaims, but then so is all of this.

The wondrous quality of karst is dependent on dissolution. The limestone dissolves around its joints, the cracks and fissures present in the stone at its creation millions of years ago. Progressively enlarged they form grykes, the deep vertical grooves where the wild rose was harbored, along with the blocks and pavements of intricately etched stone in between called clints. The land is so porous that water vanishes swiftly through the myriad crevices, leaving the plateau nearly as dry as before, each rainfall further encoding its aridity.

Landscape with wildflowersAlong with being weathered from above, limestone is dissolved by circulating groundwater, hollowed out so that caverns and aquifers develop below. In places the ground slumps without the support of bedrock until sinkholes, or dolines, pockmark the land as though hit by a storm of fallen meteors. The karst country is labyrinthine as a result; it dips and furrows into the distance, like the very sea turned to stone.

The short-toed eagle veers away from me, tilting its wings to disappear into a doline. Emerging over the opposite rim it steers off across the plateau. I watch it cleave to the buckled country, sailing over the crests of stone.
  

Each sound in the karst country is amplified into a near presence. They are more than merely audible, within the frail and narrow range of human hearing, but give shape to invisible things. When a summer wind rakes the grasses it ignites with a whisper, a vague and uncertain ceremony performed in the distance. The sound gathers strength before sweeping over the hillsides, a rising murmur that precedes the arched and waving grasses. When the wind song fades away a few stalks still quiver in its wake.

Deepened by the surrounding silence, the sounds of the plateau appear initially without source, sovereign articulations of the air. The persistent song of a quail springs from the deep grasses to echo and reverberate between the hills and the sky like a prayer bell rung from a mountaintop. I hear alpine swifts long before I see them, a circling susurration that seems to arrive from all directions, and I unexpectedly tense when they scythe above me in a ribbon of trembling wings. Invisible raptors beg from the cliffs, their plaintive cries rising while alpine choughs squabble playfully on high, uttering a strange incantation of mechanical squawks. The songs always reach me before their forms darken the sky.

The bells of a herd floated close one afternoon. I couldn’t see the animals, hidden as they were in one of the myriad valleys that unroll between the hills, but the dull clanging of their bells came and went with the wind. Mountain clouds swirled in and shifted darkly overhead, a leaden pall spreading like smoke across the plateau. When another sound joined the bells I realized a shepherd was accompanying the herd with a flute. Invisible to me, his song swirled around like the rain-heavy clouds, floating near and then far. I listened to the shepherd’s song for some minutes, its tender and ethereal beauty reflecting the wandering of paths, until it slipped into a further valley, blown away like the seeds of grasses among the hills again.
  

Man with fluteTo walk the highest ridge is to enter the realm of kestrels, a wind-rilled place of stone-encircled mounts and sinkholes where these elegant raptors breed in the clefts and crannies of cliffs. By the end of summer, when the fledglings have joined their elders in the air, the kestrels hunt over the hillsides in large but scattered numbers so that they keep appearing on the horizon like the rising and falling horses of a merry-go-round. They glide out of the blinding sun, a cinnamon shimmer swiftly glancing above or arrowing up the valley, sheering across the grasslands to turn sharply in the air and suddenly still themselves. The kestrel’s particular hunting technique—its graceful and hypnotic hover—requires the rapt attention associated with emptying the mind. Amidst the wild beating of its wings the bird’s eyes remain perfectly still and in position, focused on the ground and possible prey. Film studies have shown that a kestrel’s eyes move less than six millimeters in any direction while it hovers, each shift occasioned by the wind compensated for by another—the dipping of the tail, the forward stretch of its neck, a momentary delay of wings.

The suspended cruciform of a kestrel stands out against the sky; Ted Hughes described the aerial apparition as if the bird’s wings held

all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.

The hovering birds mark my route, like an avenue of trees or deliberate cairns. They also delineate the line of intended turbines, both bird and blade seeking the wind that wells and funnels about the mountain crests for their endeavors. So I walk the stony ridge recording all that I see or hear on both sides: the flame-colored tails of black redstarts extinguishing upon landing; wheatears nodding from the rocks; the songs of ortolan buntings, an avian variation of Beethoven’s Fifth, pulsing through the murmuring air. Rock nuthatches dip like shy children behind boulders and the slate-blue heads and rust-red bellies of rock thrushes flash from afar. Many of the ridgeline birds are uncommon or non-existent in other habitats, but they are supremely suited to karst, at home in a world of stone.

