Interlude One

Interlude One

Walking the track again, into the first high wind of autumn, after a week of continuing horror stories about the ever-more disturbed earth and the ongoing satire of inactivity that is modern politics. It’s times like this when whole sections of the path disappear behind the curtain of cluttered thoughts spinning in me like fierce static. Three words have been circling me like a buzzard all the way up here – “Just move on.”
 
 
The farmers have cut and baled bracken for winter bedding. The ground is bare. I’ve been reading about beech woods, how the trees feed each other, how even the stumps of long fallen trees can still be green below the bark, still alive because other trees are nourishing them through their roots. I’ve never seen a mature beech wood. This hill should be on the southern border of a temperate rainforest stretching from Assynt. I don’t know why the absence of something that hasn’t existed for millennia makes me mourn, makes me angry.
 
 
I see an old farmer riding his quadbike just beyond the pool, and there is an orange shape nodding behind him. The shape becomes a bobble hat worn by a little girl who is giggling and shreaking with excitement as her grandfather climbs the slope at less than half speed. Beyond them a field far below in the valley suddenly flares green under a shaft of sunlight. There is no more beautiful place on earth than this. A place like this can stretch like a root though the generations, keeping us nourished, even though there is little to nourish it.
 
 
I stop beside the pool and watch wind shape water. A patch of reeds quivers, slate grey reflections flooded out by the white of the low sun.
 
 
Just watch. You don’t need anything more.

 

 

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

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...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

The Roundabout

It’s an ancient-looking structure cresting a high hill. The stone was formed in the Silurian period, 400 million years ago. It was gathered from the surrounding hilltop quarries and assembled into a head-height circular wall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee....

Ryokan and the Rooks

I have a small but growing collection of bird skulls, mostly found on walks in the woods or on cliff-top paths. My favourite is from a manx shearwater. I found it on a clifftop path on Skomer Island, which is home to a hundred thousand of these seabirds in the...

The Lookout

The Lookout

I don’t know how stone bends. Rock is fluid, the stone cycle much like the water cycle. Magma cools into igneous rock. It erodes into fine particles which compress to become sedimentary, then it is folded deep underground, heats and transforms into metamorphic rock, then heats again and returns to magma. This is fact. But for me to know something I need to be able to feel and not just comprehend. Being human I’m around for just a geological twitch in time, I find it difficult to feel what things were like for my ancestors a century ago, though I know the facts. Looking up at this arc of stone, which has taken millions of years to take shape, my mind goes blank. My comprehension serves no purpose.

We’re riding a high spring tide, paddling north around the headland, passing Trwyn yr Olchfa, Pwll Melyn, Pwll Edrych, Careg Lydan, Ogof Groyn, and onto Careg Adeyrn, old names for the distinct features of this stretch of the Pembrokeshire coast. Out in the Irish Sea squalls are sliding across the horizon, pressed against the white sky like dirty thumbprints. The sun is blinking above and the sea glows. Submerged boulders reflect the light and cast weaving shadows. Moments ago we were doing our best opera impressions inside a gold-seamed cave which disappeared into its own darkness. Now we’re trying to judge if the space below this rock arch is wide enough to get our kayaks through. It isn’t. So we’re staring at it instead, my 13-year-old boy and me. “Dinosaurs up there.” he says, sensing the vast timespan folded into this place and the lingering rawness of it. The rock is clearly stratified, layered with many tones and hues, a buckled rainbow. The lines of the arch rise out of the sea, climb in a great curve and touch the topsoil, then dive back down, as if following the leap of a dolphin. In its centre the rock has collapsed forming a narrow passage which the swell bowls through.  Above the formation is the green monoscape of Wales, ironed-out, adapted, simplified for purpose. But down here things are as they should be. It’s rare I get to see such sights. When I do, I remember that awe is good medicine.

