"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)

"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Cantre'r Gwaelod

Out today on the nature reserve at Ynys Hir. 'Ynys' means island in Welsh and the various bits of higher land along this area of salt marsh and peat bog called 'Ynys -' would once have stood above the waters of an area re-claimed from the water spirits who, nevertheless, hold on to a liminal existence here along with the earth spirits who have only half possessed it. The way to the reserve is through a woodland of gnarled sessile oak (sometimes called Welsh oak) which now is bare of leaves that lie as a soggy carpet on the ground. This looks level, but from here the path runs down to the marshy area along the edge of the Dyfi salt marsh and the estuary. 

 It is here that, according to one version of the story, the rush cradle containing the wonder child Gwion, who was re-named Taliesin, was found by Elphin. A village nearby is named 'Tre Taliesin' and the remains of a Bronze Age burial chamber up on the higher ground overlooking the estuary is called Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin's Grave). Look at these legends too closely and their fabric begins to unweave. But they provide a cultural ethos to the experience of standing out on the marsh, the bog or the liminal green world between earth and water, the ynysoedd of this contested land where now, on a bright, sharp, cold winter day a dozen species of geese, waders and other water birds can be seen at a glance from the reserve hides. Little Egrets pad across the wet ground. A Hen Harrier hovers over them and moves on. A Red Kite sails across the distant perspective of mountains on the other side of the estuary. 

There is a story that Arthur leaped across these wide waters on his horse Llamrei, and the mark of the horse's hoof can still be seen in the rock over there.

But myth dissolves into reality down here on the low ground where only the spit built to drain fields on the sea side of the bog keeps back the waters that have drowned the land before. Cantre'r Gwaelod, the land which was, is attested by the remains of a semi-fossilised forest on the beach at low tide. Geology rather than mythology speaks of lost realms and legendary places. The map-makers mark Caer Wyddno out in the sea at the end of the Sarn, a rocky morraine that runs out for over a mile into Cardigan Bay. 

 If Rhiannon's Birds sing anywhere, then they sing here half way between Harddlech and Gwales, half way between the water world and dry land. Suspended between loss and homecoming I find my way to somewhere I always want to be but can never, quite, fully attain.

(Re-posted from one of my other blogs which is no longer current)

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Our Place in the Landscape

The lines of mist that still streak the valley after dawn hang above the frosted leaves lying beneath the trees. As each day's light shrinks towards the Winter Solstice, the dawn comes late and the light levels dim long before the afternoon is over.

Last night it was brighter after sunset than the hours before as the Full Moon rose and lit the air with a clarity that was sharper than the diffused sunlight of the day as the air cleared and cloud cover dispersed on the winds so it was still for a while.

So there was a frost this early morning, but not for long. Some cloud cover returned though there was also plenty of pale-blue sky and clear sunlight. Now it is afternoon and the rain has returned. In such ways the weather shifts the feel of days and nights, shifts the look of the land from day to day or even within the passing of the current few hours of sunlight.

What of our weather clocks, the ways we internalise the passing seasons, the transformations from Spring to Summer, from Autumn to Winter, and within those seasons from one day to another, from one feature of the weather to another. If the nature of what we see changes with the clarity of the light, the falling of rain or snow, the thickening or dispersal of cloud, the pressure of the air; does our knowledge of how or why this happens remove us from it as much as the heated rooms and protective rooves under which we take shelter?

Do we still have a place in the landscape that we look out upon as an objective space, or do we no longer belong there? The question seems to need asking, but also to need refusing. Our place cannot be denied but at the same time our separation is also undeniable. With such contradictions we live and work and play in a world of our own creation, but equally in one that creates us as inexorably as it creates the shifting of the winds, the tides, the weather.

So the lifting of the mist in the valley this morning still feels like a subjective fact of which I am a part, rather than something merely watched and noted.

Monday, 1 December 2014

A Winter Night

The light fades early, dimming to mistiness as the dark creeps in behind it, chilling the afternoon. On a ridge to the West the last pale rays of sunlight suffuse the sky and the trees are starkly outlined black on silver-grey until this, too, fades and the night shades out the day.

Then the stars … much later, after midnight, when the village streetlights turn off … glitter against the sable sky and their different colours can be perceived. Looking South, Sirius is silver-blue below the belt of Orion, Betelgeuse and Aldabaran red-tinged above it. Looking North, the Plough is a constant presence throughout the year with its hook pointing to Polaris, the North Star, around which, from this part of the Earth, all the stars turn. Between these the misty path of the Milky Way is invisible when the street lights are on even here, some distance away from the road. But now it reveals itself like some mystery emerging from the dark.

On the horizon the half-full Moon hangs, illuminating that same western ridge where the sunlight dimmed behind trees. From somewhere over there an owl calls, then another further down the valley. As the Moon, too, sinks behind the hill the blaze of the stars is brighter still and the path of the Milky Way so clear that it seems to flow across the sky like a river. Still the owls call, but I retreat from the chill of the night to drift into sleep until dawn.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

An Autumn Day

Between two weather systems, one either side of the island, so today is bright and clear, the low Sun in a blue sky with occasional scudding clouds moving steadily in the breeze and casting shadows on the land as they pass. The pale, clear light of the Sun illuminates the brittle leaves still on the trees, dry rusty-gold and faded yellow, yet they glow in the translucent air.

As often on clear days the roar of low-flying military jets suddenly fills the valley, taking advantage of the perfect weather for practice following the contours of the hills. Just as suddenly they are gone, looping back to some far distant air base, and the only sound left behind is the mewing of a pair of buzzards overhead. Are these from the huge nest I spotted at the top of one of the trees growing further down the slope but visible from the path along the ridge which is level with the treetops?

