Taking a flail mower to the inner landscape.

Winter scene – taken just outside Priddy today

There’s a long walk around the village of Capel y Ffin in the Black Mountains that takes you up Hatterall Hill at just over 530 metres above sea level and joins the Offa’s Dyke path. Walking west along the ridge you come to a track that’s a lot easier to find with GPS, down past Vision farm. You drop steeply down into the valley, cross the Honddu river by a bridge and then climb up the other side through Capel, passing the ruins of the monastery there, and uphill until you reach a second ridge that offers the most spectacularly airy views of Hay Bluff and across into Wales. Turning left you follow the ridge, keeping an eye open for a single wind blasted thorn, several miles further on and which is the only clue to the whereabouts of a path leading back down the valley to Llanthony Abbey and the starting point. It’s about ten, maybe twelve miles, I suppose – a fine walk in any weather although there’s no shelter from sun, wind or rain and it can get a bit gloopy in winter. That thorn tree is an essential part of the navigation. If you miss it you let yourself in for a long and difficult thrash.

The image came to mind today as I was struggling to make sense of the confusion I am feeling at the prospect of yet more restrictions and growing numbers of deaths from the Omicron Covid variant. Hefting – to use the phrase that describes that way sheep “belong” to particular parts of their fells is a powerful description of an attachment that goes far beyond owning an internal sheepy satnav. Hefting includes within its meanings the knowledge of particular plants for food; of water; of shelter from storms; of tracks of use only to sheep who have different purposes than careless walkers. Hefting embeds ancient inherited knowledge within a whole landscape – an almost sacramental image combining outward form with inner grace; shared – and here’s the point – between sheep and shepherds. I remember once talking with a farmworker in his seventies who could point out, and actually name a field on an east-facing slope of the Forest of Dean, a mile away across the River Severn.

It’s an important clue to the way it feels to be human, here in this place and at this moment in time. Covid, brexit, the collapse of social care, appalling and uncaring politics and the impossibility even of seeing a doctor when their answering machine says – “If it’s an emergency dial 999 and if it’s not – talk to your pharmacist”; all add up to the feeling of walking on a rainy and windblown ridge and discovering that every single waypoint has been taken down. The thorn bush that’s always been there as a pointer to the way home, is gone. You feel lost.

And so, today – much to Madame’s bewildered amusement – I just had to drive up to High Mendip to make sure it was still there, even if it was too wet to get out of the car and too misty to see beyond a hundred yards. “God it’s bleak up here”, she said, and I thought to myself that its bleakness may have been its saviour.

When someone’s taken a flail mower to your inner landscape you have this primal urge to find a place that you know, and that – in some strange way – knows you. I’ve explored Priddy’s underground streamways and passages with more moments of sheer terror than bliss; seen the power of the water reshape an entire cave system in a single night, and then retraced my steps sixty years later walking the map above ground. It’s a three dimensional landscape for me ….. or could it be four? My son gave me Robin Wall Kimmerer’s latest book – a collection of essays – for my birthday this weekend. Here’s something truly significant that she writes towards the end of the preface:

In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective.

“Gathering Moss” – Robin Wall Kimmerer – published 2021 in the UK by Penguin Books.

You need to know that Kimmerer is both a scientist, professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. But you don’t have to be a First Nation American to embrace the earth in its totality. There was never a more important moment in human history to turn away from the narrow vision of the reductionist arrow slit to embrace the intensity and difficulty of the whole. For me, the emotional and spiritual connection to landscape -and not just wild places and countryside, but the towns and cities in which we are also hefted – these connections are being tested like never before. We are being shriven by the weather of events, huddling beneath the walls, waiting for a spring that’s failed us now, for two years, and fearing that there is no shepherd to lead us down to food and shelter.

For each of us the equivalent of my blasted thorn will be different. The signs that guide us to safety are rarely the ones erected at great public expense – like the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol – in order to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The Post Office and corner shop, the local pub, the tatty GP surgery, the school where the teachers remember your name thirty years later, the alleyways and steps, the bus stop that’s always hosted the number four bus, the sweet shop of your childhood that suddenly and overnight turned into a bookies on the day you finally understood why your grandfather would send you up to give a note to the shopkeeper and occasionally bring an envelope back – evidently not a rebate on sweets. When the flail mower visits your own blasted thorn you feel lost and sad; and if there’s a calculus for feeling lost then I have lots of data.

