Wales Arts Review celebrates the publication of Pamela Petro’s long-awaited memoir, The Long Field, by sharing an extract from the book’s prologue, ‘Cynefin’.
In the beginning the sky had more to offer. That’s where the action was, in the chaotic skyscape of West Wales. Cumulous banks, dazzling as airborne glaciers. Sleek grey clouds prowling the horizon. Cirrus feathers dusting the dome of the sky. They were all up there together, all at once, bumping into each other, making the days go bright-dark, bright-dark, bright-dark, turning fields from chartreuse to muddied jade and back again, in an instant.
When I was a kid I didn’t believe clouds moved. I’d try to catch them in the act, but they never seemed to budge. Maybe I just never sat still. I believed that some days were ‘cloudy’ and some were sunny and that was that. The clouds would be fixed in place till the sun burned them away.
As a teenager I dismissed the sky – it couldn’t get me a date or into college, so there was no point in it – but then at twenty-three I went to Wales, and that’s when the clouds rushed into motion. I soon learned there was nothing in Wales I could dismiss or take for granted. Not the sky, not my nationality, not my language, not my sexuality, not my home, not my past, not my future. At the late age of twenty-three everything flew up for grabs. My hair even curled for the first time. At home in the States it was straightedge, but in Wales, the wettest part of Great Britain, where moisture saturates every molecule, my hair began taking the long way to my shoulders. Hair is hygroscopic – it’s capable of absorbing moisture from the air. But it absorbs moisture unevenly. The heavier, damper strands lengthen and the lighter, drier ones don’t. The result is a mass of S-curves and corrugated locks.
Cause and effect: Wales acted on my hair and it changed.
My psyche wasn’t so much hygroscopic as enviroscopic. Everything in my new environment – from the rough consonants and windy vowels of Welsh to the beer-soaked, fermenting scent of time passed and passing in pubs – acted on me and I changed, too. So did the place my soul called home, and the understanding of what home might be, or mean.
That first year I was giddily enchanted by every new thing I encountered in Wales, whether Welsh or not. Some things made sense: Mouli graters, tomato paste in a tube, Wellington boots, marching for nuclear disarmament. Some things, upon reflection, did not: baths in ice cold cast iron tubs (especially in preference to perfectly workable showers), a general disregard for central heating, televised darts matches, more than one wallpaper print in a single room.
Emblems of the Welsh countryside were what I most took to heart. Fat slugs, thumb-thick and licorice-black – that sounds like something Dylan Thomas would write –oozing across country lanes at night to die under car wheels at daybreak. Round-shouldered bottles of milk, delivered with slate chips on top to keep magpies from pecking the foil caps. Fine mists, cast like fishnets on the breeze. Lichen growing on foundations, rocks, trees, anything that would sit still, weaving patience into my busy, American perspective. Bilingual signs – the Welsh words still scribble to me – reminding me I was a foreigner in this place. The red dragon of Wales, brazenly flying out of a fabulist past on twentieth century flags, no matter what direction the wind was blowing.
Above all, I was intrigued by the new, viscous quality of my life, a sense that clings still to my memories of those Welsh days, which have neither the solidity of experience nor the fluidity of dreams. They’re somewhere in between, something like mercury. Here’s what I mean. When I think of the dolmen called Pentre Ifan, my favourite megalithic monument from the Stone Age, I’m not on a downslope in the Preseli Hills where it’s sat for five millennia. I’m in a field of curious cows, also massive – megaliths on legs, we called them – who’ve surrounded me to see what I’m doing. (Sketching the hills with pastels, sticky on damp paper.) Sweet cow breath, tender, trusting brown cow eyes, very close to me – a little too close, maybe. And now I’m between pages, immersed in Wales’ cycle of ancient wondertales, The Mabinogion, where animals are currency, victims, and magic.
