The chief attraction of Bled Slovenia is the sweeping panorama of the Julian Alps which lie just beyond its doorstep, which in this case is a lake ringed with castles, monasteries atop crags and palatial hotels that once played host to kings and queens. But owing to a change in the weather which turned from the perfect sunshine of the Dalmatian Coast to rather stormy skies, I did not see much of the sweeping panorama but instead found myself drawn to tiny little scenes in miniature which when examined closely held the same sweeping views but on a different scale.
There is a roughly 200km loop of road that leads northwest out of Bled, through a pass in the Julian Alps and then down the other side, twisting and winding back toward Bled by way of craggy canyons, small hamlets and crystalline rivers. We set out sometime after breakfast and first stopped about halfway up to the pass to see a memorial to the prisoners of war who died building the road during the First World War. My parents walked uphill to the monument, but I elected to take a short walk through the forest. The hidden sun cast a fine even light, as if filtered through a veil of ash, over the forest such that there were few shadows and even the deepest reaches of the woods were visible. I stopped near the road to examine for a while the lichen clinging to the side of a tree, which first caught my eye as a grey-green confusion against otherwise dark brown bark, but, on looking closer, I noticed the confusion gave way to an organization. The lichen grew in clumps and rows, much as a forest does and in the valleys and hallows between the pale green strands of lichen, dozens of tiny insects wandered in the midst of what, for them, must be towering fronds. Beetles and ants treaded up and down the rows of lichen, while tiny green insects hovered pensively just above, as if trying to decided whether to duck into the forest of pale silvery branches below.
Lichen are a composite plant consisting of a fungus which contains photosynthetic algae cells. I remember reading once that lichen grow very slowly and that these growths, which often appear on rocks and trees as a crustlike expansion, slowly covering over their surroundings, can live as long and sometimes longer than many of the trees to which they cling. I couldn’t help but notice that lichen bears an uncanny resemblance to coral, which also hosts green algae in their tissues to draw nutrients from the sunlight. Coral is one of the smallest creatures in the world and yet it is the only animal whose architecture is visible from space. Only tiny coral joining together into colonies as it does is capable of making something so massive it’s visible from well beyond our world.
Lichen may not be as spectacular in architectural achievement as coral, but then again, neither are we. I continued on into the forest lost in the strangeness of the thought that the largest things should come from the smallest sources. I walked aimlessly and rather slow, letting the forest step by step reveal a path, which it did; tree by tree, bush by bush it moved me to the only direction I could go. After walking maybe a hundred meters I came to a small clearing where the trees stood apart in a ring and forest floor turned to brilliant green grass and a kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers—wild mustard, blue-eyed mary, woodruff, dandelions and many more whose names I do not know. I stood in the middle of the clearing and began, for no reason at all to turn in circles with my head tipped back, staring up at the branches and leaves of the white firs and pines swollen with yellow clumps of pollen. When I think of it now I see something a bit like the long panoramic sweeps through the forest that filmmaker Terrance Malik is so fond of, panning up into the canopy of trees and leaves with flashes of sunlight peaking through from behind the milky white low hanging clouds. I continued to spin slowly in a circle, stumbling at times but keeping my head up high until I began to feel as if I were floating up into the air, almost able to touch the top leaves of a nearby beech tree before slowly spiraling back down the earth.
Eventually I was overcomes with dizziness and had to sit down in the middle of the clearing while the world still turned slowly around me. I lay back in the grass so I was eyelevel with the dandelion puffs and watched them shudder in the stray currents of air floating down from the pass which shook the beeches as well making their leaves flutter and quake. I would have been quite happy to have died in that moment, or to have suddenly flown off up into the heavens. There is a peace in mountains, forests, by the sea, in middle of Central Park, Jardin des Plantes, the Garmond in Vienna, a train station in Munich, that does, as the man said, passeth all understanding. Or perhaps, as I have come to believe, the place is entirely irrelevant, it is in fact a place within us that creates the peace, as place as Marc Bolan once sang, “deep in my heart that’s big enough to hold, just about all of you.” I lay there wondering with smile who exactly wouldn’t fit in Marc Bolan’s heart and with less of the smile who wouldn’t fit in mine. I would like to think that there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t fit. In fact I decided that the folding chairs in my soul would well be carried down to my heart and used to hold the overflow. Eventually when I had worked out this oversight to my satisfaction, I sat up and lit a cigarette.
