This month Little Toller publishes Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Savage Gods. For this series on The Clearing Paul invited poets, writers and artists from across the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. This is a new essay by the writer Nina Lyon.
I used to run on the mountains that loom up like giant bare knuckles a few miles behind my house. The first steep climb is grim, and in truth I have never been able to run it, but it gets easier on the top, which is largely flat from the top of the Dragon’s Back, the ridge that undulates up from the pass to the northwest. Sometimes, once the worst of the climb is over and you pick up speed, the hulks of the ridge begin to breathe, and all that is left of the valley is a mist that coalesces from the rain, although you are not looking at the valley, but at the mountain, which has become big and alive.
The whole point is to lose yourself, so there is only the mountain. It doesn’t happen often. It is hard to do, and not only because running up a mountain entails overcoming laziness. What passes for wilderness in the British landscape never really is, and the vista as you work your way along the flat top of the northern escarpment is a toy-town, or toy-countryside, of patchwork fields, lanes and villages along the snaking river. To lose yourself, it has to be just you and the mountain, or rather the delusion of it.
There is always someone else on the mountain. There are often many people on the mountain, so many that helicopters hover on the plateau dangling bags of rock to pave it in an attempt to mitigate the channels carved by their footfall. If you want to avoid people, you need a termtime weekday morning and preferably the threat of rain, or dusk. Tourists balk at climbing after sunset, because they think the mountain presents an existential threat, and they demonstrate this belief with high-spec walking trousers with multiple zips and handheld GPS navigation systems. They could just use their phones: the 4G reception is great on the picturesque edges of the mountain, and you could stream documentaries about famous people walking on mountains or video tutorials on how to walk on mountains while on the mountain if you felt the need. You can see the phone masts dotted along the hills beyond the valley. The mountain is barely eight hundred metres high. It was three hundred and fifty, possibly four hundred, where they parked. There is really very little to worry about. You don’t stand much chance of getting lost, and if there is anything left to worry about it should be the near-impossibility of it instead.
Sometimes, just before I go to bed, a couple of Chinooks growl over my house. It is too dark for bags of rocks by then; there are military bases nearby, and I think they drop soldiers up there on exercise, a simulation of getting lost, and then I wonder if the soldiers are ever able to suspend disbelief enough to feel that they are lost, or if the point is for the soldiers to get lost to some external observer instead, hiding in the scarce quiet corners of the land for as long as they can get away with it.
I have become lazy about running on the mountain. I tell myself that it is too small, and too familiar. It isn’t a credible argument against running, and it isn’t always true. A friend of mine went up there last winter when the place was reshaped by snowdrifts and impassable, and he got stranded, and lost. I once went up there with the children because there was snow when we drove into town, the first of the winter in late November, and we thought it might be fun to have a look. My daughter delighted in her bootprints in the virgin snow which soon thickened to twice her height. I caught sight of her, a little black speck on the ridge where gusts of wind whipped off the tops of snowdrifts, and then it whipped away at her, and she faltered. I did not understood quite how close she came to being taken off the mountain by the wind until we got back home. We only went there for the novelty of it, and it ended up being more of an adventure than we bargained for.
Chasing novelty is about running away from fixed, familiar, predictable things as much as any zeal for something new. The mountain often seems familiar now, and when things feel familiar they begin to lose the magic of the undiscovered qualities they might contain. We begin to have a sense of their solidity, of knowing them in full, of being able to describe them to ourselves in some definite way. Unconquerable things retain their indefinite status, but there is little unconquerable about a paved mountain-top. Instead, you have to engage in the elaborate deception of approaching the mountain from the one ascent inclined towards it – unromantically named Y Grib, The Ridge – and avoid looking out across the picture-book valley, and run, even though it is too steep, and, blinkered by intentional exhaustion, try to see the shifting shapes ahead as something bigger.
The Dragon’s Back didn’t always have its own car park. Not too long ago, the trunk road that skims its tail was merely a track, impassable in winter. When our sense of scale was framed in how far human legs could take us in a day, it would all have felt quite different – perhaps even like a hulking beast at rest, dozing through the centuries until it was time to move on to other places. We have shrunk our mountains into toys, and only a ferocious winter can breathe them back into being.
