In “Shifting Shadows,” one of the many standout essays in Julian Hoffman’s slim The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, Hoffman explains the subtitle of his collection succinctly: “To be at home means finding a way of sustaining a keen and watchful engagement as both the place and I change, altering and shifting with the seasons, the light, and passing time.” Hoffman, an Englishman by way of Canada who now lives in Greece, carries this watchful engagement up mountains, through reed beds, and across continents, and what results is a series of thoughtful meditations on the powers of place, of migration and stillness, tradition and adaptation, viewed through the lens of the natural world but never divorced from the human one.
The flora and the fauna of The Small Heart of Things—especially birds—draw out Hoffman’s richest language; I found myself stopping and rereading sentences so I could appreciate that a group of goldfinches is called a “charm,” or that a bittern tilts its head “like an opening drawbridge.” A pair of bearded reedlings “appears dressed for an unusual evening out,” wearing “long cinnamon tails.” A purple heron moves through the reeds with a “stately, patrician walk.” Hoffman’s overabundance of keenly perceived details brings home the reality that most of us could have traversed these landscapes without seeing one-tenth of the things that he does—and that something is lost when we move through the world in this state. Hoffman doesn’t record these details simply because they’re pretty; when we are more attached to our surroundings, he seems to say, we are more attached to ourselves.
Hoffman’s obvious love for his subject material—for moths that appear mysteriously in winter, for rose-tinged parakeets flitting across the heart of London or an unexpected pod of dolphins in the sunlight—suffuses the entire book, giving the best pieces a reverent, almost tender tone, no doubt what earned Hoffman the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. The overall success of this quiet but firm enthusiasm allows me to excuse a few of the shorter essays, which instead of letting images of unfamiliar landscapes and rarely seen creatures ebb and flow patiently across the page, pose a question and wrap up a short time later with a pat answer, given with confidence but lacking the satisfying thorniness of Hoffman’s longer pieces. Even the titles of the shorter essays (“Gifts,” “The Other Shore”) don’t show the same verve as the longer titles.
The best essays in The Small Heart of Things examine intricate problems of place and legacy. Hoffman is at his most insightful in “The Memory of Land and Water” and “Faith in a Forgotten Place,” in which he chronicles the complicated tangle of the Prespa Lakes region at the convergence of Greek, Albanian, and Macedonian borders. Hoffman lives on the Greek side of Great Prespa Lake, which even with Greece’s current economic woes is a source of opportunity for Albanian and Macedonian workers unable to find employment in their home countries. Albanian laborers glide over the border during the bean-harvesting season, guided by white ribbons tied to tree branches, just decades after it was considered treasonous to leave the country under the regime of Enver Hoxha. Hoffman informs us in a headnote that the Prespa Lakes region is considered a transboundary park, but a persistent acrimony lingers in the area; Albania accuses Greece of mistreating its migrant workers, while Greece refuses to recognize the Republic of Macedonia’s constitutional name. But Hoffman sees the possibility for harmony between the three nations in the region’s ecological bounty. Upon discovering bear tracks that crisscross the lakeshore without paying heed to the region’s borders, Hoffman considers the lessons we humans can learn from immersing ourselves in the environments around us. “A bear’s knowledge of boundaries is different from ours,” he writes, and adds later, “Walking in the bears’ steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.”
What makes Hoffman’s plea for a deeper engagement with the natural world so arresting is that this engagement doesn’t come at the expense of a relationship with the often-messy political and social environments of a place, but rather strengthens it. Hoffman’s tranquility is not a passive retreat from our tumultuously loud, permanently distracted era; his project is to exert a compassionate mindfulness in the face of apathy—apathy toward the environment, or toward overlooked or forgotten populations. According to Hoffman, in a time of global warming and increasing alienation from both the environment and each other, “anything that…makes meaningful our daily arrangement with the world around us, is a form of resistance, a kind of love forged with home that has the potential to be fiercely protective.”
In the title essay, Hoffman visits the Olt River in Transylvania, where a project reintroducing beavers, once a potent symbol of region before they were hunted for their furs and hounded almost to extinction, is underway. He asks the man in charge of the reintroduction if any local farmers, foresters, or other residents expressed outrage or even ambivalence about the beavers’ return. Surprisingly, the man reports, the reaction to the reintroduction project has been overwhelming positive, even from farmers who reported having their crops damaged by wayward beavers. “The beaver,” Hoffman writes, “has been well accepted in Transylvania, not as an essential component of healthy watercourses, or even for reasons of moral restitution, but simply as part of the region’s rivers. Existing in a place where it belongs.” Hoffman repeatedly celebrates the joy of just being, without the need for justification or explanation. In his essays, he approaches these small moments with a big heart.
Caitlin Keefe Moran’s work has appeared in Post Road, Pleiades, Pure Francis, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.
The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World
University of Georgia Press, 2013
$24.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8203-4556-3