A week ago I was looking down at this spot from the clifftop, as a group of seals lay half asleep in the sun. I watched a buzzard swing by below me. Two peregrines, falcon and tiercel, appeared from over the cliff edge and cannoned vertically at the bigger, less agile bird. They twisted and dived as they harassed the poor thing until it escaped beyond Camaes Head. After that they took it in turns to climb and stoop, screaming at each other as their trajectories crossed. This is their hunting ground, Careg Aderyn, the rock of birds. Behind a high fence of barbed wire stood the skeleton of an old coastguard lookout, its windows long blown out by winter storms. These days there are few lookouts left, only 9 in the whole of Wales. The sea around Camaes Head is not particularly treacherous and the commercial shipping which used to head up the Teifi estuary to Cardigan port was long gone even a century ago, so I’m not sure why there would have been a need for the remote lookout a two mile, ridiculously steep walk up the cliff path from the estuary mouth. But I do know that I’d have applied for the job as lookout, though I doubt I’d have been good at it. There are too many interesting things going on out on the cliffs and sea to be bothered about passing boats. When you’re looking for something specific, even interesting things like shipwrecks and drownings, you stop seeing what’s there. Don’t take notes, just stare.

I don’t know if animals are capable of viewing their environment aesthetically. The oystercatchers that have been shrieking their alarm calls and skittering from outcrop to outcrop as we paddled here seem focused wholly on us, which is dangerous because the peregrines are still up there. The seals which slide up to the surface from time-to-time are also watching us, and politely waiting until we depart their water gardens. Have any of them ever stared at this rock arch and felt their heart slow? Perhaps what makes humans unique is not our tools or languages, but our ability to be captivated.

Captivated. Enthralled. The words for this phenomena have their roots in bondage. Gentler alternatives like bewitch, or entrance, still define a loss of self, a state of being in the control of outside forces. In words like awestruck or astonish (from old French estoner – to stun, and Latin tonare – to thunder) the sense verges on terror. Perhaps I’m too numbed by explanations to feel terror at this thin fringe of wilderness on the circumference of our tamed island, but I do feel captivated. All captives long for open spaces and I come from a long line of them, generations of working class people forced to live in physical and emotional spaces too small for purpose.

My mum’s family were labourers, pottery workers and miners. Mum grew up in a two-up, two-down terrace house in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent, close to the chimneys and bottle kilns. The city was dominated by Shelton Bar, a huge steelworks founded in the 1820’s, covering an area of more than 400 acres with its own ore and coal pits sunk on site. At the time of my mum’s birth the works produced 2 million tons of coal, 215,000 tons of pig iron and 200,000 tons of steel every year. As a child she would have heard the distant crashing of the furnaces and watched the fiery pools of light they produced glow against the clouds at night. Her father worked in the pit and when she was very small a part of the coal face collapsed on him and broke his hip. Septicaemia followed and he came close to losing his legs. He spent two years in hospital and 6 years out of work.  My nan had 3 small kids to look after at the time and spent all day caring for them while in the evenings she was a cleaner to make ends meet. When my grandfather was fully recovered he was given a job above ground, driving a dumper truck at one of the collieries at the edge of the city. Bordering the yard where he worked was an area of old woodland. On occasional mornings he’d cross paths with foxes, discovering dens where cubs peered out at him. He watched rooks and robins nesting. The hammering of metalworks was replaced by the knocking of green woodpeckers; billowing smoke and the reflections of furnace fires became a shifting canopy of leaves. Every day he went home and told my mum about what he’d seen in the wood and she’d listen captivated. This story has always felt like part of my foundations and I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for those hidden, wilder places on the edges of things where space seems to open up, vastly.

I don’t know how many generations of my family endured the underground life of pits and factories. I’ve traced us through the records, read of the workhouse births and early deaths. I haven’t found it yet, but back there somewhere is a place outside the city, or before the city, a place of clean rivers and woodsmoke. Backwards from there is nothing but open skies. It’s like looking at rock strata, at a thin dark line arching over me, containing 3 centuries of coal dust, clay, and iron ore.

