Sometimes a book comes along that enhances your way of being in the world: for two such books to fall into your hands, in serendipitous collusion, is a thing to marvel at, and perhaps even to write about. Whatever their differences, and they are legion, the two books under review, both written by young women — one a memoir by an anthropologist, the other a piece of fiction that reads like a fable — together provide a thorough dismantling of the notion of genre. But more importantly, both books open a window onto systems of belief in which humans and other animals, plants, fungi and diverse organisms survive and thrive in interconnected and interdependent ways, consciously or otherwise, reflecting an unexpected harmony at the heart of lived experience.
There are days when mist covers the Welsh lowlands, all the way from the Canolbarth to the Severn estuary, and yet at around 300 metres above sea level you emerge into bright sunshine, and into a world unimagined to those below.
So it was, driving north from Llanbedr, at a certain point, midway up the valley, the mist is left behind and the world of the sunny uplands (no, not those) opens up ahead, with Pen Gwyllt Meirch (the Hill of Wild Mares) to the right, and the approach to Pen Twyn Glas (the Blue Hill) on the left. You park by the little bridge below Neuadd fawr farm and climb towards the abandoned quarries, where you sit for a while and drink some water, enjoying the view to the south.
It is only when you stand to pick up your rucksack that you notice the little silver tag, which someone has slipped in beneath one of the stones. You retrieve it, and it reads: ‘”Till then let us live out of suitcases.” A stranger on earth.’ You have no idea why anyone would have those words engraved on a small piece of metal and leave it in a pile of stones on a hillside in the Black Mountains. A serendipitous discovery, or pure chance?
You set off and join the sheep track that skirts Cwm Banw, the valley to which you have kept returning these past two months, as if looking for something that you cannot quite describe or enumerate. This happens sometimes: you have a feeling about a place, and you keep going back until the thing you are seeking out makes itself apparent. But you need to be patient, and you need to be attentive.
There are the remains of a medieval settlement down by the stream, and to the west the summits of Pen Cerrig Calch and Pen Allt Mawr dominate the skyline. But beyond the lower reaches, there are few signs of human occupancy, or even any footpaths. There are sheep of course, and a few wild ponies, and at the far end beneath the ridge that connects Pen Allt Mawr with Pen Twyn Glas, there is the ruin of a tiny shepherd’s hut, where you once stopped for a picnic, but apart from that, nothing but the birds and lizards and moths and worms and bugs and numberless other little creatures, and a few assorted mushrooms, hiding out amid the now flattened fern and the bleached tussock grass and occasional surprising yellow of the sphagnum bogs and the little tinkling rivulets and their surrounding sheathes of brilliant green.
And it dawns on you that there is nothing to prevent you from being someone else entirely; someone kinder, more patient, less critical, more at ease in their own skin. And yet you hang on to character traits and an identity that you might once have worn like a badge of honour, but which you now regard more skeptically, with a degree of weariness. As the years go by, you are less able to keep the performance up, less willing to conform to a pattern of selfhood, or retain a consistent persona merely for the benefit of others. And sustaining this illusion of selfhood interests you less and less. On some days you have real difficulty trying to remember who you are, and what face you must present to the world today. Would it not be a pleasure on those days to let the self unravel, to relax into that comfortable nest of non-doing, and simply watch the day advance, as Thoreau once suggested, without sacrificing the bloom of the present moment to any work; allow the day to advance in such a way that ‘it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is achieved’ and be content with that?
And if there is no substantiality to your own sense of self, how can you attribute the same to any other? We are all but fleeting shadows, and it is better by far to remain unknown and obscure to the world.
But (and there is always a but) there is nevertheless the need to present some version of yourself to others, and a job to be done, a salary to be earned, bills to pay, a house to heat, a car to run, all the factors that conspire to make the living of a life more than a mere hypothesis.
And as you sit on a rock and sip tea from your thermos and look down over the valley towards the Sugar Loaf, which sits in the distance like a Welsh Mount Fuji, it seems as though you could step forward and plunge into this viscous sea of white, beneath which nothing is visible and which, it seems, might be nothing more nor less than the Cloud of Unknowing, or, as it was spelled in the fourteenth century, The Clowde of Unkowyng.
Of which the sixth chapter runs, in contemplation of the speaker’s relationship with God:
‘BUT now thou askest me and sayest, “How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?” and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: “I wot not.”
For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think.
And that, I ‘wot not’ ( or ‘I wote never’, as it appears in another version of the text) — meaning ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have no idea’ — is the only satisfactory response to the question the writer poses. This is the response of attentive and respectful not-knowing.
To dwell in the cloud of unknowing assumes the ability to accept ambivalence and tolerate uncertainty; it demands the courage to say ‘I don’t know’.
Deep into autumn, with the rich russet or burnt sienna of the ferns, and the grass still so green, with streaks of cloud racing up the valley to our left and, as the mist thickens, an overlay of something more remote and altogether wintry. Walking, something like a refrain begins to emerge, almost a credo about the self, with which I have been struggling all this year, during various walks around these hills, mulling over my reading of certain philosophers and neuroscientists on the notion of core identity. Not that I’ve learned much.
And so to this: when walking in these hills I am most at my ease, no doubt because, through long familiarity, I find it impossible to tell where my self ends and the world begins; or to put it slightly differently, my sense of self ebbs away, dissipates, and is replaced by a kind of harmony with the larger consciousness that we call nature, as if nature were a thing apart from ourselves.
And there it is, the core problem — we speak of nature as though she were a thing ‘out there’, something detached from ourselves, although, in fact, we have made her so, if only to end up craving our return to her safe embrace; a safety which can no longer be taken for granted, such is the violence we have committed against her— and correspondingly against ourselves. And what if this forgetting of ourselves were contagious? What if we were not the only ones to forget our function in the vast mosaic of terrestrial life?
We pass a flock of spectral sheep and veer to the left of the abandoned quarries, following a trail just below the level of the ridge, which skirts the eastern flank of Cwm Banw. There is a kind of silence, though it is always rash to speak of silence. Up here, the song of birds, and the occasional bleating of sheep or the neighing of feral ponies is the most common source of sound at a perceptual level, if we discount the occasional light aircraft (or distant jet planes, whose contrails can be seen high above on a clear day). I make out the call of a skylark or meadow pipit and see the songster flash past, but it moves so quick I cannot tell for certain which it is. And then, for a while, on the descent, we watch a raven circling, and calling frantically, and although I am no ornithologist I know a raven when I see one, and it strikes me as a strange and plaintive cry, more like a duck than a raven. Yes, a raven masquerading as a duck. It feels almost like an aural hallucination, the disconnect between the bird and that call, as though the animal world were falling out of kilter with itself, and even the birds were forgetting their own songs, even as we humans drag the planet screaming towards catastrophe.
I had always imagined that we needn’t worry on that account, that only humans obsess about their core identity, or need to be reminded of their function. Other creatures (and objects) simply go about their business, doing as they must; the stone — to paraphrase Borges — forever wants to be a stone, and the tiger a tiger. Perhaps all that is changing, and everything else is forgetting what it wants to be, as well as us.
Perhaps, it occurred to me, with a gloomy shudder, the birds will forget their song and the furry animals forget to moult and breed and hibernate; perhaps the mycelia will forget to spread and the fungi to sprout and the flowers to blossom. Perhaps it shall all end, not with the bang of climate disaster, but with the whimper of amnesia.
I came to consciousness the other morning from a waking dream in which I had woken (in my dream) into an unfamiliar world, surrounded by strangers in a kind of ante-room, with thick velvet curtains and a single door ahead of me. I knew that I had to make a speech or presentation of some kind and someone mentioned that I would be ‘on’ in one minute. I looked around me — two or three people standing next to me, who seemed to know me well, and were, I imagined, my ‘advisers’. I had no idea where I was or what I was supposed to be preparing to talk about. I guessed, with a vague anxiety, that I would have to ‘wing it’, and that there was bound to be a clue of some kind along the way that would jog my memory. The stress increased, however, when the door was opened for me, and I stepped out onto a balcony, and below me, stretching far across a massive stadium, was a sea of people, a crowd of many thousands, all of them apparently gathered to hear what I had to say. I had no idea what I was supposed to talk about, nor into what world I had awoken, nor even who I was.
When I awoke for real, I didn’t want to open my eyes. Although I knew, or could sense, that I was awake and in my bed, in my own home, there was a residual fear that if I opened my eyes things would be different. There is a comfort, or security, to the ‘inner world’, at times. At least we have some say in it (when awake) whereas what is ‘out there’ is something utterly beyond our control or ability to manage. And that can give rise to fear: hence the ostrich burying its head in the sand, hence the child who closes her eyes because she doesn’t want to see what’s in front of her.