My transect line is meant to be straight, but I’m continually being forced to amend it, swinging wide around sudden pillars and prominences, skirting boulders and ankle-twisting scree. I let the stones guide me instead, detailing my route to their designs. Whichever way they lead me in spring, each step brings butterflies spilling from the grasses. Until the land dries up in mid-summer they tremble about my knees in myriad numbers, their brief season of flight coinciding with the frail tenure of flowers. Marbled whites, peacocks, and great banded graylings. Orange-tips, blues, and clouded yellows. All the names of the color range drifting ahead of me.

Skylark song rains down with the sunlight when I find the bomb casing. It’s the color of autumn beech leaves and wedged among stones. I kneel down and edge my head toward the opening at one end of the shell and peer inside a dark and hollow chamber. But when I lay a tentative finger to the nosecone it feels dense to my touch. I have no idea what time and weather do to the ingredients of ordnance, what elements might have leached away or become undone by water, what might remain packed inside the tapered tip, but there are enough reminders of the Greek Civil War scattered about the land that a corroded casing leaves me feeling uneasy.

From the ridge I can see clear across the plateau. Winding tracks disappear into the sea of stone or vanish around bends in the hills. It is a mysterious, maze-like landscape, furnished with secrets despite its evident emptiness. Trying to pry open the intimacies of its human history is a complicated task. The fierce battles that flared across these northern parts of Greece seem remote, alien and unreachable, a thing of the past. Yet the last dying days of the routed Communist soldiers, fleeing refugees and abandoned villages, were only 60 years ago. A speck in the span of time. Gun-emplacements still guard the hillsides, flower-filled hemispheres of mounded rocks. Stone-walled storerooms crouch low in the sinkholes, where shrubs have taken hold away from wind and underground tunnels web the ridgeline, anchored at their ends by slumped bunkers.

Butterfly on flowerWhile it’s common in the narratives of war for the non-human world to be overshadowed, I find myself thinking about birds when I pass the memorial mounds of stone. The species I encounter most days—rock thrushes and woodlarks, wheatears and black redstarts, skylarks and linnets—would have made use of the same places they still do, and witnessed a violently divided people at close range. While men piled stones against strafing or oiled guns in the secrecy of a sinkhole the birds would have continued to lay claim in their usual way, building nests and raising young, hunting across the karst country with an abiding and insistent purpose. And when bombs dropped from the sky the birds would have shredded as easily as men.
  

In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane traces W.H. Auden’s fascination with limestone back to his native Pennine shires of northern England where karst landscapes are common: “What most moved him about it was the way it eroded.” Worn away at its weakest points, Macfarlane notes that it is these “first flaws” in limestone that determine its future shape, becoming deep-rooted characteristics as they enlarge over time. “For Auden, this was a human as well as a geological quality: he found in limestone an honesty—an acknowledgement that we are as defined by our faults as by our substance.”

Those faults can take many forms, some cast down to us by circumstance, others inherited with the particular worlds we are born into. I met Stavros as he strode down a hillside with a staff in one hand and a black dog padding faithfully beside him. It was early morning but an intense heat already hazed the air. He was born only a few kilometers away, but on the “wrong side of the border” according to the shepherd, meaning Albania. After nearly half a century of brutal dictatorship, characterized by sealed borders, secret police, and entrenched poverty, Stavros left his home after the fall of the Communist state in the early 1990s. Already in his mid-40s by then, he told his father he was “going on the road to look for work.” Stavros has since spent 17 years in Greece, the last 12 of them working for a Greek cattle farmer on the plateau. From dawn until dusk, from early spring until the first snows of winter, the shepherd ranges the limestone hills with his herd, seeking out the scarce green grasses that remain alive in the sinkholes. In the evenings he cooks for himself on a fire of split oak outside the tent where he sleeps. But until he can retire in a few years, Stavros passes his days and nights alone while his wife and family live in a Greek city 40 kilometers to the south. Now in his 60s, the rarity of a regular job in a land of migrant labor is too good to give up and so he endures the isolation of the karst country.

