GO HONESTLY

or go home.

There is little as disheartening as plunging heedless, headlong, into the wine-dark sea, rolling with the motions of a tempest of surnatural proportions, and finding that the eternal ocean lacks the power to saturate your skin, chill your bones and freeze your flesh and instead has merely succeeded in dampening your spirits.

The worst part of getting lost in the woods after finding, and losing, several paths and finally seeking your own through treacherous ferns, mouldering logs, impenetrable shrubs and spongy peat is the point where you part two dense thickets and stumble, suddenly blinded, onto a wide paved road.

Any sense of relief you may derive from not having your expectations, even anticipations, lived up to, is a sad attempt to fool yourselves into supposed superiority and a warping of our original subconscious desires. We walk away from the path because we want to surrender to the unknown that surrounds - forgo our artificial lives and exit wounds for the curves and arteries of a system beyond us and anything we could create. The only pleasure that can be obtained from a surprising exit is the thought that you - in actuality blind and unwitting - have managed to navigate - by chance, of course - through a maze - in which you had hoped to be lost forever!

Only when we have at last absolved ourselves of any responsibility as to our final destination may we impartially view the final exit. One who is resigned to spending the rest of their days as a hermit, a wild man of the woods, feels no relief in the escape of that which they no longer dread.

Only one who is pushed unwillingly into the drink will be happy to find the fluid less of a shock to the system. The one who jumps in of his own free will searches for a cathartic purge, and will be forced to look elsewhere for the yin to his yang.

If you want something, you should crave it so much that you will keep searching should you not find that what you hoped for. Getting a mere taste and feigning relief at the dilution is cheap voyeurism and belittles us all.

Next time I go for a walk in the woods, I'm not coming back.

One of the advantages of living outside the National Park is that when I want to go for a hike I can do so in solitude. We live amid the hills and valleys of rural Wales, surrounded by sheep farmers and little else, and so when I set off this morning, I did so with only the two dogs for company.

 

One is our own dog, a brown curly haired rascal called Finnbar; the other is a hard wired spaniel named Oscar, a neighbor's dog we look after a couple of days a week for his working owner.

 

There was a hard frost last night, and the morning has dawned clear but very cold. I cross our six acre pasture, thinking landowner thoughts; eg, wondering if the horse paddock will ever dry out, and making note of all the trees down from recent windstorms- a thirty foot Alder is in the middle of the river and will give us firewood next year, not to mention work for the chainsaw and log splitter. Ah well, it keeps me fit at least.

 

I splash across the river which is finally low enough to ford again. Oscar the hard wired spaniel is living up to his name, frantically trying to find a stick that I can throw for him to retrieve. He tries with all his might to believe the sticks are shot birds but as his owners don't hunt he lives in a constant state of self delusion. Sad. Our dog tries to humor him but I can see his heart isn't in it. What Finnbar likes is bones, as old and dry as possible; fortunately the woods are full of ancient sheep carcasses. The three of us consequently are shut each in his own separate world, which is by far the best way to take a walk in the hills in my opinion.

 

We climb up to the 'Crossroads', a place where five separate paths diverge. It's a beautful clear sunny day for a change; after weeks and weeks of nothing but rain it's like a gift and I decide to climb to the top for a view over the valleys. The dogs are agreeable so long as we're moving somewhere. Finnbar trots along, on the lookout, and Oscar divides his time between the search for the perfect stick, and flushing the occasional pheasant. When one explodes from a covert with a muted thunder of wings, he races along underneath yelping hysterically. I smile, imagining that he is crying 'Shoot! Shoot! Shooot!

 

We come to the end of the path, which is barred by an old iron stock gate, held in place as most of them are by a length of binder twine. I undo the knot and let the dogs through, for it is lambing season and most of the sheep are off the fields; even so I carefully tie the gate closed again after us- essential country etiquette. The way forward runs along the side of a high ridge, and the footing is treacherous because of the frost. The dogs, of course, being four footed and considerably younger, make nothing of the steep grade, but I have to go slowly, anchoring myself with my stick and watching where I put my feet. Far below I can see the neat cluster of rectangular farm buildings and hear the grumble of a tractor, but otherwise it is silent.

 

We reach the other side without much mishap, and run up against another seven bar gate. Oscar scoots underneath like a greased eel, but motioning Finnbar to do the same gets me a puzzled frown and a look that clearly says I ought to know by now that such antics are beneath him. With a sigh I begin to pick at yet another binder twine descendant of the Gordian knot.

 

On the other side is a track that must be very old. It's graded as wide as a single line highway, and very steep with what must once have been a packed base of shingle. Now it is rutted by the run off from many active springs, and at one point becomes a sheer stretch of ice that I have to traverse by skirting the verge. Once long ago there was a large quarry at the summit, and somehow I believe they brought ox wagons loaded with stone down this very track. I pause to catch my breath and try to imagine how in the world you could brake a loaded wagon on this slope – perhaps with the oxen hitched at the rear, resisting the downward pull? The Roman Army was here once and this might be a remnant of their engineering know-how. Looking over the side of the track I can see more recent traces of former settlers. Covered in soft green moss like so many stacked footballs lie the remains of two small cottages with only low walls remaining, the rest scattered by time and invading trees. An elderly neighbor told me once that a woman and her four children lived in one during the last war, and I wince imagining the solitude and isolation during a Welsh winter.

 

The dogs are eager to get to the top and race ahead, while I follow as best I can. The sun is higher now, and my fingertips are beginning to thaw, which is welcome. Finally we are at the summit, and the world opens up around us. The valleys stretch away into the distance, dotted here and there by doll size clusters of farm buildings. All along the horizon march the mountains of the Brecon Beacons range, merging into the Black Mountains that stretch to Herefordshire. This morning they are all covered in a dazzling white snowfall against the deep blue of the sky. Overhead the buzzards circle slowly and for a moment I wish I had brought my camera. A foolish notion, for no camera could capture the panorama, the silence, the pure cold air, the sunlight highlighting the smooth green of the close grazed pastures seen from above.

 

The dogs and I circle the summit, bounded on the right by newly installed taut wire fencing, the posts of which are driven all along the outside perimeter of a much older dry stone wall. I look at the size of the fallen boulders that lie to either side of the fence line and marvel that even two men could have lifted each one into place. It is tempting to wonder just who built the wall originally, for what remains is deep buried and grass grown. Indeed it is well known that farmers hereabouts go to great pains not to allow anything of historical significance to remain standing to attract hikers or archaeologists so it is possible to give my imagination full rein.

 

Finally we are back at the wagon track, and regretfully I start downward. The dogs will be wanting their lunch and there are always chores to do in what remains of the day. Half way down, however, a flash of white catches my attention, and up a footpath that leads off to the left I see a cluster of snowdrops, tiny pure white blooms that only appear during February for week or two. These clusters of flowers do not occurr naturally , so someone must have planted them at some time. I make my way up the path and find the foundations of another ruined stone house.

 

This one must have been quite extensive. I can see the remains of what were probably sheep pens and storage buildings, and several interior rooms. The parts of wall that remain show signs of being laid with a lime and sand mortar, so this is no casual habitation. Impossible to imagine what the original building looked like for any beams or wooden componants have rotted to dust long ago, and the trees, mostly quick growing ash, are indifferently tumbling the walls that remain. The snowdrops, which must have once formed part of a garden, have now multiplied to form a carpet that spills over the remains in a way that suddenly gives this site the air of an abandoned cemetary.

 

I pick my way downward back to the main path, and from nowhere a line of poetry drifts into my mind,

 

'Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring '*

 

* From ''The Burning of the Leaves' by Robert Laurence Binyon

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