Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Nina Lyon

Nina Lyon | 29th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Nina Lyon:

2018 was mostly a terrible year, but I found gratitude for living somewhere with space to hide, and, amid a bunch of failures in life and work, marvelled at my children. A decade into parenthood and they are proper people. They have mapped the islands in the river, can build passable tipis and are impressive shots with bow and arrow. We argue about politics and they are getting inappropriately excited at the prospect of the end times, which they envision as an anarchist utopia. They have a mental checklist of things to learn and do before the end times come: ride a pony, build a polytunnel, rewire washing machine drums to generate electricity in the waterfall. They have to stay on good terms with their friends across the mountain, I insisted, and form beneficent alliances. They nodded and talked about weapons.

I only discovered Ursula Le Guin two years ago when my son started Earthsea on a wise friend’s recommendation. This year, I read or re-read all her work. Aside from the poetry and brilliance of her storytelling, each of Le Guin’s novels is an exercise in political philosophy and how ideas and ideology play out on a human scale. She saw everything that came our way in 2018, but long before. The rise and fall of civilisation in the Earthsea books is really all about the rise and fall in trust: whether we can put trust out there, and trust that something good will come of it in time. Her heroes operate by leaps of faith for incremental gains, never certain, untransactional. Those gains themselves are fragile and can fall apart much faster than they grew. The struggle for better politics is first and foremost in the mind: if those worlds admit evil, it resides in the sad passions of unharnessed fear and anger. The real fight is emotional.

I stopped being angry about Brexit this year and just felt sad instead, but more about the fashion for ostentatious rage that first got us here. One of the things you learn from living in the sticks — and it takes time to de-tribe, and it’s only ten years down the line that I’m finally starting to get it — is that all sorts of people who my tribe would dismiss in righteous fury for their beliefs online are also incredibly generous, caring and decent. Members of the hunt and industrial farmers who also give time and money at the very edges of their means to keep schools afloat, or look out for vulnerable people, in a rural environment where there is no infrastructure and there are no services to a degree even those in struggling cities can’t imagine. Lifelong Tories who tutor deprived kids and bake them flapjacks. I can’t watch people descend into competitive denunciations any longer: it tears up what’s left of what we share and what makes our culture good, and there is still good in it.

Our land is a mess, though. When I run each day, I pass the Good Farm (organic, pretty, artisan orchard camping) and stop where barbed wire truncates the track that should take you off road into the nearest town. A stench coalesces there. It smells like death because it comes from piles of rotting dead stuff: discarded bits of animal left beside the Bad Farm’s biodigester and husks of maize grown in downhill stripes that maximise soil erosion. Word is that they only got it for the grant, and I have photos on my phone of where they tore up riverbank to dump its runoff down a trench into the river, an SSSI, in which my children sometimes play. I was bemused to learn from someone who grew up with them, and who I trust, that the Bad Farm lot aren’t evil, even if they do it to their land.

We need radical solutions to maintain what wilderness we have, and we need to find a way to do it without setting up fragmenting cults of righteousness. A friend who had inspected farms and felt exhausted from the task of being set against the farmers, a breed not known for conversational fluffiness or love of regulation, recently took on a job in which she plans environmental improvements with them. One day she’ll get to drive across the land and point to places where she collaborated on promoting life and beauty.

The notion of escaping to a rural idyll feels laughable in winter. Even in the parts Londoners don’t fake affection for, it is often ugly and bleak, sheep-razed raw knuckles of hills and emaciated strips of wood that do not seem to have life of their own. But then there are moments, even in familiar places, that blow the malaise away. Six weeks ago I awoke to find my feet encased in ice and my partner’s bivi crackling with frost on Cefn Hill, where the sky pulsed pink and scarlet just before the sun came up, and we were greeted by a sound we first mistook for techno but that was actually the beat of wild horse hooves on patrol. They fixed our gaze and stared us down until we froze, submissive. They definitely own the hill.

We slept outside a lot this year: how can we not, my partner said, when we’re in Wales and it’s not even raining. We slept beneath two authoritative ravens on a bed of rock that we barely reached for the trickery of the ground, where clumps of heather grew underpinned by yawning holes. Wild goats trotted over as though taunting us and disappeared beside the small black lake that looked as though it must contain some ghosts or monsters. The Llyn peninsula extended out to sea behind a gauze of rain. The rock seemed to flake off into rhomboid layers, and some longer shards were planted into narrow gaps as though to mark the spot. We added more. We slept on the only beach in Pembrokeshire with no road access and a bank of sand above the high tide line, and kayaked there past infinite descending rings of jellyfish. It was gloriously hot and swimming in the sea felt unrelaxing. Someone left a gallon of fresh water there for passing dogs; schooled in their civility, we stacked driftwood by the circle of scorched rocks that marked out space for fires.

The next morning we passed waves on every headland that hit the kayaks like a truck, and that were truck-sized too. Frazzled from the ride, we landed in a bay left bare of fish and life from jetskis, which zoomed around like giant aimless toddlers on trikes wrecking playgroup in a village hall. Children stood back from the sea in the way we teach them to stay off fast roads. Next time, I said, we’re bringing sugarcubes. We’ll break those fuckers. All thoughts of civility ceased. These things are sometimes complicated. In 2019, I hope that we will start to build some peace and mutual understanding, and will have solid alibis regarding terrorist incidents in Welsh marinas.