Julian Hoffman and the patterns of place

It is early evening, dusk, and I go walking in our residential neighbourhood in the heart of Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. I walk toward the waterfront, past homes and yards that never fail to interest me with their diversity. Low rise apartments and condos of various eras, early 20th century estate homes and contemporary ‘conversions,’ which are old homes raised up on new foundations, gutted, and rebuilt to suit today’s market. We perch on stone, here on the island, and many yards are blocked off by short walls of rockery. The glories of a temperate Pacific climate fill the yards with roses, arbutus, ferns and species I haven’t learned to name, always in unique configurations. 

In the windows, in this hour just before lights start going on and drapes are pulled, I see the flicker of TV screens. I don’t own a TV myself, so the flashes of colour always catch my eye. Over the years, the screens have grown ever larger, so that sometimes when I glance at a home, the frame of its window space is virtually filled by the bright, jumping flashes of the big screen inside. 

 And over time, too, the images have become shorter. Flash, flash, flash. News stories, movies, games, commercials: it’s a whirling spin of bright impressions. My eyes return to the deepening tones of the yards, where darkening blooms and rough trunks meld together, as if gathering together for the comforts and quiet of the coming night. Making peace. I make my way down the blocks, paying closer attention to my steps as the growing darkness falls across the uneven sidewalk, lifting my steps in anticipation of unseen seams. At the waterfront, the strait gleams in a slight post-sunset glow and the soft sussing of surf rolls up the banks from the beach. Across the water, twinkling, the lights of Port Angeles – another country. I always find it a bit hard to reconcile these observations: the boundless shifts of natural waters and land forms, and the human constructs of place, home, nation.

The Small Heart of Things

The Small Heart of Things

When I return home, I turn to a new book that makes sense of these disparate impressions of nature, culture and community. The Small Heart of Things: being at home in a beckoning world, a collection of essays by Julian Hoffman, is all about the attentive gaze. It is a book that revels in the slow consideration of people, places and change. Unlike the TVs in the living rooms of the world, The Small Heart of Things takes its time with images, ideas and impressions. It is the big picture, on the small page. 

Julian Hoffman

Julian Hoffman

Julian Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Ontario, Canada. In 2000, he and his partner moved to the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. I had never heard of the place before discovering Julian’s work. It turns out that Julian had hardly heard of it, either, before reading the book Prespa: A Story for Man and Nature, and becoming intrigued. In the years since making Prespa his home, Julian has turned his attentive eye to the patterns of the place: the generations of human and animal activity that are written in the pathways and artifacts of the transboundary region, the natural forms of lakes and mountains, and the slow shifts that time brings.

The Small Heart of Things tracks the daily, seasonal, annual and broader movements of plants, birds, bears, people and cultures. Observing how people can quickly start to lock down their attitudes about who and what belongs to whom and where, Julian writes “it is easy to forget that our world is composed of movement.” He pays attention to what happens today while never losing an awareness of what this place is telling him about the many days gone by. In the folds of the hills, the abandoned bunkers of past wars, the tracks of bears along the lake shore, he reads the intricate, woven story of place and change.

These stories about Prespa can tell us a lot about our world, if we care to listen and learn. It is about “the resonance of place,” wherever we happen to make our personal connections with place. 

'Shrine In the Reeds' (c) Julian Hoffman

‘Shrine In the Reeds’ (c) Julian Hoffman

I first discovered Julian’s writing on his blog, Notes From Near and Far. Then I noticed these wonderful essays popping up in journals like EarthLines, Terrain.org and Flyway. It is great to find them collected, along with others, in this new book from The University of Georgia Press.

At the annual conference of AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Seattle this February, Julian will be featured as the winner of the AWP Award for Creative Non-Fiction. He also won the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize for one of the essays in The Small Heart of Things. 

I am pleased that we on the southwest tip of Canada have enticed Julian to cross the water border in the Salish Sea for a couple of readings: March 3, 2014 at the University of Victoria and Tuesday, March 4, at Russell Books. In the Tuesday evening reading ‘The Nature of the Land,’ Julian will be joined by John Schreiber (who was featured in a recent Writing:Place post) and poet Maleea Acker. It promises to be a very special evening of readings and conversation about how we relate to our places in this increasingly busy and distracting culture.

 

Comments

  1. Beautiful piece of writing, and astute observations. I particularly like the line, “lifting my steps in anticipation of unseen seams.”

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