Away from Home (part 1)
For INEL, who asked if I could take him on my next visit to the Valley
This time tomorrow. It's definitely on - I just got an email from K saying Jon will meet me at the station at 7:30 pm. It feels weird, sitting here at home writing this, thinking that "this time tomorrow" - well, I guess I'll still be on the road, but you know what I mean - the next time I write in my diary it will be Saturday, and we will be there (I don't imagine there'll be chance to do my diary tomorrow night - K said it's likely to be "very late" by the time J and I get there).
I've said it feels "weird" - can I be a bit more precise? "Weird" in this context is not a word for poets!
Okay then. I feel - excited, certainly, but also my old familiar sense of dread at anything out of the ordinary - especially anything involving me spending time with other people (and let's face it, Jon is about as "other" as people get!) Although I hardly know Kai either, I'd feel less - apprehensive - at the prospect if it was him I was going to be alone with all weekend. (And if it was Ellen - no, that way madness lies!)
If another email came through, now, saying the trip was off, I'd probably feel relieved - but also very disappointed. Does that make any sense? Probably not! I'm just so antisocial. But, of course, really, I would never - could never - miss such an opportunity. "Once in a lifetime?" Perhaps (no matter how long the life?) My bags are packed, and I'm ready to go (not, sadly, "on a jet plane" - it's by train that my journey will start.) I bought the tickets last week. Mostly, knowing myself so well, to prevent me changing my mind and backing out later!
Across the room, my rucksack is packed and ready. K said to only take the essentials, but wasn't more forthcoming about what would be essential. The sleeping bag is in there, though as I have no idea about the sleeping arrangements (another reason thoughts of spending the weekend with Ellen are not to be entertained ..!) A couple of changes of clothes. Nothing too "smart". I think we are likely to be working pretty hard on the place (part of the "deal", not that I have any problems on that score!) Toothbrush. Walking boots. Ah well, I guess it's time for bed.
I'm at the station - the train got in a bit early - waiting for Jon to show. Now that I'm actually here - now that the trip is on, the journey has begun - I have the inevitable uncertainties. Will he turn up? Was there some last minute hitch? And, if he does find me, will we get on? We have a long, long journey ahead of us tonight: hours together in the car, then the whole weekend to come. And, of course, the journey back again! And I've never spoken a word to him. Really, I know nothing about him at all, save for a few things K+E have told me. Well, I know he plays drums, of course, and has a penchant for big felt hats! I think I'll just go to the loo, before (hopefully!) he turns up, to whisk me away from all this.
I'm not sure what "time" it is. I took my watch off in the car last night. It's late evening, though. I feel really, really tired. But in a good way. How to write of the events of the past day? It is so - much - that words seem a clumsy attempt at capturing Everything. Let me start, then, where I left off, sat on the station platform ...
Of course, Jon did arrive, and ten minutes early, in an old yellow mini: old but spotlessly clean and obviously well-loved. Jon is - there I go again, it is so difficult to know where to start writing about him. What he's like. What I think of him. Maybe what he thinks of me.
As I write now, he is sat across the room from me, cross-legged on the floor. For once, he isn't wearing that big floppy felt hat of his - though he had it on all the way in the car, and just about all today. It's a part of him, I guess. He reset the (wood) fire a little while ago, but now he is just staring into the flames.
The light of the fire dances round thus little room, shadows playing across the whitewashed walls. No words between us since I took up my diary. When I mentioned it last night, Jon seemed quite intrigued and asked me in some detail about how long I'd kept one (well over 20 years now!), why I kept it, what I write, what I do with all those memories ... That's how he asked it: "And what do you do with all those memories?"
Memory, it seems, is very different for them, and the idea of writing things down in order not to forget your best (or worst) moments seems to Jon - well, odd. "Artificial", I think. But, he seemed to understand what I meant (and have felt for years) about how recording your memories sets certain moments, feelings etc "in stone" (well, on paper!) but at the expense of those you haven't recorded - ie the recorded ones are reinforced a) by the act of writing them down and b) each time they are re-read.
Anyway, I still haven't really said anything about Jon or the journey!
The journey! The beginning (if journeys really have beginnings) of my journey with Jon I do recall quite well. I stowed my things on the back seat. Not until later did it strike me how little he had brought with him (their idea of "essentials" must indeed be very different from mine!)