This was all running through my mind last Friday when I walked up above Cwm Banw, following the ridge from Pen Twyn Glas, up to Pen Allt Mawr, Pen Cerrig Calch and down towards Crug Hywel or the Table Mountain. It was a late summer or perhaps an early autumn day with a strong breeze and some interesting clouds.
That sense of closing one’s eyes to block out the world might seem far removed from a consideration of landscape, but it is not entirely so. For me, the landscapes I walk through, and the pictures I take on my iPhone are as much a part of my interior landscape as they are images of the world ‘out there’. When a landscape is familiar, and has been so for many years, then you do not ‘see’ it in the same way as others (who are, perhaps, seeing it for the first time). When a landscape is familiar, you retain an imprint of it on the retina, an expectation of what you will see when you turn your head in that direction. You seek out minor shifts, minute changes by which the image before you is differentiated from the template held in memory. Never before has that landscape been seen from that location with that precise framing of clouds; and so it is actually the first time you have witnessed that scene in that light with that precise configuration of clouds, and for that reason we can never truly say that we have seen anything before because every occasion, every passing millisecond, every present moment is unique and unrepeatable. And just as there is, according to some traditional cultures, ‘meaning’ to be found in the arrangement of a landscape, the arrangement of certain rocks or pebbles, the appearance of an auspicious bird or insect at a particular moment — I am reminded of Jung’s famous scarab beetle appearing at the window of his consulting room at the precise moment his patient recounts the appearance of an identical beetle in her dream — it is the link between the inner world (eyes closed) and outer world of perception (the scenery visible to all of us) that comes to mind when I consider the child closing his eyes to shut out the ‘other’ world, or my own reluctance on certain mornings to open my eyes because of an irrational fear of what I might see.
And if this is confusing, so be it. Confusion too is an inevitable element in the configuration of the present moment. I will accept my confusion, and run with it until it either resolves itself or becomes something else.
Autumn on its way, the equinox a week off, we head inland, to Setcases, and up towards the great bulk of Gra de Fajol, an angry giant guarding the head of the Ter valley. Ulldeter means Eye of the Ter, meaning its source, contracted sometimes to ‘Vallter’. Memory, or the anxiety provoked by memory, mermeros, washes over me: I have been to his place thrice before, though on one of those occasions, with my dear friend Lluís, the cloud was so dense that we walked like ghosts through the swirling mist, having to stop from time to time to get our bearings, and it was with some relief that we eventually found the track that descends past the refuge, the very track that we are climbing now on a clear September day, and it is the fragile memory of those previous walks that settles on me, but memory is a slippery eel, and which of my past selves is doing the remembering, and how can I tell which of these memories is truly mine? I can only clearly remember the last time, three summers past, on a summer’s evening, Venus rising, snow still visible in the furrows of Gra de Farol Petit, and my pervading memory is of hobbling towards the refuge, where I showered, shivering with sunstroke after an eight hour hike from Queralbs in scorching heat, having seen not a single human animal since leaving Coma de Vaca, but animals yes, a few grazing cattle in the lower folds, and then, resting on an overhanging rock a marmot spied on me, not moving from her perch, and the next time I looked she was gone.
And then the isards, those fleet-footed Pyrenean antelopes, one of them leaping with boundless grace, stopping every fifty yards or so to ascertain whether or not I was a threat, but that was then and this is now, and there is neither marmot nor isard to be seen, too many humans out and about on a Saturday in September, many of them taking a stroll after a morning’s mushrooming on the lower slopes, by the stream, hunting for rovellons, their orange-ochre, must-scented flesh, delicious fried in olive oil with all i julivert; and now there is a solitary eagle, soaring high above us, keeping a watch on things and he is far beyond concerning himself with any human visitation, of much more interest are the lizards that hide beneath the rocks, venturing out to sit blinking in the sun, a foolish move, but then again, what else can a lizard to do on such a glorious afternoon; and we climb to the Coll de la Marrana, and on reaching it the landscape opens up towards the Vall de Núria, and the cloud is thick below us, and to the west, breaking away in wraith-like shapes and gliding up the valley and over the ridge, towards the Pic de l’Infern, Pic Freser and the Bastiments. Here we find a place among the rocks and eat our picnic, drink our tea, looking out over the shifting cloudscape below us, the sun on our faces, on a day in the high Pyrenees, a sense of autumn in the air, and for me, tangible sadness that another summer has passed, and gratitude too for all that it has brought, knowing that nothing lasts, knowing almost nothing, knowing that only a fraction of all that lies before me is accessible to my perception, that there is so much more, here on the edge of what remains forever out of reach, here on the edge of what remains unknown.
Sad news this week of the death of Javier Marías, for me the most complete novelist of his generation. His trilogy of novels, Your Face Tomorrow, is one of the finest things I’ve ever read. Astonishing that he never won the Nobel. He must have pissed someone off: but then he spent a lifetime doing just that. It was almost a second career, which he perfected over many years in a weekly column for the Spanish newspaper El País, exposing hypocrisy and venality wherever he found them (and he found plenty). He died of pneumonia following on from a bout of COVID. A lifelong smoker, he was often photographed with cigarette in hand, as here.
In an essay from 1995 called ‘What does and doesn’t happen’, Marías wrote:
‘We all have at bottom the same tendency … to go on seeing the different stages of our life as the result and compendium of what has happened to us and what we have achieved and what we’ve realised, as if it were only this that made up our existence. And we almost always forget that … every path also consists of our losses and farewells, of our omissions and unachieved desires, of what we one day set aside or didn’t choose or didn’t finish, of numerous possibilities most of which – all but one in the end – weren’t realised, of our vacillations and our daydreams, of our frustrated projects and false or lukewarm longings, of the fears that paralysed us, of what we left behind or what we were left behind by. We perhaps consist, in sum, as much of what we have not been as of what we are, as much of the uncertain, indecisive or diffuse as of the shareable and quantifiable and memorable; perhaps we are made in equal measure of what could have been and what is.’
The genre of the novel, Marías goes on to say, is able to show, ‘that what was is also of a piece with what was not’. It goes without saying that what never happened is available only to reflection, not to observation. This singular insight has been of invaluable help in my own writing.
On a similar theme, Javier Marías begins Dark Back of Time, his ‘false novel’, with the words: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one.’
Which led me once to ponder: this eternal recounting, this need to tell and tell, is there not something appalling about it – and not only in the sense of whether or not we consciously or intentionally mix reality and fiction? Are there not times when we wish the whole cycle of telling and recounting and explaining and narrating would simply stop – if only for a week, or a day; if only for an hour? The incessant recapitulation and summary and anecdotage and repetition of things said by oneself, by others, to others, in the name of others; the chatter and the news-bearing and the imparting of knowledge and misinformation and the banter and explication and the never ending, all-consuming barrage of blithering fatuity that pounds us from the radio, from the television, from the internet, the unceasing need to tell and make known? And whenever we recount, we inevitably embroider, invent, cast aspersion, throw doubt upon, question, examine, offer for consideration, include or discard motive, analyse, assert, make reference to, exonerate, implicate, align with, dissociate from, deconstruct, reconfigure, tell tales on, accuse, slander or lie.
But nevertheless, if we are anything like Javier Marías, we carry on writing, carry on with the dance, because there is no other. What else could we do? Perhaps for him, at three score years and ten, the time had come to hang up his Olympia Carrera de Luxe (he continued, to the end, to work at an electric typewriter, as though in denial of the digital age). In a similar vein, he once commented that he found it impossible to write fiction set more recently than the 1990s, as though the strictly contemporary world, the world of the new millennium, were simply beyond his remit. The present, with its impossible torrents of information overload, social networking and accompanying identity politics was best left to those born into it.
Marías, whose family background was, like that of so many of his compatriots, overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that followed (his father, a respected philosopher, was informed upon by someone he believed to be a friend). As a child, young Javier spent some years in the United States, where he learned to speak perfect English. He published his first novel, Los dominios del lobo (The Domains of the Wolf), aged only nineteen, and later went on to teach for two years at Oxford, where he set his coruscating and brilliant satire of university life, Todos las almas (All Souls). He was also a prodigiously gifted translator from English, with works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and others – perhaps most notably Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – among his many translations.
