‘The Small Heart of Things’ by Julian Hoffman

It’s been, I think, just a year and a few months since I first discovered Julian Hoffman’s beautiful writing via his blog, Notes from Near and Far. But already, it feels as if the places, scenes and wildlife he writes about are old, old friends – familiar from afar; because Julian imbues his descriptions with such close and detailed attention – and fills them with his own sense of belonging and finding home.

It is a sense which, as we read Julian’s words, is infectious. When I first discovered Notes from Near and Far, I knew absolutely nothing about the Prespa Lakes area of Greece, where Julian lives and gathers much of the rich material woven through the beauty of his words and photographs. I arrived at his blog, like a stranger in a new country – my eyes gradually opening to an intriguing discovery of unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar wildlife, and the special, inherent ways of cultural experience woven into the fabric of that land. Now, when I revisit Julian’s blog, it is like returning to a kind of home – a home I’ve never been to. I know those places Julian describes, because that home-finding is knit so strongly in his observations, and in his understanding of what he observes.

And it is this sense of finding home, that forms a thread of exploration I’m so looking forward to following in Julian’s newly published book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World. My copy is on order – and I know that it will be a journey deep into that ‘small heart of things’ Julian is so adept at noticing and revealing. He is the kind of guide you want when you are stepping out to explore – knowledgeable, profoundly enmeshed in a sense of place and its stories, gifted with a listening ear and a deeply seeing eye.

Via my virtual journeys alongside Julian through the Prespa Lakes area (described on Julian’s blog as “the first transboundary park in the Balkans, shared by Greece, Albania, and the former Yogoslav Republic of Macedonia”) – I feel as if I’ve made close, personal discoveries of those unfamiliar species I’ve never seen first-hand in the wild – pelicans, swallowtail butterflies, hen harriers, bee-eaters, black woodpeckers, salamanders, bears – and an extremely rare, strange and mysterious flower. And I have witnessed familiar species – goldcrests, swifts, swallows, monkey and lizard orchids – in new surroundings and wider contexts; bringing home (that word again) the immediacy of the interconnectedness of global turns, migratory patterns and the places where we live – and from which we all communicate and share our stories. From home to home. And in our wider home.

Over the past year or so, it’s been wonderful to see Julian’s stories unfold – and to share with him the delight of his book coming into print.

The Small Heart of Things, published last week by University of Georgia Press, is the Winner of the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, chosen by Terry Tempest Williams – which, in itself, is a huge recommendation. Terry Tempest Williams describes Julian as a “seeker and seer among those who work the land within the cycles of time” and she goes on to say that “At a time when we wonder where hope resides, this is a book of faith in the natural histories of community, broken and sustained.”

Julian has been a good friend to Bookish Nature – and it is a great pleasure, via the very much sustained community created by bloggers and blogging, to have this opportunity, and Julian’s kind permission, to share his book’s trailer here with you all. I know that some of you are already fans of Julian’s work – and are already very much at home over on his blog – but for those of you yet to step into that new territory – I’m so glad to be able to offer this introductory portal to further discovery.

So now, here is Julian himself to tell you more about The Small Heart of Things in the mesmerisingly beautiful trailer for the book – with post-production by Miki Ambrozy, original music by Janis Strapcans, and photographs by Julian Hoffman:

Further details about The Small Heart of Things, where it is available to buy etc. – and the chance to explore more of Julian’s beautiful writing and photography – can be found on his blog, Notes from Near and Far – and on his website, Julian Hoffman – Words, Images.

Big Butterfly Count 2012

How many butterflies have you seen this summer? Here in rainy, very wet Britain, I’ve seen only a few. In fact, for a period of many weeks now, our garden has seemed an almost butterfly-free-zone.

