Digging down

Priddy Pool

As it happens this post isn’t, strictly speaking, about allotmenteering or gardening, but about interrogating a landscape – to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner of the Bath Natural History Society – “It’s about walking in nature rather than through nature.”

Dunnock egg

Our favourite way of exploring is to get to know a new landscape by walking all its byways and footpaths really intensively. In this case it’s revisiting a landscape after a gap of many years which has added an extra dimension altogether. I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep or spiritual about this way of walking; it’s just about intense attention to detail. The dunnock egg, for instance, was in the wrong place; many yards from any possible nest. It’s impossible to know why it was there, but probably it had been stolen and then abandoned.

What triggered this line of thought was using the idea of silence in my last posting. Today we were walking a linked series of old droves and as we made our way towards the starting point I realised that I could hear the sound of a dried and dead leaf scuttering across the road in the brisk wind. That’s silence. I could describe it as the matrix that holds all the sounds of a particular place together; an ocean in which sounds are made and scattered. Its a great sadness that such moments are so rare these days.

But there’s more. Coming back to this high country after many years, farming seems to have changed. Walking through the village everything looks much the same – the local authority have done their job in preserving its appearance – but from the inner landscape – the droves and footpaths, another picture appears. Old buildings that were once useful are now abandoned. Behind the unchanged roadside buildings massive new barns have sprung up as farmers have been forced to intensify or go out of business. The rich diversity of wildlife has become increasingly confined to reserves and after three days of walking we’ve yet to see an unimproved meadow. This isn’t an attack on farmers at all. They’ve somewhat heroically tried to do everything they were asked to do – not least to increase production at the expense of the soil and the environment in general. Every cottage that hasn’t been sold to second homers has been pressed into service for holiday lets and – in a situation I know only too well, a local mixed farming culture that developed over centuries has been homogenised and all but destroyed. I was only bleakly amused to meet an electrician installing CCTV cameras on a remote house to deter off-roaders in four wheel drives who, totally illegally, noisily tear the ancient drove road to shreds in rain and snow. The balance of power between locals and incomers has been destroyed and the parish council has, by all accounts, endured hostility as the entrenched pro and anti offroaders battle it out. The local school survives but we looked in vain for a shop. It occurred to me that the silence I was enjoying would have been punctuated by the sounds of dozens, if not hundreds of farm labourers and horses. Some silences are more malign than you might think. An absence of life is not what I was looking for.

And the earth in some places looked exhausted.

The landscape, it seems – and sorry about the long word – to be a palimpsest. The newest message inscribed upon the poorly erased messages of the past. Walking through nature you might never notice the difference, but walking in it forces us to embrace its mystery. The story told by the plants that survive in the most surprising corners where they escaped the predation of plough, fertiliser and pesticide.

And yet our hearts are still lifted by discovering new plants. Tonight – so long as the sky stays clear we might get a glimpse of the lyrid meteor shower – first described over two millennia ago, which adds up to a lot of wonder. God forbid I become just another grumpy old man. When it comes to landscapes I’m more Edward Thomas than RS Thomas.

Silence comes in many shapes

So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.

I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.

But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.

So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.

Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.

This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.

And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.

Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.

Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.

The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.

Slow down

Jim Reynolds, an old friend and brilliant songwriter, has a song about a hyperactive friend of his (not me) and it’s called “slow down”. I know exactly what he means. When I look at posts by my young friends on Facebook they all seem ceaselessly busy and I’m sometimes tempted to feel a bit superior; tempted that is, until I think about my own restless approach to life. Madame takes a different line. For her there is nothing more important in life than another Simenon novel. I wish I could do it too, but try as I will I can’t. If my bottom stays still for more than ten seconds an undetectable micro switch goes off in my brain and I have to look for something to do. Not just anything, though, but something important.

So, in a massively convoluted way, I’ve had to make slowing down important. I’ve had to turn it into a kind of practice like Tai Chi, in order to replace the mindlessness of restless and unfocused activity for the mindfulness of kneading dough, cooking, botanising, drawing or gardening. I’ve discovered along the way that, although I find silence uncomfortable, I really need it, at least a bit of it, every day. My longest ever period of silence was a full week at a Franciscan convent in Dorset. I nearly went crazy and eventually hiked across the fields to the nearest village to find a telephone box. But I profited enormously from the exercise – it was like a detox for a cluttered mind.

More recently my therapy sessions had significant periods of silence. Both in group and individual settings psychoanalytic psychotherapists, like mine, could remain silent for the whole session if no-one spoke. At first it was very uncomfortable but I found it became a warm and secure place, my safe place. I went to Robin- whom I’ve never adequately thanked – completely blocked, and over a period of several years he gave me a space in which to unravel the knots. Since my sessions ended I’ve written in excess of half a million words, about a half of which I’ve published here, in over 500 posts. That’s not a boast as much as a plea to anyone who feels they’re churning their life away in pointless time filling. Do something about it; get some professional help – it’s expensive but wasted lives are much more expensive. This is not an advert for psychotherapy – I haven’t been holding back about my undisclosed occupation or anything like that. But I have spent many years working with people who never seem to reach their full potential. Life’s a bit of a project, if you see what I mean, and every project risks failure.

For example, you might get quite eccentric. Last night, walking back from the allotment with my head full of the latest plant I/D book I found myself counting species of grass – five, if you’re at all interested – and now they’re in a little vase by my desk waiting for me to examine their ligules and auricles. I could go on with all sorts of examples of mindfulness, Brother Lawrence; door handle theology and so forth but I won’t because it might sound as if I’m trying to be an expert. For me, slowing down is all about paying minute attention to something; getting completely absorbed in some tiny particular of life. For the young Korean (I think) couple on the Green it’s about getting the flick of the fingers exactly right at the end of a fluid movement, for the two kick boxers we saw last night it seemed to be about making wonderful sweeping and interconnected movements like dancers, without colliding. I’m too old for that so it’s ligules and auricles for me.

But when we walk along the canal, for instance, the more plants I recognise and can name, the richer and the more outrageously beautiful the earth seems. Our grandson has spotted a puss moth and a garden tiger on their allotment in the last two days and we’re totally proud that he’s taking an interest already. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just take your foot off the throttle.