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.

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