It was already beginning to get dark as we left the little station. I was surprised in a way how easy the conversation went, considering we'd never really met before. I can't remember the full development of our conversation through that long journey, but the fact that I use the word "development" is itself, perhaps, significant.
For, by degrees, and imperceptibly (to me, at the time) as we journeyed along that road, and down the hours that brought us here, also our words took us on a parallel journey. From the (human!) pleasantries of the weather, of our respective days' adventures up to the point at which we met ... our talk shifted, deepened. We passed long periods without talking, though when one of us did speak again it seemed we had each travelled the same path in our minds silences, so that the themes were taken up again at once and developed further in spoken words. That has continued today: I wonder if it is Jon, or me - or just this place. Perhaps a little of all three.
I think I may even have dozed a little in the car. At any rate, I remember suddenly noticing that we were on a narrow, winding road. It was pitch-black; only the sweep of the head lamps outside the car and the dashboard lights inside. I looked across at Jon. In the pale glow from the dash he looked different. Or maybe it was just the first time I'd really looked at his face. Beneath what I had at first taken to be the "boyish good looks" of someone in their early twenties I sensed something deeper, older. A maturity that made my almost-forty-something years pale into boyhood. A bizarre shift in perception. A paradigm shift - isn't that what it's called?
Even that battered felt hat of his, that patchwork topper that first drew my attention to him in a clearing long ago (why did I write "long ago" - it was only a matter of months past. But here, all that part of my life - that part of life - seems so long ago, and so far away. From this little Cottage in the woods. In a deeply cloven vale ...) Yes, even Jon's hat seemed to lend him now an air of grandeur. Of Otherness.
"Other" than what? Not other than here ... but we had not arrived then. Whatever that means. When did we arrive, I wonder? When passed into this Perilous Realm? Otherthan me, then? Perhaps. Of course, in a most fundamental sense, Jon - like Kai and Ellen - is Otherthan me. But tonight, sat here together, I feel we are not so very much Otherthan each other.
I feel wonderfully at home here, as though the Valley has absorbed me. Accepted me perhaps. Before we settled down for the night I stood outside the cottage. The lamplight spilling from window and door upon the sloping greensward. The narrow path with the trees behind. Beyond the pools of lamplight it was very dark, yet somehow there was light enough to see. The texture of the grass, like lines etched on smoke-blacked silver. The marbled grey of the trees' bark.
I looked up, and above the trees I suddenly saw - Stars! More stars alight in the velvet sky than I ever imagined existed. The valley must shut off all other, extraneous light, so it's like looking up when the world was young. Of all I have seen here (so far!) that star-scape is what I will remember most. At least, I hope so.
And, though I might have said offhand that all was silent - for who else is there here to make a sound? - as I stood there I realised I could hear all manner of sounds. The texture of the Valley's silence, you might say. The rush of the stream far below. The lightest of breezes moving trees in the dark woods. After a few minutes stood there, a sudden high-pitched call - an owl, maybe, though I am no ornithologist. Jon told me there are bats, though mostly found higher upstream. Maybe that's what I heard.
When it seemed the car ride might never end we turned a corner and in the head lamps I saw a white-painted 5 bar gate barring the road. Jon stopped the car, pausing just long enough for me to volunteer to open it. Outside, the night air was chill and I shuddered as I made my way to open the gate. The brightness of the head lamps cast everything else into impenetrable shadows, but as Jon drove slowly past me I became aware that the road lay at the foot of a broad bank that climbed steeply to the right. To the left were trees but I had no idea if it was a single line along the side of the road, a small stand or a mighty forest. Jon pulled the car off the road.
It seemed superfluous to ask "are we here", so wordlessly I changed into my boots, shouldered my rucksack and followed Jon through a gap in the low stone wall beside the road. As I had thought, the ground rose up almost at once, and soon I was gasping as I followed Jon and the small light of his lamp upon the ground. Maybe we weren't there after all!
Half a second before I asked the question Jon stopped and turned to me. "There is a fair walk yet, but - " and even in the dark I could hear his smile "- it is a fair walk. For friends beneath the stars."
