Up Close and Far Off

I don’t remember the name of the town where the railway started, or the destination at the end of the line, only that the train sometimes arrived, but most of the time didn’t. I think I waited a week. There were a handful of half-ruined colonial buildings on a single street surrounded by corrugated iron shacks. I camped on the edge of the town, in a clearing which contained a lone, ramshackle toilet building which, at night, filled with so many cockroaches that they made the walls and ceiling glisten and rustle. In the day street-sellers solicited with trays of what I presumed were a different species of beetle, roasted and flipped on their backs, accompanied by tiny baked finches. These trays were meant to be proffered to the rail passengers, but, as no-one knew when the train would arrive, the food mostly went unsold. From the main street there was a path going down to the water’s edge, overhung with trees so dense with foliage that you almost couldn’t see the river until you were standing on it’s bank. It was here that I got my first view of the Congo. The water was so wide that the other side was only just visible against the distant horizon, a narrow scribbled line of deep green against the purple-blue sky. I spent whole days staring out at that expanse of churning water, watching debris pass. This was not the litter and human detritus that fill most of the rivers I’ve witnessed, but huge ripped up trees, boat sinking fragments of a rainforest which stretched for a thousand miles in every direction.

By the side of the river was a concrete platform with a narrow gutter leading down to the bank. On the second or third day of my stay a young man appeared out of the trees leading a long-horned cow by a rope. Two men came to join him and a few makeshift tables were set up. They tied the cow’s legs and pushed it over onto its side, then onto its back using its horns as a kind of stand to prop up its head and stretch its neck. Then one of the men pulled a tiny knife from his pocket, kneeled next to the cow and slit its throat. The men backed off as the cow struggled to get to its feet and a thick stream of blood gushed from the wound onto the concrete platform and into the gutter which carried it down into the river. In two minutes the cow lay still. In twenty it had been butchered and all it’s meat, offal, skin and bones sold to the stream of people who came down from the town. In half an hour there were children splashing in the river where the blood had been pouring. I’d never seen anything die before. It seemed like a natural, intimate thing, one life passing into many, an act of community.

In the rainforest everything is close up. Travelling through it is like watching a reel of film played too fast. The trees scroll endlessly, every one the same, every one different. By day you have a mouse’s eye view of the world, everything looks down at you. At night a sound world envelops you as myriad insects swirl around and tiny mammalian creatures you will never see make horrible noises you will never forget. You lie in your tent knowing there’s something out there and that it’s getting closer. When a storm approaches it does so with speed, one minute a clear sky and dust underfoot, the next you’re wading knee deep in water below an almost darkness. The rainforest is a place where life squeezes into the gaps. It is the opposite of here. This land is shaped by its own erasure.

It is mid-February. Up on the hilltop common the bracken is flat against the ground. The mawn pools are sky-pale and clean as eyes. The thinly scattered thorn trees are faded back by mists that rise from the soaked earth. They look like ghost images in old photographs. Hay Bluff, Twmpa and distant Waun Fach are the undulating features of a reclining nude. You can imagine her standing up and taking a single five mile step into the next valley. If she did it’s unlikely that she’d step on anything except bare turf. Last year I started wandering on the common with a camera and a macro lens, getting as close as I could. I took photographs of ferns, lichens, mosses and the few low-growing flowers that the sheep find not to their taste. In patches of ground dominated by bog and scrub I’d come across the occasional orchid. I once read that this landscape is classed as temperate rainforest. If it is, then it’s a forest barely 3 inches high. The sense of smallness you feel in the rainforest is caused by your proximity to organisms that tower over you and reduce your view of the world to glimpses. On a hilltop in a bare landscape you are reduced by the distances you see, the plain fact of a landscape’s scale, of the world and the universe stretching out endlessly.

Bordering the common is a fifty acre plantation which was recently felled. I watched them cut the trees down over a few weeks, the machines moving slowly up the hill, slicing through the trunks and stripping the branches in a single movement. When the trees were gone, the debris was bulldozed into 10 foot high furrows and new trees were planted. They’re waist high now. In ten years there will be a dark and silent wood here again but, at the moment, it looks identical to the images I see in newspaper articles and websites of the ever-more-rapidly destroyed Congo.

