Discover more from Into the Deep Woods
Finding the shape of a place.
Thanks for reading Into the Deep Woods! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
We’ve lived at the foot of Hergest Ridge for less than two years and though it almost connects to the ridge that was my square mile for decades it still feels a little unfamiliar. My sense of place used to radiate from the village of Clyro, just over the border in Wales. It fanned out with Brecon and Crickhowell at its circumference. When we lived there we spent little time on the Herefordshire side of the border. Our house looked across at the Black Mountains, a high, wild wall. To the east, the rolling, wooded hills of England seemed a little tame. When we moved to Kington I spent most of my time going back to my familiar places, ignoring the great ridge that loomed over us. In the past months, however, the ridge has become my place. I walk up from the house through old orchards which give way to dark oak woods; through a belt of pines, and up through gorse and bracken where the distances open up.
This morning there was a thick layer of mist shrouding the summit, with visibility of only a few metres. It made me realise that this hill is still not my square mile just yet. I don’t know how many hours I spent over a 20 year period walking on the hill above Clyro, certainly thousands. When you cover so much ground in a fairly small area you get to know a place intimately. I could walk on that hill in the dark and the mist and never get lost. I knew every mound, rock and gully, every spring and stream, every thorn and rowan tree.
Bracken blankets the uplands from late May. There are worn paths cutting through - sheep tracks which have widened over decades. Amongst the bracken there are gorse thickets, shallow quarries, patches of drenched ground with fans of sedge. All of them have their own shape and the eye gets to recognise them over time. Though they seem uniform to a stranger, they slowly become familiar. Walking in mist is not a problem as the landmarks are at your feet. You know the shape of things. For me, familiarity did not extend beyond that hill, but for those people who had lived in that place all their lives, whose ancestors had also lived there, their sense of shape extended for miles, flowing into each farm and field, into the genealogies of people and animals.
I got lost on the ridge this morning. I’ve yet to learn the shape of things here. The tracks between the bracken all looked the same. The landmarks I navigate by were hidden. But I know so few: a stand of strangely out of place Monkey Puzzle trees; a huge erratic boulder seemingly dropped from the sky; a trig point next to a wide, tumbled cairn; a circular pool where the hill ponies drink. It’s time to learn more about the place. I will learn it with my feet and hands, with a sketchbook and notebook. Georgia O’Keefe painted in the New Mexico desert in every weather, learning the shape and colour of the rocks and mountains, the stream beds and clouds, the skeletal remains of animals. There were times when the wind was so violent that if she stood up from her easel her chair would blow away; when the sun was so relentless she had to lie under her car to find the only patch of shade for miles. Autumn is coming, and with it the westerlies that batter the uplands for months. I’m in for a wild ride.
There was a tree near the gate onto the common that I noticed for the first time this morning, as the mist began to lift. It was a little rowan, gone ragged, most of its leaves already dropped, little glistens of red berries in its upper branches. Swallows congregated there, so many of them, more than I’ve seen for years. They circled it and swooped through the spaces opened up by the leaf fall, thirty or more perched in its upper branches. I’ll call it Swallow Tree. And another rowan which I passed while I followed a narrow sheep track through high bracken, the path almost lost in places. Then it appeared, a dome of green with an almost circular pool of bare ground beneath it, a place to hide in its deep shade in this almost treeless place. The Shadow Tree. A library of shapes and names has begun.
Mist is silence for the eye. White space opens up, flowing down into us. We can stop searching for a time. When shapes emerge from mist they appear slowly, like water soaking into cloth. Mist inspires abstraction, tangents, fractals. When we leave the figurative behind we can see and think more wildly. And we can learn to see ghosts, the spirits that surround us, strange energies coming out of the ground. This morning I saw ghost horses. They were gathered beside the Offa’s Dike path, ripping at the thin grass beneath the bracken. At first they looked like white mounds, little whaleback forms like the distant mountains. Then they raised their heads, lit by the refracted white light of a low sun. Haloed, hallowed, white horses. This breed was founded when Arab stallions were let loose on the hills to mate with the rugged native ponies. They’re high stepping and proud. They have the most beautiful heads. Many of them are as white as the chalk horse carved into the hill above Uffington three millennia ago. Spirits of place. Landmarks. It’s time I got to know their shapes.
Found Things - Recommendations of the week
When we bought our boat Masquerade the first thing I did was fill the shelves with books. This was before we filled the store cupboard and fridge with food, the tank with water, the bathroom with toilet roll and toothpaste. Priorities . . .
Of late I haven’t been reading much. I have periods when I’d prefer to sit and watch the trees than to stare at words. And so last night I spent a wondrous hour sitting by the canal at dusk, with the scent of freshly cut hay thick in the air, while an overhanging oak tree dropped occasional acorns into the water, a rhythm to match the slow sinking of the sun. When I got home I noticed a copy of Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems hidden away on a shelf and I picked it up for the first time in years. MacCaig’s Assynt poems were mentors to me when I first began to write my own place poems, but for some reason I’ve lost touch with them. So reading them now is like a new discovery.
I never read a poetry collection from start to finish. I prefer to let the pages fall open at random, to see what the gods have in mind. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about finding the sacred in places. It’s something we need to rediscover I feel, an ache in the soul. So it was serendipitous for this poem to reappear in my life, a message from the spirits of place. Hope you love it as much as I do.
Illumination: on the track by Loch Fewin
by Norman MacCaig
Suddenly the sun poured
through an arrow-slit in the clouds
and the great hall we walked in - its tapestries
of mountains and parquet of rich
bogland and water - blazed on the eye
like the Book of Kells.
For four days a cloud
had sat like a lid on the round
horizon. But now
we walked in a mediaeval manuscript -
doves flew over the thorn, the serpent
of wisdom whispered
in our skulls and our hands
were transparent with love.
Until next week!