The novel many believe to be his masterpiece, Un corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White), appeared in 1992. Its opening is one that sends shudders through me still:
‘I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate; and when he finally did get up and run to the bathroom, those who followed him noticed that when he discovered the blood-spattered body of his daughter and clutched his head in his hands, he kept passing the mouthful of meat from one cheek to the other, still not knowing what to do with it. He was carrying his napkin in one hand and he didn’t let go of it until, after a few moments, he noticed the bra that had been flung into the bidet and he covered it with the one piece of cloth that he had to hand or rather in his hand and which his lips had sullied, as if he were more ashamed of the sight of her underwear than of her fallen, half-naked body with which, until only a short time before, the article of underwear had been in contact: the same body that had been sitting at the table, that had walked down the corridor, that had stood there. Before that, with an automatic gesture, the father had turned off the tap in the basin, the cold tap, which had been turned full on.’
I never met Javier Marías, and never felt the desire to, since his novels and essays are so marvellous that the man himself might conceivably have proved a disappointment. But I do recall a story, told me by a friend, that reveals – with dreadful acuity given the way he met his end – something of his character. Marías had been invited to a prestigious international fellowship at a world famous university, which involved lodging in one of the university’s colleges for a couple of months and presenting a series of six lectures. Marías was inclined to accept, but there was one proviso: would he be allowed to smoke in his college room? Unfortunately, he would not: a smoking ban applied to all the university buildings and grounds, without exception. Marías declined the invitation.
He will be much missed, including by those, like me, who only knew him through his works.
Com a foraster, he intentat entendre l’Albera, la manera com es connecten els camins, i malgrat la qualitat decebedora dels mapes disponibles, he arribat a entendre la topografia del paisatge dels voltants de Rabós. He passat dies llargs i gloriosos fent senderisme per la zona, des del Puig Neulós fins al Coll de Banyuls, els diferents circuits de Sant Quirze i fins a Colera o Port Bou, pel cap de Creus i el cap Norfeu, i pels laberíntics camins que serpentegen per Requessens. Ara tinc un mapa mental de les diferents rutes pels turons dels voltants, i amb cada excursió la meva comprensió s’amplia una mica. A poc a poc començo a veure el territori com un tot, de la mateixa manera que entenc les muntanyes del meu propi país, les Muntanyes Negres de Gal·les – que no són negres sinó verdes, morades i ocres, depenent de l’época de l’any – i que envolten el poble on vaig néixer. Aquestes dues serralades, les Alberes i les Muntanyes Negres, formen d’alguna manera un rerefons del meu món interior, si puc dir-ho així, i totes dues ara se senten com a casa. Se sent com un privilegi conèixer i estimar aquestes dues parts d’Europa per igual.
Així que ens va preocupar molt quan vam conèixer el pla de plantar torres eòliques al llarg de l’Albera, i com molts veïns, vam anar a la manifestació de Capmany l’any passat per protestar contra establiment d’aquestes torres. No és que estiguem en contra de “l’energia sostenible”, per descomptat, caldria estar boig o tenir el cap en una galleda per no admetre que el món està en perill a causa del canvi climàtic, sinó simplement perquè no semblava la manera correcta anar fent coses en una zona d’una bellesa natural excepcional, amb tots els danys que es produirien a l’hàbitat, l’amenaça a les vies de vol dels ocells, la construcció de vies d’accés als molins de vent i els inevitables danys als animals i plantes, sense oblidar l’amenaça potencial per als nombrosos monuments neolítics o fins i tot la simple estètica d’aquest pla. Energia sostenible sí! però no així.
Una de les coses que ha canviat al llarg dels segles al meu paisatge natiu va ser la desaparició dels camins dels pastors i ramaders – d’ovelles i boví – que cobrien les muntanyes durant segles, permetent als pastors portar el seu bestiar al mercat a diferents pobles de Gal·les i a l’altra banda de la frontera d’Anglaterra. Quan es van construir els ferrocarrils al segle XIX, els animals es van començar a transportar amb tren, però amb el temps també van morir els ferrocarrils, i actualment el bestiar es desplaça en camió. Els ferrocarrils de les parts més allunyades del país ja han desaparegut, però els camins dels pastors romanen. I encara hi ha vies més antigues. De la mateixa manera que l’Albera està esquitxada de dòlmens, les Muntanyes Negres van ser un dels llocs preferits pels nostres avantpassats llunyans i contenen les restes de diversos campaments neolítics, que al seu torn van ser els camins fantasma que els posteriors invasors saxons i normands van agafar durant la seva colonització del país. Els normands van construir castells al llarg de la frontera per vigilar els nadius, per mantenir els gal·lesos fora d’Anglaterra.
En almenys una ciutat fronterera anglesa, Hereford, era legalment acceptable disparar a un gal·lès a la vista, tan problemàtics i sense llei es consideraven aquests veïns; però l’efecte a llarg termini va ser mantenir separades les poblacions dels dos països, de manera que els gal·lesos, tot i que van ser la primera de les colònies d’Anglaterra, van aconseguir conservar una bona part de la seva cultura i llengua intactes, molt després que l’Imperi Britànic s’hagués estès a l’estranger cobrint una quarta part de la superfície terrestre. Aquí hi ha correlacions òbvies amb Catalunya, en les seves lluites al llarg dels segles amb un estat militar dominant a Espanya, i l’aposta per l’autodeterminació. Però no ens deixem distreure amb la política: és la muntanya, de moment, la que ens interessa. Hi seran aquí quan tota la resta hagi avançat, sigui quin sigui el futur de la nostra civilització, tant si els nostres respectius països aconsegueixen un estat d’autogovern autònom com si no. Els turons del voltant de Rabós, com algú va dir una vegada, són com dracs adormits, tal com els turons encerclen el meu poble natal, a mil milles al nord. I així els veig jo, dracs adormits bressolant el poble i les terres de conreu que l’envolten, tal com Rabós s’agita inquiet a la Tramuntana i s’adorm en un estupor tranquil durant la canícula.
As a foreigner, I have tried to understand the Alberas, the way that the paths connect, and despite the disappointing quality of the available maps, I have come some way to understanding the topography of the landscape around Rabós. I have spent long and glorious days hiking around the Alberas, from Puig Neulós to the Coll de Banyuls, the various circuits of Sant Quirze and on to Colera or Port Bou, around the headland of Cap de Creus and Cap Norfeu, and along the labyrinthine paths that snake around Requessens. I now have a mental map of the different routes through the hills hereabouts, and with each excursion my understanding expands a little. Gradually I am beginning to see the territory as a whole, in the same way that I understand the mountains of my own country, the Black Mountains of Wales, which are not black but green and purple and ochre — which surround the village where I was born. These two mountain ranges, the Alberas and the Black Mountains, somehow form a background to my inner world, if I might put it that way, and both of them now feel like home. It feels like a privilege to know and love both these parts of Europe equally.
So it became a matter of great concern when we learned of the plan to plant wind towers across the length of the Alberas, and like many local people, we went along to the demonstration in Capmany last year to protest the establishment of these towers. Not that we are against ‘sustainable energy’, of course — you would have to be crazy or have your head in a bucket not to acknowledge that the world is in peril because of climate change — but this did not seem the right way to go about doing things in an area of outstanding natural beauty, what with all the damage that would be caused to the habitat, the threat to birds’ flight paths, the building of access roads to the windmills and the inevitable damage to animal and plant life, not to mention the potential threat to the numerous neolithic monuments or even the simple aesthetics of such a plan. Sustainable energy, yes – but not like this!
One of the things that has changed over the centuries in my own native landscape was the disappearance of drovers’ tracks, which covered the mountains for centuries, allowing drovers to take their livestock to market in different towns in Wales and across the border in England — sheep and cattle, for the most part.
When the railways were built in the nineteenth century, the animals started to be transported by train, but in time the railways died also, and nowadays the livestock travel by lorry. The railways in the remoter parts of the country are now gone, but the drovers’ paths remain. And there are older pathways still. Just as the Alberas are dotted with dolmens, the Black Mountains were favourite locations for our distant ancestors and contain the remains of several neolithic encampments, which in their turn were the ghost-trails the later Saxon and the Norman invaders took during their colonisation of the country. The Normans built castles along the frontier to monitor the natives, to keep the Welsh out of England. In at least one English border town, Hereford, it was legally acceptable to shoot a Welshman on sight, so troublesome and lawless were these neighbours perceived to be; but the longer-term effect was to keep the populations of the two countries separate, so that the Welsh, although the first of England’s colonies, managed to retain a good deal of its culture and language intact, long after the British Empire had spread overseas to cover one quarter of the earth’s land area. There are obvious correlations here with Catalunya, in its struggles over the centuries with a dominant military state in Spain, and the bid for self-determination. But let’s not get distracted by the political: it is the mountains, for the moment, that interest us. They will be here when everything else has moved on, whatever the future of our civilisation might be, whether our respective countries achieve a state of autonomous self-government or not. The hills around Rabós, as someone once said, are like sleeping dragons, just as the hills encircle my home village, a thousand miles two the north. And that is the way I see them, sleeping dragons cradling the village and the farmlands around it, just as Rabós stirs restlessly in the Tramuntana, and slumbers in a tranquil stupor during the dog days of summer.
