Ricardo Blanco's Blog

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.