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.
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
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.
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.
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 of it with a power planer and a belt sander in about half-an-hour, but it wouldn’t have given me the sense of the tree’s own slow self-making the way this physical labour has. If I hadn’t know the tree it came from I’d be unsure of the species. I can recognise many trees by their leaves, some by their bark and winter silhouettes, but none by the colour and texture of the wood alone. I am not a carpenter. I know that the branch had grown for 32 years. I know which side of it faced the sun. I know that in its eighth year it had a bad summer, starved of warmth or nutrients so that it only grew at a quarter of its normal rate. Tonight I will gaze at it a while longer, run my fingers over its skin-like warmth and feel the faint traces of its rings. I’ll admire my patient labour and the infinitely more patient labour of trees. It’s just a piece of firewood and it should go into the woodburner, but I think I shall probably keep it until I die. Trees should outlast us.
Trees grow by a process of apoptosis, or cellular suicide, similar to most organisms. They are unique in the way that their dead cells are not ejected from the body but instead become the structure around which the organism grows. The living cells are located in a thin layer between bark and xylem. As a cell dies its walls harden and thicken with lignin deposits while its centre becomes hollow to allow the transportation of water and nutrients. The xylem increases circumferentially each growing season and goes dormant in winter, producing the rings that we see when a tree is felled. In northern climates the cells on the sun-exposed side of the tree grow faster than on the cool side. Tree rings become more asymmetrical the further north the tree is situated. The inner ring of this stump is only a few centimetres from the bark on one side and is over 20 centimetres from the other.
The artist Bryan Nash Gill spent years creating relief prints from the cross-sections of trees he found in his Connecticut farming neighborhood, collecting his specimens from local gardens, lumber yards and road verges. The oldest tree he ever printed from was a fallen telegraph pole. The process he used involved chainsaw and plane, followed by hours of sanding with progressively finer grade papers. He then used a blowtorch to burn away the softer summer wood and enhance the pattern of the rings in relief. Finally he sealed the wood and started to print from it. He used many different species of softwood and hardwood, including ash, hemlock, locust and spruce. The prints from his series “Hemlock 82” are almost impossibly rich images, deeply textured with an undulating pattern made of lines that barely resemble tree rings, but are more akin to terrain maps of steep hills. The shakes in the wood could easily be the paths of rivers traced from source to sea.
The log I’ve polished is just one from the pile we use to heat our house. We start adding to it in mid-summer and by the time we light the woodburner we’ve filled half the garage to the ceiling, enough to last the whole winter. I like the work of stacking, fitting each piece tightly so that it doesn’t roll or fall. I pick out logs with straight grain that can be split cleanly for kindling. I like the way they cleave easily down their length and land with a clink like broken terracotta. I carry three armfuls of logs into the house every evening and drop them into the big basket. I like the cold mornings, sitting in front of the burner having just fanned the embers from the previous day into life, the air in the room slowly warming, the water in the back-boiler starting to fizz. It’s good, as someone with a sit-down job, to be required to complete this physical routine every day for almost half the year.
The log came from an ash tree located in a field bordering our house. It blew down in a storm last winter and in a month or so the old farmer, a man with a life of slow labour behind him, cut it into hundreds of pieces and piled them up in his yard. The tree will keep him warm for all the winters he’s got left, so he lets me take some of the logs in exchange for me occasionally fixing his laptop or mobile phone. I’ve been taking pieces out of the pile that have split and weathered in interesting ways. It was Bryan Nash Gill’s ambition to make a series of prints of all the sections of a whole tree, from its roots and trunk to its thinnest branches. This ash would have been the perfect subject for him.
I believe that art doesn’t come out of artists. It is discovered within the medium in which they are working. It is something long hidden which, through patient labour, they manage to reveal. The medium can be anything, paint, stone, wood or breath. In the process something is transferred back to the artist from the subject. A ring grows inside. Slowly, with long practice, they become eccentric. This transference is a process similar to hard labour. When I lived in the Black Country I remember finding a book of old photographs of local metalworkers. These men had worked for decades shaping and finishing steel with hand files, a slow and physically demanding process which had deformed them over time. They had bent backs, one protruding shoulder and the arm they favoured to work the file bulged with muscle while the other was emaciated. Artists, in old age, often reveal their practices in their bodies, in the way they move and speak, the way they gaze. Samuel Beckett’s wild seagull eyes that stared for decades over a cliff edge into the abyss. Georgia O’Keefe’s face and hands rutted, crenulated, as if she had been shaped by the same processes as the New Mexico desert she had been painting for half her long life.