My ancestors are looking through me at the places they never saw. One of the things they’ve seen is another expanse of water and another boy paddling near to the land’s edge. He is dressed in ragged shorts, and he’s using his hands and feet to propel himself. He is straddling a log just buoyant enough to stay afloat, paddling in an arc, playing out a long handmade fishing net. At the arc’s meridian another log slowly appears, only a few feet from the boy. The log is much longer than the one he is riding, and much wider. Then it bends, a tapering, scaled and plated tail swinging, creating an S-shaped wake. The crocodile dives below the boy. I shout but the boy ignores me. He’s seen it too, but he’s used to its presence. The creature is hunting the Nile perch in his net, it is not interested in him. His father and uncle are standing on the shore, ready to pull in the net when the boy passes the end of the line to them. All three of them work without hurry. When the net is pulled in there are no fish. The crocodile breaches the surface again, cruises for a while in a straight line out into the lake, then disappears. I don’t know how long this fishing method has been practised on Lake Turkana, but it was probably around before industrialised iron and coal works. The tribesman have inhabited the area for centuries. They are mainly pastoralists, but for generations the lake has provided them with fish as an alternative food source.

Just north of the fishing spot is another Turkana boy. He is of similar size and long-limbed build, but his skull is unusually small. He floats on his back on a bed of cast metal. He appeared at the lakeside only a few years after the birth of his distant relative, who quietly gathers the net to pay it out again. But this boy was born 1.6 million years ago. His memorial stands in the place where he was discovered, while his remains, an unusually complete skeleton only lacking hands and feet, are now housed in a glass case 500 miles south in the Nairobi National Museum. Turkana Boy, or fossil KNM-WT 15000 is the best example in the current record of an early bipedal hominid. Though his brain capacity was only half the size of ours it was double that of contemporary apes. If he had reached maturity he would have been 6 feet tall.  Opinion is that this species of hominid, Homo ergaster, emigrated out of Africa, but the journey it took is contested. Some experts believe that the species spread to Asia, then returned to Africa, and later entered Europe. On the eastern shore the Koobi Fora site, excavated by the Leakey family over a period of years, gave up the bones of other hominids including H. habilis, H. rudolfensis and four australopith species. Ten thousand year old remains of Homo sapiens have also been discovered near the lake shore. Our ancestors and near ancestors lie layered in this one place, their bones sometimes only metres apart, though their separation in time immense.  Evolutionary paths are often described as tree shaped but I like to think that they take the form of coastlines with peninsulas, bays and inlets, outcrops connected by fragile arches that sometimes collapse into the sea and appear through the mists as islands. Their complexity grows with every discovery. The shoreline continually changes.

My grandfather died and was buried in the same month as the paleoanthropologist Kamoya Kimeu uncovered Turkana Boy from the arid ground beside the lake. Now, in my mind, their bones are mingled. The time gap between their lives is a space I cannot feel my way into, I can only comprehend the numbers. They are both there at once. Our histories belong to places, not time, and places fade away. I don’t remember now the colours of Lake Turkana or the shapes of the stunted trees, or of the surrounding hills. I only recall the boy paddling out with his net, and the awe I felt when that 30 foot crocodile rose from the water tectonically, like something that had been waiting for a million years. I no longer remember my grandfather’s face, or the tone of his voice, just the stories my mother told me.

Only the towers and walls of this island are shaped the way they’re meant to be. Out on the water, paddling around the cliffs, I get a feel for the place as it was and might be again, when we’re gone, which could be soon. Its wordless stories are wrapped tight inside layers of stone. My remembered history is so thin it will never register in bedrock. Our whole industrial past is present in a few inches of topsoil which will compress eventually into a line so thin it will almost be invisible. The whole of hominid history will be less than a finger’s width. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, high enough for peregrines to stoop and arrow down, their descent lasting what seem to me like minutes. But time is nothing more than a story we tell. It will remain for a little while, then slowly disappear.