It’s not just like this in memory; it was like this in life, this convergence of literature and lived experience – or maybe that’s just another description of youth, when we all star in our own wondertales. To be honest, though, I’m still mercurial in Wales. I’ve made 27 trips there over 36 years, and file time differently in the Welsh hills. In the rest of my life, years stack up on top of years. ‘Did we go to that national park in Brazil with the ancient rock paintings in 2004 or 2005?’ I call to my partner.
‘2004,’ comes the response. We both remember chronologically, and store that fact next to other things that happened that year. The death of my best friend; researching in Malta; renting a lighthouse in Quebec; flushing my good glasses down a toilet on a plane.
But in Wales I live lots of different lives side-by-side, by category. When I’m at Pentre Ifan, one visit hitches to the next in my memory and it seems like I don’t age in between. Different seasons, skies, haircuts, lovers – they press hard against each other in the Pentre Ifan file, seep together, merge. My own sedimentary layers. My bedrock.
Now I sit in a pub in Aberaeron alongside the harbour. The windows are open – I can hear the riggings clanking on sailboats. Gulls calling. Shades of blue swim on the walls. I’m reflected in hip copper bar lights, hanging from the ceiling like giant Christmas balls. I blink. The walls are panelled now, dark. Old fishermen sit at the bar. Sometimes they spit. Photographs of still older fishermen hang on the dark panelled walls. I blink again. Taste lobster, sip white wine. I swallow, taste beer and chips. Past and present blur; I’ve been coming here so long that few others, now, remember the Harbourmaster of old.
I’m viscous in Wales, and always will be. Shapeshifting in time and place, accruing slowly on hillsides, in homes, mines, pubs. Because I’ve lived less time in Wales than the States, I feel younger here, and my encounter with the world is still fresh, even if buttressed by a middle-aged American perspective.
Welsh time first began adding up when I enrolled at St David’s University College, the smallest university in Britain, in a master’s degree program that studied words and images from illuminated manuscripts to movies. The course was the only thing that brought me to Wales. My heritage is mainly Eastern and Central European, and I grew up in New Jersey, which is just about as far from Wales as you can get. I wasn’t looking for roots.
St David’s College and its host town of Lampeter were both so tiny I could stand in the centre of campus and hear sheep bleat. A sign in the window of the local beauty shop – ‘Are your sheep and goods properly tagged?’ – reflected local concerns. There was no suburb, call it, between the life of the mind and the facts of the earth. I learned post-structural theory and how to dip a sheep. I learned the iconography of medieval art and how to pull a pint, never to leave a farm gate open, never to pour loose tea leaves into rural plumbing. The days became like charged electrons jumping between atoms of learning, lived experience, and creative invention. It was a good time to be twenty-three, with a fast metabolism and far from home.
I look back on those early days in Lampeter and remember a tree permanently sprouting green leaves on one side and flames on the other. I remember waking to a banging on my cottage door in the middle of the night – a friend wanting to go to the sea. Driving there, luminous breakers silver in fickle starlight, racing too fast down the beach, falling, catching each other and kneeling together in the winter surf like two freed sacrifices.
These images crowd side-by-side in my memory, but only one emerged from life – the other belongs to Wales’ folk remembrance of its Celtic-inspired, magic tales of the early Middle Ages. Strangeness was never confined to the pages.
A hill behind campus called Llety Twppa, perfectly bald but for a dense ring of trees on its crown. A living, green mushroom cloud.
Immense, 10pm shadows in summer, groping across fields from windbreaks backlit by a ball of sunfire. The sensation of slipping quietly from one day into another without Time noticing.
Exhaling in winter on a moist country lane at the very moment the sky bled scarlet, startled to my bones to think that my breath had turned pink.
Decades after I’d received my degree, my dad had a stroke that left him with Charles Bonnet Syndrome. He lost the peripheral vision in his left eye, but his brain refused to accept it. Frustrated by the lack of sensory input, it began randomly snatching up image-memories and sticking them where visual data should’ve been. We’d be sitting in the sunroom in New Jersey and my dad would say, ‘Well, John just walked out of the wall again.’ John was his younger brother who had been dead the past ten years.
