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An interview with Among Animals contributor Julian Hoffman (“Pelicans”)
Q: What inspired you to write “Pelicans”?
A: I wanted to express something of this place that I’d moved to—the Prespa Lakes—but still wasn’t ready to explore through nonfiction. The pelicans had a magnetic effect on me from the day we arrived. While swimming in the lake or walking along the shore they would glide overhead in that ancient way of theirs, an aerial relic of the deep past brought beautifully into the light of the present. I’m always entranced by that near presence of the ancient, that span of time enclosed in a moment. They seemed a direct connection to another age, something so old and resilient that it marked me deeply each time they came close. And yet I was also aware that conflict existed between pelicans and people in this part of the world. Fortunately for the rare colonies of both Dalmatian and white pelicans in Prespa, that conflict is no longer an issue—though it had been decades earlier when there was a bounty on the birds’ heads—but every year, in other parts of Greece and southeast Europe, there are a few stories of pelicans being shot in the belief that they are competing with humans for the same species, despite studies showing that 95 percent of the pelicans’ diet is made up of small fish species with little commercial significance or interest for fishermen.
Q: In this story, birds go from foe to friend for the storyteller—in what ways do you think this reflects humans’ relationships with animals?
A: I’m not sure the pelicans go exactly from foe to friend in the eyes of the fisherman, but rather he moves into a relationship of respect. He sees them in a new and unexpected light—connected to the same place, and bound by similar ties of loyalty and lineage. And I think that’s profoundly important, in a wider sense, for our affiliation with animals. Certain moments and encounters with the wild can bring about change, particularly at a time when we’re witnessing an unparalleled rate of animal extinctions. These losses, this irreversible movement towards absence diminishes us in a world that is sentient and shared beyond measure.
Our relationships with animals are actually deeply complex, composed of wonder, fear, anger, joy, friendship, reliance, appreciation, admiration, awe, hatred and love, and yet so often we retreat as a culture to the simple opposition of us and them, negating all the richness and possibility in between. There’s a section in Henry Beston’s book The Outermost House, which still sounds prophetically progressive today, even though it was published in 1928: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.”
Q: The rescue story in “Pelicans” is a story within a story; why did you choose this point of view rather than one closer to the tale the fisherman reveals?
A: I had a feeling that this was a story that could only be shared between strangers, rather than friends, and I wanted to turn the narrative around just enough so that both the fisherman and the biologist were in the same frame. Just as the fisherman comes to see the pelicans in a new light, so the biologist comes to regard the fisherman differently than he’d imagined him. The narrator’s experience tells him to expect a certain story in these situations, especially after the man describes the killing of pelicans and smashing of the nests. But expectation can sometimes seal us from insight. I wanted the story to be a revelation for both men.
Myrsini Malakou, who has worked for many years on behalf of pelicans as the director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, once told me, “There are borders of interest and activity—the fisherman, the farmer, the environmentalist. But where there are borders, there are bridges.” I think it’s important to be open to the unexpected at all times; to those sudden, arising connections that can become bridges.
Q: What role does the natural world play in your life as a writer?
A: The natural world is very much the heart of my writing life. Even when I’m not writing specifically about it, it’s there in the glimmer of light through the window, the dusk song of the nightingale that seeps into the words. And yet I was late in coming to the natural world. Or rather I was late in returning to it. I had one of those childhoods that we took for granted back then; my brother and I, and our friends, were allowed to muck about for whole days in scrubby lots and river ditches, playing baseball in abandoned, suburban fields. We were surrounded by a promise that I wouldn’t have put a name to back then, but I now see was about engaging with the natural world as part of our daily play and adventures, an ordinary, but beautiful, affair. Although I forgot about the natural world for some years while I was at university and then exploring cities, those initial experiences have called me back again. They bring a richness to my life that I couldn’t imagine being without. As a friend of mine says, once you become aware of a particular bird’s song, you can never be unaware of it again.
Q: Was there a specific experience that sparked this story?
A: “Pelicans” was a turning point for me, a catharsis. One of the things I’d wanted to do when my wife and I left London to move to a village by the Prespa Lakes was find a way of committing to writing in this new place, something that I hadn’t managed to do until then. Instead we became organic smallholders for five years, which left me with even less time for writing than I’d had while living and working in London! Working the land by hand, though, taught me a great deal about the place, and deepened my love of its mingled communities of people and wild creatures.
But it was tough work, as well. And one day my back simply gave up, slipped discs sending excruciating pain down my legs until finally I was hospitalized. On that first evening in the ward, just as my wife was about to set off on the long drive over the mountains back to our village, I asked her if she would go downstairs to the shop and buy a cheap notepad and pen. I suddenly understood that my body was telling me something. That for all my love of working the land and raising vegetables from seed, being a farmer wasn’t the thing that I’d always longed to do. That night, in bed beneath the bright lights of the hospital room, I wrote the opening scenes of the story, and it felt like the pelicans were leading me home.