It’s 8.43 pm and it’s still light outside – just. I can see the scalpel edge of a dusky rose sunset shrinking into a misty ocean of inky blue cloud. The sky and the ocean have become one indissoluble whole. Before the beauty and immensity of the ocean sometimes there is little choice left but to simply watch; not to wish to concede to or unite with its otherness, not even to admire – just to watch the play till its end, night time drawing down the stage curtains.
I realised a few months ago that I had not written about the ‘outside world’ for a very long time indeed. By that I mean the world before me now – the world of Cardigan Bay, the spectacle of the west Welsh coastline. Of course I had been writing about other worlds a great deal – imaginary ones modelled on past ones – I had been feverishly writing on all sorts of topics that appealed to my creative and critical brain: paintings by Velázquez, alternative communities, the Spanish Civil War, the pianist Myra Hess, but I had not been nature writing. Why?
I realised that ‘nature writing’ – though I hate to call it that – is a bit like plein air painting: not advisable and probably not achievable under most conditions. The countless storms and savage winds that rolled and crashed along the coastline, straining the glass in my window, inspired first awe in me and then just boredom and rebellious anger. I realised then that Nature must be ‘available’ to let you write about ‘her’. The difference between rebarbative Wales full of volleys of spitting rain and thunderous wind and cool, still Wales on a clear day, was like the difference between a willing lover in a good mood and a tempestuous lover full of recrimination and self-loathing. How could I walk on those dull, difficult days? How could I feel moved to write?
Having said this, I know John Piper sallied out of his Snowdonian cottage in all weather conditions. His sketchbooks from the period are full of dramatic and highly evocative sketches of the Snowdonian massif topped with stormy lavender-grey clouds. The pages of the sketchbook are literally spattered with rain, stained with snow. They are artefacts not just artworks – nature inscriptions – the pictorial equivalent of Thomas Firbank’s breathtaking 1930s memoir I Bought a Mountain, recounting the early years of his life in Dryffyn farm, northern Snowdonia. I love Piper’s sketches and the story that lies behind them. They represent an, at best tenuous link with the portfolio of war artworks he was being commissioned to complete at the time, but they demonstrate marvellous continuity with his own, personal preoccupations and themes, as well as those of Graham Sutherland’s. There’s something about his depictions of northern Snowdonia that also strike a chord with Kyffin Williams. For Piper, Snowdonia is a primordial landscape made up of boulder-strewn cavities, lichen-encrusted dry-stone walls and shimmering tarns. It is lyrical but its lyricism is not conventional, this is a far-cry from a bright impressionist landscape. Piper paints his lover, but he paints her in her bad moods – as she really is – full of delicious, brewing power.
Yet the obdurate, stubborn darkness of Wales in my first winter here, the winter of 2015, defeated me more entirely than any other weather event in any other environment has ever done before. It was far more psychologically challenging than Iceland, even in its harshest moments. It was a phase in my life that I came closest to the chill of utter personal isolation, and the vertigo-effect of the loss of my identity, values, self-worth. Afterwards, I really felt that the void and brutality of the world outside led to a spiritual disease. I could not write or think, I just relapsed towards the most dangerous thing of all – I became the body’s slave.
But now the world is bright again, bright and full of boundaries. I have never seen the Llyn peninsula so distinctly as I saw it today – low humped ridges gliding gracefully towards the Irish sea. Tenby was radiant – like a ball full of light, a balloon. Between the land and ocean there I sensed a reciprocity and balance I do not feel on the west coast where things are constantly tipping and getting out of balance. Equilibrium has been restored in more ways than one. Daffodils have escaped their husky prisons, spring tides ebb back, daisies and snowdrops unfurl in the grasses and meadows like pearls; even the harsh gorse has budded, as brilliant as butter or the sun itself.