Last spring, I was busy studying for a short natural history course with the Open Universtity – and after many hours of ecological discovery (and some really eye-opening lichen communion!) – I decided to choose butterflies as the subject for my field study. During the planning stages, I kept some contingency projects simmering on the back burner – because, as deadlines loomed, so did many rain clouds! My tutor rang me to discuss my alternative plans, nervous that I’d not be able to gather any butterfly data. But fortunately, just in time, we were blessed with a series of sunny periods and I was able to do three butterfly transects at weekly intervals, and to record a number of species – even to analyse some emerging patterns.

Such inopportune periods of rain during previous springs and summers have caused problems for many butterfly species, but Butterfly Conservation fears that this year’s prolonged deluge may have added a truly stinging blow. The UK’s butterflies are already in dramatic decline – and some of the rarer species could be pushed even nearer the brink – maybe to beyond recovery – if this breeding season proves to be a disaster.

Reading this piece by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian (which outlines a plea from the wonderful Sir David Attenborough) I see that concerns for species such as the Heath Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy are acute. These two rare species cling on in just a few woodlands, and their isolated populations make it very hard for their numbers to recover should they suffer a drastic crash at any time. During the years when my husband and I ran a conservation volunteer group in Kent, we were involved in many a winter task in some of those treasured outposts of the Heath Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy. With a sense of real purpose, our merry band of volunteers would coppice and clear scrub to maintain the butterflies’ vital ecology and habitat. And then, in the warmer months, we would return and, if we were lucky, witness these luminous rarities on the wing. Like magic sparked on the out breath of the woods, it was as if they had glimmered into being between our hands and the trees and the soil; candle flames of nature, lit by centuries-old human relationship with the land. The thought of them being extinguished, leaves a cold chill in my bones.

This strange, wet summer seems utterly bereft without the sight of butterflies on the wing. My butterfly-starved vision latches on to the occasional speckled wood tumbling along our hedge – and a couple of weeks ago, a red admiral narrowly missed being snapped up by a sparrow as it passed by our bird feeders. But for the most part, the potential of spring – which lured out numbers of early species such as orange tip and brimstone – now taunts like a broken promise…

From 14th July through to 5th August, Butterfly Conservation is running a Big Butterfly Count in the UK to try to find out exactly how our butterflies are faring this summer. Armed with knowledge from the data they receive, they will be able to see more clearly what action may be needed – and everyone who takes part will be a vital cog in the bid to protect butterflies from decline. Each butterfly count takes just fifteen minutes and can be done anywhere – in your garden, local park, nearby nature reserve… and it’s an easy process to log your results online.

As David Attenborough says in The Guardian article:

“The fact that every single person can produce a statistic that is of real value is a great spur. But let’s not underestimate the spin-offs. Many people will for the first time start taking a careful and critical view of their surroundings. The butterfly count helps butterflies but it also helps natural history and eco-sensitivity in this country.”

Last Sunday dawned bright and blue-skied here – so I was able to catch a quarter of an hour of warm sunshine in my local nature reserve, before the clouds rolled in again. I was pleasantly surprised to count several meadow browns and ringlets and 1 red admiral and 1 comma in that time – more than I expected.

The rainy theme has clung on for much of this week – but, with the jet stream on the move, sunshine is, at last, fighting its way back. Whilst we count, wait and hope for the future of our butterflies, I’ve dug out some of my old photos from previous years (any old excuse!) to provide a virtual butterfly fest for the soul. I just can’t imagine (or rather don’t want to imagine) more summers empty of their beauty.

Comma butterfly, Polygonum c-album. (photo taken in our garden, 2006)

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta – wings closed (Northumberland, 2006)

Red Admiral

Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperanthus (Westonbirt Arboretum, 2011)

Marbled White, Melanargia galathea (Stockhill Wood, Somerset, 2009)

Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus (Priddy Mineries nature reserve, Somerset, 2009)

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui (Cotswolds, 2009)

For some real treats, here’s a rich collection of stunning clips from the BBC’s inspirational and hypnotic documentary ‘Butterflies: a very British Obsession’ first shown last year (apologies to anyone who might not be able to access these – I’m not sure if the BBC enables viewing in all countries).

