Julian Hoffman was born in a port town in northeastern England before moving with his parents to Canada when young. Growing up in the ever-expanding suburbs of southern Ontario, where abandoned fields and secret, tree-lined creeks mingled with the neat and orderly subdivisions, provided his early induction into the rich mysteries of place. He went on to study English literature at Carleton University in Ottawa before eventually returning to England.
In 2000, after living in London for a number of years, he and his wife moved to a mountain village beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. Shared by three countries—Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—the Prespa Lakes are the first transboundary park in the Balkans and home to stone villages, ancient juniper groves, brown bears, and rare pelican colonies. After some years as organic market gardeners, they now earn a living there by monitoring birds in sensitive upland landscapes where wind farms have been built or proposed.
Hoffman’s writing and photography explore the connections between people and place, wildlife and perception. His book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, describing it as “a book of faith in the natural histories of community.” It also won a National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature in 2014. Along with winning the 2011 Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize and being nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes, his fiction and nonfiction have recently appeared in EarthLines, Among Animals, Southern Humanities Review, Kyoto Journal, Flyway, and The Redwood Coast Review. Hoffman joined the Terrain.org editorial board in 2012 and is a member of the Ramsar Culture Network, which works on behalf of the natural and cultural values of wetlands. You can catch up with him at Notes from Near and Far, his blog on the nature of place.
Terrain.org: What is your personal definition of place?
Julian Hoffman: Place is one of those things that is nearly impossible to define with any real accuracy. As soon as we feel we have a hold of it, it seems to slip away again. And that’s perhaps what I love most, the playfulness of place—the way it’s continually shifting and swirling around us, always revealing something of the unexpected about it. We could say that place is a physical space or environment, but that’s only the most basic of canvases upon which all the myriad possibilities of the world are gathered in varying combinations. A place is composed through weather, seasons, shared histories and songs, successive architectures, geology, the flush of wildflowers and trees, the sound of cracking ice. A place is made up of traditions and temperature, wind patterns and geography, animal paths, people’s habits and stories and employment, the whirl of a bird’s wings. The attributes that make up the mosaic of place are too many to catalogue, but for all of that complexity a place can be radically altered and made new by something as simple as a shift in the angle of light. One of the beauties of place is that it has the ability to imprint itself upon us in an instant. I think many of us have known that immediate, thrilling rush you experience when you arrive somewhere that feels like you were always meant to find.
Take, for example, the Hoo Peninsula in the Thames Estuary outside of London for a moment. There are these wonderful 13th century churches dotted about the marsh country that are at risk due to a proposal to place Europe’s largest airport on the peninsula. The architect, Sir Norman Foster, has said that he’ll relocate those churches that would be destroyed by the airport by transferring them stone by stone and beam by beam to a new site. But the physicality of the church isn’t the only point about place and the relationships we forge with specific sites. You can’t relocate the seven centuries of song that have been sung inside those walls. You can’t replace all the immeasurable steps made by people through rain and snow and sunlight to the front door of the church. You can’t transport the tears and smiles, the weddings and goodbyes, all those unique moments that have occurred in the place where it was built and has stood for generations of parishioners. Place is about the relationships we forge with the world and the experiences we have in it as much as any geography or building, and those churches are deeply embedded in the life of the communities that still stand at the edge of the Thames in a swirl of salt air and wind.
Right now there’s a lot of talk in the UK about biodiversity offsetting—essentially the authorisation to develop a place, usually protected, as long as the developers recreate in another location the wildlife habitat that will be lost in the first instance. The writer George Monbiot has remarked on this by saying, “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.” There’s a poignant line in an Alice Munro short story that sums up what’s at stake: “There are places that you long for that you might not ever see.”
Terrain.org: Your book, The Small Heart of Things, details the nomadic ways of the Sarakatsani, the daily crossings of Albanians into Greece, and the long haul of the painted lady butterfly. You seem to have an admiration and fascination with the travel of many species. Does migration and adaptation complicate how one might define place, define home?
Julian Hoffman: Migration of all kinds has long fascinated me, and my personal family history is intimately bound up with movement. My great-grandfather was German, from the city of Stettin (what is now Szczecin in Poland). He was a sailor in the German merchant navy and one day in the 1890s, as far as we can tell, he simply jumped ship while docked in the northeast of England. His family had almost no contact with him afterwards, but for whatever reason he felt compelled to try and craft a life in this new place, eventually marrying an English woman called Hannah and living the rest of his years in his adopted homeland, despite being interned by the British government during both World Wars for being a German citizen.
