“Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Lie thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
By Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (p. 8, ll. 1-8)
I arrived in Wales at the end of September and at the height of the blackberry season. For the first week and a half of my life here I had a fairly regular commute to the Aberystwyth university campus from where I lived, in a small community at the village of Capel Seion. Under any circumstances the commute is a beautiful one, starting up the rough framer’s track, then curling along the windy A-road that follows the crest of the Rheidol mountains, before dipping down into town and thence towards Penglais hill. The views from the ridge, where a number of Ceredigion’s small inland villages are located on the road to Devil’s Bridge overlooking Cardigan Bay, the valley of Rheidol and surrounding hills are almost agonisingly beautiful, enough to elicit a deep grunt of approval from my friend as he dropped he off here: Well, you have done well, haven’t you? A scene more anathematic to the dreary corporate landscapes of central and suburban Manchester, where I enjoyed the briefest tenancy of my life, is difficult to imagine. From the post-industrial urban metropolis of Greater Manchester, braceleted together with motorways, tramlines and distinctly dodgy cycle paths I had emerged in the lush and fertile valleys of West Wales. It was like waking up in Avalon.
My first week and half was not easy because I was carless. Car-lessness when living in a rural parts of Wales isn’t recommended, even for the most die-hard of cyclists. Even with rock hard calves and a dependable mountain bike, few but Wiggans could face the hair-raising prospect of peddling up hills with between twelve and twenty-five degree gradients. However, with little choice, the four mile commute to work every morning, and then back again in the evening, was one I undertook on my pushbike or on foot.
Having been a city-dweller all my life, I had never experienced the rural commute and initially at least, the novelty and beauty of the experience took the hard edge off the two-hour perambulation or forty minute cycle each day. It seemed almost impossible to me – having lived in London, Oxford, Ghent, Reykjavik and Edinburgh – that a jaunt to work would comprise cycling down single-track roads with few passing points, gliding past Welsh fields and paddocks dotted with preoccupied sheep, and passed hidden-away smallholdings built into the crooks of hedgerows.
Reviewing my ignorance and illiteracy regarding things green, I turned the long journeys to good use, taking my Osborne’s spotters guides to trees and wayside flowers with me. I gradually began to create imaginary inventories of the landscape around me and the many features within it, that I had failed to appreciate before because I didn’t have the names or concepts to identify them with. It is only with these kinds of conceptual tools and informed views that we are able to make the subtle distinctions and discernments that eventually lead to a deep understanding of place and natural habitat.
In truth, this is perhaps why the walk by foot took so long. I was spying on nature, eyeing up hedgerows, taking notes, even taking home specimens. I began to get a clearer sense of the differences between native and non-native species of tree, older oaks and ‘stunt’ oaks and all the complexity of tangled beauty that awaits the unprepared eye in a hedgerow. Oak, ash, beech coppices and common wayside flowers such as raged robin, became features of the landscape that I could soon easily identify and thus appreciate. I do not believe in throwing around names and facts for their own sakes or to impress others. However, I do believe that there are many benefits to be derived from trying to develop a faculty for understanding and describing nature accurately. This mainly derives from a politically-inflected conviction that until we know how to name a thing, compassion and understanding cannot follow; it will remain alien to us (as an analogy I immediately thought of the importance of quickly learning student’s names in the classroom. Namelessness is powerlessness).
On the good days, the beauty of all before me, the landscape of west Wales unscrolling north towards Snowdonia in a patchwork quilt of brilliantly-coloured fields, the shimmer of the Irish sea to the west, and the small town of Aberystwyth bedded down in the valley like a promise waiting to be fulfilled, almost took my breath away. There was something portentous and magical about the silence of the road or the crowing of the cock beside my window each morning. On the bad days, (in bad weather, or in rain, when I failed to hitch a ride and wanted to, or when I got a puncture and had to push a bike weighed down with books and computer up a rutted path), I felt frustrated and annoyed by the journey which suddenly seemed like a ritual I could do without along with the bureaucratic rigmarole of registering for a PhD.
But even in my lowest moments the blackberries were always there, glistening like little black beryls on the hedgerow. I would remember the importance of sugar to the weary walker and greedily pluck them from their green collars, feasting on nature’s abundance, feeling the tang of their magenta cells pop and explode against my tongue. When I did this I felt supercharged with the comforting feeling that the countryside can provide everything we need. I also felt that my time in Wales was presenting a continuity with explorations in Iceland, I was resuming a long-felt inner craving to return to the ‘wild’, and to reconnect with something I had never really known: the countryside, the sea, the great outdoors.