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

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

Monday, 23 February 2015

Culture and Nature

Walt Whitman, walking across an ‘empty’ landscape and seascape in New Jersey in 1870 commented on the disjunction between Culture and Nature with these words:

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless - such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance - so indescribably comforting, even this winter day - grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual - striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)

The afterthought is significant. Often we seek a cultureless experience from the natural world, an ‘escape’ from the urbanised world we all inhabit even those of us who live in rural areas. So how much are we conditioned to see nature through the lens of the literature we read, the films we watch and the art we view? How much through the expectations which might be created by indirect consumption of cultural products: prevalent attitudes, views and shared prejudices about what the ‘natural world’ actually is?

Mountains stretch as if to infinity, stand against the sky as immutable objects with a continuity that seems unchallengeable. Text books of Geology tell us that this is not so. They were once sea bed, thrown up in violent changes in the shape of the landscape. There are fossils to prove it. That may seem inconceivable as we stand overawed by its splendour, or even simply contained by its familiarity. So what do we ‘know’? If the story we have to tell ourselves is one we have learnt, but not one which we feel as we take in the landscape around us, of what value is it to us spiritually? (Its material value is of course unchallenged - this is no argument for Creationism).

Stories are as important as facts. They have their own truth, their own use-value; they tell us who we are and they construct the world we inhabit. Knowing that we are homo-sapiens on an Earth with a particular place in the Solar System and the wider Universe valuably shapes our awareness of our world in a way that places us in the eternity of Space. Some would say that this too is a ‘story’ as much as the creation myths of religions. Whether or not either one is ‘true’ is not the point here. For we live on Earth and need to have a sense of its significance as well as its factual existence. What is the truth-value of significance?

Centring around different senses of the idea of value emphasises what we bring to experience of what seems, or what we would like to seem, like a direct perception of nature constructed if at all only by own inner response to it. But what we recognise is what we have already learnt - only we see it again as if for the first time because sharpened for us out of the fuzziness of familiarity.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Out and About on Bride's Day

Snowdrops under the hedge

So bright for Bride, if cold
So fair for Ffraid the sky’s blue
The track up through the trees still sunk
In mire, sheep grazing bedraggled grass,
But on the ridge the view opens to the far hills
Glinting white with frost in spite of the Sun.

Then down the lane under the wiry stems
Of leafless bramble I see a token of the day:
Snowdrops in the tangle of the hedge quietly claiming
From the last of Winter the first of Spring.
From here the lane tilts down across the hill
To where the river makes a last race to the sea.

Under the bridge I catch a glimpse of a bird
And on the other side see it riding the current
Out of the arch - a goosander gliding over the ripples
Turning against the flow for a while then speeding
Away with the rushing water around the bend
Of the river as I turn the other way heading upstream.

Over the fields along the bank of the river
Running now below deep in a gorge, visible
Through the bare trees. I cross the stream
From the wood of springs and climb to Lôn Glanffraid,
‘Ffraid’s Lane’ - where Bride had a chapel once they say,
before the church was built for Michael further away.

But today is her day.

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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