There are days when the cloud cover is so dense and hangs so low that earth and sky are within hand’s reach of each other. We are all familiar with that sense of atmospheric density and its emotional charge, especially here in Wales, and certainly in the Black Mountains, that no man’s land between one country and the other, or as Raymond Williams almost said, between two sets of others. And as I mentioned in my last post, the quality of light on such days offers a world viewed through an amber or yellow lens — which reminds us that in alchemy the colour yellow has a particular valence: it stains and infects, carries with it the suggestion of corruption, of pus and bile, of an insidious contagion.
I am curious about the Black Mountains as a site of alchemical experimentation, and in my novel The Blue Tent I explored that idea with a backward glance towards the 17th Century Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan.
We might think of the seasonal shifts as a kind of alchemy. These are sometimes startling, and provide entirely different perspectives of the same landscape over the course of a year; as here, in two photos of the Tal-y-maes bridge, in the Grwyne Fechan valley, taken in January and August respectively.
But I have noticed something else, over the years, which I am certain is not unique to my experience. I have discovered on many occasions that just because a path appears on the map, it doesn’t mean it’s there. On the other hand, and perhaps more pleasingly, there are paths that exist on no map. And there is something else too, that we might call phantom paths, or paths that go missing. In his book The Hills of Wales, Jim Perrin has written about this idiosyncrasy of the Black Mountains: ‘There are places here I have seen in the past and been unable to find again, as though they had disappeared from the land.’
You are in a place you’ve been a hundred times before, but it has somehow changed, been reconfigured in your absence, and the land laid out before you has taken on a different aspect, so much so that it feels like another place entirely. It’s almost as though there were a shadow version of these mountains, an alternative or parallel massif, that you access, unsuspecting, along a familiar path or track, and within minutes you are somewhere else; not lost exactly, just somewhere you hadn’t expected.
In this no man’s land of the Mynyddoedd duon, the geography is sometimes malleable, shifting: it is the geological equivalent, I think, of the brain’s neuroplasticity, which has been defined in the Journal Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, as ‘the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.’ That’s it: the Black Mountains as a human brain! It is kind of shaped like one, don’t you think? With the Grwyne Fawr valley forming the central furrow, the left side comprising Grwyne Fechan, Cwm Banw, Pen Allt Mawr and Pen Cerrig Calch, the right side comprising everything to the east — from Darren yr Esgob, across the Ewyas Valley, Offa’s Dyke ridge, the Cat’s Back etc. And what if it reorganises its structure by minute degrees according to the external stimulus of quantum measurement — or of human observation? The relief map on my bathroom wall now makes more sense: it represents the territory of the Black Mountains as a massive brain, through which we might walk, and, who knows, have our minds truly blown.
Although the name Capel-y-Ffin is often associated with the idiosyncratic Catholicism of Eric Gill and David Jones (and I will return to them in another post), the hamlet is also home to both a small Anglican church and a Baptist chapel, which lie almost side by side in quiet rivalry. In Wales, according to the old joke, there is always ‘the other place’, the one you don’t go to. Curiously, considering the number of times I have passed through, I had never ventured into either of them until a couple of weeks ago, when I visited both. The little church of St Mary the Virgin, as Kilvert wrote, ‘squats like a stout grey owl among its seven great black yews’, and venturing inside, it feels almost as if I have entered one of those tiny sanctuaries hidden away in the Greek mountains, because the art work has a decidedly Orthodox flavour. There is also a David Jones hanging by the staircase, to the right of the door. Or should I say a copy, or print of a David Jones, as the Tate in London claims to own the original.
It is early morning, and after a week of hot weather — one of our famous heatwaves — we are entitled to some rain, which duly arrives as I climb to Darren Llwyd, following the track to the Twmpa, also known as Lord Hereford’s Knob. As I go along, I am vaguely pondering Thoreau’s commendation that ‘to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.’ And how do you go about that? Not, I imagine, through conscious effort, but rather through a kind of non-doing, of which walking, if done without perturbation or hurry, might be an example. Letting things be and allowing thoughts —if they must come — to unfold in their own way. Slowing down. Today will be a slow walk. I will strive to be responsive to the quality of the day, as Thoreau has it.
But there is a problem. I’m preoccupied by an article I’ve recently read about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and it has raised a few issues. Or re-raised them, I should say. The article, by Philip Ball, which appears in Quanta magazine, and which I happened across while surfing without purpose, challenges what it calls ‘the most extraordinary, alluring and thought-provoking of all the ways in which quantum mechanics has been interpreted.’ I won’t go into the argument that Ball makes in his article, largely because it is quite technical and I don’t understand the physics. But in essence, the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) suggests that there are a near-infinity of universes, all of them superimposed within the same physical space but isolated from one another and evolving separately. (It should not be confused with the multiverse hypothesis, in which there are countless other universes, each originating in a different Big Bang, which are distinct and separate from our own). In the MWI, the other worlds contain replicas of you and me, but they are leading other lives, doing things that we do not. As Ball’s article points out, the many worlds interpretation is highly seductive: ‘It tells us that we have multiple selves, living other lives in other universes, quite possibly doing all the things that we dream of but will never achieve (or never dare to attempt). There is no path not taken.’
It’s a sort of comfort to know (or rather, to imagine) that there are innumerable versions of oneself doing stuff in other worlds, and the idea makes us feel less alone. It provides a sort of balm for all the fuck-ups of one’s past: at least in one of those other worlds a version of myself acted otherwise, and the idea offers a strange kind of release, or even salvation. The idea appeals to the religious instinct, I suppose, and at the same time softens the tyranny of memory, which adds to its appeal.
I have written about this elsewhere on this blog, in relation to a story by Borges, The Garden of the Forking Paths, which contains the following passage:
‘Your ancestor . . . believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever-spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favoured me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.’
This notion of infinite outcomes to any situation is a source of perennial fascination to Borges, and the idea seems especially feasible in this part of the world, the Black Mountains: I often get the sensation, when walking or driving across Gospel Pass and down into the Ewyas valley, of entering a zone where, more than elsewhere, the laws of everyday reality disintegrate. It is perhaps in the nature of borders, as liminal zones, but the notion is especially powerful here. Looking east, the road towards Hay snakes along the mountainside like a road in a children’s story book, and as I reach Hay Bluff, and the wide Wye valley stretches out below me, I am struck once again by the yellow, almost rusty light of these uplands on days, like today, of low hanging cloud. It is like looking at the world through an amber filter.
My route now follows the Offa’s Dyke path leading towards Hatterall Hill, with the Olchon Valley to my left. I follow it with tiring footsteps in the persistent drizzle, and only when I come to the turning off point, two miles south, does the weather clear. The unexpected sunshine adds a spring to my step, and I descend rapidly down a steep path through shoulder-high ferns, almost to the valley road, but turn off just before, along a pretty, wooded track, one of those paths best encountered in the early evening light of a summer’s day. And before joining the valley road, on the right, stands the Baptist Chapel. The building itself is closed up, and I can’t go in, but there is the demure and mossy graveyard, and a most hospitable bench, in which I can sit and take it all in. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, beside an especially imposing yew tree. There are worse places to spend eternity, I imagine: at least for this version of you, either in this or whichever world you find yourself.
For some time now, I have been wondering about the idea of Providence. It all started with a quotation from Goethe, about the importance of fully committing oneself when setting out on a new project:
‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue forth from the original decision which you never dreamed of before.’
While this might sound like a kind of magical thinking to some readers, I do not think it is. I find it quite feasible to believe that once you have decided on a course of action things fall into place around you, so long as the commitment is there. Nonetheless, the notion that something called ‘Providence’ moves with me is the bit I have always wondered about. I have checked it out, of course (I do my prep) and uncovered the definition of Providence, courtesy of Lexico.com as ‘the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power’. Meanwhile the OED provides ‘the foreknowing and protective care of a spiritual power, specifically (a) that of God (more fully Providence of God, Divine Providence etc), and (b) that of nature. ‘Nature’ will do, after a fashion, though I honestly can’t think of ‘nature’ as something discrete, extraneous, ‘out there’. It’s the process or dynamic through which we exist. Neither am I crazy about the word ‘spiritual’. It is vague and has too many associations with practices that I find either suspect or presumptuous. But I’m inclined to keep things simple, and will equate ‘God’ with ‘Nature’ here. Providence as the protective care of nature.