His story intrigues me, just as my parents’ eventual journey from England to Canada does. A family’s history and trajectory can shift so suddenly, and it’s easy to grow up without thinking of all those who went before us, making decisions, engaging in migrations both large and small, that have a colossal impact on our lives. And the world is full of people setting out on the road, and for all kinds of reasons—economics, fear, desire, adventure, escape, optimism—just as the animal world is replete with necessary migrations.
When we first moved to Greece I met a family of Sarakatsani transhumant shepherds who had moved back and forth with their animals between the lowlands of southern Greece and the mountains of the north for their entire lives, following the seasons and the availability of fresh grasses. These shepherds essentially had two homes, and over an impromptu breakfast in the mountains with them I began to wonder how we might go about being at home in more than one place. The sheer mathematics of our existence means we can only know a handful of places with the kind of depth made possible by long tenure. There simply isn’t enough time in our lives to live in more than a few places for lengthy periods. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t cultivate an awareness and curiosity in each moment as we move between places, fostering an attention to those “murmurs at every turn,” whether they’re glimpsed through a train window, on our daily walk to work in a city, or during a holiday weekend on the coast.
Film studies have shown that a kestrel’s head moves less than 6 mm in any direction while it hovers—each movement of the wind compensated for by a forward stretch of its neck or the lift of its tail. So in the midst of that wild beating of wings the bird is essentially still. And that is how I think we can approach place, and the possibility of home, in the most enriching way: by being still and in motion at the same moment. That’s what I wanted to explore in The Small Heart of Things: how we might go about being at home in the world, deepening our connections to the places we encounter, regardless of where we might be, through a mindful curiosity about the smallest of things.
Terrain.org: How did The Small Heart of Things come about? At what point did you know the essays you were writing belonged in a collection?
Julian Hoffman: The essays in The Small Heart of Things emerged out of trying to put down roots in this completely new place we’d moved to after leaving London—the Prespa Lakes region in northern Greece. They were thrilling, those early years, because of the sheer newness of our experiences—and the essays were initially born of intimate encounters with the place. On any given day I might meet with shepherds in the hills, salamanders in snow, bear tracks along the shore, and elderly villagers who’d fled this place during the Greek Civil War and returned again with their stories of exile and loss. But over time, as we began to settle and put down roots, I realised how so much of a place is filtered through our perception of it, and I began to wonder if there was some way of preserving that sensation of being thrilled and intimately connected.
Although the book explores a number of different places, it has only one guide at the heart of it, and that’s two lines by the poet Rilke:
everything beckons us to perceive it murmurs at every turn.
What I love about Rilke’s words is that they feel like an invitation; he’s giving us an opportunity to let in the wild and unpredictable, but also the ordinary and overlooked, forging and cultivating connections with a range of places, particularly in relation to the natural world. So the essays follow on from Rilke’s words, putting an equality of interest into practice, recognising that there’s possibility in even the smallest of things when we explore a place openly and with attentiveness.
Most of the essays were already written before I realised that a book was taking shape. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov talks of “thematic designs” being at the mysterious heart of our lives; all along I’d been working out certain, recurring themes without my knowing and then one afternoon while walking up through the autumn beech woods behind our village the idea of a collection suddenly fell into place. A lot of my writing emerges out of walking so it seemed fitting that it was while out in the woods that I saw how the pieces were knotted together by the twin themes of home and perception, but it wasn’t something I was conscious of while writing the individual essays.
Terrain.org: Can you respond to Terry Tempest Williams’ comment about your book being a “book of faith in the natural histories of community, broken and sustained?”
Julian Hoffman: Like Terry Tempest Williams, a writer whose work and integrity continue to be an enormous inspiration for me, I see community as extending beyond the human to include the encircling community of wild creatures and organisms at home on this planet. This world is shared by an extraordinary range of species, and only through reconsidering our place in relationship to that wider biotic landscape will a sustainable future possibly emerge. Those ties, those human relationships we have with each other, together with the connections between ourselves and other creatures, are broken for all kinds of reasons, through avarice, ignorance, and indifference, yet they remain sustaining and significant for so many people, and not solely for the vital biological functions they provide, but also for a desire to be part of something far larger, more beautiful, and more complex than ourselves.
The nightly newsreels of violence, destruction, and despair rarely take into account some of the extraordinary things that are happening at a local level. If there is hope to be found, it will be found with those people who are working at building and cultivating community and connections of all kinds, rather than breaking them.
Terrain.org: When examining the tracks left behind by humans and wildlife, you claim them to be a “magnetic language,” calligraphy in a “mutable tongue.” I can see how they might be considered a history or story of the being’s passage but how are tracks language? This is a novel and intriguing idea.