While standing in the shade of a tree I asked Stavros if he played the flute. He smiled in reply. Sliding the homemade instrument from his satchel, he told me that he played the accordion and clarinet as well but kept them at his home in the city. The clear notes that lifted with his fingers woke the still and quiet dawn, hushed and dreamlike in the brimming day, and I recalled the song that had swirled around me on that earlier occasion, the fragile beauty of its shape, its invisible performer. I could now see the deep creases that marked the shepherd’s face as the song resolved into air, the sunken laugh lines that rivered his forehead and the skin on his hands that had the look of cracked glass. There is a singular distinctiveness brought about by weathering and ageing, both limestone and ourselves the inconstant ones, enduring the elements, overcoming the flaws of our inheritance. Dissolution is more than a lessening; it’s a reminder of time worn well.
  

Landscape with wildflowersIt’s not easy imagining our place in the geologic span. The measurements are unforgiving, vast sets of numerals like the numbing multitude of galaxies and stars in existence; few of our minds are attuned to such sublime and inconsolable figures. In 1830 the Scotsman Charles Lyell published the first volume of his influential book, The Principles of Geology, proposing that the Earth’s features were the result of immeasurably slow and gradual forces still in operation today. A window onto the planet’s past suddenly opened, and the view was staggering. Building upon the ideas of James Hutton, his theory upended the general consensus of the age: that the history of the Earth could be measured in terms of human generations, and that its physical properties were the result of violent planetary cataclysms occurring during that short span. Instead Lyell suggested that infinitesimal changes, accumulating over vast periods of time, were responsible for the geological appearance of the planet, conceding that the Earth might in fact be far older than previously thought, perhaps many millions, even hundreds of millions of years old.

Geological discoveries recalibrated the scale of existence as we perceive it, much as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution did again some 30 years after Lyell’s book. Although we now know more about the Earth’s origins and probable demise than early geologists could ever have ascertained, including its age of around 4.5 billion years, the assertion of James Hutton in 1788 that the planet appeared to have “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end” remains existentially accurate.

The karst country conveys this timelessness through its terrain: the indifferent duration of stone. Although there are scattered trees in the gullies and an oak-grove rooted to the center of the plateau, it is the wilder, treeless, more austere regions that carry the unique and mysterious signature of limestone. Though outliving humans by hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, trees remain comfortably familiar to us through their comparable mortal spans. A tree’s lifetime—in comparison to stone—is roughly commensurate with one’s own: we share a kindred insignificance. It is the karst country that unfolds into immensity.

As I walk the last of the ridge I feel an affinity with stone. Along with my concerns for the future of birds on the plateau—their flight patterns more fragile than I’d imagined—the place has absorbed me into its pattern. I’m encircled by an expanse of dissolving land, an entrancing work of water worn away over ineffable ages beneath the same passing sun. And over the months I’ve understood this landscape’s capacity to alter my perception. It has opened me to the unfathomable beauty of distance and deep time, but also proximity: the things revealed when we draw near. How the envious solidity of stone is also inconstant, its eroding designs as rich as a shepherd’s weathered smile. 

The stones sing as the sun begins to fall. There is a quality to the karst country light that is mesmeric, spilling over the grasslands, bathing the ridges and rolling hills in a deep and reflective radiance. It is as though it were a relic luminescence, a memory of when this plateau was still an ocean; that in the compacted shells of the marine creatures that have surfaced into stone there remains a trace of what was pelagic about them, an alloyed and ethereal echo of sunlight striking sea.

A kestrel leans from the sky to hover ahead of me. There’s a bloom of light on its wings, an intense shard of color balanced like water on the edge of a leaf. The bird reflects the passage of stone: it is still and in motion at the same moment, poised with equal weight between two seemingly unrelated states. It harnesses the air with patient and deliberate precision. Moving and unmoved. I watch it still its quivering wings before it drops, like a stone through the sea, as I slope off the hills into evening.

 

  
  

Julian Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Canada. In 2000, he and his partner moved to the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece where they began an organic small-holding. His writing has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Kyoto Journal, Flyway, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Wild Apples, The MacGuffin, and The Redwood Coast Review, among others. He was the 2nd place winner of the 2010 Carpe Articulum International Fiction Prize. You can catch up with him at www.julianhoffman.wordpress.com.
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All photos by
Julian Hoffman.

  

Read "Pelicans," a story by Julian Hoffman appearing in Issue No. 21.

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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