Bewildered

Human-Nature Blog 14 March 

Eleanor and I drive. Early evening on a Sunday. We talk. About partners, husbands, husbands to be; about Winchester Art School and university people from old lives; about honeymoons – Eleanor’s off to the Isle of Skye in July after her wedding. We talk about alcohol, grandparents, the beautiful half-timbered village we’re passing through in the fading light, twelve step programmes and that if I was going to Scotland like she is, I’d want to eat fish again. I miss eating fish. Eleanor is going to eat fish at Loch Fyne on Loch Fyne.

Birmingham is left behind in the wake of our chatter and the sky slowly gathers into an electric pink sunset. That is so beautiful we have to stop and look. And take photos. And without irony say ‘wow’ a lot.

At the farm we unload our bags, walking boots, cameras and books into the quiet, empty farmhouse. The kitchen is warm and the fridge stuffed with food. We shall make baked eggs.

There’s a note from Anthony saying he’s popped out. He pops his head in as we cook; welcomes us; hands us pizzas.

An hour later, Rachel calls me sounding spooked. “There’s a horse”. We stomp out in the dark under the big black bowl sky to find her. The horse’s eyes shine in the moonlight – he’s been rolling.

Another hour later, I hear a tap at the door and John’s little face peers in from the dark. His sat nav took him to Presteigne (which Rachel has pleasingly rechristened Prestige). He asked for directions at a pub that seemed in fact to be someone’s living room. Once at the farm he’d knocked on a front door and when there was no reply but TV on somewhere and lights visible – he went inside politely hello-ing and then beating a retreat when something in him decided it wasn’t us in the room with the tele on. That was Lady Nolan’s house. I’ve become fascinated by her – it seems unlikely that we’ll get to meet her though.

We carry in all of John’s considerable booze stash, a didgeridoo and other bits of musical kit and I am mocked heavily for my spreadsheet. He was looking forward to being earlier than his spreadsheet-ed, scheduled arrival time and thwarting my timetable – but the forays into various local living rooms means he’s bang on time. I am pleased - and then wish I didn’t like a schedule quite so much. This week may well be about watching myself struggle to take life slightly more on life’s terms.

We chat – and look at the new ordnance survey maps. We must go to Discoed and Tittington Hill.

In the morning, the sun is out – another stunning day promised. Anthony arrives as we are finishing breakfast to show us around and Amanda appears round the back of the farmhouse with Alfie (the lab-springer cross whose name I couldn’t remember). On my run that morning along the lanes with the roaring lorries near skinning me, I’d passed a red Welsh sleeping dragon and a man in Prestige had shouted ‘Go on gal – that’s it” – he seemed to mean it.

Anthony walks us through fields and we meet the animals – we’re a different grouping to the last time I did the tour. And different stories, different anecdotes emerge. Amanda tells us there’s a butterfly echo point in the middle of the grain barn (it’s the grain barn not the great barn I learn). I volunteer to collect the eggs but a fat white hen is still sitting on hers. Anthony says “just reach under her” but she pecks and her feet are grotesque, red, scaley things. I put on gloves. John grins and says ‘Hold on you’re a vet”. Anthony says I’m being a wuss so I swiftly whip out the three eggs as she squawks. I had wanted to be a vet until I was 17 but slowly realised I probably just liked the James Herriot books and so I stopped doing the weeks of work experience.

There are two blackbirds outside the kitchen window as I write attacking each other with their beaks. I shouldn’t have banged the window.

The male geese stretch out their necks pompous and stressful. John is going to write a song entitled ‘Vainglorious Goose’. I like their soft brown white colours. We meet the sheep – still massive - and Anthony tells us the tame one is called Best Boy. Rach says she’d have him in her bed.  One of the cows is about to calve and the Welsh Blacks look like minotaurs.

Walking round to the gallery, Anthony points at an unconverted barn “Those slates are loose”

“On the roof?”

“Just give it a wide berth”.

