A vibrant living world: writing that never grows old

Rebecca Welshman

glyder fach landscape

In a recent Guardian piece about the Berwyn Mountains my friend Jim Perrin drew attention to the name of Y Berwyn’s high point having been misplaced. For decades Moel Sych or Cadair Berwyn were the accepted high points, but the actual summit lies between them. At 830m it is called Moel yr Ewig (Hill of the Roe Hind), known as such for its characteristic shape. The last paragraph captures the quiet, graceful presence of the hill, set deep amongst the vibrant activities of its wildlife:

“Last time I descended from here, I stopped to talk to a fisherman casting his diawl bach (“little devil” fly) for the small brown trout that teem in Llyn Lluncaws. “D’you know the name for the top?” he asked. I gave him Moel yr Ewig. “Good man!” he responded, and with a gesture of his hand described the ridge rising to it. “See the grace of her neck, the ears above? Beautiful …” He shook my hand, and I jogged off down the green way, ring ouzels darting among the waterfalls to my right, a pair of hobbies shrieking from the rocks of Cerrig Poethion, and the hill’s deer-like presence behind me.”

This paragraph in particular recalled to me a passage from Richard Jefferies’ essay ‘Summer in Somerset’, written in 1883, in which he catches a glimpse of the outline of Dunkery Hill, the highest summit of Exmoor:

“From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. … Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep–it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not today, not now: some time presently. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet. Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare.”

Hills as hares, deer, or other creatures, are timeless reminders of the landscapes of our more remote past; powerful shapes that were known to our ancestors. In his essay ‘Haunt of the EveJar’, published in 1922, Henry Williamson observes the return of birds along an “air line” on the Devon coast:

“When the first white flake falls from the hawthorn the immigrant birds of passage all have come to the countryside. Almost the last to arrive this year on the south-western coast of England were the mysterious nightjars, birds ever surrounded by romance on account of their weird song and phantom habits…It was night, and on the broad smooth sands, whence the tide has ebbed, shone a curved moon…Somewhere in front of me a curlew, disturbed at his nocturnal feeding, whistled plaintively. A mile away lay Baggy, like a badger asleep.”

The promontory Williamson refers to as “a badger asleep” is Baggy Point, at the southern edge of Woolacombe Bay – a “place of enthralling wonder”. The next evening, Williamson sees Baggy Point backlit by the “crimson glow” of an unsettled sky: “More sinister grew the outline of the headland, a beast replete and resting its shaggy head on sunken paws”. In these observations the latent presence and energy perceived in the hills is embodied by the image of a resting animal. Jefferies perceives Dunkery as a “crouching hare”, and Williamson imagines a “resting” and sated creature. Jefferies and Williamson borrowed from the old tradition of knowing hills by their shapes; one that can be traced back to at least the Anglo-Saxon era.

In contrast, we only have to glance at some more recent nature writing to notice the tendency to draw similes from the manmade world. In Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a flock of long-tailed tits are “animated cotton-buds”. In The Wild Places Macfarlane sees a kestrel with tail feathers “spread out like a hand of cards”. John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: the Life of an English Field describes a “picture-frame of hedgerows”, and meadow pipits “climbing invisible stairs”. Time after time the animate is compared to the inanimate. Language that is so obviously wedded to the manmade world threatens to estrange, rather than reconcile, minds already far distanced from nature, and reinforces the faulty assumption that the natural world somehow belongs to humans.

Contemporary writing needs to collectively produce more narratives where the activities of birds and animals are not simply blots of colour or background sound, but are very much alive. We see this achieved in Jim’s article where the birds exist vibrantly in the present: “ring ouzels darting among the waterfalls … a pair of hobbies shrieking”. Moreover, the character and shape of the Hill of the Roe Hind is shown to live vibrantly in the mind of the fisherman – the familiar, often contemplated form comes through in the simple “gesture” he makes with his hand. The features of our living landscapes need to continue to be celebrated for their innate and timeless qualities that never grow old.