And, tired though I was, I laughed. And all at once I felt refreshed. Here I was (wherever "here" might be!) alive in the dark on an adventure with my strange, wonderful new young-old friend. And I saw the stars in the sky as it was for the first time in my life. And we laughed together and turned back to the Path, and the long slope before us.
I don't know how long or how far we walked, but at last the ground levelled out and there were low trees - maybe large shrubs and bushes - on either hand. Some had viscous thorns but Jon seemed to know the way and there were few accidents (all mine!)
My eyes soon became accustomed to the dark. Or rather to the light of the stars, which seemed to delineate everything in exquisite etched detail. We passed beneath a tall hedge and my eyes failed again in the scented gloom. Then down again the path went, steeper and more rocky than before, the smell of pine now strong all around. And at last we emerged again under the stars. We were on a broad grassy plateau high up the side of a deep ravine. I could make out areas of trees, and of open grassy plains, fields maybe, but nothing more except the thin glittering thread of a steam or river.
Now it really was superfluous, and I did not ask, but rather declared, exclaimed, "We are here!"
Jon laughed out loud. Not in fun of me but I think out of the same excitement and happiness I was feeling.
"Almost," he said. "The cottage is just through those trees."
Really, it isn't so much a "cottage" as a two room hut, but the word "Cottage" seems more homely - and Homely this little house certainly is. While I fumbled around in the shadows, it took Jon no time at all to find and light the big house (oil) lamps. He showed me where the linen was and quietly, simply, we each dressed our respective beds. It may seem a strange thing to mention but here even an everyday chore like making the beds, or lighting the lamps or washing the plain wood and earthenware bowls and plates is - special. It's difficult to describe. Like a meditation, maybe. Anyway, we ate a little then went to bed.
When I woke up this morning it took a good few minutes to work out where I was. Sunlight was streaming in through the open shutters. Jon was nowhere to be seen - he said later he'd been up for a couple of hours by the time I got out of bed! I got up and crossed the little room to the front door. I hope I never forget that feeling as I stepped out into the new day. I say that deliberately. The morning was new, as though everything in the world around me was still young. Grass, trees, the cliff-like walls of the valley in face of me. And the air! I've got used to it now (hah! "Got used to it, indeed!") This is what air is meant to be. Crisp and clear and pure. Pine-scented, but also fragrant with herb and wildflowers. All is dark again now tonight - if this star-shine and moon sheen can be called darkness - but in the morning sun all the valley's splendour sang to me as I stood by the cottage door.
I don't know how long I stood, drinking it all in, but Jon found me there when he returned. He laughed at me again - at my open-mouthed stare in the face of so much beauty - but kindly and I knew he felt something of the same joy in his own heart. I remember thinking I never knew such loveliness could exist in the world. As Jon came to stand beside me, his shadow lengthening beside mine across the greensward, he again seemed perfectly in tune with my thoughts.
"Yes. The Valley exists yet, Martin," he said. "But there may come a time when the paths to such places as this are lost."
"Where have you been?" I asked him, but "Walking" was all he'd say (of course, I know now!)
I still haven't given a proper idea of what the "cottage" is like, have I? It will have to wait.
It is morning again in the valley. I have brought my diary outside and I'm sat on the grass close to where the edge of this little plateau falls away to the river below. If I turn round I can see the cottage nestled up against the trees. This grassy field is like a front lawn, edged with trees in place of a hedge or fence. There seem a great number of different types of trees and bushes. I'm not very good with names but there are certainly two or three types of oak, also swathes of beech further along where Jon walked today. I should have brought my tree book, though I have a feeling a good many of the species here would not be in!
Here, though, everything seems "native". What do I mean? Not sure, it's just that everything I have seen: trees, plants, rocks, the cottage - even the crockery and furniture - seems to fit. To Belong. Nothing seems extraneous or imported or out of place. Jon too (especially Jon, perhaps). And me? Well, perhaps I should ask Jon, but to me I can only say that I do feel "at home" here. But also, it is like being on holiday. Of course, I am on holiday (!) but it is more than that. I think no matter how long you stayed here it would never pale, never become mundane.
So, it is Sunday and this time tomorrow ... but although I know I will have left the valley and returned to my home and my "real" life in the "real" world I can hardly imagine leaving.