The dew pond on Bryn Hir was full of water with pondweed growing in it, as if it were always so and not just as likely to be dry as it sometimes is when I visit. The view from here displays the Eleri Valley as a long, curved sweep between hills and I can pick out places I walk to and woods I pass through above the river, and the line of the river in the narrow gorge below the wooded slopes. In the other direction a v-shaped patch of sea is visible between two rounded hills, offset from each other but appearing level in this angle of view.

It is a perfect day. I walk back down off the open hillside and into the woods again. There is a choice of paths where I often hesitate before deciding which way to take. Today I go up through a derelict gate and round the hill fort where a short-lived wooden motte and bailey castle was erected in the 12th century by an intrusive Norman lord. Now it is almost inaccessible because of the bramble and gorse that clothe the slopes. I keep to the footpath across a wet, boggy field and then take the lane down to the village.

The arils on the ancient yew in the churchyard are beginning to darken. Here under the deep green shade I look out at the sunlight on the hillside trees shining amber through the autumnal hues of the leaves. Below, the stream rushes down into a culvert and the sound of it contrasts with the stillness of the water in the well-shaft of the Holy Well where I pause and carry a blessing home.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


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Monday, 11 August 2014

Wild Time

Loch Coruisk, June 2013

It’s more than a year since I stood by the waters of Loch Coruisk surrounded by the peaks of the Cuillins, so reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places where he recounts his own impressions of the lake, enlivened my own memories of that remote basin in the mountains of the Isle of Skye.

I was particularly struck by his perception of the altered sense of time and the provisionality of our assumptions about the passing of time. He says that

“In such a place, your conventional units of chronology … become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses … acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world - its wars, civilisations, eras - seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedule. The Basin keeps wild time.”

This is an interesting variation of the notion of time being suspended or of moments out of time, often reported by others having similar experiences, [e.g. R.S Thomas - HERE]. Rather, he suggests that ‘Wild Time’ doesn’t just slow down so it seems not to be passing at all, as in the usual human experience of a ‘timeless’ moment, but that it also flashes past suddenly, in the “sudden drop of a raven” or “the darts of the damselflies”. This is to experience time as “shades and textures” rather than the ticking away of chronological units .

If 'Wild Time’ is a different way of experiencing time, why should a particular place bring this about? Or if time, in such places, passes differently do we bring our own sense of the long unfolding of time since the Ice Age when the basin was carved out, and as it has remained, balanced against the life span of a midge which lasts a single day? These are imponderables. But my own memory of the place certainly stretches out the time I spent there and at the same time compresses it to a single moment.

You can cross by boat across a bay with small islands on which seals bask to get to the Loch. Those returning the same way are certainly bound by human time in order to catch the scheduled boat back after climbing the rocks and following the path through to the Basin. This was not my schedule. Having spent some time around the Loch our small party climbed to a pass on the other side and then followed a slow descent down an extended valley. The long June day and the late sunset helped alleviate the sense of time needed to get to the nearest road and welcome refreshments. In memory I can capture the experience as a single event. At the time it seemed to go on forever.

The trail back from the Loch

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Other

Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas' poem 'The Other' is often taken by critics as an internal debate between the poet and himself. This, of course, is true in the sense that the poem is a literary production in which that debate is articulated. But I want to consider if we can also take it as enacting a debate with something outside himself. Not that there was another human being going before him or from whom he needed to escape, as the poem's conceit would have it, but in the sense that - apart from the psychotic dimension of split personality - we are all in a relationship with another version of ourself who has an existence in another way of perceiving the world and therefore in another dimension of the world itself.

'The Other' was one of Edward Thomas' earliest poems. His period of life as a practising poet was short, growing out of his career as a writer of prose and cut short by his death in the First World War. The 110 lines of the poem develop the idea that another, looking just like the poet, has preceded him in inns and such places, or that the figure accompanies him on his many long walking expeditions. Set alongside this idea is the perception of two worlds of experience:

" ..... I had come
To an end of the forest, and because
Here was both road and inn, the sum
Of what's not forest. "

Identified at the inn as someone who has been there already, he is fearful:

"I travelled fast, in the hopes I should
Outrun that other. What to do
When caught, I planned not. I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew."

The 'other man' was introduced by Thomas in an earlier prose work In Pursuit of Spring. The title's 'pursuit' is interesting in suggesting the idea that something elusive is being sought. The 'other' here is someone he keeps catching a glimpse of on his journey until he meets him in a public bar. Though not fully worked out in the prose work, the 'other man' seems to correlate with the 'other thing', that which Thomas is pursuing, but also that which he must escape to find it. Or has the poem has it:

"I sought then in solitude.
The wind had fallen with the night; as still
The roads lay in the ploughland rude,
Dark and naked, on the hill.

Listening to the last sounds of the day fade into night, he is alone:

" ..... I stood serene,
And with a solemn quiet mirth,
An old inhabitant of earth.

Has he escaped 'the Other' or found him and become one with him, in his whole, integrated, self?

But the poem does not end there. Such "moments of everlastingness" are brief. Back in the "tap room din" the other man is asking for him again, accusing him of following in his footsteps:

" ..... What had I got to say?
I said nothing. I slipped away."

The poem ends as it began, with the poet stealing out of a wood to the light of an inn and acknowledging that the pursuit will go on until each of them cease to be. Like many of Thomas' poems about paths which lead to inconclusive ends, this does not resolve the matter, but leaves the mystery of it as a pregnant reality. The quest goes on. But what is different here is that it is not the mundane self seeking a deeper significance, but the reverse of this as the one who holds the key to that significance is constantly drawn back to the tap room and the company of one who is content to be there, but is haunted by the other man who knows a different reality.