Through the trees behind me, if I craned my neck I could just make out the roof of the memorial. I began to wonder about the soldiers who died here from exhaustion and cold. I wondered if they found the mountains beautiful even in the midst of their forced labor. I wondered what they dreamed of at night as the slept in the tiny shelters which could scarcely have afforded them much comfort. After a while I could almost see them around me, ghostly figures shrunken slightly with death, still wearing the tattered uniforms and worn wool overcoats they were buried in standing in a half circle on the edge of the clearing, smiling, having found a place beyond the cold, beyond hatred, war and cynicism, happy to be free in some place where we will all one day go to return to the children we once were, to laugh and dance and sing and most of all be silly again. I raised myself on one elbow and looked behind me at the trees and between them the soldiers and smiled to salute them, and they smiled back as if to say it’s okay, all is forgiven, you and me and they slowly turned to walk back through the woods. I followed their footsteps retracing my path in the forest back to the road, the car and world of the living.
By the time we reached the pass the clouds had descended over the upper reaches of the peaks and continued to spill down the hill like milk poured from heaven. We walked for a few minutes around the sandy soils of the high alpine tundra where only the hardiest of plants can grow, the tall trees absent, only stunted white firs and few beds of heather stretching up the sloping scree and talus peaks. At a small stand beside the park headquarters a little girl and her father were buying postcards from a souvenir stand, the girl repeating over and over to her dad, “look at my beautiful picture, look at my beautiful picture” as she clutched the small piece of paper to her overcoat. She then turned to her mother and began again, “mummy, look at my beautiful picture,” as her parents ushered her back in the car.
As we made our way down the mountain the road joined up with a river and began to wind its way alongside it. We noticed a rickety suspension bridge at one point and felt compelled to stop and walk across it. My father and I walked to the other side, stopping to make some photographs and look at the strange milky blue water of Slovenian rivers, which seem to me the clearest most beautiful waters I’ve ever seen. I suppose the blue tinge is from the glacial silt, but that doesn’t really make sense because it seems to me silt would be washed downstream by the force of the river. Whatever the case, the water is turquoise and standing beside it there is a smell I’ve never noticed before, a smell of clarity, if such a thing may be said to exist. Little tuffs of cotton-like spores floated downwind in the breeze and I noticed one particular tree which seemed to be milking itself. A strange foamy liquid seeped out of every joint in its branches, bubbling in the sunlight until it settled to clear liquid and fell from the trees to land on our arms. It was not sticky and had no taste. If it was sap it had spent to long near the clear river water until it too had come to possess the same lucid transparency that seems to seep out of everything in Slovenia.
Down the far side of the pass we turned off onto a very narrow road and passed through several small towns consisting of stone farm houses, wooden sheds and barns and rocky walls dividing up the valley, which was a veritable explosion of spring wildflowers, so dense and colorful as to nearly hide the green grass beneath them. Beside nearly every house whether solitary on a plot of farmland or clustered in the number of small villages, was a stack of cordwood covered by a small lean-to or roof of some kind. I watched as these piles of firewood floated past my window reflecting on the almost eerie sense of pattern and order visible in them. It seemed to me rather like an architect had planned to intricate combination and balance of angles and light and shadow and positive and negative space, until in the end it more closely resembled a carefully thought out mosaic than a haphazard stack of split wood.
We stopped in one of the towns to visit an old church lying rather sleepily, nestled in a curve of the road under the shade of an elm which towered majestically above the church bell tower. I waited across the road while a German couple loitered around the front yard wanting for once to be alone in a church. The church was not remarkable architecturally, not listed in any guidebook, it was simply a village church, humble, but yet standing out from the other buildings by virtue of its tower. Eventually I walked up the steps and into the cool darkness of the foyer, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim light before I could continue. As my pupils widened and the darkness took form and shape I made my way forward toward the altar where I stopped to study a small figurine of the Virgin Mary. Her face seemed peaceful looking down at the baby in her arms. I said a brief prayer for the soldiers and, as I looked at Mary and child, I began to think of the girl up at the pass with her beautiful pictures postcards, I thought of a Jeff Tweedy lyric, “my fangs have been pulled” and realized with great sigh that indeed, in the last eight months, my fangs have been pulled and all I want to do is show you my picture, my beautiful, but tragically incomplete picture.
As I walked out of the church and back toward the car I remember something I believe Picasso said, that we are all trying to remember how to be children.