Butterflies have indeed long been a British obsession – (and a universal human fascination, I think). Britain’s history is littered with keen lepidopterists, including the inspiring figure of Eleanor Glanville, a 17th century pioneer entomologist who lived in Somerset, not far from here. I first learnt the details of Eleanor’s amazing story when I heard a radio interview with Fiona Mountain, whose romantic novel, Lady of the Butterflies is based on Eleanor’s life. I’ve not read Fiona Mountain’s novel, but her website has a fascinating article about Eleanor’s struggles as a natural historian – and as a woman born, both out of her time, and into a moment of emerging scientific enquiry which she grasped with both hands.

In an age when many people believed butterflies to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor’s curious mind was engaged in trying to make sense of their life cycles, in studying the various species closely, making careful records, corresponding with the Royal Society – and defying convention and gender restrictions by insisting on following her passion, despite great hostility from many around her. Her interest in butterflies was branded by some as a form of madness, and after her death, one of her sons played on these attitudes when he contested her will, asserting that ‘None but those who were deprived of their Senses, would go in Pursuit of Butterflies’. Now, she is recognised as a distinguished entomologist, the first to capture and describe the species which bears her name – the Glanville Fritillary.

Eleanor’s biographer wrote that Eleanor ‘gained happiness from natural history in the midst of great fear and sorrow’ and it’s easy to imagine how the butterflies she studied would have epitomised hope and renewal of purpose in her life. As the BBC documentary clips explore, our affinity with butterflies is experienced and expressed in many ways. From the countless and unrecorded moments of spontaneous delight in their beauty, to the women who mark their emotional transformations and rites of passage with butterfly tattoos – to the street artist whose art is as ephemeral as its inspiration – butterflies are a powerful symbol of emergence, transience, renewal, cycles of life, of joyous colour and liberation on the wing…

‘Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you’

– (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

What would life, our environment – our inspirations, cultural references and poetic imaginations – be like without them? Not only are butterflies vital to the ecological health of the land – we need them in so many other ways too.

‘You ask what is the use of butterflies? I reply to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men; to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels. To contemplate their exquisite beauty and variety is to experience the truest pleasure’

– (John Ray, History of Insects, 1704)

‘My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.’

– (Vladimir Nabokov)

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io

ALUNA – The Kogi’s Warning from the Heart of the World

There are certain books that, though they slip out of your possession, stay with you – keep on revolving in your thoughts for years after you’ve read them.

They are special as marker posts in your own story; precious for the timely alchemy they worked upon you when you first opened their pages. You never forget how something half-born in your awareness met, in those pages, a well-woven pattern already at work out there in the world, and discovered connection – began to grow. Such books opened things out, influenced evolving attitudes, taught something new, extended existing thoughts into new possibilities, and continued to echo through experience. Sooner or later, you itch to have them in your hands again – and they boomerang back to you; you seek them out.

There were many such influential, drift-away books during my teens and twenties, when, with discount book prices still undreamed of, and an income of church mouse proportions, I relied very heavily on local libraries. The reading diary I’ve kept for many years, tells me that I first read The Heart of the World by Alan Ereira back in the early 1990s.

I discovered it in a library-corner much haunted by me at the time – a section where Amazon explorers such as Benedict Allen rubbed shoulders with primatologists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and the likes of Gerald Durrell and the nature writer Diane Ackerman, who watched The Moon by Whale Light

Back then, in the 1980s and early ‘90s – in the fall-out from what the botanist and ecologist Oliver Rackham called the ‘locust years’ – there was a sense of salvaging what was left of our countryside’s species-rich habitats. With the increasing value of precious margins and edges, the spirit and vitality of urban wildscapes began to be more recognised, and honoured, for their deep connection to wider wildlife systems, and to people. And, on a world-wide basis, conservation charities were moving away from single species focussed campaigns, to a more whole-ecology approach – and towards projects which aimed to bring involved communities into a solution equation, rather than one of fenced-off exclusion.