The historian of religion F. Max Müller, writing on the Vedas, held that some objects that could not be fully appraised due to their scale – mountains, rivers, vast trees in a forest – carried a particular religious significance.
Most objects can be seen whole, grasped in full by the mind as a pebble can be held in the hand. These, Müller said, were ‘before us in their completeness. They cannot evade our grasp. There is nothing in them unknown or unknowable.’ Mountains, rivers and trees were different: their size made them, in his taxonomy, semi-tangible, demi-gods to the still vaster gods of sea, fire and sky. If you can only see a part of something and the rest of it resists your view, it takes on an indefinite quality, for you will never know it entirely.
If we stand at the foot of a mountain and look up to where its head vanishes in the clouds we feel like dwarfs before a giant. Nay, there are mountains utterly impassable, which to those who live in the valley, mark the end of their little world. The dawn, the sun, the moon, the stars, seem to rise from the mountains, the sky seems to rest on them, and when our eyes have climbed up to their highest visible peaks, we feel on the very threshold of a world beyond.
And let us think, not of our own flat and densely peopled Europe, not even of the Alps, in all their snow-clad majesty, but of that country, where the Vedic hymns were first uttered… and we shall then begin to understand, how the view of such a temple might make even a stout heart shiver, before the real presence of the infinite.
Müller was writing in the late nineteenth century when the industrial domestication of the European landscape was at full pace, and I don’t think he’d be much surprised by the leisure-park status of our small, tame mountains today. But he also had a deep attachment to the poetry of an ancient vision of animate, godly entities in the natural world, and found a metaphysical significance to it. The indefinite was the threshold to the infinite, which defied the grasp of human minds, and was where the inexpressible totality of God could be found. Things we could not quite get our heads around were signposts to this domain.
Even a tree, at least one of the old giants in a primeval forest, has something overwhelming and overawing. Its deepest roots are beyond our reach, its head towers high above us. We may stand beneath it, touch it, look up to it, but our senses cannot take it in in one glance. Besides, as we say ourselves, there is life in the tree, while the beam is dead. The ancient people felt the same, and how should they express it, except by saying that the tree lives? By saying this, they did not go so far as to ascribe to the tree a warm breath or a beating heart, but they certainly admitted in the tree that was springing up before their eyes, that was growing, putting forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit, shedding its foliage in winter, and that at last was cut down or killed, something that went beyond the limits of their sensuous knowledge, something unknown and strange, yet undeniably real; – and this unknown and unknowable, yet undeniable something, became to the more thoughtful among them a constant sense of wonderment. They could lay hold of it on one side by their senses, but on the other it escaped from them – ‘it fell from them, it vanished.’
It is hard to articulate the indefinite in words, for words capture things and put them into boxes; Müller held that the early written language of the Vedas did a better job of maintaining the indefinite aliveness of the world by virtue of its imprecision, so that each word had a broad-brush metaphorical meaning. As language developed, it focused more tightly onto things and trapped them, sterilising them. One word meant one object, and we knew what it meant and what the object was, and there was no movement, no remaining strangeness. Müller had to go back to the Vedas to find a poetic strategy for expressing the aliveness of trees.
I sometimes think of Müller when I see photographs that imply the indefinite within a landscape, intimating a vastness that we are forced to extrapolate outside the frame towards infinity. I have friends who are good photographers, but I have never worked out how they do it, and any attempt to capture one of those rare moments where the mountain has grown back into its vastness shrinks into my four-inch iPhone screen. There is something miraculous about representing the ineffable, saying the unsayable, and it is out of my reach. And yet sometimes it happens by accident, or as a matter of scale.
My daughter took messy, captivating pictures on the same phone as a toddler, so close-up that everything became strange again: the glowing purple halo of a flower, or the blurred orthogonal corners of a table, or tips of the toes of one foot nudging the frame as pale parabolae against a stone floor.
Small children know that you can find all sorts of detail in things if you get close enough to them. They know it as they endlessly inspect leaves and sticks. They find it because they are not in a hurry to do anything else; they have the time and inclination to stay looking.