I do not pretend to be a philosopher, nor do I have any training in that discipline or dark art, nor am I what might be strictly termed ‘religious’, but I am curious, and as it happens I drop in from time to time on a podcast called The Secret History of Western Esotericism (SHWEP) presented by a man who goes by the name of Earl Fontainelle.
While I am driving up to the Black Mountains from Cardiff early this August Monday morning I listen to an episode, fortuitously titled Providence, Fate, and Dualism in Antiquity. I had not planned this: it was the episode that was next in line.
Given the episode’s title, I am listening out for a definition of Providence, and sure enough, up one pops, or rather up pop several, courtesy of Earl’s interviewee, Dylan Burns, author of Did God Care?: Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy.
It would seem, according to Dr Burns, that Providence began its linguistic journey as the prónoia of the Greeks, meaning forethought, and became known in Rome, by Cicero’s day, as providencia. The concept comes up in ancient esoteric texts constantly, I learn, and well into the Middle Ages, where it came to mean the way that God determines Fate, something we would regard as deterministic. This suggests that free will was not a given; we are all subject to some ulterior force that is in a strong sense antithetical to free will, and that is Providence. However, as Dr Burns explains, just because certain things, such as universal laws, are determined by the gods (or God), it doesn’t mean that we are relieved of the responsibility to make the right choices. So, as I understand it, some things are up to chance, others are predetermined by the gods, and yet others can be brought about by the choices made by men and women: that which is up to us. We have free will but should never forget that there are certain things over which we have no control: shit happens.
There’s more, but that’s about as much as I can take in for now. I need to think a little.
Leaving the car at the roadside in Capel y Ffin, I set off up the road towards Gospel Pass, but after 300 metres take a left over a stile, up across a field past a cottage called Pen-y-maes; then follow the path that hugs the hillside below Darren Llwyd, before descending to the covered road just below Blaen-bwch farmhouse.
A quarter of a century ago, when Blaen-bwch was a working farm, I was once nipped on the shin by an over-enthusiastic sheepdog while coming down this lane. I have never forgotten, because it is the only time I have been bitten by a dog. This time there are no dogs, but outside, on the little patch of grass before the house, sit three humans in the lotus posture; two men and a woman. They are wearing loose robes and one of them, the woman, has a wooden bowl in her lap. What is that? Surely not a begging bowl; there’s only a slim chance anyone else will pass this way. Especially on a Monday. Perhaps it’s a gong of some kind. Perhaps it wasn’t made of wood, but bronze. I walked past too quickly to take it in. The meditators are silent, with eyes closed. I feel a wave of slight weirdness as I pass, emanating from one of the meditators, a long, haggard white man, the eldest of the three, who has the look of a self-proclaimed guru. Not hostile weirdness exactly, but a definite vibe of something, and not entirely to do with loving kindness, something more like propriety. It says something like: this is our patch. I can’t help making these evaluations, and am probably wrong, but there you are. When I am thirty metres past the house I stop to tie my bootlace, but really I just want to have another look. The third one, an Asian guy, has his eyes wide open and is watching me; until, that is, he sees that I am watching him, and closes his eyes in the prescribed manner, presumably to continue meditating. I wonder what these people would make of the Providence and free will debate.
The sun is getting warmer. It is forecast to be in the high twenties today, but up here the heat will be easily endurable, thanks to the mountain breeze. I have a hat and suncream, lots of water and a big thermos of spiced tea. I follow the course of the stream, Nant Bwch, and pass the little pool where Bruno the Dog once carried out an infamous atrocity. The spot has gone down in family legend as the pool of the duckling massacre.
A little further up, on my right is the promontory known as Twmpa, or Lord Hereford’s Knob, but I am heading left, or west. I pass a group of five cyclists in their sixties, all men who hail me cheerfully in the accents of the Gwent Valleys. They pass me, one after the other, negotiating the uneven track calling out in my direction: alright butt?; wonderful out yer, innit; lovely day; have a good hike, butt, etc. When they have passed out of sight I sit for a while on the rocks at Rhiw y Fan, overlooking the Wye valley, with the hamlet of Felindre beneath me.
I’d like to fall asleep because I only managed two hours last night, the usual struggle with insomnia until I got up and did some writing around 4.00 and never made it back to bed. But I need to get a shift on, and so head towards the trig point at Rhos Dirion, and there I sit down again, my back propped up against my rucksack and am about to drop off, when I see a very young woman in shorts, tanned legs, athletic build, plaits swinging, who approaches the trig point and proceeds to walk around it in rapid circles, as if she were a wind-up toy, or simply cannot stop moving. I wonder what she is doing out here alone, when I hear voices, crane my head around, and see a small mob of youths approach. From their accents I deduce they are the Essex kids from Maes y Lade residential centre. Two boys in the vanguard of the group address the solitary girl: ‘What are you on, Victoria?’ says one, evidently amazed that she has arrived at the meeting place a good few minutes before any of them. ‘Yeah, what’s Victoria’s secret?’ chimes another lad, the class wit. Victoria, pretty, coy, unspeaking, continues to circle the trig point at speed.
More kids are arriving now, throwing themselves on the ground and bringing out picnic packs and my peaceful interlude has been disturbed, so I move on, westward again, until I come to the track that marks the path of the Grwyne Fawr valley, and I turn south and follow the nascent stream.
I know this path well, love the way it descends through the gradually steepening valley above the reservoir, with the hillsides collapsing in on either side. A little way down I pass a family of ponies. They stop stock still when I take a photograph, as if posing. Then, when I move on, they resume their grazing.
I am getting hungry and stop by the stream, which is beginning to run above ground now, take off my boots. The stream bed is covered with sphagnum, which provides a deliciously soft pillow for my aching feet. A few metres downstream a pony is chomping away at the grass on the bank. She looks over her shoulder at me when I sit down, but does not move away. I feel an intense wave of wellbeing, strip down to my underwear and unpack my meal. I don’t much like eating out in the sun, but there is no shade to be had here, or anywhere near.
After eating, I drink hot chai, and then take myself off to a flat patch of ground. The skeleton of a sheep lies nearby — but is it a sheep, I wonder? Everything has become a little unreal, as though I were watching through a lens in which the colours are both bleached out and stunningly vibrant at the same time, and I cannot decide whether the skeleton belongs to a sheep, or . . . . but I am simply too tired to be bothered by such matters. I greet the skeleton anyway, addressing it as Geoffrey — the first name that comes to mind — and tell it I’m sorry for its loss. I lay out my rain jacket on the grass and lie flat on my back, close my eyes.
I must have slept for only a few minutes, but I wake with the image imprinted on my consciousness. It is, I know, the Eye of Providence: one of those eyes contained within a triangle that appears universally in religious iconography, from Ancient Egypt onwards. The all-seeing eye of God. The eye is everywhere. It counts every hair on every head and every grain of sand. The eye appeared in late Renaissance art as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The eye is even printed on the one dollar bill, such is its reach. That eye is monitoring even the most minute financial transactions in the world’s biggest economy.
I am not usually given to conjuring such symbols. I must have invoked it by listening to that podcast. Providence is in the air. And there was its eye, projected onto the inside of my own eyelid when I awoke from the briefest slumber.
I set off down the valley towards the reservoir, passing more ponies on the way. The breeze is a godsend, as it is pretty warm by now. I keep a steady pace and when I reach the dam I veer left at forty-five degrees along a rough track towards the ridge of Tarren yr Esgob, and then take the track south, heading for the blacksmith’s anvil just below Chwarel-y-fan. I am not thinking of anything much at this point, am at that stage of the hike when the mind goes blank, and you simply walk, one foot following the other. And it is then that I notice the flying ants. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, flying in an opaque black cloud just behind my right shoulder. The air is black with them, but none of them are actually bothering me, and I think of them as some kind of diabolical escort — the phrase comes easily to mind after seeing the Eye and all that it entails — as though I were some warrior from an ancient myth come to avenge a terrible murder — perhaps Geoffrey’s? — with a delirious swarm of flying ants at my side. There are none of the insects to my left, the side of the Ewyas Valley; all of them are to the right of me, a dense miasma of evil, or so I suspect. I accelerate, and the cloud accelerates. I stop, and the insect horde hovers closer, a few of them landing on my shoulder and chest, which is no good, that’s not part of the deal, so I brush them away and set off again. I devise a plan to be rid of them. I shall be utterly calm, and rid myself of any trace of stress or inner disquiet. I will be like Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books, who was never troubled by flies, not even in Mexico. I don’t know for sure whether that is what does the job, but after another quarter of a mile of serene walking the flying ants drift away, and by the time I arrive at the blacksmith’s anvil, they are gone. I sit on the stone and drink another chai.