In the general culture of the time, a less anthropocentric, and more humans-as-part-of-nature, philosophy was slowly and gradually seeping from the fringes into mainstream consciousness. Green credentials, which previously, in the eyes of many, had labelled you as a bit of a lentil-munching crank (though, to be fair, I do love lentils…) gradually went so mainstream that such rarities as recycled toilet paper, and biodegradable washing up liquid, migrated from their niche market in back-street health food shops, to fashionable promotions in the big supermarkets. And, within the conservation movement, there was a growing sense that isolated pockets of nature reserves were not enough, we had to re-wild the wider land; join up our wild spaces – and our thinking. Something had to be done. We were waking up – but the pace had gathered, the destruction widened – and the locust years were not over…

From the Kentish woodlands and downs, where as a conservation volunteer, I saw the ever vigilant efforts to keep ecological threads held together, to the whirl of recycled paper through my letterbox, full of a litany of ravaged rainforests, mountains of elephant ivory, whales hunted for cooked up “scientific quotas,” roads built through ancient woodlands – the world was spiralling through loss, ‘sustainable’ was a new and hopeful mantra (its potential as a weasel word yet to be fully exploited) and environmentalists were grasping for measures that might prove to be the way to turn things around; that might appeal to a palatable sense of individual responsibility amongst the wider community. More people seemed to be listening. But increasingly, we realised that the change had to go much deeper. Were we going to alter our path; re-cast ourselves in an old, old story which, in the dimness of time, we once knew by heart? Or would we continue with this utilitarian sense of dominion – a story of self-destruction and disconnection? Would we – could we – be radical – or would we cling to the economic model of progress for a solution?

The Heart of the World documents the making of a film back in 1989, in which the Kogi Mamas, the ‘Elder Brother,’ wanted to issue a warning to us, ‘the Younger Brother,’ in a time of alarming environmental damage. They wanted us to hear, and take heed of, their story.

In the opening chapter of The Heart of the World, Alan Ereira writes:

For four centuries these people, the last surviving high civilisation of pre-conquest America, have watched in silence from their hidden world in the mountains of Colombia. They have kept their world alive and intact, and kept their distance. Now, in what they fear may be the closing days of life on earth, they have summoned us to listen.

The words of the Elder Brothers need to be taken seriously for a number of reasons… They offer us a way of understanding our own past, and insights into the real meaning and profundity of archaic religious thought.

But above all, we need to listen because of the importance of their message. The Elder Brothers believe that they are guardians of life on earth. They see the world as a single living being which they have to look after and care for. Their whole way of life is dedicated to nurturing the flora and fauna of the world; they are, in short, an ecological community whose morality is wholly concerned with the health of the planet. Now, the Elder Brothers have seen the changes start which mark the end of life. The world is beginning to die. They know that we are killing it. That is why the Elder Brothers have spoken. They wish to warn us, and to teach us…

…. We have to learn to understand the world in a different way. That is why they are desperately anxious for us to listen.

They say it is not yet too late. They also say that they will not speak again.’

That was back in 1989/90. A few weeks ago, when thoughts of the book were once more swirling around my mind, they were accompanied, this time, by a sudden sense that it was imperative I get hold of a copy again. I don’t know what suddenly prompted this feeling of urgency to have the book back in my hands, to search it down on the internet – but it seemed more than serendipity, when a few clicks of the mouse later, I was astonished to discover that Alan Ereira had just recently returned from another visit requested by the Kogi – and that the Kogi Mamas had made another film, Aluna – with a release date fast approaching!

