Five Questions for... Julian Hoffman

The latest of our interviews with Elsewhere’s friends and contributors comes from Julian Hoffman, whose essay ‘A line of wild surprise’ appears in the first edition of the journal. If you want to read more from Julian, you can purchase Elsewhere No.01 via our online shop.  

1) What does home mean to you?

Home means many things to me: it’s a rented stone house in the valley where my wife and I live. It’s the Prespa Lakes region of northern Greece where that valley winds towards water. It’s also those smaller places that I’ve known for a long and intimate time here, like the shoreline forest of willow and silver birch on Great Prespa Lake that thrums with wild creatures. But home can also be a place I’ve only briefly known, such as the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan where I first discovered my enduring love of birds amidst a mysterious landscape of pools, lakes and meadows that kept shifting in and out of focus through a veil of mist.

What fascinates me about home is that to some degree we carry it with us. It’s a word we use to describe a feeling of personal belonging or equilibrium as much as a physical space. We talk of feeling at home somewhere, settled in unfamiliar surroundings as if it were actually a house we’d long inhabited. And what I find so compelling about the relationship between people and landscape, particularly at a time of enormous environmental degradation, is the possibility that we can be at home in more than one place. By forging connections to a range of places, perhaps we can better preserve and protect them within a wider landscape of home that we feel an attachment to. The American writer Sigurd Olson said that “awareness is becoming acquainted with environment wherever we are.” In that respect, I think home could be described as a quality of attention to the world around us.

2) Where is your favourite place?

My favourite places vary because they’re contingent upon so many different things: weather, season, animal encounters, atmospheres and mood. I could never choose one over another. I love the Pennine moors the most, for example, when I walk them in mist and fog, the sheer, dense mystery of that enclosed yet open space. But the remarkable karst plateau that sits above Lesser Prespa Lake in Greece is especially wondrous to me in the long light of summer evenings, when the grasslands and stones begin to glow and the bright sparks of butterflies dance over what was once an ancient seabed. Then there’s the Hoo Peninsula at the edge of the Thames which moves me most when its big estuary skies swirl with salt, sun and cloud, when avocets lift from the sun-splashed grasses and ripple in the wind like flags.

Whenever I’m in these places, they always seem wonderful to me; it’s just that there’s a deeper, more complex attraction in those particular conditions. Place, I believe, is essentially about a relationship brokered between ourselves and a specific landscape, somewhere that’s been “claimed by feelings” and the “process of experiencing deeply” as the artist Alan Gussow puts it. Inevitably those relationships are influenced by our personal longings, fascinations and desires, which means that a place, any place, is remade, however subtly, the second we return to or remember it.

3) What is beyond your front door?

There are two extremely contrasting points of focus beyond the front door. The first is a steep rise of granite mountains that always draws my eye when I step outside, lifting from the edge of our village and marking the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But when my eyes lower from those sun-worn slopes I see our garden with the last of summer’s poppies splashed scarlet in sunlight. And over the garden wall are the tumbling ruins of an old stone house that’s gradually being engulfed by a tangle of wild clematis vines.

That house, like so many others in the valley, has most likely been abandoned since the Greek Civil War, when the population of this mountain village had around 3,000 inhabitants instead of the 150 it has today. Beyond that house are narrow lanes that converge on the village square, where you’ll find both an exquisite 1,000 year-old Byzantine church and a post office which has just had its concrete façade removed in order to restore the original stonework beneath. What the restoration work revealed, however, was a period in history as significant to this village as that ancient church: there’s an extraordinary red Communist star on the brickwork beside the front door that must have been painted there sometime during the late 1940s, when some of the final battles of the civil war unfolded in the Prespa basin as soldiers and refugees tried to escape the oncoming Royalist forces. The Prespa Lakes are home to a large colony of both Dalmatian and white pelicans, and sometimes when I see them circling high over the summer mountains I imagine how their ancestors must have been following those same ancient routes as the land beneath them erupted into violence.

4) What place would you most like to visit?

There are so many places I’d love to experience in this life, but of course there isn’t enough time to see them all, even if I could afford to! Which is part of the reason why I think landscapes can sometimes haunt us; they remind us, in a particular confluence of light, shape and season, that there are other places out there, as resonant and compelling as those we already know, but that will always remain out of reach to us. In one of her short stories, Alice Munro writes that “there are places that you long for that you might not ever see.” They exist as landscapes of the mind, though, which can be just as rich and sustaining in some respects.

But if I was to choose one place today that I would most like to visit it would be the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia. Something about its blinding white clarity and skim of glimmering water fascinates me, both aesthetically and spiritually. It seems austere, with so little to find purchase on; and yet it glitters with a magical, baroque light. Few animals find solace in such salinity, which is why I’d love to see the flamingos that breed there in November bring their pink and carmine wash to that white and watery desert.

5) What are you reading?

I have a couple of things on the go at the moment. The first is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, a wonderfully written but sobering account of the great biological diminishing that our planet is suffering, largely as a result of human action. And it’s a list of lost species that grows ever longer through our inaction.

The other is a children’s book called The Candle Man, by Catherine Fisher. This was given to me a few weeks ago by a terrific environmental education officer in Wales called Kathy Barclay. I was with her on the Gwent Levels doing some research for a new book about threatened places and the resistance to their loss when she gave me the book to convey some sense of her own attachment to this remarkable, ancient landscape. And the book conjures the place wonderfully, the Severn Estuary constantly washing at its edges, and the reclaimed flatlands, shaped by Romans and walked across by monks attached to Tintern Abbey, riddled and crosshatched by reens, the Welsh word for the watery ditches that hold a bewildering and beautiful biodiversity. It’s essentially a children’s adventure tale, premised on the elemental tension between land and water in such a fragile, human-shaped environment, and reminds me that place is the foundation for our most potent stories.

Image: the Karst plateau, Prespa, Greece

Julian Hoffman was born in the north-east of England and grew up in Ontario, Canada. Since 2000 he has lived beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. His book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was the winner of the 2012 AWP Nonfiction Award and won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for natural history literature.