The descent leads me down the steep hill below the rocks of Tarren yr Esgob, past the ruins of the monastery of Llanthony Tertia, onto the tarmac lane and back to the car. As I change into trainers for the drive home, a blackbird starts up in the bushes at the roadside. Evening birdsong never was more lovely.
Later, when I am home and getting ready for bed, I pick up the topmost volume of a pile of books that I have to read for a translation competition I am judging. On the cover, to my utmost surprise, and satisfaction, is depicted the Eye of Providence.
I map out a circular route that begins and ends at the Tabernacl chapel, a third of the way up the Grwyne Fawr valley. I plan a route because I have become more fastidious, as I get older, about leaving clear directions at home, just in case. This notion of following a predetermined route is something quite alien to me, however, and it goes against every fibre of my being to stick to it, not to veer off on subsidiary trails, onto paths that lead nowhere, or else to places I never imagined going. Especially those places, in fact.
And so it is, quite early one morning in late July, that I park the car opposite the chapel and set off up the hillside. I keep to a rhythm, there is nothing original in that, it’s the only way to go, one step leading to another. But that’s why it feels so good. The rhythm of the breath. I pass the badger-faced sheep, which, on this particular farm, have been known to give me the evil eye. Below the Stone of Revenge, I take the lower path, which, after half a mile or so, follows the eastern flank of the Mynydd Du forest. I turn sharp right onto a rough trail up to Bal Bach, and from there the vista opens up over the Ewyas Valley, with Llanthony Priory directly below.
From here I climb to Bal Mawr, and it is now that the green becomes greener, to my eye, at least; a green, as a poet once said, that is close to pain. In the distance, to the south, the Severn Sea is visible. Only on a clear day, and there aren’t so many of those. I stop to drink water, and am greeted by a solitary hiker, a man of around my age, walking in the opposite direction. He is the only human I have seen since leaving the road, and I will not see another for at least three hours, and then at a distance. Which is odd, even for a Tuesday.
A line comes to mind from a book I recently read, which has been playing on my mind. Augustus John’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, writes that John could never be one person, that he didn’t know who he was, that he kept reformulating himself (as an example he says that John kept changing his handwriting). Solitude on these walks often stirs up lightly dormant threads of thought, and I am at once cast adrift on the shores of an old and bitter dispute, brought on by that ‘could never be one person’; whether, indeed, there is such a thing as core identity, reinforced by the continuous tellings and retellings of a discrete and autonomous self, the narrating ‘I’ of its own life story, or whether, rather, we are episodic beings, as the philosopher Galen Strawson proposes, a sequence or series of fleeting ‘selves’ that dissolve and reassemble in different iterations over the course of a lifetime, but which lacks any central unifying narrative that constitutes what we might reasonably think of as a ‘self’. But does it have to either/or? Can I not be the bearer of (or container for) a more transitory and fleeting self and yet retain an underlying constancy, of the kind once called a soul? These ruminations are brought to a close when I spot what looks like a carved tombstone, a rectangular and large white rock, thirty metres below the ridge. I scramble down to inspect it, only to find it is a natural rock, covered by a strange scabby whiteness, some kind of fungus, nothing more.
As I follow a vague track down from Tarren yr Esgob towards the Grwyne Fawr reservoir, a tiny chick adorned with flecks of fluff, peers up at me from the mat-grass. This baby bird is a meadow pipit, and when I stop to take its portrait, I hear the worried chirruping of a parent bird nearby, and so move on.
At the reservoir, the water level is the lowest I have seen it, and although swimming is not encouraged, it certainly isn’t unheard of — and I have swum here myself. No one, though, would be tempted by the water today.
A hundred years ago, when the reservoir was under construction, some of the workers would commute by foot from Talgarth each morning, and back again at night, a walk of around seven arduous miles each way, following the stream north, and descending down Rhiw Cwnstab. My plan was to head the same way, as far as the stream’s source, and then turn left up toward Pen y Manllwyn and Waun Fach, but at this point, having crossed the bridge at the head of the dam, and noticing tracks straight up the hillside toward Waun Fach, I take a short cut. I want to get home before nightfall. The path is very steep, so I stop off to feast on whimberries (or winberries, or billberries, or whortleberries) — but known locally as whimberries — which grow abundantly here. Unfortunately they do not keep well, and reduce to mush very quickly in warm weather, so I don’t take any home.
The summit and environs of Pen y Gadair Fawr is sacred ground, at least for me. I stop to eat my sandwich and gaze in wonder at the majestic lines that sweep down between Pen Trumau and Mynydd Llysiau, allowing the distant shape of Mynydd Troed to slip perfectly between them, as an elegant foot might slip inside a cosmic slipper.
The Mynydd Du forest lies to the east of the ridge, a vast conifer plantation covering over 1,260 hectares that stretches half the length of the valley. For the past fifty years this forest has been a blot on the local landscape. In its recently published ‘Summary of Objectives’, Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru/Natural Resources Wales claims that it will aim to ‘diversify the species composition of the forest, with consideration to both current and future site conditions, . . . will enhance the structural diversity of the woodland . . . incorporating areas of well thinned productive conifer with a wide age class diversity, riparian and native woodland, natural reserves, long term retentions, and a mosaic of open habitats.’
That is all well and good, and I only hope it comes to pass, because the argument for the planting of native broadleaves has been around for decades now, and in the meantime expanses of the mountain are stripped bare (the term ‘asset strippers’ comes to mind) leaving an ugly void, as the conifers drain the soil of nutrients. I reflect back on a conversation I had with a farmer in the Grwyne Fechan valley last year, who told me how the forestry companies are supposed to plant a percentage of deciduous trees in among the pines, but the approach is tokenistic at best, or else frankly cynical: profit and exploitation of resources is the only serious motive. The landscape I pass to the south of Pen y Gadair Fawr looks and feels like a deserted battlefield. An arboreal graveyard. Nothing much is alive, apart from the few sheep that nibble listlessly at the edge. I feel the usual useless rage, and continue on my way.
Further on, I come across a flattened patch of grass between the ferns, scattered with wrappings from protein and chocolate bars, empty cans of energy drinks, crisp packets, used tissues. I look around. The rubbish covers quite a small area, and there is a breeze, so the litter louts have not long gone. I gather up all the mess and fill the plastic carrier bag that I use as a damp-proofing cushion, and stuff the lot inside my rucksack. Who on earth would leave their trash behind in a place like this? When I round the next hillock I see, in the distance, a group of half a dozen young people crowded around a map that one of them is holding; Duke of Edinburgh participants perhaps? Who else under the age of fifty would use an actual paper map? They look as if they are descending towards the Grwyne Fechan valley road. I think of going and gently explaining things to them, but they are too far away. As I watch, they seem to work out their route, and move on down the hill. I decide not pursue them, and do a stunt as the crazy old man they met up a mountain. It’s wonderful (I want to think) that these kids have an opportunity to walk in these hills, but could they please do so without trashing them? The next day I will ring around a couple of places that provide accommodation for groups of this kind, at Llanthony and Maes y Lade. Neither of them had excursions up in the hills yesterday, they say. I have quite a long chat with the guy from the Maes y Lade Centre, which is run by Essex Youth Service and provides residential holidays for youngsters from that county. He seems genuinely concerned and insists that the kids who come to the centre are taught to respect the local environment. That’s good, I say, and mean it.
Forms of sphagnum have been around for 400 million years, and the soft, absorbent moss has been used widely for poultices, for nappy (or diaper) material by Native Americans such as the Cree, and as insulation by the Inuit. What strikes me most about this little patch of moss or migwyn, however, is the almost luminescent colour, a blend of orange, white and gold that startles in the light of late afternoon, the moss dotted with strange upright stalks, daubs of white fluff attached, resembling candy floss. I think at first it must be sheep’s wool that has adhered to the stems, but it is lighter, fluffier, and more fragile to the touch. I am flummoxed and make a mental note to research my sphagnums.
The last stretch of the hike involves a slight ascent up to Crug Mawr, high above Partrishow and its tiny church. Looking west I catch the full contours of the Table Mountain, the iron age fort of Crug Hywel, which lends its name to my native town, Crickhowell, lying beneath it, out of sight. As I sit there in the silence, a red kite appears, glorious in its poise, suspended in impossible stillness high above the trail that forms the Beacons Way, no doubt scanning for any small rodent unwise enough to twitch beneath the ferns. It hangs there for a brief and delicate eternity, barely ruffling a feather, before suddenly swooping, levelling out and gliding at speed a few feet above the ground, then falls upon its prey, which it holds between its vice-like talons and soars away.
