It becomes almost platitudinous to talk about the restorative power of nature, and perhaps even dangerous. After all, complacent trust in that power gives us licence to do what we like without thought of the consequences: it will all come right in the end, no matter what we get up to. Also, to speak of nature’s bounty seems positively trite when one considers its awesome power to destroy. We need only consider the horrendous flooding recently seen in Germany, Belgium and other West European countries. People have seen their homes and livelihoods swept away; others have lost their lives. Many of the survivors may never fully recover from the trauma.
Yet nature’s power to regenerate is endlessly remarkable. Where the slate in cleared, Nature’s Arts commence their fine work. Out of destruction comes something new to astonish us, something still more beautiful perhaps than what was before. Three years ago a frightful storm hit Carmarthenshire. One person lost his life, a young man buried in a landslide after alighting from a bus. On that day, a landslip occurred behind my own home, blocking the strong watercourse directly behind the house. It was a terrifying experience, but we were lucky. The waters (up to one’s thighs) hit the house from the ‘blind’ side – ie, where there are no doors or windows – and so, in the end, circumvented us with only minimum incursion, though the powerful, rushing currents enisled the house for many hours. An entire patch of woodland had been gouged from the land; one small oak tree, wreathed in the summer in honeysuckle, was one of several trees to be washed away. This tree had a special significance for me, partly for its mysterious, intoxicating scents on summer nights, but also because I had used it in my first novel, ‘On the Edge of Wild Water’, in which the tree is a subtle but potent presence. The little, honeysuckled oak tree remains for me a totemic memory.
Then, two springs later in 2020, just as we were plunged into lockdown, where the land had lain uglily bare for eighteen months, began to amass a formidable army of foxgloves. And then, at the height of summer, there it was: this extraordinary company of strident foxgloves, come as though bearing messages of great import. I had cause to reflect on these experiences last weekend when I attended a poetry event in Chepstow. I read two poems which arose directly from the experience of Storm Callum and its aftermath. Both poems can be read below.
On this day
a world of water falls.
It will claim us – when?
Now? Tomorrow? A decade hence?
Never. We are tossed seals rising.
There is no choice but to wade,
to float, to struggle against a force
which must always exceed us.
We drag sandbags, gather in our cats,
raise anxious eyes to monitor the heavens’
lowering encroachment. If the rain retracts
its whorling spout within the hour, we are safe.
But judgement is not ours to make, nor prediction.
On vast empyrean gates, hitherto restrained,
the weightiest latch is slipped. A deluge
such as we have not seen is unleashed. Vision
is submerged. The river is a seething wall of locusts.
Unseated tectonic boulders heave. Before our eyes,
the raked land beyond the course is unhitched
in a single huge drape; seems to hang
for one appalling moment, uncertain: then
folds inward, like the tower of Siloam. Everything
drops: trees, shrubs, ferns, rocks, earth. A two-boled
sycamore sprouts legs, runs down to ally itself
with the mountainous water. A veil is torn asunder:
underflesh of raw, glistening clay is exposed, flayed
rock. Water fills its hewn cleft in seconds. There is no land,
no more illusion. The house is an island. In an onrush
of fear we stagger to regain it, cling to unyielding
stone. Are we drowning men? We wait. We must not listen –
it is too great an agony. The night passes: we are spared
In bright morning sun there is unsettling
calm. Trees lean deracinated in the fallen dam. Rubble of
strewn stones, dead branches; still the hungry, open-lipped water.
My eyes cannot leave the red membrane of clay; when I sleep
it is there still, a mezzotint of bloody cerebral tissue. I will
see this, even when it has become green once more: knowledge
of elemental power that begat us, and will snatch us back
in its time-
Ambassadors at dusk,
lances tiered with magenta bells;
the lady Aphrodite favours them:
her amatory heat enthrals the lungs.
Venturous bees will desiccate their hearts,
drain juices from their laddered somas. Speak:
what prognostications do you impart
on the after-breath of a smoking sun?
Not even the long supple tongues
of honeysuckle can unsilence you.
Black, not violet, you bleed:
sign of the daemon’s scourge.
Here where winter’s storms purged
the land’s soft flesh, over the mouths
of springs you claim supremacy. Digitalis:
swallow the earth’s sorrows in your thimble,
byzantium haze breathes burning eidola.
Seductive watchmen, whisper: how
have you come to infiltrate this barren
threshold in voluptuary ranks?
Who summons you here to stand in phalanx,
beautiful cloaked soldiers, swinging silent
claxons at the waters’ gate? Endow me
the thrill of your intoxicant presence,
spill from the broiling banks –
countenance no erasure or constraint.
Vision blooms from hot purpure mist:
we rise unblinded, seize our renascence.