Photo: The River Wye in flood. Behind me was a field of sheep, shearing the grass ever shorter in the rain.
Venus lies star-struck in her wound
And the sensual ruins make
Seasons over the liquid world,
White springs in the dark
(From ‘Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait’ by Dylan Thomas)
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
(From 'Rain’ by Edward Thomas)
I hear leaves drinking rain;
I hear rich leaves on top
Giving the poor beneath
Drop after drop
(From ‘The Rain’ by William Henry Davies)
My plan has been to spend a week at a time in each wild or rewilding place I choose, and after seven glorious days walking Dartmoor, I pack up the Landrover and head into Wales, to see a little of the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains. It is my first trip beyond Cardiff within Wales, even though the Welsh landscape and history have always been an interest. Poetry written by Welsh poets or poets with strong Welsh heritage has likewise fascinated me. There is a curious rhythm and sound in lines written by Dylan Thomas, say, or by William Henry Davies, or even by Edward Thomas, born in England but with strong Welsh roots – and for years I have felt that the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems somehow to belong with this group. So it is with almost a feeling of relief that I discover that Hopkins began writing poetry again – after a long abstinence from the first poetry-writing fervour of his youth – in Wales, during his training as a Jesuit priest near St Asaph.
I think I now understand why these poets exhibit similar sound and rhythm patterns: it is a response to the rain of Wales. Rain has been very much on my mind during the week here. Rain has been omnipresent, beginning with drizzle on Saturday in Hay-on-Wye over the Hay Winter Weekend Festival, where I spent an afternoon and evening. In Hay I listened to a captivating talk by author Rob Penn on what led up to his book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees – a record of the 44 separate uses and hundreds of objects he commissioned to be crafted from the wood of a single ash tree he'd had cut down for timber. I didn't get to ask him why he chose the particular title for the book that he did, but I suspect it must be part-homage to French author Jean Giono's lovely fiction 'The Man Who Planted Trees', which has had such a profound impact on inspiring tree-planting around the world. I love Giono's story. Many people have believed it to be autobiographical truth, but it's not, although Giono's artistic fiction and the world's physical reality have mingled and melded over time – millions of trees grow today in the real world because the fictional character Elzéard Bouffier loved planting acorns. To me, that seems a natural and credible love: whenever I have had a pot, or a plot, and access to acorns, I have grown oak saplings. I realise now that I should add another question or two to what I ask the volunteers who plant trees in pouring rain on the sheep-stripped hillsides of Britain: have they read 'The Man Who Planted Trees', and do they count it as one of the reasons they do what they do? Soft anecdotal research, unsuited perhaps to science but vital to art and literature.
The drizzle in Hay-on-Wye turns into driving rain-showers when I visit Pwll-y-Wrach waterfall and pool in the Brecon Beacons National Park, near Talgarth in south Powys. I am the only person wandering the fenced nature reserve, in the rain, and I have time to reflect and think, about rewilding, about reforestation, about poetry, and about time. Pwll-y-Wrach means 'Witches' Pool' and so I scan the sandstone and mudstone of the waterfall's structure to see if I can discern the shapes of witches, or even features of women in the rock. I have always done this, as far back as I can remember: looking at the rocks and cracks and chutes of waterfalls to see what shapes I see, the same way children gaze at clouds and see hares and horses and giants. Adults mostly see cumulus or cumulo-nimbus or stratus or cirrus cloud types, rather than climatic art. We know, at some deep level, that we have lost an essential magic when we no longer see figures in the clouds – perhaps that is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince remains a perennial best-seller. At university, I was trained to differentiate between the various types of clouds. Now, I am unlearning some of that, or pushing the knowledge into a filing cabinet in the brain labelled 'Open only in case of imaginative failure'. I see no images of witches in the waterfall, although to my dismay a Ninja Turtle shows up. There's a Buddha-figure in there though – and then I see the Earth-goddess, amply-proportioned to withstand famine, as all fertility-goddesses should be. The water pouring over the limestone lip of the waterfall gurgles in base notes, Welsh-accented, before showering and renewing the goddess in the rock and then tumbling into the pool.
