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.