The descent towards the valley lane and the chapel is not kind on the knees after these fourteen miles, and I feel the weight of the years. When I get to my car I am joined by an eager young sheepdog, who throws herself into the stream ahead of me, an invitation of sorts. I take off my boots and sit on a rock, my grateful feet soaking in the cold water as the hound frolics briefly in the shallows, gnawing on a stick, before she is called away by a farmer’s whistle. It is evening now, and a cool breeze blows down the valley. I drink the last cup of hot chai from my thermos, smoke a cigarette, and reflect once more on the notion of the self, and core identity, before dismissing the notion entirely, and throwing away the dregs of my tea. My own core identity, if I ever had one, has dissolved into the flickering remnants of the day.
The sun is never so beautiful as on a day when you take to the open road.
For several months, during my travels on foot around southern Europe at the tail end of the 1980s, I carried with me a copy of Jean Giono’s Les Grands Chemins in its French paperback edition, loaned to me by the poet and bouzouki player Hubert Tsarko. Against the odds, my copy shows almost no sign of wear and tear. Sometimes I suspect it is not the book that Hubert loaned me, but I cannot remember buying it again, so have to assume that the same copy has survived the battering of more than thirty years in almost pristine condition. However, that suspicion — that the book is not the same as it was — begins to take on new significance after my pre-ordered copy of The Open Road lands on the doormat with a thump, one day in November, rudely disturbing the slumber of my ancient springer spaniel, Bruno. Re-reading Giono’s novel in another language, thirty years on, it turns out not to be the same book at all, despite the claims of its title.
The book that I remembered was evocative of a lifestyle and a place that I no longer count as mine, but the threads that the story pulls at are lodged deep in memory, and they connect me to some of the wilder places of Europe, as well as to a sense of hearth and home represented in the novel by the fires that the unnamed protagonist keeps burning in his walnut-oil mill on long winter nights, and the climb through the alpine forest towards his final act of sacrifice and betrayal.
A few weeks after drafting the opening paragraphs of this review, Hubert gets in touch with me from Liverpool, in one of his rare and random phone calls, and in answer to my questioning tells me that I returned his copy of Les Grands Chemins in 1989,when he was living in Carrer Sant Just, in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and that he still has it. In which case, I ask myself, where did my identical copy come from? The truth is that I have no idea.
In case the reader is wondering, this seemingly far-fetched tale is relevant to the writing of this review, as it sets the tone for my relationship with this curious and rather wonderful novel, translated for the first time into English by Paul Eprile and published by New York Review Books, who have been doing a great job in making Giono’s oeuvre available to a new readership, having issued translations of the novels Hill, Melville and A King Alone over the past five years.
I myself attempted a translation of Les Grands Chemins some thirty years ago, but that effort, for better or worse, has disappeared along with so much else. Giono’s narrator is not an educated man; he has apparently served time in prison, and lives from hand to mouth. One of the difficulties of translating the novel lies in finding the right tone and register for the narrator’s constant use of slang and vernacular expressions; and this, more than anything else, was what put paid to my efforts all those years ago. Consequently, my trepidation in waiting for the English version to appear was acute. As the reader will have gathered by now, I have an irrational sense of propriety towards this novel.
Unfortunately, reading the book in translation was a bit like meeting an old and dear friend who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery, and the result, while by no means a disaster, has left him looking like someone other than himself.
Some novels, perhaps, are more untranslatable than others.
Jean Giono is best known to readers of English as the author of The Man Who Planted Trees, a bittersweet tale written long before there was an environmentalist movement to speak of, and which was made into a popular animated film in 1987. His novel Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof ) was also turned into a successful movie, starring Juliette Binoche, but neither of these works really do justice to the deeply felt sense of place and the emotional intelligence of Giono’s work, almost all of which is set in or around the town of Manosque, in the Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, where Giono was born and spent his entire life. Or almost his entire life: in 1914, at the age of nineteen, he was sent off to war, like the vast majority of France’s young men. He trained in the Alpine Infantry and took part in some of the major battles of World War One, including Verdun. Life at the front marked him forever. He was one of the very few survivors of his company to return home, and he became a lifelong pacifist. This was something for which he would be made to suffer after World War Two when he was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. But that was all later.
Returning to Manosque in 1919, Giono took up the job in a bank which he had held before the war, and began writing. He started with prose poems and moved on to novels. After a few false starts he published Colline (Hill), a strange and intricately patterned tale of rural life, in which the human, animal and vegetable worlds occupying a remote mountain hamlet are seen to be intimately and ineluctably entwined. Colline attracted the attention of some of the big names of Parisian literary life, including André Gide, who paid a visit to find out who this promising young writer was. But Giono was never tempted by life in the metropolis. He bought an old house in an olive grove on the edge of town, and stayed put, dying at home in October 1970 at the age of seventy-five. He thus belongs to a diminishing group of writers who are profoundly and irrevocably associated with a particular place, a defined and circumscribed landscape. ‘Of a piece and of a place’, as Raymond Williams’ protagonist says of his taid, Ellis, in People of the Black Mountains. In fact, re-reading Williams’ last novel immediately after reading Giono has led me to think that this is what Williams would most have liked to be; a writer lodged in a specific locus or habitat, like his namesake Waldo, also a pacifist, who wrote unerringly about a single community in the Preseli hills; or the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, like Waldo a village schoolteacher, who spent his entire working life within the region of the Veneto. All three men — Giono, Waldo and Zanotto — spent most of their lives within a small, rural community, and each of them, by focusing on the local and the particular, spoke for the whole of humankind. In The Open Road, Giono’s narrator touches on this very theme when he discusses ‘the things you notice at significant times. For example’, he continues, ‘the footprints of a man who seeks happiness in one spot, with everything taken care of and easy to understand; in a world that following the seasons, seems to follow you; that fulfilling its own destiny, fulfils you . . .’.
Giono has an uncanny skill in evoking the natural world without sentimentalising it: instead he reminds us how our subjective responses, rooted in memory, determine our way of being in the world:
At this time of year, the chestnut sap flows earthward and settles underground. It oozes from all the nicks in the bark that summer has opened wider. It has that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough, of flour mixed with water. A falcon, chased by a cloud of titmice, swoops by low over the trees. The midday warmth spreads like a quilt from my knees to my feet. I’m letting my beard grow, to contend with coldness in general. To live in love or to live in fear: it all comes down to memory.
This seemingly straightforward paragraph can be broken down into four distinct topics, more specifically into three cascading non-sequiturs, which nicely illustrate Giono’s technique. First, the lovely evocation of the sap, oozing from the chestnut tree, and likening the smell of that sap with bread dough. Second, the vision of a bird of prey pursued by a cloud of tiny birds, Third, the weather (warm, but foreshadowing the cold), and finally the curious crowning insight: whether we live in love or in fear, we are constrained by memory. How many novelists would be reckless, or skilled enough to pack so much into a single paragraph?
The extract also serves to show up some of the shortcomings of the translation, because the French says something a little different:
En cette saison, la sève des chatâigniers descend et rentre sous terre. Elle suinte de toutes le égratignures que l’été a élargies dans l’écorce. Elle a cette odeur équivoque de pâte à pain, de farine délayée dans l’eau. Un faucon file en oblique, très bas à travers les arbres, poursuivi par une nuée de mésanges. La chaleur de midi est sur mes pieds et mes genoux comme un édredon. Je laisse pousser ma barbe pour des questions de froid universel. Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire.
First, I would disagree with ‘that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough’, which is a rendering of ‘cette odeur équivoque de pâte a pain’. Unfortunately ‘équivoque’ does not mean ‘hard to describe’, and would more suitably be transcribed as ‘that dubious (or ambivalent, or suspect) smell of bread dough’. And in that puzzling summative sentence, the translator has again changed the meaning of the original: the French is: ‘Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire’, which might be translated as: ‘To love, to live or to be scared, it’s all a question of memory’. These are not terrible misjudgements, more a case of a translator slightly overstepping the mark. If they were isolated incidents, it would matter less, but unfortunately they are not, and this only added to my discomfiture.
The mountains around Manosque, the deep valleys and the forested hillsides, provide the backdrop, or rather the context, for all of Giono’s writings. We are drawn, in his stories, towards some elemental and chthonic myth of home, and yet village life, in Giono, is never quite what it seems. His fullest and most convincing characters, men and women alike, share a kind of emphatic yet amoral physicality; neither existentialists nor primitives, they are people with roots; people who know what and who they are, even if they lack ego or even ‘identity’ in any modern, strictly individualistic sense. I’d be tempted to call them animists were animism not such a questionable term, much like ‘nature’ — as though nature were something distinct from us, which we visit or even, God forbid, ‘get back to’. ‘The very fact that we have a word for “nature” is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as a part of it’, write Kingsworth and Hine in Uncivilisation, and their Dark Mountain Project offers a perspective that is likely to ring a few bells for anyone who admires Giono’s work, or rejects the fond conceit of human progress.
