Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World
Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre
Julian Hoffman’s award-winning debut, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, is a quest to articulate the meaning of place. “It’s hard to define place at all,” he begins. Even so, in this collection of short essays, Hoffman strives, patiently and thoughtfully and with great attention to the nuances of both the nature of the task and the search, to address this perennial concern of the nature-writing genre.
Living on the Greek side of the Prespa Lakes region, Hoffman monitors bird populations in areas where wind turbines have been built or proposed. Of central importance to the book is his new home’s proximity to the borders of two other countries, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The relationships between these places are strained and complicated, and Hoffman finds great value in familiarizing himself with the complexities of his home. In addition, this region is an area one assumes has thus far received little attention from the nature-writing genre. Its introduction to the canon is a virtue in and of itself.
The Small Heart of Things is a book of many other virtues. For one, Hoffman does not fail to find the magnificent in habitats both pristine and disturbed. Nature, for him, is everywhere and only waiting to be discovered and engaged. His essays crystallize these discoveries into experiences able to be shared between him and the reader using language rich in metaphor and lyricism.
Interconnectedness is an essential element of the book. The essays connect with each other, connect with the landscape, and connect the writer to both the land and the reader. The metaphors, similes, and poetic language enhance this effect. For example, this passage about spotting dolphins swimming at the edge of the shore:
They climbed into the air, passing with graceful ease from one medium to the next, dragging sprays of water like silver harnesses from their tandem tails. They seemed suspended in an enduring moment, balanced on a high wire slung above the sea. Water droplets sloped from their sides like shards of light.
Hoffman captures the way the dolphins move freely between air and water, the ease with which these wild and free creatures make the two elements one. More elements are introduced: harnesses and high wires, symbols of the human world, are overlaid on the image of the dolphins, linking us to them. Then, the motion of water on their skin again becomes light. The use of the verb “slope” even suggests the dolphins themselves are a feature of the landscape. Anything Hoffman brings under his attention is presented as both its beautiful self and as a window to another part of our world.
The book is also a repository of fascinating facts. Readers will learn about the multitude of interesting theories regarding the rose-ringed parakeet’s colonization of England, the unexpectedly enthralling life of a Transylvanian lepidopterist, and how the Blitz of London helped add a new member to the city’s avifauna.
This is a book for readers who find pleasure in wandering in a variety of forms: meandering through the complex history of the Prespa Lakes region, slow explorations of how words can help us understand our connection to the things all around us, and joining Hoffman on his many perambulations through the various interesting habitats in close proximity to him.
While on his walks, Hoffman has an aptitude for bringing readers into the moment with him. This effect is sometimes enhanced by his writing in the present tense, but even pieces written in the past are vibrant and immediate. Consider:
Out of the silence came a sudden, terrifying wail. I bolted up and listened carefully. It came again, piercing and piglike, a haunting siren-squeal. The cry lifted hairs on the back of my neck. . . . I packed my flask quickly away and edged toward the mass of pale stems. The sunlight was bright in my eyes, and the next shuddering wail echoed within me.
The prospect of encountering a European wild boar is an experience probably few of Hoffman’s readers have had, yet his keen ability to deliver us to the exact instant when the boar felt near and menacing makes it a shared experience. And Hoffman’s description of the boar when it makes its appearance, well, is something the reader will have to discover for him- or herself.
Indeed, this is a book of encounters: a meeting with a drowned salamander, the pursuit of rare and enormous eagle owls, the unexpected appearance of vagrant velvet scoters far from their Scandinavian homes, a nondescript moth fluttering past a bulb in December. And there are at least two commonalities shared by each of these animal encounters: they bring with them surprises which shape both the narrative and its author, and they bring him closer to completing his quest to understand his relationship to the place that has become his home. The moth, for instance, begins as just a shadow dancing through the room, but then it transforms into an immense journey that leads Hoffman to times and places we never would have guessed. Yet it should be noted that any of these encounters in anyone’s life, and perhaps even in the life of another writer, may have so easily been received, acknowledged, and soon forgotten. Hoffman, with patience and care, finds within them meaning and offers it to us for contemplation.
Of greatest value, all of Hoffman’s observations resonate with a genuine care for what is being considered and what can be learned. Is he successful in pinning down the meaning of place? Can anyone even succeed at such a task? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The essay is an attempt, after all. The Small Heart of Things is a beautiful attempt, a winter moth and its shadow, and the journey that comes with them.