Discover more from Into the Deep Woods
Fear and Creative Risk
Afon Claerwen is a little, fast moving river that threads through the blasted landscape of the Cambrian mountains, ultimately emptying into the reservoirs at Elan. Today the peaty water is stained ultramarine by a cloudless sky. The colours in this place, at this time of year, when everything that grows is still burned back by the long winter, are all ochres, almost Mediterranean. It looks so dry, but take one step onto the turf and you sink ankle deep into the saturated ground. There are streams running everywhere just below the tangled surface. Sedge and deep cushions of moss give way to hidden pools. I squelch down to the water’s edge.
There is a big sign next to the road. It reads: “Dangerous rocks! Fatalities have occurred here”. The rocks form a high mound at the river’s edge, a boulder avalanche, a twmp, a giant’s seat. The river plummets between them, dropping over multiple ledges, roaring, steaming. The rocks next to the water are sculpted, scooped, smoothed. They could be Henry Moore’s reclining torsos. This place has spoken to me for years. I come here a lot, always ignoring the sign, always walking to the summit to peer down into the stained water. It’s a long way down. At the edge my stomach begins to flutter, my mouth goes dry. I feel a little weak. My knees aren’t quite as dependable as they should be. I teeter.
Creative risk can sometimes be felt physically like this - in the throat, in the gut. I can feel it when there’s a wet sheet of paper in front of me, a Chinese brush in one hand, loaded with black ink, a pot of salt nearby. Once the brush touches the paper the ink flows out, river-like, following found watersheds. If I’m lucky a shape starts to emerge, as free flowing as the ink itself. Once it appears, and while the ink is still wet, I apply the salt. After that I can’t touch it, the image develops independently, salt absorbing pigment and water. I have no control, a wildness has taken over, that thing, as W.S. Merwin said, always just out of reach. All I can do is wait, and, in the meantime, approach another edge.
The poet Derek Walcott once described his use of form in his masterpiece, Omeros, where he employed three line stanzas with alternating rhymes, based on the terza rima of Dante. Walcott stated that he chose this difficult technique to embrace the creative risk involved. Each rhyme approached him like a cliff edge. It’s a 300 page poem, approximately 9 stanzas to a page, or 2700 cliff edges.
This fear, via an act of transmogrification, passes into the work somehow, and becomes an energy, a vitalising force. It’s what I’m looking for and it’s why my work involves places like these rocks, because it exists here to the power of ten.
The forms of the surrounding hills are indistinct, soft undulations. The light washes over them like a floating bedsheet. The little blue thread of the river is a crease that travels a mile or so east, then smoothes into the blue expanse of the reservoir. The quality of the energy here changes as your perception spreads into the landscape. You can gather differing energies, reel them in with your hands and eyes.
In the famous PBS interview series about his work the mythologist Joseph Campbell told a story which has stuck with me for decades. It’s the true story of a policeman who runs to the rescue of a man who is attempting suicide and is about to throw himself from a cliff. As the policeman arrives the man leans out over the edge, slipping downwards. The policeman catches an arm as he falls and is almost dragged over himself. For his own safety he needs to let go of the man, but he refuses to do it. He hangs on until someone else helps drag them both back to safety. When the policeman was asked later why he refused to let go he said he had the strongest feeling of connection to the man, and if he had let him die it would have been like killing a part of himself. This then is why risks are worth taking: to connect to others, to save lives.
I’m sitting at the high point of the rocks, staring down at the plummeting river. The roar of the falls echoes and funnels, the noise incessant. From the edge of the water below it didn’t seem such a long drop, but up here everything is amplified: light, sound, distance. There’s a tremor running through me which has come straight out of the rock, a drumbeat, the spark of the work.
This piece is available to view as a video essay on YouTube. The video includes location footage and sound recordings taken around Afon Claerwen