This is the bit that Müller was wrong about: if we do not find some ghost, at least, of the indefinite in the shell or berry in our hand, we are not looking hard enough. A sea-shell might no longer be in that dynamic state, but it contains the history of a life marked out in coloured bands of growth; the berry, if you look, is streaked with veins, and its seeds are set out geometrically inside, waiting for action, when you hold it to the light. All things that are alive are indefinite, for the perpetual becoming of growth and transformation resists fixity, and they don’t need to be vast for you to glimpse it.
A few miles down the Wye from where it snakes away beneath the Dragon’s Back, there is a stretch of pebble beach. The beach, at the edge of town, is a peaceful, pretty spot, popular because the river pools on either side of a small rocky weir, which makes it safe for swimming. It is only in the winter floods that it becomes the sort of strong brown god worthy of mythologising, casting debris high into trees along the bank as though to remind us that it still can. Most of the time, it is tame. Like the tame toy mountain, you can try to find it on a quiet day, and immerse yourself as best you can, swimming with the ducks and trying not to arouse the suspicions of bellicose swans, and hope that the exertion might help you get subsumed by it. It isn’t much of an adventure, though. It is too nice.
‘When we speak of a river,’ Müller said, ‘there is nothing in reality corresponding to such a name. We see indeed the mass of water which daily passes our dwelling, but we never see the whole river, we never see the same river. The river, however familiar it may seem to us, escapes the ken of our five senses, both at its unknown source and at its unknown end.’ I try to not-see the river in this way; I really do. I am very attached to the Müller-vision of things in general, but it falls from us; it vanishes.
I have paddled much of the river; I have driven past the point where it rises on the far side of Mid Wales, and straddled its muddy mouth at Chepstow on a train; my son can map its course from memory. I have sometimes spent enough time in a kayak for the villages and bridges that mark out points along the way to blur into the river along with my burning palms, but aside from that it is hard to escape the sense of human ownership, not least because the people who own houses by it, and believe they own the river, sometimes tell you so, shouting and waving their fists in punctuation. It is a river shaped by people, and the ideas that people generate.
On the bank, there are pebbles flecked with the imprints of ancient fossils, tiny shells whose age stretches the conceivability of time to something far from definite. Sometimes, they are cracked and you can see inside where the green-grey cedes to a darker, purple rock of a slightly different texture. Each of the pebbles is like this, if you get stranded there for long enough by children who are too busy examining pebbles to keep track of time. Perhaps the indefinite is best sought in pebbles. All it takes to transform small things into big things is the act of looking closely, and you can do that close to home, and find your infinities there.
I had given up on semi-tangible objects and demigods and moments of stage-managed rapture. It felt dishonest, demanding the pretence of an ancient naivety we had all long abandoned. In our domesticated world, we might as well make peace with domesticity. We planted some peas a few weeks ago and every day we go out to inspect them. One of the plants is a triffid of a thing already, and has already outgrown the sticks to which its tentacles are coiled in tight fists, and the leaves that once emerged from the seed tray in a furled little spike are the bigger than my hands. This, I decided, would have to do: peas and pebbles, wild strawberries and sea-shells. Think small.
Last night, it was my son’s eleventh birthday, and his friends stampeded on his father’s lawn beneath the other side of the mountains in endless games of football. The rain came in waves across the valley, and when it slowed wisps of saturated wetness rose out of the woods, and they kept on playing, soaked through and streaked with mud.
After supper, the last guests made their way outside. I muttered maternal admonishments about the need to get to bed in time for school and carried book-bags to the car. The rain had stopped, in the way it always seems to just before the sun goes down. The sun was edging onto the ridge across the valley. The wisps of mist that rose up from the dingle grew and grew, and lifted into a haze that swept up the hill towards us. The mist paused for a while, shrouding the field beneath the house, and then it lifted again, a tendril of it trailing around an oak tree as though held there. The tree was there, and not there; the mist licked away toward the valley’s sides, and hung itself there instead, working up towards the mountain. The sun was part-eaten by the dark ridge on the other side and no longer a circle, and the rest of its light bathed the tree in orange light and, I now saw, the children and their father and the last guests. They stood in a silent broken line along the track, watching it.
Nina Lyon is a writer with an interest in philosophy and the natural world. She is the author of Mushroom Season (Vintage, 2014) and Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man (Faber, 2016), which was recipient of the Roger Deakin Award. She lives in Wales with her two children.