The Kogi Mamas said they would not speak again. They want to be left alone by us. But they have been forced, through urgency and fear at what is happening to the earth, to leave their homeland in the Sierra Nevada, which they see as the vital Heart of the World – and which it is their work to keep in balance – to travel to meet the ‘Younger Brother’ and to get us to listen this time…

On the Aluna film facebook page, there is a fascinating video in which Alan Ereira gives a filming report shortly after returning from Colombia. He mentions the Kogi Mamas’ meetings with various scientists and how, when they met with an oceanographer, their conversation came to transcend any need for an interpreter, as they found they understood each other without translation; their insights, perceptions, apprehensions and knowledge were so in accord. And on the Aluna film website blog, there is a post by Richard Ellis, Steele Professor, about the ‘memorable occasion’ when he met with Mama Shibulata at the University of London Observatory. During the meeting, Mama Shibulata was shown a colour poster of the ‘Hubble Deep Field’ and, looking at it, seemingly unimpressed, he quickly and unexpectedly ‘out of several hundred sources… located one of only two foreground stars in our Milky Way,’ correctly identifying it as a star that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye, and declaring that its existence was known to him. In his blog post, Professor Ellis explains why this was such a remarkable and intriguing feat.

On their travels, the Kogi Mamas wanted to unwind gold thread between the places they visited, to show the interconnectedness of everything on the Earth; that the Earth is a living body and that damage to one part of it is damage to all of it.

At the heart of all this is Aluna – the first word the Kogi taught Alan Ereira – ‘The Mind’ – which he defines in his filming report video, as ‘…lines of thought that connect everything – thought, consciousness, aluna; the dark stuff on which the universe depends…’

‘In the beginning, there was blackness.
Only the sea.
In the beginning there was no sun, no moon, no people.
In the beginning there were no animals, no plants.
Only the sea.

The sea was the Mother.
The Mother was not people, she was not anything.
Nothing at all.
She was when she was, darkly.
She was memory and potential.
She was aluna.’

In The Heart of the World, Alan Ereira writes:

‘Since everything that happens is an event in the world of aluna, everything that happens also reflects that world. To put a question is an act in aluna, an act of pure thought, and if it is properly put then its answer is instantaneously present, here in the physical world as well….

….Our whole intellectual tradition, scientific, rational, seems to demand a rejection of aluna. But ours is a tradition which says there is only one ultimate test: not ‘does it make sense?’ but ‘does it work?’

Our scientific world-view had no trouble believing in aspirins and electricity because they worked, not because they made sense…. The question that confronts us is whether our view, that there is nothing beyond the biological and chemical machine, works. Up to now it has seemed to produce spectacular results. But the Kogi see these as short-term benefits on the way to a catastrophe. We are, to them, like people who have jumped off a mountain and, falling fast, are proclaiming our ability to fly. They believe they can see further, and that their own old-fashioned ideas will prove to be right. Unfortunately, they also believe that they are roped to us, and will shortly be yanked to destruction.’

True to my old ways, a couple of weeks ago during a regular library-haunting session, I discovered and borrowed a copy of James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity, a 2006 follow-up to his famous 1972 Gaia Hypothesis.

I’m still only skimming the surface of the book, having got just a few chapters in, and I’m no scientific expert – but there seems to be much in Lovelock’s scientific theories and philosophy that can be seen to converge with what the Kogi are telling us, if from a different point of view, mind-set and tradition, and perhaps with a different idea of where to find the solutions. But, maybe that very difference makes the Kogi’s case even stronger; the convergences more convincing as evidence (in our evidence based culture) of our need to listen.

The sprinkling of quotes from The Revenge of Gaia below, reveal a tableau of shapes cast on the wall of history by shadow-puppeteers who thought they were in charge of the show. But it was a show of lights and mirrors; a story of illusion and forgetting… a story of progress, endless progress – an ignoring of cycles, and old wisdoms, that bring us back to ourselves and bare truth – to our limits, and our place in a web that also has its limits:

‘Scientists did not acknowledge the Earth as a self-regulating entity until the Amsterdam Declaration in 2001, and many of them still act as if our planet were a large public property that we own and share. They cling to their nineteenth- and twentieth-century view of the Earth that was taught at school and university, of a planet made of dead inert rock with abundant life aboard, passengers on a journey through space and time….