Like trees we grow towards the light, but we’re always half in shadow. Over time we twist out of shape. There are asymmetrical rings radiating from our hearts. The latest ring which has formed inside me is darker than the rest. I imagine it to be the colour of blood ochre. It contains the death of my father and a family friend, a two month suicide watch, the stick that lodged 1mm from my labrador’s carotid artery, and a series of minor crises that have only recently started to abate. I was stretched in so many directions last year that I’ve started to take on a new shape. It looks faintly tree-like.
I don’t know what I’ll look like when I reach old age. I’m hoping for big knuckles, fingers that can’t straighten, cords in my arms, skin like walnut veneer. Perhaps a few tufts of grey moss will grow somewhere on me. I’ll be out of shape, showing the traces of a life bent towards something. I’ll leave behind a workshop filled with well-used tools and an assortment of collected timber, not made into anything practical, but finished to reveal their own inner making.
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 land. There was a deep cave below eroded far into the cliff and when there was a good wind and a high tide the waves would roll in and boom beneath my feet. That morning there was a gale blowing and the cliff top was like the skin of a drum, tremors rising with each landing wave while the wind tore into me. It was the closest encounter I could get with that white capped ocean which I would not witness again for a whole year. A week after returning home I woke in the middle of the night when a book fell from the shelf above my bed. The floor and walls were shaking noiselessly, the first of a series of minor earthquakes which occurred due to collapsing mine shafts a mile below ground where the two local collieries connected. Ever since I’ve woken up several times a year, wherever I’ve lived, to the feeling that the world is shivering around me. Once I’ve shaken the sleep away the feeling subsides, as if my bones return to forgetting that they are submerged in turbulent water. But a dark mood remains, like the swells that keep rolling, long after the storm has blown out.
Calm – sea like a mirror.
Light air – ripples with appearance of scales are formed, without foam crests.
Light breeze – small wavelets still short but more pronounced; crests have a glassy appearance but do not break.
Gentle breeze – large wavelets; crests begin to break; foam of glassy appearance; perhaps scattered white horses.
Moderate breeze – small waves becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses.
Fresh breeze – moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed; chance of some spray.
Strong breeze – large waves begin to form; the white foam crests are more extensive everywhere; probably some spray.
Moderate gale – sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind; spindrift begins to be seen.
Fresh gale – moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests break into spindrift; foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind.
Strong gale – high waves; dense streaks of foam along the direction of the wind; sea begins to roll; spray affects visibility.
Whole gale – very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.
Storm – exceptionally high waves; small- and medium-sized ships might be for a long time lost to view behind the waves; sea is covered with long white patches of foam; everywhere the edges of the wave crests are blown into foam; visibility affected.
Hurricane – the air is filled with foam and spray; sea is completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected.
The Beaufort Scale
The tide was slack, the wind starting to blow, the sun an hour from going down. The two men dragged the boat across the gravel beach and jumped inside as it floated. A bull seal watched them row out and it dived under the hull as they crossed the bay, heading into open water. As they left the shelter of the cliffs they felt the swell. A mile across the sound to the mainland and home. They rowed hard but as they hit the race they could feel the tide already moving fast. Wind frayed the swells, the boat taking on water as each wave hit. One of them took both oars, the other started to bail. For an hour they made no progress as the sun sank. No moon, the stars overlaid by rain clouds. Another hour and they could tell by the distant lights on the shore that they had moved north. The rain started coming down. The shore lights went out, the faint shape of the mainland faded into the night.
I don’t know how they arrive. I wake up and there’s something boiling in me, my heart beating fast, my thoughts racing. I go to the bathroom and in the mirror is the face I recognise and don’t, teeth gritted, the muscles in the cheeks tensed, eyes glaring but nothing being seen. It happened this morning. The only thing I can do is get in the car, drive to a high place, get out and walk. All week storms have been crossing the west of the country. They reach the Black Mountains, swirl and blow out. This morning the hill was wild. Even the thorn trees were bending. Ravens were using the updrafts to float high and tumble down. The golden plovers were rushing the ground in tight echelons which flashed silver as they turned like a shoal of fish. Plovers are shaped by the wind the way fish are shaped by ocean currents. And we are shaped by the tides inside us. It took a couple of hours of walking and being battered by the gale before the thing thrashing inside me started to calm. Then I headed home.
