9 April 2019

Pen-y-Fan, The Brecon Beacons

Social Climbing....

The paths up to and down from Pen-y-Fan, at 886 metres the highest point of the Brecon Beacons, are busy. Snippets of conversation whip past with the cold wind.  Two young women pass me in opposition, chattering.... She didn't used to be a cow..... says one.

I thought I would start early and beat the crowds, but breakfast at The Tanners Arms, Defynnog, couldn't be hurried, and it is nine when I reach The Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre on the A470, and the car park is already overflowing along the verges.  Spry individuals, dog walkers, hardy runners and groups of tough souls are gearing up and setting out.  

It's a fair day at 400 metres above sea level, but the heights are cloud covered and snowy.  I walk down to Pont ar Daf and then take the track across the stream and aim for the skies....

Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I walk with Joni Mitchell.  Somehow we have teamed up. I hold her 75-year-old hand and help her rise.  In 2015 she suffered a brain aneurysm, and she needs support. As we labour up her words spin through my foggy mind, her voice, now husky but still clear,  just audible.  Also with me on the track are three young deaf people, two girls and a boy, whose enjoyments of being out and about dance before us, putting selfie-obsession in context.  

At the cairn at Bwlch Duwynt the easterly wind whips over the ridge, and I become acutely aware of my carelessness in having left my gloves in the car....  Too late now!  The temperature must be around freezing, though the wind chill factor brings that down several degrees..... 

And in my anxiety Joni has slipped away....

The path is snow and slush and it is a choice between wading through icy water or risking the slippery edge above the steep slope.  Clouds shroud the tops and chill air numbs my fingers, and hurts my lungs....

The summit drifts blearily into sight, the socialising crowds appearing and disappearing in the mist. Jon Snow's talk of so many white people in one place takes on (yet) another meaning.... until I look a little closer.

There are all sorts here, and it is highly social; people of all ages, and from varied backgrounds and countries, unite in a sense of achievement, an enjoyment of being on top of the world, despite (or perhaps because of?) the lack of views.  

I am amazed at how many people have lifted themselves to this cold summit at this hour, and at the endless chains that are working their ways up (and at those who started earlier and are already on their way home, some even running....) I am struck by the sense of community that transcends any small-minded preoccupations that may have been left at home..... People talk to each other, help each other with their photos, discuss paths and exchange experiences.

She didn't used to be a cow, takes on a new value. I realise the women were not criticising their friend, but lamenting the fact she had changed, still loving her.....

In these depressing times of division and stalemate, flecked with aggression and bigotry, it's good to mingle with people who have a shared goal. There is a spirit of common humanity here which raises my hopes. Perhaps, if the worst comes to the worst, this is how it could be? A group of survivors looking after each other in cold blind vapours on an isolated peak. 

Might these clouds really have a silver lining?

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all....

On the way down, my knees taking the strain, the weather appears to lift.  Greetings are exchanged.  Someone gives me a jelly baby, others simply smile.  I wonder at the optimism of some, those in shorts, others in light plimsolls.  It's cold up there, I say.  The wind....  They smile.  They're young, and full of hope.....

And that's it.  There are those who are going up, and those who are going down.  Some well equipped, some not.  It really doesn't matter.....  We live within illusions.

Joni is waiting for me at the top of Y Gyrn where the view back up to Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan is superb. She smiles, then fades.  I hear her sing....

I've looked at life from both sides now 
From win and lose and still somehow 
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

I've looked at life from both sides now 
From up and down and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

From Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell

© 1967 Gandalf Publishing Co.

*     *     *     *

Joni Mitchell in conversation with Gene Shay, "Folklore Program" March 12, 1967

I was reading a book, and I haven't finished it yet, called Henderson the Rain King. And there's a line in it that I especially got hung up on that was about when he was flying to Africa and searching for something, he said that in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn't be afraid to die. And so I got this idea 'from both sides now.' There are a lot of sides to everything, and so the song is called "From Both Sides, Now."

Joni introduced the song this way at the White Swan in Leicester, England on September 16, 1967:

This is a song that talks about sides to things. In most cases there are both sides to things and in a lot of cases there are more than just both. His and a hers. His and theirs. But in this song there are only two sides to things… there’s reality and I guess what you might call fantasy. There’s enchantment and dis-enchantment, what we’re taught to believe things are and what they really are.

I realise I am not scared of death, though I don't really look forward to dying.  Pretty much everything else is in the clouds.  The attraction of the undiscovered country is obvious today on this leaderless plain, where the main religion is greed, but, despite that, there are still surprises to be had, and, as the lady says, there are two sides to most things..... Truth and illusion.....

*     *     *     *

Both Sides, Now was inspired by a passage from Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain KingI dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.

1 comment:

  1. Made me freeze just looking at the fabulous photos!