….even those who take a systems-science approach would be the first to admit that our understanding of the Earth system is not much better than a nineteenth-century physician’s understanding of a patient. But we are sufficiently aware of the physiology of the Earth to realize the severity of its illness… We are now approaching one of these tipping points, and our future is like that of passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.’
(P. 6-7)

‘We are so obsessed with the idea of progress and with the betterment of humanity that we regard retreat as a dirty word, something to be ashamed of… We are taking so much that [the Earth] is no longer able to sustain the familiar and comfortable world we have taken for granted. Now it is changing, according to its own internal rules, to a state where we are no longer welcome.

Humanity, wholly unprepared by its humanist traditions, faces its greatest trial.’
(P. 8-9)

‘The philosopher Mary Midgley, in her splendid books ‘Science and Poetry’ and ‘The Essential Mary Midgley,’ has warned that the dominance of atomistic and reductionist thinking in science during the past two centuries has led to a narrow parochial view of the Earth…. Reduction is the analytical dissection of a thing into its ultimate component parts, followed by regeneration through the reassembly of the parts; it certainly led to great triumphs in physics and biology during the past two centuries, but it is only now falling into its proper place as a part and not the whole of science. At last, but maybe too late, we begin to see that the top-down holistic view, which views a thing from outside and asks it questions while it works, is just as important as taking the thing to pieces and reconstituting it from the bottom up. This is especially true of living things, large systems and computers.’

I’m not sure what James Lovelock’s scientist’s scepticism would make of the concept of aluna – but here, he outlines what he means by his use of the term Gaia:

‘You will notice I am continuing to use the metaphor of ‘the living Earth’ for Gaia; but do not assume that I am thinking of the Earth as alive in a sentient way, or even alive like an animal or a bacterium….Metaphor is important because to deal with, understand, and even ameliorate the fix we are now in over global change requires us to know the true nature of the Earth and imagine it as the largest living thing in the solar system, not something inanimate like that disreputable contraption ‘spaceship Earth.’ Until this change of heart and mind happens we will not instinctively sense that we live on a live planet that can respond to the changes we make, either by cancelling the changes or by cancelling us. Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy.’

– All quotations from The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock (published by Penguin).

Now, in the 21st century, the story we’ve told ourselves for too long is collapsing. The merry-go-round is out of control. Can we stop it and get off? It seems more of an imperative than ever to listen to Ramon’s Speech in the video below, in which he outlines the message of the Kogi Mamas – a message that asks us to ‘hear the Mamas’ law and story; learn how things really are…’

The Mama says that it is very difficult for Younger Brother to hear and listen, and even harder to give up all that; but Younger Brother must be taught to listen to the history of the Mama, the law of the Mama, the beliefs of the Mama, and that if there is a scientist like the Mama who knows the earth – I do not know what sort, but who knows about the earth – let him study the earth to see, is it declining or not? Does the world grow weak? Why is it weak? Because they take out much of its life-blood, minerals, and the Mama is frightened, it makes him fearful. They say that Younger Brother is studying more, but he is studying to destroy the world, so the Mama is somewhat frightened and that is why the Mama says they must learn our history; they must listen to our story.’

The Heart of the World (P.215)

Aluna, the film, premieres today (15th June) and on Sunday 17th June at the Sheffield Doc/Fest (at which Aluna has been nominated for the Green Award). Details, and much more info and film clips etc. are on the Aluna Facebook page.

Further details of the film, video clips and a blog can be found on the Aluna the movie website.

The Tairona Heritage Trust website is also a mine of information.

NOTE – Alan Ereira’s book has been re-issued as The Elder Brothers’ Warning (I tracked down a second hand copy of the 1990 first edition with original title, pictured above, for sentimental reasons – it feels so good to have a familiar, drift-away friend back with me again…)