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they areThe people brushing past meAs I stroll through GionTo the temple of KiyomizuOn this cherry blossom moonlit nightYosano Akiko There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late...

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...

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

Unremembered

The cloud is down. My navigation is reliant on the recall of shapes close up: twisted trees, broken walls, mawn pools, the bends and intersections in tracks. In the past week fieldfares have returned, I can hear them now, ransacking the rowans. A small flock of...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

The Roundabout

It’s an ancient-looking structure cresting a high hill. The stone was formed in the Silurian period, 400 million years ago. It was gathered from the surrounding hilltop quarries and assembled into a head-height circular wall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee....

Ryokan and the Rooks

I have a small but growing collection of bird skulls, mostly found on walks in the woods or on cliff-top paths. My favourite is from a manx shearwater. I found it on a clifftop path on Skomer Island, which is home to a hundred thousand of these seabirds in the...

Old Growth

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am sitting dazed after another week of hospital appointments, results and procedures. I want to disappear into the silence of water, the patterns of droplets dripping from the leaves. There is something beyond the mathematics of the world that I will always reach for and never touch. But now I hear them and I’m awake, their calls short and splintered, not the long trailing notes I usually listen to from a distance. They are near. Now they rise. All five of them. They have brought bad news. Their nests have failed again. 

Only a few hours ago we were standing in an oak wood forty miles from here, sheltering from a hail storm (It is June, the winter of summer). A male redstart flew in front of us and landed on a nearby branch, answering an urgent call from its chick which hopped along the branch above. The chick was fed and the parent bird waited, on alert, while we stood too close to its needy offspring. These birds had the shelter of a hundred-acre wood, undisturbed by livestock and with only the occasional walker to worry about.  The curlews aren’t so lucky, they need undisturbed ground to breed. For a few more days, perhaps a week, they will stay here to feed and I’ll see them flying overhead calling to each other with those cries as long and curved as their beaks. Then they will head back to the coasts to brave another winter. This place will drain to its dregs. 

It’s hard in a land like this to ignore the wounds. A few miles south the Black Mountains lie like corpses awaiting autopsies. They’re soft-bodied mountains, made of stone you can split with your fingers. As the falling light striates their sides the scars and slashes show. The ground here is so easy to injure. Every footstep makes a mark, the twin almonds made by sheep, the moon-marks of the ponies, my own boot treads left days ago, overprinting the splayed twigs of a raven’s feet. Perhaps it’s the way I’m tuned, or untuned. I have a growing sense of the impoverishment happening everywhere. This little country I live in was one of the focal points from which the great wave of destruction radiated across the earth. Obscured by the mountains, but not far away, are the coal hills, the places that were hollowed and scoured for the minerals that fuelled the industrial revolution. The hills have mourned too long. They need new life. 

There is a place very far from here that I’ve been thinking about a lot, though it’s a place I’ll probably never see. It is an area roughly the same size as Wales and is on the same latitude. Like Wales it faces west to an ocean and is sheltered by a large island. Like Wales it is a place of mountains and rivers. Unlike Wales it is a place dominated by old growth forest, the last great temperate rainforest on earth. The closest I’ve been to the Great Bear Rainforest was a drive into British Columbia almost twenty years ago. I remember a track climbing through pines to a mountain lake at the foot of a calving glacier. The lake was silver-blue, opaque with sediment. At its edge stranded icebergs stood like giant toadstools. Every half hour or so another section calved away, forming waves that crossed the surface of the water, languid as sleepy bears. As they reached the edge water surged up the mica-spangled beach and licked another layer from the undersides of each berg. This was a landscape visibly being made, valleys chiselled from mountains, lush forest growing on pure meltwater. It was a place to disappear within, everything smothered by trees, ice and snow. A footprint wouldn’t last long before it was filled in or grown over. 

