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 red kite circling, and calling, as we imagine, for its mate, and although I am no ornithologist I think I know a red kite when I see one, and it strikes me as a strange and plaintive cry, more like a duck than a red kite. Yes, a red kite 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.