Caught by the River

Cefn Hill

Nina Lyon | 24th April 2015 on Cefn Hill: Philip Halling

By Nina Lyon.

The ground was changing underfoot. The first small nettles, a couple of centimetres across, sharp and cruciform at the edge of the mud. They were smaller yesterday, and would be larger tomorrow, and in a couple of weeks the track to the top of the hill would be impassable.

The wild garlic was out, though not yet in flower. There was celandine, yellow saxifrage, clover. Through the bare trees the overhanging rocks made caves hung with ferns. The waterfall was low but wet enough to catch the sun where the sun found space to fall. The spring, its source, dripped from a mossy curtain in the shadowed rock, filling a small pool strewn with branches and fencing wire.

Over the stile, the waterfall that emerges in the winter at the base of the old drover track was low, nearly dry. The field above was warm in the sun. It was a still day and the heat built and pooled, creating a haze at the crest of the hill that blurred the neat triangle of the top field. It was only Easter Monday.

There was a bleached branch of oak, a bleached skeleton of a lamb, and an otherwise empty field. I made my way to the edge of it, looking for the place where it was easy to cross the barbed-wire fence, and missed it entirely. It was not the first time that this had happened: it happened at Christmas too, when I ran off for an hour while staying up here, at my old home.

The old drover track runs along one side of the field, marked out with bent hawthorns and hollies. The bed of a brook, re-routed at some point since the old Victorian map in some long-forgotten iteration of Jean de Florette, edges into the undergrowth by the forest. Somewhere here there was the place where the brambles and bracken are low, a place I never even had to look for before when I ran here every other day. It was not a big field. I had lost my sense of place.

I tried to re-establish it, walking the edge of the track, knowing it to be an ineffectual strategy. I was only metres away from my crossing point in full sun and I could not find it. I walked along the fence from the forest back to the open field, and a furze of wool and cut wire marked out a story of a stuck sheep and a gap where it had been freed with bolt-cutters. Entangled with brambles in the undergrowth by the track, alike in form and function, was a roll of wire fencing.

I had never been lost here before Christmas. It had always been too close to home. The sense of this field, a field I could have drawn with map-accuracy myself, just as I could have drawn the field above it that pointed up Cefn Hill when you saw it from the road, had been lost. And that’s one of the strange things about the sense of a place: you build it over time and then you have it and it’s there, and when it’s there you never question it until it goes, or alters, and even then it takes a while to notice.

It is as though the sense of a place gets woven over time from all its various characteristics, a spider’s web whose thin filaments are insubstantial in isolation but, together, form a deceptively sturdy structure. Unruptured, it holds together, barely noticeable. When a part of it is torn, the whole tattered thing is suddenly revealed as being altered or somehow deficient. Losing your sense of place is a bit like falling down the rabbit-hole. When your geographical space is unmoored, the rest of the world seems to go a bit awry.

And sense was the rabbit-hole of philosophical logic too. When the first analytic philosophers of the twentieth century were setting out a new common-sense account of how language creates meaning, and where meaning can be located within written expression, and whether or not a statement can be said to be truthful, the attempt to fix and define sense was where things fell apart.

Sense was the conditioning expression of the meaning, and thus the truth, of a statement. Without it, in the endless inchoate wilderness of nonsense, anything could be true and nothing had meaning. And yet when you try to pin down what sense is, how it is composed of the interrelated parts of language and meaning, the exercise just seems to create paradoxes and proliferations of supporting statements and new bits of meaning. Sense, the elusive entity that we take for granted in our day-to-day common-sense use of language, can only be understood when its absence is made plain.

Like the sense that conditions written expression, the sense of a place is formed from relations between things. My sense of the torn fence has, over time, been connected but not limited to the height of the trees in the forest, which when I first came here were the size of Christmas trees and are now tall enough to block out most of the mountain. It is been connected to the sheep in the field, and how many of them there are and what sort and whether they are essentially docile and friendly or the bossy type who storm at you as though you are either threat or food source. It has been connected to the time of year and to the weather, to the length of the grass and the presence or absence of dew, frost, snow, bones, magic mushrooms.

It took me years of weekend trips and stints pretending to work while really doing very little, and years more of living full-time down the track and walking and running to make time pass and placate children and, often, myself, to know the place enough to have a full sense of it. It wasn’t just about familiarity, but about losing the relationship with those incremental changes that happen in time, so that if I’d been there every other day I’d have known that the sheep seemed to be in better condition and that the bracken by the side of the forest track was unaccountably high, and seemed to have taken over the brambles’ patch, and that some Muntjac deer had moved in and that the forest track was seeing more traffic than it once had, bike tracks and cartridges and a parking ticket and cigarette butt marking human trails.

The changes were few and subtle, but enough to disconnect the sense of knowing how the place was now, the sense of what might happen in it if you camped out for a week and watched, the sense that it was knowable at all. And now, two years after leaving it, my sense of place was falling away.

Nina Lyon will be among our guests at Port Eliot Festival in July.