The Nymph’s Crystal Stream

Simon Coleman

cupid and sea nymphs

‘Cupid and Sea Nymphs’ by Henry Scott Tuke, 1899

I’ve been re-reading a book titled ‘In the Wake of Odysseus’ by the Finnish-Swedish author and sailor, Göran Schildt (1917-2009).  Translated from Swedish, the book is a vibrant and deeply sensitive account of Schildt’s voyage to Greece and Crete, with his wife, Mona, in their yacht, ‘Daphne’, in the summer of 1950.  Starting from their base in northern Italy, they sailed down the west coast to the southern tip of Italy, before crossing to the islands of Cephalonia and Ithaca.  After passing through the Corinth Canal and reaching Athens, they continued into the Aegean to explore the Cyclades islands where they encountered the dangerous summer winds blowing down from the north, known as the ‘Meltemia’.

 

Schildt’s views on life and humanity emerge naturally from his own experiences, charged with the freedom and spirit of the born explorer.  He muses on a wide range of cultural, historical and philosophical themes and displays an authentically individual approach to some of the entrenched problems of humanity: war, disease and poverty.  There are some vivid character sketches of people befriended at the various harbour towns they visited.  The book is written in a spirit of friendship that extends not only to the people of these close-knit Greek communities, recovering from the deprivations of war, but also to the reader.  Whether on the sun-baked, rocky islands, or facing the Meltemia winds on the sea at sunrise, Schildt experiences the forces of nature as powers that shape human life.  As you would expect from the title, the timeless legend of Odysseus can often be perceived hovering behind the narrative.

 

Richard Jefferies was also inspired by the legend of Odysseus and he explored the theme of voyages in his books ‘After London’ and ‘Bevis’.  He also wrote some memorable descriptions of experiences beside clear streams in essays such as ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘The Sun and the Brook’.  The passage quoted below from Schildt’s book describes their discovery of a stream near the archaeological site of Delphi which they had visited.  Jefferies would surely have empathized with Schildt’s evocation of the magic of natural water in both its physical and spiritual properties.

 

“…we followed a stony path and after walking for some time in the sweltering noonday heat we caught sight of a shady grove of trees.  There must be a stream there, we reasoned, and went nearer.  The sight that met us when we reached the steep rock above the grove, however, enchanted and amazed us.  A glittering, crystal-clear stream flowed along under the rock and ran down through a walled channel into a large, square basin, shaded by tall trees.  Round the basin peasant girls were kneeling washing clothes, but the materials spread out in the sun were not ordinary factory-made ones but thick woollen coverlets, homespun skirts, rugs and rags in the most harmonious colours.  Pack-donkeys were standing tethered under the trees and an old man was untying more gaily coloured bundles: all the winter woollens of a large farm were evidently being washed…

 

Cold, fresh, crystal-clear water: only those who have known drought and heat in a land where the sunshine feels like a physical weight, a rain of molten gold in which you walk hunched up, more eagerly on the lookout for shelter than in the heaviest downpour, only those who have known the southern summer can understand what water is.  For us, coming from a land where water is really only appreciated when it reflects the blue sky in a gleaming lake, a land where water is enemy rather than friend and even as a drink has to be disguised in various forms…for us our stay in Greece was a complete re-education, a gradual discovery that water is not only the best and most natural of drinks, but that its taste has greater variations than all the artificial soft drinks put together.  We learnt that people can walk for miles to some special spring for a pitcher of water to offer an honoured guest, and we watched this guest in astonishment as he sipped the water with the concentrated air of a connoisseur, raising his eyes the next moment with a far more blissful smile than that of any wine-taster: ‘This reminds me of a water I drank two years ago from a little spring near Sparta’; or, if you want to be really polite, ‘This must be water from Castalia itself’: the spring of Castalia at Delphi is just as famous in present-day Greece for its unsurpassed drinking water as it was in ancient times as the fount of poesy.  The glass of water served as part of every order in all cafés has such significance that certain café proprietors keep three or four different waters to suit customers’ tastes.  But the best water is always to be had at the actual source, for all transport changes the taste and temperature.  Water, springs, streams in the dry Greek summer: no wonder they were formerly personified as nymphs, and the purest and most luxuriant of them carried off as captives to the green gardens in the valleys, to the naked youths in the stadiums, and to the temple-like wells full of cool rippling and the girlish voices of the water carriers.

 

The bathe I had in the mill stream at Delphi was something more to me than a cooling dip.  Reborn, dripping with quickly drying beads of water, I rose out of the nymph’s cold embrace, bound to this soil with the devotion, the primitive roots, made possible only by physical union.”