Stallion's Crag

Stallion's Crag front cover
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Stallion's Crag: Haiku and Haibun" Iron Press, Cullercoats, Northumberland. 2003. ISBN 0-906228-84.
 
Sixty haiku, of which seventeen are reproduced below, plus a total of twelve haibun of which six have been selected below.
 
However, one of these haibun, which gives its name to the collection as a whole, is 6,000 words long. It is one of the very few haibun of that length, inspired by David Cobb’s epic “Journey to the Saxon Shore”. The following press release gives some idea of the scope of “Stallion’s Crag”-
 
“But what do hermits do ?”, she asked, balancing a wine glass in one hand. The answer is in “Stallion’s Crag”, the confessions  of a part-time hermit by Cwmrheidol poet Ken Jones. Ken has written up his experiences of hanging out in the wilds of Plynlimon in 6,000 words of lively haiku-studded description – ghosts and ruins, stories and legends, and, of course, a lot of rain”
 
Here, then, is the full text.
 
 
 
Stallion’s Crag
 
The black tarmac strip comes to an end. The motor disappears back into the mountain silence. Down by the stream is a reception committee.
 
 
Three crows in a bare tree
proclaim the meaning of life
                            as usual
 
 
I give them a wave.
 
Ahead lies a broad valley. Great hills rise on every side, the grey bones of the mountain showing through their flanks. Here and there fans of scree spill down the slopes, and boulders litter the brown bogs. This is now a vast sheep walk, roadless, ruined and depopulated -- a tumbled world of mist and bog, of looming and elusive shapes. There was once a notice at the farmhouse of Eisteddfa announcing that "The Notorious Hill of Plinlimmon is on the Premises and will be shown to any Gentleman Travellers who wish to see it." All the literati who took up the offer seem to have had a bad time; Thomas Love Peacock, for example, wrote in 1855 about getting lost and soaked to the skin. And all this despite repeated warnings from the guidebook writers. One declared that "The Voluptuary will find little in this region to detain him." And Benjamin Malkin, in 1804, warned that "it affords little food for the picturesque enthusiasms of those who venture on the laborious perils of the ascent". He added that "it is the most dangerous mountain in Wales ... and should not be attempted without a guide, whose attendance is very precarious."
 
I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement.  Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. On Pumlumon it takes longer. Half a century in my case.
 
 
Back on the mountain
my grey beard
soaking up the mist
 
 
Here at the road's end there's a keen wind blowing. Cold and rain are kept out by closely woven cotton, over finely spun lambswool, over Welsh flannel, over Japanese silk, over mortal skin. Dyed field grey, head to foot, and lightly waxed. Buckled snug down to the hips is a well worn backpack, with five days of green tea, frankincense, midge repellent, and much else, but not a word to read.
 
 
Contentedness
of mist and bog
miles of trudging solitude
 
 
It is said that once upon a time a squirrel could leap from tree to tree the whole sixteen miles between Llanidloes and Machynlleth church towers. This thickly wooded wilderness was home to a glorious company of saints and outlaws, poets and patriots, shepherds and hymnographers. Here the forgotten dead mingle with the mythically alive.  Cairns were built on the summits to propitiate the demons of place, to avoid getting lost and, later on, to commemorate local weddings. Today in this bare landscape only place names bear witness, like Nant Gelligogau:
 
 
Cuckoo Grove Dell
a peaty cut
forgotten on a treeless moor
 
 
Finally, the central valley itself, Nant y Moch, below where I stand, was flooded in 1964 to drive electric turbines. During the great 1904 revival fervent congregations of fifty or more had raised the hwyl in the tiny Methodist chapel.
 
 
From broken farms
to the drowned chapel
busy footpaths dip beneath the waves
 
 
In 1960 the two ancient James brothers who remained were displaced from their whitewashed farmhouse next to the chapel. And the following year the dead were dug up too and reburied in terra firma. John James had looked after the sheep and cattle, and his brother the chickens and their excellent theological library. At the time they were moved one was over 80 and the other twelve years younger. Both had long passages of scripture by heart, and had turned many a fine englyn and cywydd in their time.  (1)  This was a breed of God-driven folk, hotly arguing about theological niceties as they worked at the peats high on the mynydd in the thin westerly rains. After the flood the brothers were offered a breeze-block bungalow built for them at the road's end. On the ruined barn corrugated iron clangs and rattles.
 