This isn’t just a landscape

Had the strangest experience last night as I settled down to identify a grass that I’d gathered on our walk to Sham Castle (yesterday’s posting). There must have been something about it that caught my eye, because when I opened the polythene bag that I carry around with me – just in case – there was another identical sample inside that I’d forgotten about. So why was this particular species of grass- which turned out to be (I’m pretty sure) common bent – Agrostis capillaris – speaking to me so loudly?

If you’ll allow me a tiny digression, the microscope has been a wonderful help with grasses, but also with random bits of unspeakable things like earwax which turn out to be pretty interesting as well! Anyway, the bent grass, to get back to the point. The thing about it was that it seemed to be carrying an inordinate amount of emotional freight with it. The pursuit of grasses has been as much an intellectual challenge as anything else. I’m trying to know them well enough to identify them confidently, simply because I was challenged by someone I respect greatly and I love a challenge.

So on the microscope I went through the increasingly familiar routine, much helped by the BSBI webinar material, and then keyed the sample out and there it was; one of two possibilities and in the end I plumped for common bent. And that might have been the end of the story if I hadn’t been mulling it all over in the early hours of this morning during that half awake, half asleep time that’s so full of lateral thoughts and unexpected revelations, and it became clear to me that I needed to go to Rodway hill.

If it weren’t for Rodway Hill, or Rodway Common as it’s also known my life would have been radically different. It was a place of powerfully charged moments. I had a strange, almost religious experience there as a young teenager when I once laid down on the grass and moments turned into infinite time. It was the first, but not the last of my experiences of what came to be known as the oceanic state. At a much more mundane level it was the place that Rogers’ Fair set up one warm summer evening and I first heard the Everly Brothers in a moment charged with eroticism, generators and diesel fumes. It was there with Madame that we once gathered 40lbs of blackberries with which we made dreadful chutney. It was where I went to school and it was the view from the window that sustained me through hours of tedium. It was the territory of my adolescence and so everything about it must have become charged with significance. And the common bent had something to do with it and so I dragged Madame over there in torrential rain this morning to get some photographs and to track down the ghostly presence.

It was a pretty scary experience – I felt a bit silly chasing down the bizarre idea that I am somehow connected to that landscape. Even as we set out I was wondering if the landscape was acting as an immaterial hard drive; if it could be possible that some of my memories were held there waiting for me to reclaim them. But however mawkish and stupid it might sound, the moment we set foot on the common they were there waiting for me.

I’d already done a bit of research into the surface geology of the area and I couldn’t find any real connection between the calcareous soil up on the Skyline walk and the mildly acidic soil on Rodway common, but either plants don’t read textbooks or they’re far more adaptable than we think, because there was the grass, the grass I once laid down next to and lost myself; the grass through which the wind would flow with a silvery kind of sound if you listened carefully enough. But there was more, because the harebells were still there and then in a proper flow moment I found woodruff – Galium odoratum one of the bedstraws and what I think was blinks – Montia fontana which I can’t remember ever noticing before. The gorse and the bracken were all there in abundance too; despite being surrounded now by a six lane circular road and thousands of new houses but the school and the common have survived. It was an extraordinary moment – to be there in the rain, reconnecting with my very young self and being able to name at least some of the plants that had lodged in my unconscious mind.

Of course the downside of the avalanche of feelings and memories was the thought that I might have been a complete weirdo as well, but there we are – Madame must have found something tolerable in me, (although she occasionally reminds me about her patience and forbearance in staying put!).

But if anything comes out of this strange day, it’s the extension of the notion of hefting that I’ve written about before. As I looked across the common, which is smaller than I’d remembered, I could see in an instant that the landscape is marked by what the Mendip people call gruffy ground. For whatever reason, whether surface mining took place there? – since it’s within the South Gloucestershire coalfield and there are records of a coal mine in Mangotsfield; or perhaps quarrying for stone? – all the local walls are built with that kind of sandstone, or whatever other reason. It doesn’t matter. The poor soil, delicate grasses, the pockmarked ground have become a sort of default in my mind and in the most peculiar way they hold me and I still seek them out like a sheep turned out on to the hill in the summer. Everything changes and nothing changes.

On the way home we took a detour past my old home which, ironically, is at the other end of the Bristol Bath cycle path; the other end of the same old railway line that still passes today. It looked much the same with new windows. Mr King’s allotment which was at the bottom of the garden over the tunnel entrance is now completely overgrown but can never be built on. No-one will ever re-create what he did, an old retired miner who would walk five or six miles to Parkfield in the morning and walk halfway home underground; his allotment was the paradisiacal vision that drives the Potwell Inn.

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