Julian Hoffman: Like any language, the tracks of animals are a set of signs and symbols that can be read and interpreted. They’re a kind of visual code laid across the surface of the earth, an alphabet of movement and behaviour that comes and goes with the weather. The space between a fox’s steps, for example, and their depth in the soil, vary according to its speed and intention, whether it’s nosing slowly along the edge of a field or in swift pursuit of prey. Each of the fox’s steps can be read like a letter in a text.
My favourite season to look for animal traces is winter, when their mysterious, nocturnal presence beside us is revealed through a set of hieroglyphs in the snow. I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to reading those marks, but John Haines has written elegantly about this language in The Stars, The Snow, The Fire:
To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read. The pages turn as the wind blows; the characters shift and the images formed by their combinations change in meaning, but the language remains the same. It is a shadow language, spoken by things that have gone by and will come again. The same text has been written there for thousands of years, though I was not here, and will not be here in winters to come, to read it. These seemingly random ways, these paths, these beds, these footprints, these hard, round pellets in the snow: they all have meaning.
Terrain.org: You often comment on the unnatural aspects of an otherwise pristine environment. How do the bunkers, bombs, or memorials left behind from World War II or the Greek Civil War affect your experience with the Prespa Lakes region?
Julian Hoffman: One evening this summer a friend and I were down by the shore of Great Prespa Lake. Egrets and herons were in the shallows, pelicans glided silently overhead, and a pair of penduline tits flitted back and forth between their marvelous downy pillow of a nest and the willow branches from which it hung. Just as we were about to leave I saw something rusted and half-buried in the sand. I knelt down, saw the rough outline of its shape, and then moved quickly away. It was an unexploded bomb, most likely from the Greek Civil War. Ordnance from that horrific, fratricidal conflict is continually being brought to the surface as wind and waves wear away the sand by the lake, and all of those explosives exist side by side with the egrets, pelicans, and people of the area. It’s the silence of these bombs that I find most disconcerting—as if all the grief caused by the war were sealed up inside them.
There are many of these wartime reminders littered about the Prespa basin, but they’re only the most extreme examples of a historic human influence on the landscape. The bombs and bunkers of Prespa are shocking and visceral, but even if it were possible to remove them, to somehow erase their history from this place, we’d still have a landscape heavily shaped by human hand. Your question raises a number of others: What is pristine? What is natural? What is unnatural? I think the time of pristine places has passed.
It was Bill McKibben I believe who said that with climate change there are no longer any landscapes in the world that remain untouched by human hand. Prespa, however, is a lived-in landscape. The history of people shaping the land for their benefit is long, and their relationship with the place runs deep. Sometimes it’s been a relationship that’s favoured the natural environment and biodiversity, and sometimes it hasn’t. But it remains a complex and living mosaic of habitats and history, of people and wild creatures brought together in place. Some of our human practices hold the world in balance, and others don’t. That’s the key to any promise of sustainability for me—whether what we do upholds the biological integrity of the world or not. The bombs and bunkers are reminders that far too frequently we tend towards the latter.
Terrain.org: What projects are you currently working on?
Julian Hoffman: I’m working on a couple of different things at the moment. The first is a short story collection called All The Places We Never Went. Wherever the stories are set—England, Greece, the United States, the Balkans—they’re united by the theme of movement, exploring the nature and consequences of the journeys we make, whether it’s a difficult migration to a new continent, the simple affair of boarding a train one morning, or going home again after a lengthy absence. We’re always on the move, in one way or another, travelling in memory and imagination as well as across the surface of the earth, so the stories range equally over those often difficult and captivating terrains of our pasts and imagined futures. But sometimes, despite our best intentions, we’re unable to move on when we most need to, and that emotional and physical stasis is an essential part of the collection, as well.
The other project is a nonfiction book called Irreplaceable. This book has been lingering as an idea with me for a while now, but I found a way forward through a recent experience. Last year I spent time walking the Hoo Peninsula, and it was there that I met a wonderful group of people who were trying to raise awareness of this remarkable place in order to preserve it from becoming the airport. The peninsula is known as the marsh country, and it’s the setting for Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s this wonderfully hypnotic mingling of water and earth, and the author loved to walk there. You can still see the small graves which Dickens’ memorialised in the opening paragraph of the book as the “little stone lozenges” beneath which Pip’s five brothers are buried. The landscape is evocative, mesmeric with shifting light, and absolutely teeming with birds. And in recognition of its rich biodiversity, the peninsula is protected by all kinds of legislation. But despite the site being recently ruled out by the Airports Commission, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, insists that the peninsula is still a viable option for a hub airport in the future. So this new project of mine will be a book about the irreplaceability of places, species, and experiences—a celebration of those unique, but sometimes unsung, landscapes, rich in cultural and natural histories, which are increasingly disappearing due to development. It will be a book, as well, about resistance.