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’.