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Shadow Grounds

It was that time again; each year it occurred as an unexpected grace note, a sudden flourish to accompany the slow fading of summer, like the lifting of haze from the lake, the leaving of birds.

Increasingly, though, it was a quieter affair, signalled by the heaving chorus of fewer and fewer animals. The Sarakatsani were on the move again, bound for their winter quarters, and they were taking with them the cows, goats and sheep that constitute their livelihood. The fully loaded trucks and trailers had wound their way down the frosted mountain valley early that morning and were now paused in our village square: there were last goodbyes to be said, wishes for a safe winter to be offered, coffees to be bought for the road. While some of the drivers mingled around their trucks, smoking cigarettes or checking oil levels and brake lines, the deep moans and tremulous lowing of the animals rose and fell like a collective breath. The warmth of their jostling bodies materialised through the slatted sides of the trailers as a thin film of cloud. The air was rife with the reek of herds.
    The Sarakatsani are transhumant shepherds, pastoralists who move with the turning of the seasons, journeying back and forth with their animals between summer and winter grounds. Traditionally they wintered their large flocks on the plains and coastal flats of central or southern Greece and migrated on foot to reach summer pastures in the mountains of the north, but the earthy tumult of those marching herds was replaced long ago by the convenience of trucks. Many of these vehicles have since been silenced as well, as the Sarakatsani become increasingly settled in their lowland villages. Despite this, a few small communities can still be found on the high summer meadows, continuing their centuries-old custom of calling two places home.


I have often wondered about the nature of home, having been born in the northeast of England when my parents were in the process of emigrating to Canada. As a result, I spent the first few years of my life seesawing between our native port town and the north shore of Lake Ontario, while they searched for work and a place of possibilities. Eventually they settled near Toronto, where I grew up and went to school, comfortable with that placid, suburban landscape. Soon after finishing university, however, I felt an overwhelming urge to return, to go back to the country of my birth. It was a land I was familiar with from the accents and recollections of my parents and their transplanted friends, through brief summer holidays and the doting attention of relatives. But in the end I was drawn back by something incalculably smaller and more difficult to define: the resonance of place.
    Certain places follow us, like shadows. At times they lengthen and stretch implausibly tall until they tower above our lives, or slant decisively away, as if trying to flee. Occasionally they appear not to be there at all — so exact is the overlay of self and place, so precise the meridian sun. Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves.
    We were on holiday in the north of England when I first glimpsed what would become my own shadowing landscape. A flat grey sky sheeted above the mysterious, treeless moors as we drove a narrow road in North Yorkshire. On either side of us the heather unrolled like bolts of rough, dark cloth, its dull purple flowers scattered like a fall of ripened berries. I remember the pockets of spectral mist that dissolved the second they were seen; the solitary, wind-stooped shrubs; the beautifully forlorn light. I was almost twelve that summer, and while I stared through the windows transfixed, the land began tilting me away from the enclosed space of the car towards a different kind of interior: luminous, revelatory, confiding. As I watched the ghostly moorland dimple away into nothingness, eventually merging with the solemn proclamation of sky, I became aware of a close and immediate attachment, a need to return. The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me.


I lived on the moors for a short, but emotionally rich, period of time. Although I left them in the end, I think and dream of them often, and they sustain me still. Instead, my wife and I made another home, in a village above the Prespa Lakes in the mountains of northern Greece. One summer, in the early years of living there, a friend and I set off at dawn to climb amongst those mountains. We used the river as our guide, winding between boulders and beech. By early morning we had edged beyond the tree line and were walking over pale tussocky meadows that sloped sharply towards the rising sun. As we rounded a fold in the high grassy hills, I pointed out the Sarakatsani encampment. We stopped to admire it, as if a rare and unlikely bloom. The hamlet comprised seven or eight thatched huts set in a mountainside scrape as neatly as inlaid stones. The elegant summer dwellings had been fashioned from tall reeds hauled up from the fringes of the lake, and each wicker dome was encircled by an earthen yard marked out by the braiding of thin branches.
    While we stood there, a man and woman stepped out of their beehive home and began waving us over. Before we could even introduce ourselves, we’d been seated at a rough wooden table in their yard, unexpected guests at a mountain breakfast. Antonia brought a plate of tomatoes to the table, followed by cucumbers, olives and creamy slices of her handmade sheep’s cheese. It hadn’t been pasteurised yet and still carried the wild, musky tang of the hills in its taste. Giorgos brought a clear plastic bottle of fiery, grape-distilled raki and poured each of us a glass. He then withdrew an unopened pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt; I watched him strip its cellophane and crumple off the foil, then tease out a single cigarette so that it poked obligingly above the others when he ceremoniously laid the packet before us on the table.
    We tend to equate shepherding with rootlessness, or the absence of a home. But what struck me as we sat together that morning was the realisation that Giorgos and Antonia weren’t passing through. Despite the seasonal nature of their dwellings, they had welcomed us with the same meticulous ritual and gracious hospitality that characterise many Balkan houses. The entire mountainside was their hearth.
    Our hosts were probably in their mid to late fifties, and had been grazing their flocks on these same summer slopes for as long as they could remember. Twice a year they set out to cross half a country in concert with the seasons — both directions bringing them closer to home. They said their hearts belonged to the mountains, though, even if the encampment was now little more than a reminder. A decade earlier and there had been as many as sixty or seventy people spending the season here; on feast nights, musicians played the Sarakatsani songs until dawn, while their kinfolk danced beneath an umbrella of bright stars. I looked around in the drenching daylight, wondering how far the raw wails of their clarinets would travel in the measureless, mountain dark. As elegant as a simple weave, I could see that home was a concordance with place.
    “Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us to celebrate now,” said Antonia.
    “What about your children?” I asked. They both looked at me and smiled
    “Young people want other things,” said Giorgos, matter-of-factly. “Our son is studying political science at the London School of Economics.”
    We raised toasts to each other’s health and laughed at the strangeness of things.


Some of the Sarakatsani returned in the following years, but I didn’t see Giorgos and Antonia again. Each autumn the shepherds brought fewer and fewer animals down off the high surrounding slopes, and the village square became a quieter place. As we’d sat there that morning beneath a pitched summer sun, sharing breakfast and listening to the distant meadow bells of the herds, a way of life was being whittle into memory. A few months further on, with the first frosts glittering across the hills, our hosts would have loaded their animals into trucks, closed the reed house we had sat outside of, and set off down the valley. As they journeyed south that day over the lowland plains, the spirit of the mountains would have stayed quietly close, shadowing them home.


Originally published in Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World (UGA Press, 2013)


Shadow Grounds by Julian Hoffman

"The entire mountainside was their hearth."

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