So, what did I do yesterday? I haven't said yet, have I? I woke yesterday and discovered the wonder of the valley. I wrote that much, but little more. The Cottage. Okay. A description. From here the stone walls of the little house glow a palest pink-gold in the morning sunlight. Two small windows. A roof of grey ?slate tiles. I cannot see the front door from where I am sat, it is round to the right.
Inside, there are only two rooms. The main room serves as bedroom and lounge / diner. There are two beds with carved, wooden frames. A huge wooden chest, where we found all the bed linen and other comforts. The second room serves as washroom, kitchen and scullery (yes, there is also a toilet - outside / behind the house). Wood for the fire / oven. All you could want, really.
After breakfast Jon said there was work to do. The little spring that emerged beside the cottage had dried up. Together we climbed a steep trail that led from behind the cottage up through the trees. Not the path we had arrived on - this was much steeper and soon we were clambering and climbing over broken stone - rocks of all sizes as the ground met the wall of the valley, which seemed almost sheer at that point. Looking up, Jon pointed out where a narrow cascade of water ran down the face of the cliff.
That was the source of the stream, but where it collected in a rough pool at the foot of the valley wall, the outflow was blocked with wood and earth so that instead of continuing its way down to feed the stream beside the cottage the water spilt over the edge of the pool in a number of places and simply seeped away into the ground. It only took the two of us a few minutes to clear the channel ad watch as the stream sprang back to life. It was so simple, yet so incredibly satisfying a thing.
As we walked back down to the cottage, Jon said the huts - and there are a dozen or so of them, hidden away throughout this section of the valley, were always sited near flowing water, because it was through the water that the power and energy of the valley (he used the word "magic, I think) flowed and was set to work. The energy was good for the cottages and those - mostly visitors or those suffering from some sort of illness or malady - who stayed in them. But also, the huts meant that there were folk around to keep an eye on the streams.
So, as we traced the path of the stream back to the cottage, Jon was on the lookout for ... well, I'm not exactly sure but a couple of times he had us stop and clear debris from the stream bed, or move a stone here or there, subtly channelling the chattering water where he wanted it to go (I think he would say, where it wanted to go!)
When we came back within sight of the house - I could just see the roof below us through a gap in the trees - Jon seemed satisfied and led us off to the left, along another track. We were moving more or less parallel to the walls of the valley, along the edge of the little wood. Well, not so little as it turned out. Although is wasn't very wide, we must have walked a good couple of miles before it began to peter out.
As we were walking, Jon and I had been talking, still in that weird conversation-quiet thinking-conversation again mode (not sure why I wrote "weird" - it actually feels really natural when you get used to how "weird" it is!)
More stuff about the valley, and the water-magic (my words this time!) that has preserved the valley for so very, very long. Not like he explained it in scientific terms or anything (isn't that the whole point with magic?) but, sat here ("X" marks the spot on the sketch map!) on the verdant, jewel-green grass, perched above a silver stream ... I can just feel it! The magic.
I should say that it never occurred to me to ask "Where are we going?" Just content (yes, content!) to let the day - like the little track we followed - unwind as it would.
[When "Home11" was published someone said my oh-so-cool response to K&E was unrealistic. But of course, it was just me, my way (perhaps) in the face of the (ultimately) real ...]
Where was I? Ah yes - we reached the end of the strip of woodland on this side of the stream. I hadn't really been paying attention to the way ahead, wandering in my mind some way along the track of the last conversation we'd had - or, rather, the Tale Jon was telling me.
The Tale of a Lady who walked this valley long ago. Who tended the streams as Jon showed me; who heard the song of the Waters of the Stream, and of the Falls and of the Long Water.
It was - is - a Tale without plot, or literary device or form. Without beginning, perhaps, for though the Lady was not before she came and dwells here no more, the Song the Waters Sing is one as old as ... Old enough, anyway. Jon did not say it was a "true" story, nor did I ask. For what it's worth - yes, I do believe it is a True Story. That the Lady walked this Land as Jon and I have walked it. I do not hear the Song of the Waters, like she did. I think Jon does, though, at least at some level.
It is more than ecology - of wanting to keep the place tidy. Deep Ecology - I've read that term before, what does it mean? I like the sound of it. Deep. But it still sounds wrong. Artificial, like something imposed on the land.
Here, it feels more like just BEing. In tune - yes, attuning yourself with the flow of energy (magic!)
