Tonight the river is high. I don’t know what atmospheric conditions out in the Atlantic are driving this endless rain. Like all weather these days it doesn’t seem right. My headlights project two beams across the water, which boils and writhes downstream. Nothing could swim against that. The swans are out in the fields, roosting miserably. As I drove here I glimpsed the pale fishhooks of their necks stark against the darkness. I park up, pull the key from the ignition, slam the door, and everything goes black. I can’t make out the path along the river bank for several minutes. When it appears it’s a vague line overlaying the blackness. My dog sprints ahead, her senses everywhere at once. I can hear her breathing, her footsteps on the dead leaves. I follow her slowly, trying not to trip, trying not to use the torch as my slow senses tune in. It is a few days before the winter solstice. We’re waiting for the return of the sun. Fairy lights blink in windows and doorways. Some of the houses in my village are lit up like casinos, a newish phenomenon around here. The occupants are advertising something – the bliss of an illuminated, oil-powered lifestyle. The lights remind me of aerial views of oil terminals and fracking fields, peppered with flares. Beyond the garden walls and hedges wild creatures turn away, knowing that too much light leads to blindness.
We’re given to attributing ourselves with a natural superiority over other species that allow us to do anything we like. But most of the time our superior skills and faculties are easily disproven. We are certainly not the only toolmakers, reasoners, or language users. I’ve heard it said, usually among writers, that what distinguishes humans from other species is our ability to tell stories. But this also isn’t true. The alarm call of any garden bird tells a story to other members of its community. What does distinguish humans from the rest of animal kind is our ability to make pictures. Human beings are image makers. In modern times this ability has increased exponentially and the result is that we now live inside our eyes. We channel our attention towards surfaces and contours, most often of the human face and body, represented on a flat plane – a painting, a page, a screen. These days we see more man-made images in a second than most humans in our species’ history saw in a lifetime. A film of average duration will expose us to almost 130,000 images. Over 100 million images are shared on Instagram every day. We are in desperate need of darkness. Darkness releases us from this obsession with the visual. It allows us to switch off our eyes, to disappear for a time into sounds, scents and tastes, to forget about surfaces and plunge into the depths.
It is getting late. Cloud gathers rapidly and the peak of Kilimanjaro, which has been a shining beacon since dawn, has disappeared. We’ve been following a herd of a hundred or more elephants for the past few hours. They’ve gone into thick cover and they’re hard to see, so we head back to the camp a mile away. Darkness descends like a dropped stone and tonight there are no stars. We hear hyenas for the first time, their mad cackles and growls. We glimpse their lantern eyes in the torch beam. They’re too close for comfort. A few weeks back I almost walked into a grazing hippo while going for a midnight pee and the thought of being out there tonight with hyenas about keeps me awake all night. A couple of hours after dusk I hear something brought down, the pounding of feet, a screech, the rip of skin. But for the rest of the night there is almost total silence. I wait until the sun is up before I open the tent zip. Outside, only a few inches from the guy ropes is the huge lily pad footprint of an elephant. It is one of thousands. The whole herd has passed utterly silently and invisibly through our camp in the night. The dark can even make elephants vanish.
Sometimes on a night walk you pass other walkers. You can feel the presence of people in the dark before you hear or see them. It feels like something is pushing against you, and then, as they get closer, through you. As they pass a wake is left, it takes a little more effort to balance. This sensing comes from the same part of you that feels certain places wordlessly speak. I stop for a moment where the river folds back on itself forming a grassy peninsula of a few acres edged by a stony beach. Tonight the beach is underwater, along with the boulders that form a natural weir. This is where the river speaks loudest, its voice a never repeating sequence of glottal plosives. I can just see the moving water now, a line in front of me where the darkness no longer hangs, but slides. I don’t think I’d notice anyone if they passed me tonight, the presence of the river is almost overwhelming. My dog swims at every opportunity, but tonight she’s staying back from the water’s edge. I trust her decisions. I’m not going closer. A river in flood has the same magnetic draw and repulsion as a cliff edge. You feel the line between life and death, like a strand of razor wire.
Recently the street light in front of our bedroom has been switching itself off intermittently. The faint glowing bars at the top and sides of the curtains, that give off just enough light to silhouette Julia’s face, go black and her profile disappears. I tune in to the slow, lulling rhythm of her breathing, which used to be a way to ease myself into sleep. But in the past year she’s had a cancer diagnosis and recent complications including multiple lung clots. Listening to her breathing now is no longer a relaxing experience. I lie awake waiting for signs of illness, the faint rattles and gasps that could signify some new complication. When her breaths come too slow or too fast I listen harder, and if I can’t hear her breathing I go into a flat panic.