At first we thought he was hallucinating, but then we realised that John and lions and neighbours were always walking out of the lefthand wall, and Charles Bonnet Syndrome was eventually diagnosed. Despite being impaired by the stroke, my 86-year-old pop kept his sense of humour and made the most of his condition.
‘Go find a physicist,’ he’d instruct, ‘and ask him how come I can generate my own fifth dimension somewhere between time and space.’
Whenever he said that – and he said it pretty often – I was pitched back in memory to that first year in Wales, seduced over and over by my own dimensional wormholes. My brain, too, had seemed to be panning for memories that it superimposed atop the landscape. And they were memories, but they were memories of places that until then I’d only seen in my imagination. Now, for the first time, they were in front of my eyes. My ‘memories’ were the landscape.
There’s no other way to say it: Wales, a place I had never been before in my life, appeared deeply familiar to me when my parents dropped me off in Lampeter in 1983. The landscape made sense. I recognized it. We’d made a road trip around England and southern Scotland on our way to Wales and I hadn’t felt this way, so it came as a pretty big shock.
Gillian Clarke is the former National Poet of Wales. She once told me that I needed to learn the word cynefin. (Pronounce it Kin-EV-in. In Welsh a single ‘f’ is pronounced as a ‘v’ – it takes two f’s to make the noise in ‘fierce’ – and the emphasis is always on the penultimate syllable. Even speaking English the Welsh favor the second-to-last sound. I love the soft way they skid into ‘seven,’ pronouncing it SEV-un, dragging out the ‘ev’ and swallowing the ‘un.’ When they say that I hear the tide receding.)
Gillian wrote in an email, ‘Cynefin is the word used for the way a sheep passes on to her lamb, generation after generation, the knowledge of the mountain, the exact part of the mountain that is hers.’ I understood why that would be important to the lamb, but not to me. Then Gillian continued. ‘Or it can mean that sudden sense you have that you belong to this particular place though you may never have set foot in it before.’
Now I got it. Cynefin gave a name to that liminal space between the external world and the interior imagination.
The first time in Lampeter that I walked past the edge of town, where the double yellow ‘no parking’ lines ended and sheep pastures began, I found myself nodding, as if I were in agreement with the landscape. Its lucidity cut like a scalpel through mental images of all the other places I’d lived. New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington DC, Cape Cod, France. It sliced through their forests and highways and towns and cities and clutter, peeling them away, down to the mental bedrock beneath – a primary place of understanding where memory and concept conjoin. And that place looked like Wales.
Wales is not ‘treed’ the way the United States is. Like most of Britain, large-scale clearances of native woodlands had begun as early as the late Neolithic period. By the year 1000, only about 20 percent of Wales remained covered in forest, and just 150 years after that, the landscape had become almost entirely open farmland pocked by stands of woodlands, rather than the other way around. As a result, today there is very little opportunistic or random growth on view. Nearly every tree you see is the result of a human thought process; the landscape is crowded with decisions. For better or for worse, the Welsh hills are shorn and the horizon is as far away as eyesight and topography allow.
Nor does West Wales have many clusters of large buildings – surely no conurbations – so nothing escapes the holistic glance. You can see geography adding up before your eyes, like a great equation. How the earth was made, how each hill ribbons down to each glacial valley, how each valley ribbons up to the next hill. Here in this green clarity I saw something I’d never seen before. I didn’t just see land, I saw ‘scape’ – meaning ‘something … exhibiting or embodying a quality or state’. Distinct and discreet elements coming together to make a whole. The anchored equivalent of what I’d first noticed in the Welsh sky. In other words, the notion of a place as a totality, as the sum of its parts, its geology, its climate, its human decisions and history. I saw the abstract idea of home.