On 1st January 1995 on the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway, in storm conditions a rogue wave was accurately recorded for the first time in history. It measured 84 feet, twice the height of the surrounding waves. Rogue waves had been observed many times before from the decks of ships, but they had only been recorded anecdotally. The fact that they occur sporadically means that they are very difficult to measure. Gales occur simultaneously in different regions of the ocean. When they blow out the swells travel for hundreds of miles, intersecting and running into later storms or hitting opposing currents. This interference can shorten their frequency to such a degree that waves sometimes merge and grow to huge proportions. They are so big that they can travel at an angle to the prevailing sea. They are thought to be the cause of incidents where ships have vanished without trace, hitting from the side and causing the ship to capsize in a split second.
Thoughts come in waves we can ride for a time. They roll over us, break and smooth out before being sucked back into the ocean they came out of. We swim in our thoughts. Bad moods are bad thoughts conjoined. A hole opens up and in they rush, barreling over us, sending us down into deep, cold water. I get a couple every week and they used to consume me completely until I discovered that moods don’t like you to be on the move. Walking eases them. Riding something, like a board or a horse, makes them vanish completely.
This morning I walked while trying to count the thoughts that were rushing into my head, their subject matter, repetitions and variations. I lost count before I’d gone a mile. Thoughts like voices in a room full of drinkers, jostling for attention, mostly uninteresting, accompanied by the ear-worm of a song I can’t stand . After a week of commuting in the dark followed by a Saturday of freezing rain and fifty mile an hour winds that kept even me inside, my head was as noisy as a colony of seabirds. Bonxies were attacking. As usual I was telling myself that this noise would not be here if I’d only learned to meditate. As usual, I replied that the worst people I’ve ever met meditate strictly. So I kept walking and the combining waves of thoughts kept rolling over me. Until mile six when a kite crossed the ridge just above me, soaring on the last of the dying storm winds, primaries splayed, the bird utterly still and moving fast, its blue eyes fixed on all the microscopic details of the seeping ground. I stopped and I watched as it drifted out across the valley. The noise inside stopped. I continued to walk and it started up again, but now the voices were whispers and I could hear the wind.
They kept rowing into the wind, water spraying over the bow, the boat tilting almost vertically as they rode each wave head on. They took turns to bail as their muscles tired, their hands blistered and bloody from their efforts at the oars. The storm showed no signs of abating. Then a glimmer of moon overhead before cloud once more slid and locked in front of it, but they had seen the sea stack and now they changed direction and rowed hard towards it, going with the wind for a while until they felt the tilt of the waves lessen slightly, and then again. Now they rowed as close to the stack as they could, and felt the wind subside enough for them to hold the boat in place. All night they held there, taking turns at rowing and bailing, until the tide went slack and the gale started to blow out. At the stain of daylight, when the horizon appeared for the first time in twelve hours, the wind changed direction and calmed to a breeze. As the shadow of the cliffs appeared miles off, they turned the boat and rowed for home.
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 starlings appear and disappear. I flush a snipe and a dozen golden plovers, their calls like lights in the fog. Strange that the birds are so active today, perhaps they thought they had the place to themselves.
It is over to the west, sheltered in a fold in the hill. To get to it you have to walk over a thousand unmarked graves.
I’m walking above a trench that follows the contour of the hill for half a mile. On the county archaeological survey map this trench is identified as a quarry, but the local graziers say that it has never yielded any stone. It is long and deep enough to conceal a thousand men. The trench directly overlooks Painscastle a mile away on the valley floor, a Norman stronghold which was the scene of the most bloody battle in Welsh history. In the late 1198 the Welsh prince Gwenwynwyn captured the castle. The castle was then retaken by an army assembled by the Justiciar of England. All Welsh lives were lost. 3000 foot soldiers discarded their weapons and tried to flee the mounted English army. All were hunted down and killed. The place of the slaughter was presumed to have been the fields directly adjacent to the castle but a recent survey, including metal detection and Lidar scanning, found no evidence. Up here, a mile above the castle, is where local folk history says that the slaughter took place. An old grazier once walked me along the boundary of the mass grave that he says lies beneath this ground. No farmer has ever ploughed it. Until recently this place was littered with gravestones, some bearing 1000 year old inscriptions. The Welsh name for the adjacent farm is translated as The Place of the Dead.
