‘I think I need this hill’

Thomas Merton, the American Monk, wrote in his diary on 29th November 1965,

     ‘This morning I really opened the door of Rilke‘s  Dunio Elegies’ and walked in… For one thing I got the sound of the      German really going, and got the feel of the First Elegy as a whole… I think I need this hill, this silence, this frost…’

John Clare, the poet, who died melancholy mad, remembered a landscape before the need for efficiency and production brought about the Acts of Enclosure, turned to nature as a source of solace. He perhaps was the most passionately committed to his own landscape, and would like Merton, have understood the need for stability and connexion. Moved to a cottage  only three miles from his home village by well- intentioned supporters of his poetry, he pined and became mentally so distressed he was taken to Northampton asylum.  Ivor Gurney, another solitary like Clare, who lived in Gloucestershire, felt the potency of the landscape and its potential to allow us to dream. Gurney had fought a war for England that had almost destroyed him. A talented musician, overtaken at times  with anger and frustration that made him difficult to live with, he was ultimately confined to a lunatic asylum as he become increasingly incoherent. He wrote of  moments when his  awareness of natural beauty was visionary:

‘Of all significant things, the most striking, poignant, passioning is the sight of a great valley at the end of the day  – such as the Severn valley, which lies hushed and dark, infinitely full of meaning, while yet the far Welsh hills are touched with living and ecstatic gold… The quietest and most comforting thing is that is yet strongly suggestive – the sight which more than any to provoke the making of music to be performed on strings, is that of a hedge mounting over, rolling beyond the skyline of a little gracious hill. A hedge unclipped, untamed: covered by hawthorn perhaps, showing the fragile rose of June, or sombre within the bareness of winter; the season makes no difference.’

Gurney echoes  Wordsworth’s, ‘calm existence that is mine’, and his contemplation of this same experience  is suggested in Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey , as he reflects that,  ‘Once again I see these hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines of sportive wood run wild:’ Just as Gurney saw the parcelled landscape as lines of musical manuscript, Wordsworth invites us to see the landscape as lines of handwriting: for both artists the detail nature provides acts as means of unlocking thought, inviting us to replicate  their own processes of observation, and subsequently create and realise our own responses.

The foregoing literary preambles are my own ‘sportive hedgerows’, points and moments of reflection about landscape and its effects upon the human psyche, and furthermore, alluding to uncovering  the differences between Welsh and English landscapes and built environments.

August  is a good time to arrive  in Pwllpeiran, Pumlumon, in the Welsh uplands. It is a magnificent and compelling landscape. Knots of red kites swirled through the blue gold air of the late afternoon; seemingly made indolent by the intense heat of mid air, they would spontaneously swoop to earth in pursuit of some luckless creature. The river, a polished silver line, trailed into a rewarding view of the sea.

Deeper in, the landscape begins to bluster into rocks and broken mine workings. Now on the valley floor, looking up, the kites have become weightless, like cinders floating far above our heads. Beneath our feet the abandoned tunnels and mine shafts spider unseen for miles. Beguiled by the autopsy of slate and rock, we scrambled over what were once paths, now foiled by weeds seeking to reclaim the defiant remains of  miners’  and shepherds’ cottages dotted and dashed across the hillside. Stopping to rest whilst the summer heat raised particles of pine resin to kink and scent the breeze. A little further on, Hafod,  Thomas Johnes‘ eighteenth century idea of paradise and early experimental farm and estate, is to be found, where, as the Reverend Thomas Payne remarked in 1759, ‘every step awakens fresh beauties’.


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