Every component played a role. Inside the treelessness, dark windbreaks marking a field’s edge. A blur of sheep herded by dogs, moving across a hillside. Shadowed headlands outlining the coast. Rivers sculpting, glinting, s-curving through valleys. Heavy clouds casting shadows on the earth. Distant, steeple- capped villages cupped in a valley. All these elements – some resulting from human decision-making, others revealing the trespass of glaciers – underlined and highlighted the landscape like markers in a geology text, and together they became symbols on the legend of my life. I felt I’d found the key to a map I’d carried in my head since I was a little girl but had never before been able to read. And until I could read that map, I’d had no sense of my or my species place on the planet.
As the writer and mountaineer Jim Perrin has said of the rough, high headlands and gentle bays of the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, ‘there is something here that is more than landscape, and comprises a part of my knowledge of how the world is.’ That’s how I felt – and still feel – about the West Walian landscape around Lampeter.
The 400-million-year-old Silurian mud and sandstones of West Wales were as familiar to me as my own memories, although I’d never seen them before. To find out, now, thirty-odd years later, that Welsh has a word for this kind of discovery – what the novelist Josephine Hart calls ‘the shock of recognition’ of finding your ‘internal landscape, a geography of the soul’ as a point on the map – feels both astonishing and very right. It’s not like déjà-vu, which stresses repetition more than recognition. Cynefin emphasizes place and belonging – a mental map fitting seamlessly atop a previously unencountered landscape. It casts importance equally on the exterior world and the interior imagination. That it was necessary for Welsh, one of the oldest languages in Europe, to create a word for this phenomenon, hints at something suggestive and singular about this place.
The landscape of Wales wasn’t quite an earthquake in my life – more an earthshock. That this bit of rough, green turf also clung to the periphery of Europe and the margins of history felt like a second shock of familiarity. An aftershock you half-expect, not of the first magnitude, but that sends you reeling nonetheless.
The off-centeredness of Wales plays out everywhere, even in its name. ‘Wales’ is actually an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘Place of the Others’ or ‘Place of the Romanized Foreigners.’ The Welsh call Wales something completely different. Cymru (pronounced KUM-ree – roll the ‘r’), which means ‘Home of Fellow Countrymen.’ It’s the difference between ‘Them’ and ‘Us.’ But only the Welsh know themselves as ‘Us.’ To the rest of the world, after Wales became the first colony of the English Empire in the thirteenth century, it was defined as a negative: this is the place where we are not. Wales was othered at its national conception. It became the home of ‘Them.’
Ever since then, the view from its minority rung on the geo-political hierarchy has been alternative. A strong socialist bent in politics, nonconformist in religion, egalitarian in social matters, green … well, green by default. Wales never had to become organic because its farmers could rarely afford First World chemicals. Its language marginalized Wales too. Unlike other Celtic strongholds in the British Isles – Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall – Wales has hung onto its language, about which shifting opinions have formed over the years. It’s preserved our identity; no, it’s held us back. There is general agreement only on one thing: it’s made Wales proudly particular.
Thirteen years after I first arrived in Lampeter, and three years after I’d started learning Welsh in earnest, I wrote a book called Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh, about using Welsh as an international language on a 15-country tour. In the chapter on Thailand I said that Welsh speakers, wherever they wind up, use language to assert their idiosyncrasy. For them, speaking Welsh is like pulling out an atlas, aggressively tapping a finger on the bulge next to England and saying, ‘See? Here.’ By contrast, I wrote, ‘To be American … is to be blank, without a nationality or a language. Is this because America is such a polyglot culture that it contains pieces of everywhere else, or because American culture … is so monolithic and transcending that it is everywhere else?’
I realised shortly after moving to Wales that I wanted to be particular, too. To join the unbroken cycle of life and death and recycled renewal that is the hallmark of an ancient landscape. Or, as Jacquetta Hawkes put it in her masterpiece, A Land, I wanted to count myself among the fortunate people, ‘who … have been able to keep the warp threads of the fabric long, their histories in one place.’ And because I don’t write poetry but view the world ‘slant,’ as Emily Dickinson said, Wales’ brand of particularity felt familiar.