My memory failed the morning I raced a battered Dawes bike down a steep lane. As the lane neared a T-Junction with a busy main road I started to pull on my brakes, but they didn’t respond. There were cars moving fast in both directions. I was heading straight for them. I veered to the side of the lane and hit a thick concrete sign post, went over the handlebars and hit my head on the sharp edge of the post. By the time I regained consciousness my eyes were shut from the swelling. Weeks of lying in a dark room followed while my skull knitted itself back together. I don’t remember a thing of my life before that event and I’ve retained very little since. Now I lose things easily, particularly words. I grope around for the names of my heroes, for the titles of my favourite books and films. I’ve only ever been able to memorise one poem. But I do remember places. The memory of a place resides outside the skull, somewhere close to the soles of your feet.
Place cells are found in the hippocampus. These neurones fire in patterns known as place fields which respond to locations and enable humans and animals to navigate and to remember places. On entering a location a unique pattern will fire within the cells creating a non-topographical map which then fires again when that place is remembered. These patterns are always hexagonal. This is one of the oldest evolutionary functions of the brain. The ability to navigate is the first thing that disappears with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, years before other cognitive functions are compromised.
It was recently discovered that place cells also have a crucial function in the recall of episodic memories. The process operates in the same way as place fields, utilising hexagonal grids. Our memories are literally bonded to a place and stored as navigable maps inside us.
But memory does not always reside in the container of the brain. Mimosa Pudica is a plant native to Central and South America. It is known as the sensitive plant due to the strange way its leaves fold and droop when disturbed. The evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliana created a a now well known experiment with these plants. She created an apparatus to repeatedly drop a Mimosa Pudica at fixed intervals. At first the leaves folded as expected, but after a few repetitions the leaves stopped reacting. The plant learned that being dropped was not a threat. A month later the plant was dropped again. The leaves still did not fold. The plant had memorised the event.
Over the unmarked graves, past dykes, burial cairns, round barrows.
Follow the lines of broken walls, each stone baring the memory of the hand that fetched and laid it.
Beneath the circling buzzards whose eyes hold the real maps of this land, at a scale of 1:1.
The chapel comes into view. It is one of the many chapels in this area that seem abandoned, the community it served almost gone. In the surrounding fields the platforms of ancient and now vanished houses can be seen. Only a single half-ruined farmhouse stands nearby, its roof protected from the weather by a taped-together collection of black bin sacks, torn and flapping in the wind. There is no lane to the chapel. You pass through a broken gate closed with a length of string, across two steeply sloping fields towards a beech wood which enfolds the churchyard as if in protection, the great silver and gold shapes of the trees towering over the twisted, infirm yews that lean against the walls of the chapel.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. All across the country people are gathering. But not here. This community began to unravel in those terrible years, but it is now too far gone even for memories. The gravestones lean at acute angles bearing lichen and moss-coated inscriptions. They are like neurones that have ceased firing. Once they told stories of this place, now the best they can do is recall the disembodied names: Griffiths, Nicholls, Price. On the bank that borders the wood are little stones that mark the burials of children, rough, unshaped stoned fetched from the hill by families too poor to pay for a carved headstone.
There are cultures who believe that memories reside, along with dreams, in our surroundings. As we pass through they ripple like notes on a piano, they light up like a silver screen. Our memories play us. But they require a relay down the generations. They fall silent easily.
The chapel is cool, damp as river stones. At the end of each pew is a pole topped with a burned down candle, wax pooled like time stood still. Plaster crumbles from the walls, the windows are opaque with dust. I walk to the alter, a simple unadorned bench protected by a wooden rail. I take the tiny enamel poppy from my pocket and place it on the bench. I try to think of something to say but no words come. For a minute I stand, head bowed. As I leave the old door howls. Outside the beech trees are raining gold in a spear of sunlight. Dark rectangles stretch from the headstones like blankets. I cross the fields, tie the gate shut and head back up the hill, its memories sinking like leaf fall.