The cadence of the lines written by Welsh poets and poets of Welsh heritage is infused with the sound of water – the notes splash liquidly from the page, the rhythm is the soft metre of falling drops, or the sweeping of successive sheets of rain. Water is everywhere in the poems of the Welsh: it drops from above, swirls from below, washes through the air and streams though each poet's being, opening the vowels and ushering in the mellifluousness of languid consonants.
I have been keen to see the site of the proposed rewilding and reforestation project for the Cambrian Mountains called the Cambrian Wildwood Project, something which could serve as a model for other rewilding projects in Wales. One of the project founders, Simon Ayres, very generously offers to show me the site in the Cambrian Mountains that the organisation wants to purchase and reforest, with a view to later introducing or allowing the recovery of important animal species – like the pine marten, to start with. Driving along the border between Wales and England, history fuses with geography and I realise why there were constant battles in the Welsh Marches and the Welsh Borders. The landscape is a dramatic series of ridges and gorges, and I wonder about the magnificent forests which would have been there, hiding entire armies of the Welsh or English – or Normans, I suppose – before the arrival and devastating triumph of the sheep, and before the large-scale clearing of the woodlands took place. Some of the ridges are dense conifer plantations, which allow a glimpse of what could be, again, if groups like Cambrian Wildwood prevail – but the woodlands would be closer to what they once were, broadleaf forest for the most part, and filled with birds and insects and animals.
Simon Ayres is unworried by the sheets of water bucketing down upon us as we climb from the Landrover. The rain gods pelt us with ever-heavier downpours, and the wind alters direction constantly, to ensure that no part of our clothing or our bodies remains unsodden, but still we tread upwards and across the mainly cropped land that Cambrian Wildwood wants to buy, protect from sheep and deer (although in Wales deer aren't nearly as prevalent as they are in Scotland), replant with native broadleaf trees, and nurture until natural processes can take over and the forest is restored. It is an admirable and worthy vision, and one that will take prolonged and inspired leadership, with a tight circle of loyal and inspired volunteers, to accomplish. Simon tells me that the property abuts an estate belonging to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, and I wonder if Robert Plant would support the establishment of the Cambrian Wildwood on his doorstep – a group of “tree Planters”. I think of the influences Robert Plant has cited over the years, and believe that he would be in tune both with the philosophy of rewilding and the ambitions of the Cambrian Wildwood group.
At Hay again, I wander into the little churchyard and one of the gravestones which has been set into the wall of the church itself catches my attention. There is a date chiselled into the old granite, telling me that a man named Richard Wellington died on the 8th of September, two hundred and thirty one years earlier. His day and month of death is the day and month of my birth. It is a reminder of mortality, of time's passage, a central concern of Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas and William Henry Davies, from whose poems I have quoted at the beginning of this post. I am not concerned about the mortality of humans en masse, because we seem a particularly resilient and dominant species – but I am concerned at the loss of wildness and the loss of animal and plant species that we have caused and are still causing. As for personal mortality, the gravestone is a reminder to me to live more intensely, to live more wildly, to seize each moment while I still can. You can learn a lot from a gravestone.
I have supper at The Blue Boar, on my own, and I wonder about the possibility of wild boar being once again as common in the woodlands of Wales as they are on pub signboards all over Britain. The rain falls steadily, heavily, outside, but I am so used to it now that I hardly notice how much water is sluicing down the streets and the pavements. Only on the way back home do I realise that the Wye has flooded its banks – the road winds onto high ground and I am able to look down on the plain.
Red muddy water covers all the low ground, and again I think of George Monbiot's book Feral, and his suggestion that the sheep-cropped hillsides with their compacted soil cannot absorb even a fraction of the rain that the soil under a broadleaf forest would – that too many sheep on the hills means frequent floods on the plains and in the towns.
To my right, I see the flooded Wye valley. To my left, I see green paddocks almost overflowing with sheep. They munch away at whatever grass they can find, unconcerned at being a point of controversy and discussion in the place where conservation, politics and farming meet. Their little hooves press down on the sodden earth, the rain falls with increasing intensity, the river rises further, and I take my photographs and drive on.