So did its marginality. Maybe I’m uncomfortable with the global responsibility that comes with being American. Or maybe my formative years as one of the last of the Baby Boomers, growing up with the anti-establishment backdrop of Vietnam and Watergate, led me to be wary of the centre and tend naturally to the edge. And so did my suspicion that I might be gay. Or maybe bisexual. Who knew?
Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working class, mostly rural place that ironically, thanks to its coal, played a pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution, stuck to England’s western marches like a big green barnacle. I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a touch. It didn’t feel like home immediately. I did resonate with the landscape right from the start, but there were issues to work out.
Of immediate concern: why was it always raining? During my first month in Lampeter some version of rain fell everyday. Mists, spits, drizzles, steady, soaking rains, or – the phrase my English friend Rebecca best mastered in a Welsh accent – ‘terrrible, lashing rrrains.’ To say ‘it’s raining’ in Welsh you have to use the verb ‘to throw.’ Mae hi’n bwrw glaw – literally, ‘it’s throwing rain.’ There’s a good reason for that.
Despite the rain the air outside was usually soft, lacking the brittle edges of an American cold spell. Inside, though, I could never get warm. A damp chill crawled into my clothes and never left. And a scent I couldn’t place hung on the breeze – I later learned it was coal smoke, metamorphic and oily, smelling of night during the day. These things were new to me, and I didn’t initially embrace them.
The pub food in 1983 was still frozen. Wales’ locavore revolution was decades away. Frozen scampi, frozen peas, frozen lamb, frozen paneer masala. The potato chips, which I learned to call ‘crisps,’ came in flavours from prawn cocktail to hedgehog. These things were new to me too.
The day I arrived on campus I discovered that the university had misplaced my housing form, meaning I’d missed out on any available postgraduate accommodation. I might have arrived in my spiritual home, but I had no place to live in it.
‘The last room on campus,’ explained a kind woman who’d given me a mug of tea with milk, ‘is in an undergraduate, all- male hall of residence.’ She hesitated before adding, ‘Occupied entirely by the rugby team.’
Sure, I wept. I imagined my youth was over, that I would grow prematurely old and arthritic in this damp place where I’d only have books for company – books and the rugby team. I resolved to be stoic and studious and live the life of the mind.
I doubt it’ll spoil the story to say it didn’t work out that way. I found out pretty quickly I liked rain. The way it left my skin feeling intelligent and awake. And I liked scampi crisps and frozen Indian food. Lambs I liked alive. Anyone who knows anything about Wales will tell you pretty quickly it has more sheep than people, and they’re right. There are just over three million people sharing the land with 11 million sheep, so that’s about three and a half sheep per human. Unless you live in Cardiff – Wales’ hipster capital, site of the National Assembly – sheep become a presence in your life. My friend Annie encountered one in the College Library in Lampeter once, walking calmly through the stacks. The sheep had been in there for a while; no one else had noticed.
I liked sheep a lot. I liked the way lambs’ tails whirled like helicopter blades when they drank at their mothers’ teats. I admired their resolute acceptance of rain. In time I honed my sheep impressions to near-perfection, able to differentiate between lambs, ewes, and guttural old rams.
And I got along with the rugby team. Before matches they’d come to my room and I’d make some of them up with eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. It was their idea. They claimed their new glam look unnerved other teams, and that may have been true, because they had a winning record. I think they fancied themselves – and one another – in makeup.
I even got used to being cold, so much so that when I came home to New Jersey I epically fought with my dad over the thermostat. He’d turn it up, I’d yank it down. We compromised by my shutting off the radiator in my bedroom throughout the winter. I’d learned to drink whisky in Wales, and that helped keep me warm. Drinking, I found, also had a powerful appeal. Like rain, whisky woke my body, but from the inside out. This was new to me too, this feeling of setting myself on fire and casting shadows outward, through my pores, not caring where they fell. It was like being a lantern, shining in the dark-hole deepness of those rural Welsh nights.
Wales offered these crushes and accommodations – infatuations with difference, which were as powerful and real as the initial shock of familiarity. You could say it double- teamed me. It rolled out an indispensable landscape torn from my mind’s eye, yet in that place burrowed names I couldn’t pronounce, like ‘Llanwnda’ (Tlchan-OON-da), and ways, words, and habits that charmed me with strangeness.
