I have created whole atlases since I wrote last – whole geographies. Of course I say that I have created them because landscape is always created – from the Anglo-Saxon verb schapen – to draw. The soil and ground is always there of course, but it is blind and unloving. Places amount to much more than an accumulation of natural history features; they are living connections between our brief existences and those that have gone before us. They are scrolls of experience that overreach our own, relatively short lives.
My atlas has led me towards the throb of Plynlimon, the scaly rock of Cadair Idris, the lonely herds of sheep that stalk the Elan hillscape. My only regret is that I have not explored the Cardigan Bay seas and waterscape as my flatmate has done. My adventuring has been on land: across bog, saltmarsh, hill, through forests and meadows. I visited the haunts of some of my favourite Welsh and English artists and writers; seeing with my own eyes the landscapes that inspired them: the Black Hills of the Wye Valley, a locality upon which both Jones, Chatwin and Williams, concentrated a furious storm of creative energy; all the chapel parishes (save the Monmouthshire one) once in the care of R.S. Thomas. I have walked in the steps of Coleridge over Hay bluff, in the tangled lines of beauty Graham Sutherland scrawled all across northern Pembrokeshire. I will write about all of these outings in due course.
Of course this upsurge in my activities was about more than just the onset of spring. February and March 2016 defined a more dramatic change in my life in Aberystwyth than merely a seasonal shift. I must admit now, shamefaced but entirely honestly that I never would have visited so many of these wonderful landscapes had it not been for Tom. It is not the same on your own. And so kind, wise, intelligent Tom became my constant companion on the road. He will pop up in many of these stories. Between my curiosity and his utility, we discovered a new joint purpose: to visit, take pleasure in and understand as much of the story of the Welsh landscape as possible. We began close to where we live in mid-Wales, in forests and valleys he already knew well as a boy and showed me. But before long my desire to explore took us far beyond Tom’s original map, into northern Wales and along the Pembrokeshire coastline. Of course we were not only ‘seeing’ Wales. We were seeing ourselves, seeing each other.
What was there before that exists for me now? Because of all the lovely, gentle changes he’s enacted in my life, the first place that occurs to me is his place. The tranquil carpentry workshop nestled beside the stream in the crook of a valley. The somnolent quietude of that unrenovated stone cottage with its hand-made hearth and lime-clapped walls. The islands of emerald green ivy taking up residence on the roof and around the chimney stack so that the roof looks more like a green sea than anything else. We go there to disappear, to became part of the unpretentious tranquillity of the place, to light a fire and lie in bed and let the birds wake us up in the morning. As a PhD student and a carpenter-cum-clockmaker, we work to our own schedules and escape to the workshop whenever we can.
Not far from the workshop there is a path that leads from the side of the stone cottage across the brook and up towards the fields. I remember the utter, mute glory of one morning in particular, the gentle warmth of the sun upon our faces as we sat back in a field full of natural imperfections, reeds and long grasses, sheep excrement and a few low twisted oaks. As we sat there and shared a morning cigarette, the man who has known only this landscape his entire life was moved enough to agree with my metropolitan verdict. Avalon. Paradise. We followed the path for as long as we could; he was convinced it would lead to a human settlement; it was the line of trees flanking the path, he assured me, the way they had been planted. Up the garden path we went, beneath the overgrown plateau of the old railway track [railway sidings] and bridge, up a hillock leading to a wide-open plain. Sure enough a building came into view, poised gloriously at the crest of the hill. We trudged up to meet it, both of us envious at the thought of the lucky human beings who could claim this land as their own, who could wake up each morning to that view. When we got close enough we realised it didn’t have human settlers, just animal ones. It’s lambing season so the ewes were restless and skittish, they bounded off as soon as they could. They wooden roof had fallen in long ago and had been replaced by an more economical corrugated iron replacement. We turned back.
Not far from this earthly paradise there is a valley that leads to Pont-rhyd-y-groes. The name of it is Grogwynion and a signpost off a lay-by announces that it is a protected area, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Let me describe the scene to you: the valley is deep but not long, there is only one road, a mountain road which snakes along at its bottom, following on the whole the trajectory of the river which courses along. The river is not narrow and deep as the valley is, but flat and wide. At some points the skein of water is stretched across such a prodigious distance of chipped, chalky white rock that it seems to barely be there at all. The flow of the tributary is generous and constant, slow as a dribbling honey, and interrupted by low loamy islands overrun with flowering butter-yellow gorse and holly bushes that grow like Christmas trees. Small finches and tits bounce around from branch to branch, more like butterflies than birds; with their hopping, capricious movements. There is something about the atmosphere of this valley; even coruscated with plantation forest and the monumental tomb of an abandoned mine, that draws me. I call the place gorse island and want to go back whenever I can, especially at dusk when the sun sinks behind the mountains and the lustre of the silken stream reflects back the mauve lights of the sky.
Yet how different the managed, worked, mined and hilly landscape of mid-Wales is to the craggy and precipitous landscapes of north Wales! That is where I first fell in love with this country over two years ago. There was heather, gorse, stiff mountainside; those shades and hollows that Piper loved so much, escarpments, outcroppings and sudden gulfs. It was a geological anomaly, a genetic firework; yet a pastoral. The purple-grey mountainsides; the sheets of brittle slate rocks, rust-red and violet-grey… who knew that grey could be so beautiful? It sings a thousand songs in Snowdonia. Language changes there, smelts and revives. Quarries hold secrets like dragons and hidden caches of paintings or precious mines and metals. The omnipresence of water everywhere makes even the sterile rock and mountainside bud. Grass and moss erupts – as it did on the weekend in Hafod when I realised that even the footpath we were walking on was green, a conduit of luminous moss.
It’s impossible for me to recall this and not say something about the afternoon stroll down from the Cwtch – down across the old miner’s bridge bestriding the gulley: the absence of walkers on the other side, the clear morning air, the welcoming sight of the green vernal forest, the glistening of the quartz bed in the disembowelled rock. It could mean only one thing. If I have one regret in Wales it is that we do not rest afterwards in each other’s arms upon the mossy forest floor as we should have done, lovers and creatures dressed warmly and suitably, designed to do exactly what we had done. Instead it was the old ‘business as usual’ there’s work to be done! There’s no work to be done that’s ever more important than that lying enthroned in your lover’s arms on a frosty spring morning: to be young and beautiful and strong and to know it.
We should never expect love to rescue us but sometimes it just does.
 When it comes to theories of ‘Nature’ I admit to bestriding the fence. I know anthropomorphism isn’t popular, but isn’t it foolish to believe that we can really go beyond the non-human? Any philosopher would smile and shake his hale old head. Yet the idea that Nature itself is contingent on human life also seems preposterous and dangerously close to the kind of homocentric thinking that has led to climate change and ecological exploitation. Nature does not need us to define her! I hear the Deep Ecologists call. We depend on her! We depend on her definitions of us! Finally, I would suggest that Nature isn’t either the definitively human or non-human but a curious middle-distance between them. An intersection between the thing that exists and ourselves; neither an objective or subjective category but a synergy or synthesis.