Julia says she can picture things clearly in her mind’s eye, whole vistas filled with detail come easily to her. When I was growing up my best friend was able to draw anything, people and animals, street scenes, monsters. He seemed to be able to do this without the need for practice. Once, after heavy snow, he created a perfect image of a polar bear 30 feet across with the heel of his boot. He told me he could just see these images in front of him and all he had to do was trace the lines and fill in the blocks of tone. I could also draw pretty well, but only from an external source. When I close my eyes there’s nothing there but darkness. I’m able to describe scenes, but what I’m doing is hearing and repeating the words that describe the scene, not visualising the scene itself. My head is full of pages, usually torn from other people’s books. I think in scripts, the promissory notes of the imagination. Worse still, it’s not the words I’m obsessed with these days, but the spaces between them, which are occasionally twilit, and mostly dark. Those spaces are where the feelings are.
In this place of steep-sided hills and mountains, where for several months of the year many north facing farms never see the sun, darkness is a constant. The Welsh word Ddu means black or dark. In the Brecon Beacons there are two separate areas called Mynydd Ddu (Black Mountain), the eastern range and the smaller western range. A search for the word Ddu in a database of Welsh place names brings almost 3000 entries. There are dark fields, dark cliffs and rocks, dark lakes and streams. Many of the hills around here contain glacial lakes stranded beneath horseshoe formations – deep waters, bottomless in old stories. The most famous of these is Lyn y Fan Fach. It’s the place associated with the story of the Lady of the Lake, one of Wales’s best known legends. This is where the young shepherd saw the fairy woman walk out of the water and where she offered to become his wife if he promised never to strike her three times. And this is where, after years of happy marriage, thriving health and prosperity, she returned to the lake after he struck her for the third time, taking with her their cows and sheep, ducks and geese. They walked into the dark water in procession and were taken back to the land of the fairies, leaving the husband and sons distraught and impoverished. It’s a story about the circularity of existence, of humans and animals, and of places. Life comes out of the dark of winter. It grows and flourishes as the sun warms. Then, after three seasons, it returns to the dark. Our ancestors believed that the soul came out of, and returned to, water. The Old Saxon word seola is derived from the proto-germanic saiwaz. Saiwa meant sea or lake. We arrive from the dark water of the womb, and at the end of life our cells liquify. We return to water, not to ashes and dust.
Almost 90% of all the water on earth exists in the total darkness of the aphotic zones. These areas are the least explored places on earth, thinly populated, as far as we know, with strange fish that can conjure their own luminescence, or navigate via electrolocation. The cave dwelling knife-fish Eigenmannia vicentespelaea produces a waveform field generated by a special electric organ. The dipole field created is shaped like a spider with circular conjoining cephalothorax and abdomen, and radiating legs. The uniform pattern changes as it comes into contact with objects having greater or lesser resistance than water. Over fifteen thousand electroreceptor cells along the length of the fish’s body then pick up these deviations, enabling the fish to navigate perfectly. Additionally it is able to adjust the frequency of its projected field if it comes into contact with another fish’s field. This is called the jamming avoidance response. Electrolocation provides these creatures with a more accurate sense than sight, they have no use for eyes. Humans have the opposite ability, we populate the darkness with what reaches out of us. The salty waters of our hearts churn like the deep convection of the Atlantic ocean causing this atrocious weather.
Two pinpoints of light hover on the mountain road then disappear and reappear, glinting between trees. The storm track that we were caught in for weeks has shifted south. There is cloud cover, no stars and the quarter moon isn’t up yet. It is not quite black, but dark enough. The water has subsided. My bare feet crunch on the beach pebbles. At the bend in the river I hear my dog go into the water, the soft plash of her entry and the half coughs of her breathing as she swims out. I’ve swum here many times but never at night. The last time I went night swimming was to clean off the dust of a week spent wild camping beneath Kilimanjaro. The air and water were body temperature, the equatorial ocean utterly still. I swam down to the reef and could see nothing at all. As I held my breath, not knowing which way was up or down, I thought that perhaps this is what death feels like. But now I believe that death has nothing to do with darkness. Perhaps it is an infinite transparency.
I step into the river.
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.
Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It’s as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a stone as close to the surface as I could. The little red indicator flashed and the bars representing the left and right stereo channels pulsed. Sound recorders are difficult to use. They pick up and amplify even the slightest vibration, so you have to stand rock-still while you’re recording, which is hard when you’re knee deep in freezing water. I held on for a minute, then tried again further out in the stream. This time two goosanders flew over my head and I captured the woosh-beat of their wings. I managed another two recordings before the industrial world interrupted, first a tractor, then a chainsaw, and finally the droning tinnitus of an overhead jet.
I’m recording these sounds in order to build an archive I can access in a decade or so. I’ve been getting slowly but progressively hard of hearing for several years now. At first I missed the occasional word when someone was speaking to me. Now I cannot follow conversations in a room with people talking or music playing in the background. Oncoming deafness is not how I imagined it. The world doesn’t seem to be getting quieter, it is simply narrowing. High pitched notes, the steeples in a soundscape, have disappeared. I don’t hear our alarm go off in the mornings, which can be handy, but I also can’t hear buzzards calling. Lower registers have smudged together and lost their edges. At the same time internal sounds, my heartbeat, the creaking of my jaw, and the thud of my footsteps, have become amplified. It’s like being submerged in water. The world sometimes feels noisier than before. But increasing noise is the hallmark of these times. Though the natural world is being silenced there will never be a silent spring.