We tell Anthony about John’s visit to the ghostly Lady Nolan house who fascinatingly is Sidney’s third wife. I look at Sidney’s last self-portrait – round specs, silk tie, outlined by Ned Kelly. Apparently he died with £8 in his bank account. It’s colourful and messy. In the gallery, Amanda flicks on the uplighting – it throws a lovely glow up the walls towards the paintings with their drips and glossy sheens and Australian colours so bright in our green-brown British nature. He had no patience. He created, built, wanted the journey not some notion of a finished piece or perfect thing.

He couldn’t paint in English light – so set up a space indoors where he could make Australian sunlight – the sort of yellow, hot sunlight that reaches your innards, the centres of your bones and makes them glow.

Anthony said in the kitchen earlier that this place is about process, about exploring, about expressing ourselves and about being allowed all of that. Like Sidney had done. I wonder what we’ll come up with. When Anthony says the phrase ‘expressing yourselves’ somehow it doesn’t make me wince.

Anthony points at the metal braces holding the gallery roof together. “Barns used to fall down a lot – they’d just take bits and start again nearby” Buildings do fall down. Eleanor tells us about a documentary – apparently it’d only take nature five years to win over our feeble constructions – pushing through walls and roads and I think of Buckingham palace and the M6 but with trees and worms and maybe rabbits. It’s always there, creeping into cracks, crawling into holes and starting to work its changes. It won’t let anything stay the same, stay fixed, stay controlled.

Sidney had wanted to be a poet not a painter. He loved Rimbaud and spent a whole year at the farm upstairs writing angry poetry. I want to see it.

Anthony walks us towards the woods on the slopes that edge the estate and we look at snowdrops and lesser celandines. He likes spring more than blousy summer. He tells us that the holly trees poke high above the rest of the hedges to halt witches’ passage to the sleepy villages. Alfie picks up something – it’s bloody and I can hear its bones crunch in his teeth.

Anthony’s time runs differently to mine – I am restless. He is in sync with this place and I am counter to it.

We stand at Sidney’s favourite spot. The spot of his morning coffee looking out over the back of the farm meadows into the dark green dark brown hills of Wales.

Back at the gallery, Alfie revels in the attention of the group and I tell Amanda he might be ill from his woodland snack. She says “his life dream had been to catch a squirrel but it was never going to happen. Then he suddenly one day did. He was confused and I screamed and he dropped it. Half-dead. I didn’t do the honourable thing.”

Later having rearranged tables and found coffee and printers and set up computers in the beautiful sunlit gallery, we each present our research to the group. We dart around big psychological questions - why do we need nature? What does it give us? We reveal childhood places and describe spiritual experiences in the big wilds; we talk about modern life; about modern life is rubbish; about never switching off and the self-worth derived from busy-ness. We ask what would we do if we only had an hour left? Or a week? We think of beaches, woods, mountains, lakes. There is a German word for the particular type of loneliness you experience in a forest. I remember at 24, driving alone through Bulgarian forests -  a sign said ‘Turkey 3km’ and I knew no one knew where I was and that there were bears. We talk about rows we’ve had when someone’s loudly experiencing wonder – I have before now gotten furious about the stars – I mean I didn’t ask to be here – am I obliged to wonder at them? We scribble things on a big roll of wallpaper. We talk about attempts to capture nature – real, unreal, realistic, flawed. Do we capture instead of looking? Take photos and plaster them online. We talk Christianity, Buddhism, Jung, transcendentalism, Vipassana mediation, pantheism and Kung Fu Panda. Have we built ourselves prisons disconnected from nature? The nature we know has often been tidied up…. So says George Monbiot. John plays us Benjamin Britten – who was a mate of Nolan’s. I like Clare Balding. And there’s Von Humboldt, James Hillman, Ruskin.

We write a list of things we want to do this week – Rach starts us off with ‘ride a sheep’. Our minds explode tired-ly for the day.

I like the word bewildered more and more.

Caroline Horton  top of page

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Arts Council England