Enough! I'm never going to get yesterday's diary done at this rate! At the end of the wood we emerged suddenly from the shadows cast by the tall trees. Jon stopped and fell silent. I looked up and - gasped out loud!
I had thought the morning view from the cottage door was wonderful - and it is - but from that vantage point I seemed to catch a view of the whole valley, telescoped as it might be, in a single image.
The high, sheer-yet-wooded valley walls. The cataract that fell boiling some hundred feet or more. An arc of rainbow hues caught in the sunlight as it fell and played upon the clouds of spray and mist.
Brilliant blue sky, like a canopy stretched over the valley's gape. Green grass, rose-red stone. Bush and tree and little flowers. And before us - above us, perched on a higher plateau, I could see the House.
And as I looked about me, trying to take it all in - I heard Jon saying (or did I just imagine his words?) "don't try to see" and I relaxed into what was in front of me. All about me.
And something changed. Shifted. Not only could I sense the whole of the Valley's wonder in that one vista, also I felt all of its history in that one moment. All the years - centuries - Ages it has lain here. Hidden. Protected. Husbanded by Jon and Kai and Ellen. And if not them, then by others of their - ilk (wonderful word, ilk!) The flow of water. Of magic tended and nourished, as it nourishes those who come here.
Jon told me on our way here that there would be others here in the valley during our visit. But I suddenly realised that he hadn't only meant other visitors like ourselves. Yes, there would be some like us; here on a brief pilgrimage or sojourn to tend the valley and replenish their own energies. Their own magics.
But also there were some folk for whom this valley is Home. A refuge and a haven and a consolation. There wouldn't be many such souls, though. Not any more. Although I could see no one, I could feel their energies at play all around me like a subtle thread of colour in a woven shawl or a harmony played on liquid air.
I don't know how long we stood there, but not all of this occurred to me at the time. Until I just tried to record it, in fact. I just felt deeply at peace. Part of me wanted to ask about the House up above me. About who lived there. Only I knew names wouldn't mean anything to me, even if Jon told me. Anyway, I knew (know) who lives there. And why. I remember wondering if I would meet them.
Jon led me back towards the cottage, but by a different track again; one which led into the heart of the belt of trees. As we went, Jon taught me about the trees and plants about us. There were creatures in the woods, too - I could hear rummaging amidst the leaves and undergrowth - but I saw nothing except a deer which stood its ground on the path until we were within twenty feet of so - then turned and walked easily into the trees.
Jon surprised me then by announcing that there was a small "settlement" in these woods ahead of us, only half a mile or so from "our" cottage. He visited them in the morning (before I was even out of bed!) and said we could visit on our way back, for something to eat.
I realised I was hungry - but the revelation that we were going to meet some other people startled me. As we walked I tried to analyse my feelings. Ridiculously, especially given the fact I'd only been here a few hours myself, I felt jealous of this ("my!") part of the Valley. Knowing there were others here - somewhere - was one thing: the prospect of meeting other people, right here, on our doorstep, as it were, quite another.
But also, I realised, it wasn't just that. Who were these people? I ventured to ask Jon if they were just visiting - "like us?" - (wondering, obviously, what definition of the word "us" might encompass both Jon and myself!)
He said there were four people at this "settlement" (he used a word I didn't understand, but that's more or less what it is). Two were residents, though they moved dwellings throughout the valley according to the season, and the nature of their work (what work? Jon didn't say). The other two were visiting - "Like us!" Jon said, with no trace of irony.
This settled me a little but there was no time for further questions or deliberations because we came all at once to a small clearing. Three turf huts opened on a central area, in the middle of which the embers of a wood fire gave off tendrils of blue grey smoke. The drapes of the houses were thrown back for airing. Clothes hung on wooden racks in the sunlight.
Across from us a woman sat at a loom, skeins of brightly dyed yarn piled on a low table beside her. The clack-clack of shuttle against frame as she operated the contraption was the only sound. Then a figure appeared at the doorway of one of the huts.
"Jon!" he called out in greeting. "Mae govannen!"
"Greetings again!" Jon replied, an intonation in his voice that I had not heard before. The woman turned, rose from her work at the loom, and the two came over to meet Jon in the middle of the clearing.
To be continued ...