Luljeta Lleshanaku remembers how growing up in a small town in Albania shaped her understanding of nature
‘Never mind what the TV says! The weather is getting worse, my bones don’t lie!’ That was one of the expressions I’d hear hundreds of times in my childhood. And it was true: technology left room for error, but not one’s bones. Thanks to a coexistence that dates back thousands of years, humans have developed an understanding for nature.
I grew up in a small mountain town of epic winters with heavy snow, blinding lightning and strong winds, nearly mystical, blasting from the north. In the bedroom, you could hear the snap and crackle of beech wood burning in the stove — the perfect atmosphere for reading Dickens, Tolstoy, John Galsworthy or for listening illegally to news from the free world, such as the BBC, or the Voice of America. When the first snow would begin to fall, I remember pressing myself against the window panes, indifferent to the adults’ anxious conversations. I remember the yellow raincoat of the woodsman and the mules’ silken gaze, bringing winter’s firewood into the yard. I remember the worn out clothes hanging on the line to dry: dresses, shirts, sweaters, trousers — frozen in the cold. And just like that, frozen, they acquired a shape, personality, soul, which you had to treat carefully so they wouldn’t break in your hands.
After a long and tiring winter, summer was no longer just another season, but a well-deserved reward. During the summer, people clustered in yards, under the shades of the trees, chatting, planting flowers, picking fruit, painting their thresholds and garden walls with lime wash — a hushed symbol of peace and survival. People’s yards were for weddings; large cauldrons to distill raki. I remember the shared rituals of picking white mulberry fruit, followed by the perfume of pekmez preparations — small gestures which brought people closer together than any other social event. But I also remember the gurgling of water from the taps; there is no other sound more exciting than that of water in those dry summers.
I remember the tomato garden in the backyard; I used to hide there for hours on end, at times to meditate by myself, and other times with my girlfriends. Where else would the taboo conversations of pubescent girls take place except amidst the sweet, intriguing aroma of half-ripe tomatoes?
I remember the swallow’s nest under the roof; we protected it as something precious during the whole year, because the swallows could cross the borders and go where we couldn’t. It was like we were trying to taste a bit of freedom through them.
One of the reasons why I befriended my cousin Hamit, sixty years older than me, was his unusual yard, large, surrounded by high walls, covered in grass, with the two sheep he kept hidden there, breaking the Communist rules against private property. I can still smell the burnt sheep milk from the stove, still hear the chirping crickets in the backyard where the family graves lay, and will never forget the first English lessons I received from him, there under the pergola, near the well. He had suffered in a political prison camp for twenty years, and into his subsequent loneliness he allowed only a child and the two sheep – the only creatures he trusted. Years later I met another political prisoner, Musa, a beekeeper. ‘Bees saved my life! It’s easier to find a common language with bees than it is with people!’ he used to say.
And of course, bees don’t surveil you, bees don’t betray you. Nature never betrays you.
My grandfather had bought endless land, had built farms, but although he lost them all in a day because of communist reforms, his connection to nature, to the land, stayed the same. When he lost his land, he grew grapes against the wall. He considered his deal with nature an ‘honest challenge, without tricks and wangles; an affair of honor,’ as I’ve written in one of my poems.
Certainly, it’s in our nature to mystify the past. I admit it, it’s impossible to read about my childhood memories stripped of nostalgia. But, on the other hand, it’s a fact that including images such as stars, birches, roses, mourning doves, brooks, or sheep in poetry today is like writing perfumed love letters: out of fashion. All those nature elements that once worked as aesthetic references now create a borrowed sentimentality, artificiality, since nature and our connection to it is no longer the same.
Due to global warming, snow is now rare in my old town, but even when it snows, people prefer to turn their backs on it and watch a film on their screens instead. And why not? Today, virtually and within a few seconds, you can visit ski resorts in the Austrian Alps, travel to Africa or the Grand Canyon in the U. S. Virtual nature, virtual life. Any one of us may write a whole novel about a world we’ve never known or stepped foot in, guided by a Google search. But I wonder how those little towns Joyce Carol Oates describes in her novels would appear to us if she hadn’t touched them, hadn’t sucked in their sadness. Doesn’t the vitality of her descriptions depend precisely on the manner in which people and nature become witnesses to one another’s existence?
An intense relationship with the environment, nature, as either resistance or adoption to it, defines our motifs, our choices, and especially who we are. In this context, perhaps the most interesting definition of nature’s impact on man comes to us from Frank Wild, the hero of five expeditions to the South Pole (and the protagonist of the poem ‘Homo Antarcticus’ in my book, Negative Space) who says: ‘Once wedded to Nature there is no divorce – separate her you may and hide yourself amongst the flesh-pots of London, but the wild will keep calling and calling forever in your ears. You cannot escape the “little voices”.’
When you learn to understand nature in its complexity, to feel each of its vibrations, perhaps you gain a different perspective, a tenderness, a different approach to human beings themselves.
Luljeta Lleshanaku is an Albanian poet. She was a fellow of the IWP in Iowa and then graduated with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has worked as a journalist, television author, university lecturer, and researcher. She is the author of eight poetry collections published in her language and twelve books published in other countries. She has received numerous awards. Her latest collection Negative Space, translated by Ani Gjika, was published by Bloodaxe in the UK and New Directions in the US.