Look, No Pictures

I’m walking up a gravel track in the upper Towy valley. To get there and keep to the epidemic restrictions, I cycled from home – 4 miles – then walked a further mile to reach the entrance to the narrow valley which leads up into the mountain. It’s early Sunday morning, sunny but cool and very quiet.

Today, in keeping with these strange times, I have a new discipline. Apart from my phone, I have no camera. Instead I have a new pair of binoculars – a considerable upgrade from my last pair – and they are opening me up to a different way of looking at things. It is a discipline centred on watching as opposed to catching the image. With a camera the experience of the moment is truncated, but extended to the future. It is watch, capture, edit and save. With just binoculars the visual experience is everything, with only the memory of it for the future. I can see more detail now and I watch more carefully now. It’s hard. I’m not by temperament a still person. I love the sheer busy-ness of photography. Watching and remembering is a much older discipline, older than writing, older even than painting. It goes with the difficult art of conveying images – and the emotions that go with them – in words. The words that follow are based on some written notes I took, though I cheated by writing them onto my phone!

It’s a landscape of muted colours, brown, silver, grey with an undertow of dull green. To my right, as I trudge the crisp gravel, is the steep slope of the mountain and a dense stand of birches. To my left the ground falls steeply away to the stream a few hundred metres below the track. The whole valley on both sides is clad with well spaced birches, recently thinned, the cut trunks neatly stacked and the brash in neat piles. The silver trunks and branches give the whole valley a pale cast though the trunks are dull green with lichen, the branches are chequered with patches of black lichen and the twigs, with buds still tight, are a dark purple. On the valley floor the dead grass is golden, and beneath the trees the bracken and grass are still brown.

There are a few other trees – some oaks, willows and near the head of the valley a group of pines. The oak trees show a haze of green, but this is not the new leaves, but a beautiful wispy pale sage lichen which covers all the outer branches. The willows have bright yellow catkins, and even brighter are the yellow flowers of the gorse bushes half way up the valley. Where there are no trees the rough grass is patched with grey clumps of heather.

It’s a steep climb and when I reach the top the wind is fierce and cool, and I am glad to find a sheltered spot for coffee from the flask and a snack. There are kites and buzzards in the middle distance, but all around me are meadow pipits, now glowing in their gold and brown spring colours. I watch one doing it’s characteristic song flight – up almost vertical and then parachute down to land on a fence post. I can see the markings clearly and wonder if it is a rare tree pipit, so, with the stylus on my phone I do a modern take on the old bird watching technique of drawing a rough bird outline and noting the features for reference when I return to the bird books*.

It is a wide landscape on top with mountains all round. There used to be Hen Harriers and Merlins up here, but I haven’t seen either for 20 years. It’s warm in the sun now and I’m glad I brought the small rucksack to stow my extra layers.

When I get back to the bike it feels like summer, and the ride home feels tough, but it’s been a good morning.

*It was a meadow pipit.

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