The premise of The Open Road is simple: we follow the travels of the unnamed narrator, a solitary vagabond, across the hills and valleys of Alpine Provence as autumn turns to winter, some time around 1950, the year the novel was written. The story is narrated in first person, present tense, and unbroken by chapters, giving a seamless, almost dreamlike quality to the whole. In fact it is that oneiric sense of non-sequitur, and of the narrator’s seeming indifference to outcomes, as well as the contradictory impulses that steer his decisions — if indeed he can actually be said to take decisions — that most impressed me on my first reading, and of which I was reminded this second time around.
We first meet our man hitch-hiking at the side of the road. When a lorry pulls up he falls into conversation with the driver about the availability of jobs in the area. The driver asks what kind of work he is looking for, and the man replies: ‘A bit of everything. A hundred trades, a hundred headaches’. (Again, a translation quibble: the French is the alliterative ‘Cent métiers, cent misères’. By expressing ‘misères’ — miseries, misfortunes — as ‘headaches’, the translation not only misses out on a chance to replicate the music of the original — something like ‘a hundred trades, a hundred tribulations’ — it also relegates the narrator’s quip about work from existential grievance to mere gripe or irritation.)
But translation issues aside, there are already — by Page 2 — signs that things are not quite right. The lorry, ominously, is ‘hauling acid for a factory’, and the driver has to make the delivery three times a day, an eighty-mile trip each way in order to hit his target. Four trips and he starts making a bonus. It soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of work around, because the country is undergoing ‘reconstruction’ here and elsewhere, due to the ravages of war. In fact the remnants of war and occupation are everywhere visible, as are the trophies that have landed in France since its end, from the American army raincoat worn by the narrator to the American-made farm machinery that he showcases for one of his employers, and the American cigarettes smoked by his sometime companion, ‘the artist’. Modernity has encroached on this rural landscape in the form of goods imported from the land of the victor. A sense of recent upheaval, and the ambiguity with which the narrator faces the challenges of the day seem to suggest that rather more is going on than might first be apparent. Mention is made of the war in Indochina (Vietnam) as France embarks on a sordid struggle to hang onto the last of her colonies. There is a sense of uncertainty, even of anxiety in the air. Perhaps we could call it ‘cultural anxiety’, of which our protagonist is only too keenly aware. We might look to the novel’s epigraph, taken from Hamlet, for some clue or insight:
Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee stay with us: go not to Wittenberg.
This seemingly commonplace entreaty to a son to stay at home, not to abandon the mother, sits rather strangely at the start of a novel in which the protagonist is always on the move, never once makes mention of his family, nor ever suggests that he might be missed elsewhere. Since Giono’s characters are most often individuals who live their entire lives in one place, this novel is unusual in that its narrator is a drifter. He is a stranger to the villages he passes through: every place he encounters, he is visiting for the first time. Moreover, very early on, he says that chateaus with turrets ‘scare the shit’ out of him, perhaps a reference to his having spent time inside, or else, given the recent war, a prison camp. So why the reference to a mother’s prayers?
The man walks or hitches from village to village, and although these places are unfamiliar to him, he is an astute observer of the flora and fauna, as well as the people (most especially the women) in the places he passes through. He takes on odd jobs, looks after a walnut-oil mill, fixes things, and forms a curious friendship with a man he calls ‘the artist’, a fellow vagrant whom he meets up with early in the novel. The artist does no work but rather earns his keep as a card sharp.
From the outset, the narrator’s relationship with the artist is ambivalent:
I see a guy sitting on the boulders next to the rushing stream . . . As I get closer, I can make out he’s holding a guitar between his legs.
I ask him, “What are you up to?”
He raises his head: he has a nasty gaze. A moment later, he answers, “I’m fixing this, see.” He’s carving a tuning peg with his knife. He’s a young guy. I don’t like the way he looks. But I’m watching his skilful hands, and I stick around.
He asks if I’m going to the fair. I tell him I didn’t know there was a fair. I want to speak nicely to him. He’s tanned. His hair is curly. He looks like a girl and he’s strong. Right away, his gaze was so off-putting, I want to see it again. I don’t think he made it nasty on purpose. It was just his natural look.
There is so much here that resists unpacking: the fact that the artist has a ‘nasty gaze’ and yet our man wants to see it again; the fact that he both ‘looks like a girl’ and that ‘he’s strong’; the idea that the narrator finds the stranger’s gaze ‘so off-putting’ that he wants to see it again.
It comes as no surprise, given this new string of non-sequiturs — including a thinly disguised homoeroticism — that the two men fall in together. But the ease with which the narrator accepts his own ambivalence toward the artist is something which, for me, fuels the central conundrum of the novel: the chemistry between the two men, and the way in which the relationship unravels.
At that first encounter, the artist asks our man to accompany him to a fair in the nearby town. Reasonably enough, the narrator wants to know more about his companion, but he holds back, since, he says, he knows that the artist would only tell him lies, and in a way that is what he’d prefer, since ‘if he told me the truth, I’m afraid it would make me sick.’ And on this rather unusual premise the two start out their association — ‘friendship’ seems too intimate a name for it, something about which the narrator comments: ‘There are plenty of things about him that annoy me. I wouldn’t want this kind of man as a friend.’ We learn that the artist plays his guitar at fairs and village dances in the area, but this is only a sideline to his main source of income, as a card sharp. Not only does he cheat at cards, he does so with such style and artistry that the narrator is astonished and impressed in equal measure; smitten, in spite of himself. He misses the artist when he disappears after being beaten up, and he does refer to him as a ‘buddy’, however obfuscating the rest of his description:
. . . that glorious buddy I’m talking about is in reality the slimiest bastard on the face of the earth: absolute scum, thief, liar, in it for himself, nastiness incarnate, capable of swindling his own parents, happy as a pig in shit. No matter how thick I lay it on him, I still miss him.
The artist is a study in raw egotism: obsessed with money, he is rapacious, arrogant and yet oddly vulnerable. The narrator, by contrast, is solid, trustworthy, and only a little vain (he tends to his beard with the fastidiousness of a dandy). From the outset it seems almost inevitable that the artist will meet with some sort of comeuppance, but what is extraordinary are the lengths to which the narrator will go to rescue and protect him. An initial act of violence provokes a sort of a chain reaction, and the story shifts tone. The novel then becomes something darker and more restless until the narrator finally takes action, revealing his own wayward and ruthless moral code.
In his introduction to this edition, Jacques Le Gall makes an interesting comparison with the Jack Kerouac of On the Road, a story ‘of two guys hitching to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else.’ Although, as this quotation from Kerouac’s 1948 journal might suggest, there are points of intersection between the two novels, it seems to me too simplistic a comparison, and Giono has always been a superior psychologist and observer of human foibles than Kerouac; moreover The Open Road is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel than On the Road. There is certainly a kinship between the two works in terms of their brevity of composition, Kerouac hammering out the first draft of On the Road over three weeks in 1951, and Giono taking only two months to complete his novel, in a break between shifts on The Hussard on the Roof. But here the congruences end.
Earlier I mentioned that one of the problems of translating a novel like Les Grands Chemins is to decide what kind of a slang one translates into. In a novel as packed with idioms and locutions as this, the dialect and register one opts for is always going to be a gamble. Add to that the plethora of aphorisms with which the narrator peppers his account and you have something like a translator’s nightmare. Paul Eprile has chosen to adopt the diction of the American 1950s, even of the beatnik, and this offers us ‘broads’ for women (for the offensive and outdated French gonzesses), or ‘java’ for coffee. We also have ‘chicks’ — which, sadly, is appropriate for the era — and on other occasions the narrator ‘takes a dump’ and so on. Admittedly our narrator is a hobo à la française and accommodation to the street language of the era seems fitting, up to a point. I can’t quite see our narrator digging the zeitgeist in Big Sur, or jiving to the electric Kool-aid acid test with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and so to an extent the association with beat lit is misleading, but when all is said and done, the translation of dialect and slang idioms is always going to present problems. I don’t want to come down too heavily on Paul Eprile, who had to make some difficult choices, and whose translation of Colline — another tricky work, full of poetic imagery and Provencal idioms — I enjoyed very much. The fact that I failed to connect with this novel in English is probably no fault of his. And here’s the thing. My main problem with The Open Road is the one that I started out with: it failed to live up to the memory I had of it. So, on completing this review, I pick up my old copy, and re-read the original version, and at once I am back in Giono’s world, and it all makes sense, in its own inimitable fashion. As I said, some novels are more untranslatable than others.
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