Cwm Banw and the Clowde of Unknowyng
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’.
Cwm Banw and the myth of core identity
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.
The configuration of confusion
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.
(English version below)
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.
The Black Mountains and the human brain
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.
Capel-y-Ffin and the many worlds interpretation
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.
A Perambulation with Providence
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.
A quiet stroll along the ridges
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.
A tight knot of mermerosity
When we set out, just past Castell Dinas, we pass a dog driving a tractor. Or so it seems.
The shadow of Bruno the dog is long. We see him everywhere. Every morning when I first go downstairs I expect to see him, lying on his rug by the front door. Making coffee I expect him to approach me, nuzzle the back of my knee with his snout. I expect him to stand by the back door, waiting to be let out for a pee and on returning inside to stand by the fridge, awaiting his treat. But he isn’t there.
In David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, I come across this:
‘In English, the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoire, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. And yet more deeply rooted in the word memoir is a far less confident one. Embedded in Latin’s memoria is the ancient Greek mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, itself a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we can think about but cannot grasp: mer-mer, ‘to vividly wonder,’ ‘to be anxious,’ ‘to exhaustingly ponder.’’
The Chambers dictionary of etymology links ‘mourning’ and ‘mourn’ with old Saxon ‘mornian’, to mourn, and Old High German mornen, Icelandic ‘morna’ — but goes on to say ‘cognate with Latin memoria (mindful) see MEMORY’. So I look at ‘Memory’ in the etymological dictionary and sure enough, Shields is right: ‘Latin memor is cognate with Greek mérmēra = care, trouble, mermaírein = be anxious or thoughtful.’
Mermeros was a figure from Greek Mythology, a son of Jason, along with Pheres. Apparently the brothers were killed either by the Corinthians or by Medea, for reasons that vary depending on the rendition (see Medea). In one account, Mermeros was killed by a lioness while out hunting.
Iolaus mermeros is a butterfly of the Lycaenidae family. It is found on Madagascar.
Mermeros in ancient Greek means ‘a state of worry or anxiety’.
I find a blog written by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who applies the concept of mermeros to the crisis of the world’s ecosystem: ‘Perhaps we should expand the psychoterratic typology beyond an established term such as ‘ecoanxiety’ to include a concept like ‘mermerosity’ or what I would define as the pre-solastalgic state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably within one’s sense of place. I begin to mourn for that which I know will become endangered or extinct even before these events unfold. I know and worry that the coming summer will be too hot and will have a huge wildfire threat. I often have a tight knot of mermerosity inside me when I consider the scale of negative change going on around me and what disaster might happen next.’
Albrecht goes on to suggest that a new kind of mourning ‘might contains the emergent elements of detailed knowledge of causality, anthropogenic culpability and enhanced empathy for the non-human’ . . . ‘The etymological origins of the word ‘mourning’ come from the Greek language, mermeros related to ‘a state of being worried’ and its meaning is associated with being troubled and to grieve. We can see from these ancient origins that mourning is a versatile concept that can be applied to any context, present and future, not just to the death of humans, where there is grieving and worry about a negative state of affairs.’
On the day of Storm Eunice, I walk with my daughter Sioned up to Pen Trumau, starting from Castell Dinas, just off the Crickhowell to Talgarth Road. Castell Dinas was an Iron Age Fort that later sprouted a Norman Castle, of which the ruins are still visible. At 450 metres it is the highest castle in that hybrid geo-political entity ‘England and Wales’. It has the dubious privilege of having been sacked by two Welsh warlords, first by Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1233 and subsequently by Owain Glyndŵr on his visit to these parts circa 1405, on his way to Crickhowell. He burned down the castle there also.
On the south-west facing side of Pen Trumau we are out of the wind, but once on the ridge beneath Mynydd Llysiau we struggle to stay on our feet: leaning into the wind becomes an effort of the will. There is no way to depict the wind in a photograph of a treeless landscape, but the posture tells us pretty much all we need to know about the wind.
By the time we hit the ridge between Pen Trumau and Waun Fach we realise that the effort required to walk is more than we can sustain. I am tired and out of sorts in any case; since Bruno’s death I’ve been enduring a kind of failure to engage with thought, which drains my energy. Sometimes I feel I’m better off not thinking at all, that I’d rather be merely sentient, like a beast of the field. So much cerebral processing in the human. And for what?