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to cougars, wolves, black bears, spirit bears and grizzly bears, otters, mink, martins, bald eagles, marbled murrelets, blue herons, salamanders. Coho, chum, chinook, pink, sockeye and steelhead salmon have bred in such huge numbers that their rotting carcasses determined the success of the summer growing season. The old trees as far as five hundred metres from the stream-bank contain marine minerals in their growth rings. A recent survey discovered fifteen thousand new species of invertebrates there. When you’re surrounded by a place so alive your own life shape-shifts. In rainforests I’ve come face-to-face with mountain gorillas and timber wolves. We’ve stared each other in the eyes, recognised our common ancestors, and wished each other good luck on the journey into our next forms.

From up here you can see the thin silver line of water which was once a great salmon river. Fifty pound fish were caught regularly on the River Wye half a century ago and once a dead specimen was discovered that weighed eighty pounds. I’ve read this but it’s hard to absorb when I sit every year for many hours-long sessions, waiting for salmon at a nearby leap. In ten years I’ve seen two small and one medium-sized fish. I’ve kayaked miles downstream and seen nothing more than a few trout, though the river is crystal clear. 

It’s seventeen years since we moved to this valley. Our garden was already a jungle then. We’ve dug a couple of ponds, some vegetable beds, planted fruit trees, and abandoned them all to the duckweed, ash saplings, brambles and nettles that seemed to be insulted at our initial attempts to tame the place. So we’ve learned to stop taming. We’re surrounded by fields that are bitten down to a centimetre of grass by the sheep. The wood we can see from the kitchen window is a conifer plantation so densely planted that it contains no understory. On the flood plain in the valley bottom potatoes are planted in arcing lines half a mile long. Our home has become a tiny island amidst all this tameness, a place for wild things. Our walls are now almost completely clad with ivy and honeysuckle. We let the new growth each year push inside the house and don’t cut it back until the windows won’t close. Spiders are welcome. This summer we have resident bats and a wasp’s nest is being built inches from my son’s bedroom window. Wildflowers have colonised the back garden, edging in from the old hedge. Bluebells were first to appear, a couple of clumps forming here and there. Then the clumps merged and they were joined by cowslips, red campion, wood violets, celandine, tutsan. Wild strawberries grow beneath the trees. Here and there, sprouting from gaps in the garden walls, or pushing out from shady corners there are hart’s tongue ferns, vivid green and wet to the touch, their forms almost animal. Herb robert has rooted everywhere, in the flower beds, in plant pots, in cracks in the paving stones. It grows particularly densely close to the front and back doors. One of the forgotten names for the herb in this part of Wales is cancer weed. It contains compounds which have been proven to slow the spread of cancer by facilitating the oxygenation of cells. It was used all over Europe as a treatment historically. Like the rainforest, our third of an acre has become a place for medicines to grow.

A one centimetre tumour can take years to develop. Cells malfunction slowly, sub-dividing and colonising the darkness of the body like night flowers, pushing out tendrils, sending down roots. A stage one cancer is as small as a seed and causes no symptoms if it’s buried in the breast. Julia was lucky she had a mammogram early, just before her fiftieth birthday. It could have been another three years before she was called in for a check up and by then the cancer would have spread. The treatment is like weed removal, cutting out, uprooting and then burning the surrounding area to make sure the remnants have been destroyed. Perhaps Herb Robert will help, if we learn how it’s used. I think it’s growing at our door because it knows it’s needed, which is the reason why all wild things grow. 

