Come heavy sleep, the image of true Death
And close up these my weary weeping eyes
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vital breath,
And tears my heart with Sorrow's sigh-swoll'n cries.
Come and possess my tired thought-worn soul,
That living dies, till thou be on me stole.
Sunday, 12 May 2013
Friday, 10 May 2013
I once knew someone whose mental map of the town he lived in was punctuated by pubs. Giving directions, he'd say something like 'Turn left at the King's Arms and carry on till you get to the Ship and Castle ….' That's certainly one way of visualising a territory. Travelling over longer distances most people rely on a representation of the road system to guide them, either as a printed road atlas (my preference) or increasingly now, such a road system contained digitally in a SatNav. But roads are superimposed on landscapes. What about the mental experience of moving across the contours of the land? I suppose this varies; some might notice the view, others listen to the radio or talk to a passenger while just concentrating on the road ahead and direction signs. I do these things, but part of me is also conscious of the rise and fall of the ground and of watersheds.
So for me journeys are also an experience of traversing river systems. In unfamiliar areas I watch for rivers, trying to notice their names and the areas of high ground around them bringing down streams to join the rivers. On familiar journeys I'm already acutely aware of where the rivers are. One journey I often make follows the upper course of the River Wye after it runs off the mountain of Pumlummon in Mid Wales. Initially I travel along the valley of the River Rheidol which has its source on the same mountain. Crossing a tributary of the Rheidol - the River Melindwr - the road begins to climb to high ground initially away from the river itself, but still within its catchment. Eventually the road crosses the Rheidol where it comes down off the mountain and runs along by the side of the River Castell as it flows towards the Rheidol.
Eventually the Rheidol catchment is left behind at the highest point of the road and almost immediately the road crosses one of the upper arms of the River Wye - the Tarrenig - which then runs alongside the road flowing away from the Rheidol catchment. A different watershed. Soon the other upper arm, the Wye itself, also runs under the road and the two streams become one. Sometimes I get out of the car here and walk the short distance to the confluence. One stream, which has been running more or less level for a while, is placid with a smooth surface, while the other still ripples after its downward rush.
The Wye then winds down its upper valley with the road running just above it. Another place I often stop is a convenient lay-by from which a path leads down into a gorge with a footbridge across the river and a mossy oakwood covering the far slope. It's an atmospheric spot, spoilt only by an over-large blue sign which designates an allowed launching place for kayaks onto the river, though I've never seen any. Downstream the River Marteg can be seen from the footbridge rushing into the Wye from the Gilfach nature reserve.
From here the river continues alongside the road to Rhaeadr Gwy - or simply 'Rhayader' in English, the Welsh name indicating that here a waterfall brings the river out of its series of gorges to a wider, shallower flow across a broader valley. Soon the River Elan joins it, a confluence beneath ancient woodland some way from the road. But soon the road meets the river again and then crosses it in the town of Builth Wells (Llanfair ym Muallt) and then runs along the other side of the wide stony flow for a further stretch until there is a parting of the ways. One road continues to follow the Wye to the book town of Hay from where it flows out of Wales towards Hereford. The other turns towards the town of Brecon (Aberhonddu) where the River Honddu flows into the River Usk and the streams are now running off a different watershed heading south.
Wednesday, 1 May 2013
Saturday, 23 March 2013
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have often been touched by stories of the selkies, seals that can take human form. Tales of these creatures have been common in the folklore of the islands and coastal mainland of northern scotland and farther north, with a series of stamps being produced in the Faroe Islands illustrating some of the legends. Although romanticized in most modern re-tellings, the stories often had a sinister undertone in traditional narratives, the most common of which seems to have been the capturing of a selkie woman for a wife by a human fisherman. It was said that they came out of the sea and shed their skins and were then vulnerable to capture if a man could take the skin and hide it away somewhere. Often a selkie wife would bear several children to the fisherman before finding her skin and escaping back to the sea while he was out fishing. In other stories a human woman takes a selkie lover.
The stories in their sentimental form are not hard to come by but some grittier accounts of the contexts of their telling may be found in works such as David Thomson's The People of the Sea . There is also some interesting context for the possible antiquity of these legends in a recently published book Britain Begins by the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe where he refers to mesolithic deposits in the Hebrides where human finger and toe bones have been placed next to seal flippers in what appears to be "a deliberate act of association".