As we descend from the mountain, and I look down over Cwm Grwyne Fechan, and beyond, to the ridge behind Pen Allt Mawr and westward, and I notice once more the way that the hills fold into one another creating a trompe l’oeil effect, the curve of a hillside concealed by another, a process of continual enfolding, that reminds me of something to do with grammar: the Black Mountains as a single recursive sentence, its hills clauses hidden within other clauses, disappearing from sight as you round a contour or cross a ridge.
The Olchon Valley and Walter Lollard
The Olchon Valley, which I only discovered recently, is a place that feels as though it shouldn’t exist. It is almost the definition of somewhere lost to the world; undiscovered, little known even to those who walk its outer edge, Crib y Gath, or the Cat’s Back, the long spine of an enormous dormant beast that threatens to uncoil, thrash loose and send its cargo of walkers flying into the stratosphere, perhaps to be picked up by some errant wind and deposited on the Malverns (from Moel fryn, or bare hill) to the east or Pen y Fan to the west. The looping elliptical lane that follows the contours of the valley is an ouroboros, a serpent eating its tail. Who knows where its tales of sorrow and loss will take us. Walking down the lane, past derelict cottages, we get the impression that this was once quite a populous valley. Whatever happened? There were times when parts of the Black Mountains flourished, and the fourteenth century was certainly among them.
Rumour has it that in 1315 Anabaptist leader and vagabond Walter Reynard of Mainz (known also as Reynard Lollard, and in the Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes as Gaultier Lollard) — an outspoken critic of the Catholic hierarchy — came to Wales, and was offered refuge in Olchon.
As one account has it: ‘Walter the Lollard, a shining light in the midnight of Papal darkness, after passing from country to country, lifting his eloquent voice and scattering over the wintery seed-fields the germs of truth, passed through England to build up the scattered flock of Christ there, and then breathed out his great soul amid the fires of martyrdom.’ Lollard was burned at the stake in Cologne, in 1322.
What did he find here in this obscure valley? Does his ghost haunt these silvered lanes on a night in February, the stars like shingle on some immeasurable shore? Do the religious wars that engulfed Europe over the three hundred years that followed Walter’s visit have their origins in a seed sown in this narrow sleeve of land between the great ridge of Hatterall and the Cat’s Back?
On the Cat’s Back
Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines:
‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’
A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:
‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.
‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’
‘Seems to have more energy.’
‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘
‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’
‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’
So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:
‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’
Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.
The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.
For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.
Above the fog line
There is a world above the fog line, as we discover. Two hundred and fifty metres above sea level, we emerge into a landscape filled with colour. The sky is a cerulean blue. Like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, we are stunned to learn of the existence of this brave new world. If we return to the world of fog the others will not believe us, and may kill us. We can see the fog lands stretching out beneath us, to the river valley, southwest to the capital, and far beyond. Best to stay put.
We hear gunfire from further up the cwm: men are hunting with dogs, which is against the law of the land. There is a woods, and the way is perilous, but we make it onto the upland pastures of Darren fach, the disused quarries of a deeper green than even the grasslands, the sheep dropping currants, the various fungi now at season’s end, among them the liberty cap, psilocybe semilanceata, the collection or possession of which is against the law of the land: but whose land? Three watchful horses graze where once there were two. Who is the third that always walks beside us? We sit by the cairn and eat our sandwiches, drink hot tea from a thermos. I wonder whether the farm that lies at the base of a perfect parallelogram, below Pen Gwyllt Meirch and surrounded by three fields — three adjacent parallelograms — was built there by design or by accident. Or whether the design — if indeed that is what it is — stretches far beyond that corner of the hillside to encompass all of this, and us.
Or whether that particular shade of russet, edging to ochre, or is it saffron — no colour chart could do it justice — can ever be replicated in a photograph or painting, any more than I, seated beneath the cairn, knife in hand, dropping apple peel for the luminous insects at my feet, might discern the vast and intricate pattern of spider webs that lattice the entire hillside and which glitter like a silvery counterpane under the oblique rays of the winter sun as it falls behind the bulk of Pen Allt Mawr.
Coming off the mountain, one of the horses, silhouetted against the mist — which has edged up the valley just a tad — eyes us with suspicion. The air is colder now. Retracing our steps down the forestry track, a pair of deer appear from our left at speed, leap across the path ahead of us, and vanish.