Living in a place like this adapts you to a far-off view of things. It’s a view I’ve always preferred. I like vantage points and landmarks. I like to watch squalls coming in from miles away. I don’t like heights but I love summits. My favourite view is guano-white Grassholm from the western cliffs of Skomer, a shimmering islet on the horizon, a snow cone jutting from the sea. Everything around it is space.

I entered the forest in May, and didn’t come out the other side until August, a journey from the Atlantic coast of Cameroon to Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon. I saw the horizon only twice in that period, first on the banks of the river while I waited for the train that never came, and second when I was stranded again a month or so later. I’d gone as far as a truck could take me and was dropped off in a tiny village a hundred miles or so north of Goma. I hitched a ride with a second truck but the vehicle was so dangerous, and the road so ruined, that I jumped out and walked back. The only alternative to the road was a light aircraft which came in occasionally, landing on a tiny airstrip at the edge of the village. This time my transport arrived and, after months viewing it from underneath, I finally saw the forest from a vantage point high above it. In every direction to a circular horizon the landscape showed no sign of human exploitation, the only treeless area being the lead-coloured and still steaming lava flows that had recently poured from Mount Nyiragongo. If I took the same flight now I would see a patchwork of bare land punctuated with wooded islands, a landscape much like my own.

A mile from this hilltop is another piece of common land measuring only 3 or 4 acres. Thirty years ago it was used as spare ground for cattle and sheep, but it is boggy and choked with bracken so, too small to be of much benefit, the farmers left it alone. Silver birch, rowan and oak colonised the place and shaded out the bracken which now grows thin and high, leaving space for other plants. In the seventeen years I’ve lived in this area I’ve seen bluebells spread from small clumps to the whole of the understory. Orchids and other rare wildflowers grow there. In autumn the ground under the birches is filled with fly agaric fungi which appear almost overnight. They lose their vivid scarlet and white colouring after a few days while they’re nibbled back to stumps by mice, which may or may not be immune to their psychedelic toxins. A couple of years ago a pair of goshawks started to hunt there, a sign, at least to me, that the wood’s regeneration is complete. It is probably the piece of land I know most intimately. My boys climbed trees, built dens and played hide-and-seek there, and I trained a couple of young horses in a perfectly circular clearing between the trees while being watched by nesting birds. In the dead centre of the wood you’re still only 50 paces from a view of scoured hills, but beneath the trees everything is intimate and animate.

Maybe it’s because I find intimacy difficult, but I still prefer the far-off view. It’s being suggested that the bare uplands of Wales should become forest for the first time in millennia. It’s a good idea and perhaps in my lifetime I’ll see the beginnings of this change. I’m not sure how I’ll react. Before the forest grows, many things will disappear, like the song of curlews, those mournful sounds that fill me with a sense of mystery and of distance. It’s almost impossible to get close to a curlew, they have a hairpin sensitivity to human presence. They’re gone before they’re here and as they leave they trail a ribbon of sound. Over many centuries they’ve come into these hills from the coast to breed each summer, nesting on the ground, near to the burial mounds and ring ditches, the tumps and mottes. Somehow they’ve absorbed some of the loss of community, living and wild, that this land has experienced. They carry the old stories.

I spend a lot of my time at a pool nearby. It’s a place where wild creatures congregate. In spring migrant birds use it as a feeding stop. Otters and herons hunt there when toads come to breed in April. Swans and black-headed gulls use it as a nesting place and I once saw a merlin hunting over the bordering gorse. On the edge of the pool is a single oak and a stand of Scot’s Pine. They could be the beginnings of a forest spreading from here, over every hilltop, to the Ceredigion coast. The pool is almost identical to one I camped next to in the rainforest, a sleepless night spent fighting off mosquitoes the size of small birds. I remember the reflection of the Milky Way like phosphorescence in the still water. Long after midnight I lay back and stared up into the tree I was leaning against and I saw two pairs of huge orange eyes staring down at me. They belonged to a pair of nesting owls. All night they watched me, not spooked at all by my presence. As the light came up, fast and equatorial, they simply closed their eyes and went to sleep. It was the kind of intimacy I could perhaps exchange for the song of a distant curlew.