The remnants of a great temperate rainforest surround us here, but they’re hard to find. Great oaks, half a millennia and more in age, stand inconspicuously in tiny woods and sheep pastures. Most people don’t know they’re there. Two fields away is a tree I visit often. When my boys were little they used to talk to it and leave it gifts. It can only be found by using a route that very few people know about. You have to sneak through someone’s garden, climb a narrow, overgrown path, clamber over rickety gates and through waist high nettles. The tree is an island ecosystem, home to its own forest of ferns and fungi, beetles and birds. It is in its senescence now, but still healthy, though it is surrounded by its own fallen branches. I won’t describe it further. It’s almost impossible to put trees into words. I’ve found that you can only describe them better in pigment or light, through a painting or photograph. I once spent a whole winter drawing the old tree, forcing myself to work with a black biro so each mark I made was as small as possible, no broad strokes or fields of tone allowed. I had to be deliberate and accurate. The first few weeks were excruciatingly difficult, and deadly dull, working over a tiny area where the first low branch intersected with the trunk. Then, very slowly, my hand started to feel its way into the patterns and textures and my eye became tuned to the rhythm of the trees growth. After that winter every oak tree I passed, old or young, took on a personality. Some seemed confident and open, others withdrawn, secretive. Many invited me in with a woody warmth, a few told me to be on my way. This lasted several months until, having put my pens away, I lost the connection and once again saw only trees.

Two miles away, over the English border there are many other old oaks standing sentinel in fields I pass on the way to work. On a five mile stretch of road there are more than fifty old trees, all of which have a similar appearance. They are called stag-heads. Dead branches protrude above the canopy like antlers. This is a symptom of a disease called chronic oak decline. Like cancer it attacks the body of the tree gradually, debilitating it over a period of years. There is no single pathogen and no known cure. Some trees recover, some don’t. It is thought that poor soil fertility, the presence of chemicals and severe weather instigates the disease. Once the tree is weakened it is vulnerable to attacks from fungi, insects and bacteria. 

Our wounds are everywhere, on the bare mountain tops, along the empty rivers, in the crowns of dying trees, and on our own scarred bodies. It feels to me sometimes that, like the curlews, life is just clinging on. The scientists tells us that greater losses are on the way, if we continue to live as we do, which means there’s still time for us to find paths through this dark forest. We should set out by letting the wild things grow, otherwise there may not be wild salmon when my children reach my age. The old oaks could be toppled and lying in the fields, their great trunks exposed to show that, once upon a time, there were beings who lived for a thousand years. 

 

Heartwood

The statistics: it has taken 12 hours to smooth the surface, 4 shifts of 3 hours, first with 60, then 80, then 120 grit paper. Dust gathering on me, my hands following the rings as they appeared from beneath the deep scores made by the chainsaw. I could have done all...

The Oak and the Swift

Lately I’ve started to pity swifts.  They arrive around Mayday every year, appearing over the river in helter-skelter couples. They then form larger groups and spread out over the valley, chasing invisible entities which must be far more important to them than...

Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to...

A Desertion

I remember that the sand whispered and sound carried for miles. And dunes the colour of tanned skin - their perfect, female contours. I remember how the desert engulfed the town, dust blowing down narrow streets, gathering and drifting in doorways. There were blue...

The Nocturnal Bottleneck Theory

The most useful thing I learned in an 18 year education was that a white sheet of paper is never white. I learned this by spending five full days staring at an unmarked A1 sheet pinned to a wall, trying at first to draw, and then to paint it. The exercise was set by...

Ryokan and the Rooks

I have a small but growing collection of bird skulls, mostly found on walks in the woods or on cliff-top paths. My favourite is from a manx shearwater. I found it on a clifftop path on Skomer Island, which is home to a hundred thousand of these seabirds in the...

Hidden Words

I’ve been scribbling words onto stones for a few years. The hills around here are littered with small, disused quarries, shallow pits containing loose stones of different shapes and sizes. Choosing the right one is difficult as the local mudstone is coarse and...

The Roundabout

It’s an ancient-looking structure cresting a high hill. The stone was formed in the Silurian period, 400 million years ago. It was gathered from the surrounding hilltop quarries and assembled into a head-height circular wall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee....