I recently encountered the following poem in the collection The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson, a poem dedicated to John Burnside whom I have discussed on this blog before. It engages with the selkie stories in a characteristically bleak way, but also with a use of imagery and a choice of diction that shows him at his tactile best. I shiver when I read such stuff: At Roane Head
You’d know her house by the drawn blinds – by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall, the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry. You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it from the sea and from the brief light of the sun, and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap. A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea’s complaining pull and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood. She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough, and each one wrong. All born blind, they say, slack-jawed and simple, web-footed, rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told, though blank as air. Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling down to the shore, chittering like rats, and said they were fine swimmers, but I would have guessed at that. Her husband left her: said they couldn’t be his, they were more fish than human, said they were beglamoured, and searched their skin for the showing marks. For years she tended each difficult flame: their tight, flickering bodies. Each night she closed the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire. Until he came again, that last time, thick with drink, saying he’d had enough of this, all this witchery, and made them stand in a row by their beds, twitching. Their hands flapped; herring-eyes rolled in their heads. He went along the line relaxing them one after another with a small knife. It’s said she goes out every night to lay blankets on the graves to keep them warm. It would put the heart across you, all that grief. There was an otter worrying in the leaves, a heron loping slow over the water when I came at scraich of day, back to her door. She’d hung four stones in a necklace, wore four rings on the hand that led me past the room with four small candles burning which she called ‘the room of rain’. Milky smoke poured up from the grate like a waterfall in reverse and she said my name and it was the only thing and the last thing that she said. She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost; gave me twists of my four sons' hair; gave me her husband's head in a wooden box. The she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
Saturday, 9 February 2013
On one occasion when it cleared the view across to the other side of the valley was of a hillside clothed with bare trees that were covered in so much lichen that it was almost as if they were in leaf. Lichen likes the mist. We took tracks that led through patches of woodland, down muddy lanes and across gorse-covered slopes. But water was the theme even when we were not crossing streams rushing over grey stones, or following the flow of the Dulas river down its lonely valley. Paths were muddy, rain water stood in pools everywhere, the ground was sodden when we crossed fields. After a brief spell of nearly dry weather for a couple of hours in the afternoon the rain returned, slowly and intermittently at first and then more steadily.
And so the day ended. A water day, like many more to come. Water is our element.
Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Putting different food in different hoppers also shows which birds prefer which food. Goldfinches, with their bright red and yellow plumage prefer the niger seeds, while greenfinches and siskins go for the general seed mix and chaffinches seem content to pick up the spilled seed on the floor, mainly caused by the fussiness of some birds who will remove seeds they don't want to get at the ones they prefer.
The closeness of the birds, right up against the window, almost creates the illusion that they share our living space with us. But they are wild animals and, considering this, I am reminded of a phrase from a poem by R.S. Thomas (himself an avid bird watcher) in which he refers to "birds seduced from wildness with bread they are pelted with". So, if we feed them, are we seducing them from wildness? I've noticed that since we have been putting out niger seeds the goldfinches seem less interested in the dried seed heads of the evening primroses which I always delay cutting back until they have had a chance to feed on them.
The counter-argument is that we have taken away so much of their habitat that we should compensate for their lack of wild food. In this view, wanting the birds to remain totally wild is an indulgence neither we nor they can afford. But I think most people feed them because they like to see them. So seduced from wildness for our entertainment? I suppose, ultimately, we cannot separate the argument for responsible concern for the natural world from out own interests as humans who want the world to be a particular way. Especially if the particular way we want it is precluded by our lifestyles. That contradiction may just be part of being a modern human being in the developed world.
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
After weeks of wet, cloudy days, interspersed with days of wind and rain, today is cold, clear and still. The road to the sand dunes at Ynys Las was flooded and the 'slacks' between the road and the dunes, where orchids flower in Summer, were covered in ice-sheeted water. Inland on the mountains there had been snow, but not here on the coast. The dunes were all but deserted - just someone walking a dog and a couple of bird watchers apart from us.
The tide was far out but the sand on the beach was still wet and our feet made deep impressions in its ribbed surface as we walked. Over the sea the sky was iron-grey with thin cloud through which the sun filtered a silver light that glittered on the surface of the sea where its rays descended.
Inland the cloud was even thinner and areas of blue, varying from pale 'sky' blue to a much more intense darker blue in some patches over the distant mountains. This is an open landscape of sea, sand, salt marsh and bog.The valley of the river Dyfi opens to a wide estuary winding to the south and the west of two mountain ranges. The view up the valley shows a landscape already crowding in. But from here, today, the nearer hills stand in sharp outline in the clear air, while the more distant mountains are gleaming white with snow.
On these dunes, where so often the wind whips up the sand and the sound of the rushing sea fills the air,I experience a rare moment of quiet. Nothing moves. Not one particle of the chill air.