(Before I say another word, let’s get this double-L thing straight. To love Wales is to embrace this sound, which I’ve heard that Welsh shares with Icelandic, Navajo, and Zulu. Put your tongue against the back of your two top front teeth and blow out the sides of your mouth, slurring the hissing noise that results into a regular English ‘L.’ That’s pretty much it. It’s a little like sneezing with your mouth closed.
You can’t escape the double-L, so best to practice. Every other place name in Wales, it seems, begins with Llan: 630 place names, to be exact. It originally referred to something like ‘sacred enclosure,’ and now most often mean ‘church.’ As I said, there’s no escape.)
About the time I’d accepted the cold I began dating Andy, a handsome archaeologist with a scar that began at his throat, disappeared into his shirt, and traveled all the way to his navel and beyond. He told me they were the by-product of two open-heart surgeries, about which he had little else to say except that he was a cancer survivor. He was only able to speak in a whisper, but believed without doubt he’d be Prime Minister by the time he was fifty.
I’d fallen in love once before, with a woman, Marguerite, whom I’d met on a study abroad program in Paris. We were from different universities in the States, and after graduation she’d gone to Texas for her own Master’s program. We had never broken up, but never promised to stay together, either. As far as I was concerned, she was a deep secret in my past – a once and possibly future lover, but certainly not part of the present. If I pushed on her memory it brought both pain and pleasure. I missed her quiet empathy terribly. She and I had fallen in love the way I’d always hoped to, through friendship unfraught with sexual tension or expectations. At first a connection flickered between us – we trolled museums together, puzzled over Cubism, rode the metro to the Porte de Clignancourt to see what was there – and then our connection became an unspoken bond. And then it became a tug, a muscular, gravitational pull. When we first kissed, it literally took my breath away.
Andy, by contrast, was a rough and thrilling mystery to me. He was simultaneously urgent and careless simultaneously, in sex as well as life itself. I relaxed into his expansive intelligence as I had Marguerite’s, but this time a part of me remained wary. He seemed like he belonged to another species; getting close to him might require both field notes and a big stick.
One night I was waiting for him on campus, studying a bilingual poster to pass the time. By this point the university required that all notices be posted in both languages. I saw that a word in Welsh had been reprinted in English in italics. I pointed it out when he arrived.
‘Why wasn’t this word translated?’ I asked, feeling that a stone had been left unturned.
‘That’s hiraeth,’ whispered Andy. ‘They say it can’t be translated.’
‘What does it mean?’
He looked at me as if I’d asked him to swim to Ireland.
‘How should I know? I’m English.’
I’d entirely forgotten about our nighttime exchange until I began writing this book. Every now and then life thoughtfully provides a moment, unrecognized as you live it, which later becomes the moment. Not a catalyst so much as the first link in a long chain of understanding. Unbeknownst to me, that first link was forged when I asked Andy about the word on the poster.
Hiraeth. Say it like this: HERE-eyeth, and make sure to roll the r.
It would be many years before I stumbled over the first inadequate translation in English – ‘homesickness’ – and many more before curiosity drove me to investigate its true meaning. By then, like the landscape of West Wales, the real sense of hiraeth was already deeply familiar to me. My original experience of cynefin had guaranteed that hiraeth would be my lot in life. I might have arrived in Wales and discovered the landscape of my soul, but I remained American, as I always will – just a visitor from the sea’s other shore.
Welsh writers sometimes describe hiraeth in English as a ‘consciousness of being out of one’s home place.’ That sounds simple, right? Not exactly. I began to sense during that first autumn in Wales that ‘home’ is more of a spectrum than a place – a sliding scale that I’ve travelled for more than three decades now. When I go in one direction, my heart skitters off in the other. Hiraeth, the emotion of separation, lives in between.
The Long Field by Pamela Petro is available via Little Toller Books.