The Blossom Front Line

The Blossom Front Line

How beautiful they are
The people brushing past me
As I stroll through Gion
To the temple of Kiyomizu
On this cherry blossom moonlit night

Yosano Akiko

There is a stretch of road over the border, not far from here, which rolls and curves between acres of orchards. In late April each year it is lit on both sides with the colours of fruit blossom ranging from almost white to pale pink. The tightly packed rows add up to hundreds of miles of trees, some plots recently planted, others ancient. It’s a sight every bit as stunning as the olive and lemon groves of Sicily, or the lavender fields of Provence. On the county series OS maps drawn in 1888 the housing estate I live on is recorded as an orchard of about twenty acres. Only the bordering hedge now exists from that map but our one-third of an acre is slowly being replanted to echo its past. I’ve introduced a lot of old varieties from the area and I’m slowly learning which ones are best suited to this steep piece of ground. All of the trees are growing well enough but some flower and fruit profusely while others stutter into leaf with barely a single blossom and the fruit falls long before it is edible. We are on the edge of the habitable land for fruit growing here, with the lowlands of Herefordshire a mile to the east and the sparse uplands of Radnorshire to the north, the Black Mountains to the south. I only know of one farm in the locality which still has a small orchard and the fruit is never harvested, instead being left to the blackbirds and fieldfares which feast on the pools of rotting fruit which surround each tree in late October. From that old map of the locality with its little geometric patterns of little trees it is the only orchard that still remains.  

A few weeks ago, while driving to work, I stopped outside the entrance of an orchard surrounded by high hedges that I usually only glimpse in passing, an orchard of perhaps five acres with a few hundred trees. Every tree had been felled. They lay at identical angles, like a domino run, like the devastation wreaked by a hurricane or a bomb blast. The fallen trees still frothed with fresh flowers. The machine that had only just cut them down stood chugging, ready for the driver to finish his fag and move onto the next plot. Now the plot is cleared, not even the stumps remain to show what was once there, a signpost newly erected at the gate advertising development land for sale.

The house where I grew up had a tiny front yard in which my dad had planted a flowering cherry tree when he and my mum first moved in. The tree grew rapidly and had already reached the height of the roof by the time I was born, obscuring the view over the tower-blocks and pit head. Each spring it flowered madly and for a few weeks turned our little plot into a Japanese garden, luminescence raining onto the grass, the driveway and the road beyond. Dad was very proud of the tree but mum hated it because of the mess it made. To her it was the most invasive of weeds. So when dad was on one of his stints in hospital she paid me and a friend to cut it down. I remember how the handsaw snagged in the wet wood, how the polished bark bled amber, and how bad I felt when nothing but an oozing six inch stump remained. Dad said nothing about it when they wheeled him out of the ambulance. He never mentioned the tree for the rest of his life, but he often sat at the front window, staring out at the space where it should have been. Forty years later, a scar is still there, the stump rotted out and mossed over, the dead roots making a little hillock in the patch of lawn.

The granite walls are 30 feet high in places, the lane to the entrance narrow but glowing with the light that seems to emit from the ground here. There is no hint of any plant life present unless you crane your neck and see the trees in the sky. There must have been a day in my young life when I walked up this lane and heard the sound of her chisel on stone. Perhaps the calls of gulls and jackdaws, the chug of boat engines and the nearby church bells overlaid the staccato sounds ringing above me. The little house is nondescript, its door narrow. I would have walked past without any idea of the work-in-progress going on above me, her art and her garden. For years Barbara Hepworth also walked past the place which would later become her studio, home and gallery, not knowing what was behind the towering walls. 