I’m hoping that, when my hearing worsens, I’ll be able to play sound recordings on headphones with the volume turned up and still hear the things I love to listen to, the voices of fast flowing rivers, owl calls and the wing-beats of goosanders.
On an island south of Thailand a young tourist was riding an elephant on the beach when the normally obedient creature turned and ran. The elephant’s caretaker managed to catch up and lead it back to the beach, but within minutes it fled again, the tourist still onboard. Once more the caretaker steered the elephant back to the beach only for it to turn and run. This situation continued, the caretaker and the tourist becoming more exasperated until other people noticed a dark line rapidly swelling out to sea. This time elephant, rider and caretaker fled and did not return. Minutes later the tidal wave hit, engulfing everything in its path and drowning hundreds of people. The tsunami had been caused by an underwater earthquake many miles offshore. After the event, people noticed that animals, wild and domestic, had made their way to higher ground in the minutes before the wave hit. No carcasses were found. The animals had heard the infrasound made by the earthquake, a sound below the 20hz range of human hearing.
A horse can hear through its feet and its jaw, feeling low frequency vibrations passing through the ground. A horse’s ear is conical like the end of a trumpet and can be rotated independently through 180 degrees. You know when a horse is paying attention to you because at least one ear will be pointing in your direction. When both ears are facing forward, the horse is doing its own thing. Once, when out riding on a quiet lane, my horse reared and span. I managed to quiet her down and we went a little further before she span again. I decided not to fight her. We turned for home where I let her out into the field. She took off as soon as I closed the gate and joined the rest of the herd galloping and bucking like mad things. Across the valley a flash of lightning lit up the mountains. In half-an-hour one of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced hit. The horses continued to spook until every one of them was coated white with a mixture of sweat and rain.
The highly tuned senses of some animals makes them appear to be able to see into the future. But in reality all creatures only experience the past. Humans, being less sensitive, live a little further into the past. Our ears and eyes, and the tips of our fingers need to relay what they are sensing along pathways to the brain. It then takes the cortex a fraction of a second to process these sensations and to formulate the mental picture of the information sent. By the time we comprehend what we’re experiencing, the experience has already gone. We’ll never see our loved ones as they actually are, but only as they have just been. We’re all standing in rivers, looking downstream.
In the final stage of dying breathing becomes laboured. A rattle starts at the back of the throat. When it was in my father’s throat a nurse gave him an injection. She told me it was to make his breathing easier. This did not happen. It got quieter, but more rapid, more laboured. It was like watching a terrible film sequence with the volume turned down. Perhaps most families don’t want to hear that sound. I wish that my father could have been spared the jab of a needle as one of his last experiences of life and that he didn’t have to listen to a nurse talking about him as if he was just an irreparable machine. I’d have liked to have taken him to be beside my river so he could listen to the past and future spoken by water. But perhaps in those last minutes he was tuned into something else entirely, something far off that I’ll only hear when I reach the edge of my life.
Our hearing, like our sight, flits from one focal point to the next. But the ear doesn’t function like the eye. Hearing does not blur. It takes a deliberate act of inattention to tune out your surroundings. When I was at primary school the teachers always moved me to the front row of the class because of my deafness, but I could hear as well as anyone back then. I just wasn’t interested in what they were teaching me. It felt like there was something outside the classroom walls that I was missing, something important but invisible, happening beyond the housing estate, the railway line and the pit stacks. There was a line of trees on the horizon and I knew that whatever I was sensing was going on somewhere in there. My parents weren’t interested in woods and wild places, they liked parks, shopping streets, seaside promenades. The first decade and a half of my life was wholly spent within earshot of passing cars and human voices. But we lived across the road from an old Victorian priory with a couple of acres of ground which had become overgrown since the owners had fallen on hard times. A tawny owl took up residence in there and some nights it perched on the faulty street-lamp outside my bedroom window. Its call woke me up and filled me with a desire to be near to wildness that has never left me.
Soundscapes surround us that we are oblivious to. Elephants converse on dry evenings over a 300km distance. Oceans teem with the calls of cetaceans thrown half way around the world, but we need to use machines to hear them. We listen to the calls of bats with radio detectors, we use apps to recognise the songs of finches. Most of the time the sounds we hear are coming out of our own heads. I can walk miles without hearing anything apart from the argument I’ve concocted with myself. At other times an ear-worm will follow me for days. It’s so easy to tune out. The last pair of curlews on my hill are usually around this time of year, but they’re always far off and their calls are easily missed, so I have to stop, scan the landscape and concentrate hard. It’s like trying to find a faint radio signal amongst the electrostatic crackle and hiss of the world, turning the dial as slowly as I can. I’m listening to the world harder these days, and I’m building a sound archive as a back-up. One day its index will read: river in spate, wind in Scots pines, galloping wild ponies, high waterfalls, flock of golden plovers, honey bees on heather, otters at the stream, distant curlews.
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.