The centrepiece of the garden is a flowering cherry tree. The blossoms are almost gone now but there are a few left, hanging high above the pond, strangely late to still be here for a place so far to the south of these islands. Pale pink petals are scattered across the paths. They drift from the flowers like moth wings and cling to the sculptures. The tree’s bark has the gloss and blisters that I remember from the tree in our front yard. It is as warm and smooth to the touch as the bronzes which have spent a whole day soaking up the spring sunshine. The branches reach out into horizontal space like the limbs of a dancer performing some barely possible move. I’m not sure if Hepworth trained the tree this way but it seems likely. Nearby is the sculpture “Cantata Domino”, the opening line, in Latin, from Psalm 98, “Oh Sing unto the Lord”. Its form merges the curved, organic reaching of a seedling with a pair of hands held in prayer. It is one of a series of forms she made after the death of her eldest son, the intense loss and suffering she felt giving rise to an expression of spirituality in her work that had previously been less apparent. Scattered in the undergrowth are many Hart’s Tongue ferns. Perhaps, as in my garden, they have found their own way here, pushing their shallow roots into the less fertile and shadowed areas. At this time of year they are still unfurling, creating the curled, undulating shapes that Hepworth absorbed, shapes that passed, as all art does, from sight and touch, into the imagination and back out through the hands. Hepworth wanted to be possessed by the process of making, the finding of organic and geometric forms in wood, stone and bronze. Her garden was the perfect place to create. Even as she became frail and ill, walking with a stick after a broken hip and a decade long struggle with cancer, the garden sustained her, the works of her hands fusing with the forms that inspired them. For now, the garden is well tended and preserved, left as a museum. But future generations will probably decide to abandon it, they always do eventually. One day the high walls will hide a forgotten garden grown wild with weeds, an ancient cherry tree still flowering at its centre, in the undergrowth strange forms in metal and stone, echoing the shapes of blossoms and seeds, of weather-sculpted boulders and folding waves. 

Jindai-zakura at one thousand eight hundred years is the oldest flowering cherry on earth. Its trunk is over forty feet in diameter, its ancient and brittle branches held up with staves. But still, every year in April it bursts into flower, part of the wave called the Sakura Zensen. The “blossom front lines” travel from south to north for a thousand miles over a three month period. Plum blossom starts first, usually beginning in early February on the island of Okinawa and finishing in Hokkaido by early April. Travelling behind it the cherry blossom front line maps the same trajectory. Very occasionally the lines cross, when there has been a particularly cold winter or warm spring, and the cherry blossoms catch up and overtake the plums. The line is traced via a series of weather stations and sample trees in the different districts. Trees are selected carefully and monitored closely. First bloom is measured when five flowers have opened on the tree, full bloom when eighty percent of the flowers are open. This is when Japanese people gather to eat and drink beneath the trees in celebration of the arrival of spring. It is a tradition with roots stretching back to the time of Christ. The flowering cherry is a powerful symbol in the culture. Its brief but ecstatic flowering represents life and death, how we burst forth into the world then quickly fade and drift back to the soil. High above the earth a similar wave can be seen on a daily basis. From west to east clusters of luminescence start to appear as the shadow of nightfall reaches across the earth. As the indigo darkness engulfs villages, towns and cities, lights appear. Clusters, strings, pools and lakes of light spread, advancing into valleys, up mountainsides, into ice fields, across remote islands and even the wild oceans. This advancing wave, though it grows in power every day, is only a tenth of the age of the Sakura Zensen. If it continues unabated the technological flowering of humanity will be far briefer than the life of the Jindai-Zakura tree. 

We are in the last days of May and the apple and cherry blossoms have almost gone.  The leaves have thickened and the fruit is starting to swell. The cowslips and blue bells that have grown around the bases of the trees in my garden are ragged and starting to bend. A whole year before the wave comes again. In the middle of the plot I’ve planted a new tree, a prunus kanzan, which is thought to be the variety that Hepworth planted in her garden sixty years ago and is very similar to the one my dad planted at around the same time. Of all the trees in our garden it will be the one which doesn’t give us any fruit. But, like all the trees we’ve planted here, it is not meant to be productive. It’s here in remembrance. 

Up Close and Far Off

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.