 
Bitter wind
warm tears
dry in an instant
 
 
The last gate in more than a dozen miles closes behind me. Across the valley I catch sight of a few tumbled stones, marked by three ash trees in an old rick yard overgrown with nettles. They left in 1952. I wish I knew their name.
 
Close by my track lies a few yards of drystone walling. It goes nowhere, but the workmanship is skilful. They say it was built long ago on the morning of a wedding by the groom and his best man. Shelters sheep in bad weather. This track goes on and on...
 
 
Crunch of boots
hands behind my back
                        trailing
                                mind
 
 
Winding down now to the ruins of Nant y Llyn, once the biggest farm hereabouts. In 1919, after the Great War, the old people sold up and left. Now trees taller than a man grow in parlour and kitchen, protected from the nibbling sheep.
 
 
Faint paths
tumbled walls
silence of mist
 
 
However, on a sun-bright day there is a liveliness here. The track crosses the infant Rheidol with a skip and jump and then swings left to a more serious ford through the Hengwm. The labyrinth of ruined stone pens shows that this was once a gathering place for livestock. Great rotting posts stand here and there, now left to themselves.
 
 
Tautness of rusty wire --
feeling the pull
of a dead man
 
 
Stallion's Crag
 
 
II
 
Of all the ghosts who haunt these hills by far the most illustrious is Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales -- statesman and shaman, soldier and mystic, and perennial national hero. The profane can now dine off commemorative six hundredth anniversary plates from the National Library. It was at Hyddgen, near here, that Glyndwr's half-starved liberation army won its first victory in the war of independence. In the summer of 1401 a punitive expedition of English and Flemings marched into the mountain. They were doubtless spurred on by a rumour put about by King Henry's agents that if Glyndwr were victorious the English would all be forced to learn Welsh ! Owain's band amounted to a mere "120 reckless men and robbers". (2)  Thomas Ellis, the eighteenth century antiquarian, adds a bit of wordy drama:
 
Finding themselves surrounded and hard put to it, [the Welsh] resolved to make their way through or perish in the attempt: so falling on furiously with courage whetted by despair, they put the enemy, after sharp dispute, to confusion; they pursued so eagerly their advantage, that they made them give ground, and in the end to fly outright, leaving two hundred of their men dead on the spot of engagement (3).
 
It was little more than an out-of-the-way skirmish, and yet there is something about the place.  R. S. Thomas wrote a poem about it. And Deffro (Awakening)  is the title of another, by  Iorwerth Jones, Aberhosan, which won him a chair at the 1977 Powys Eisteddfod. Early one morning, on Carn Hyddgen above the site of the battle, he had a compelling vision. "The poetry overwhelmed me. It was hours before I could get home and write it -- 160 lines."
 
Near the battle site is a well-watered fold in the hills -- Siambr Trawsfynedd, which some believe was Glyndwr's base. Years ago, hastening home in twilight through that wild place, I was surprised to see two figures ahead. One radiated a regal presence even at that distance. The other looked to be in clerical garb. Was it Glyndwr's faithful secretary, Rhisiart? Strolling, conferring, gesturing, they disappeared behind a crag. Some local shepherds refer to "the Prince" as if he were still a local resident. Perhaps he is. "Myn Duw, mi wn y daw" ("My God, I know he will come") sings the national pop star Dafydd Iwan:
 
 
Our hero still --
striding the moonlit ford
in antique leathers
 
 
Across the river from Nant y Llyn are two white quartz boulders, the Cerrig  Cyfamod Glyndwr  -- Stones of the Covenant. One legend has it that here Earl Edmund Mortimer  made a compact with the Prince, who had taken him hostage. Edmund is an interesting and tragic figure. He married Glyndwr's daughter and perished of starvation or disease in the terrible winter siege of Harlech castle in 1408. His wife died a prisoner in the Tower of London not long afterwards..
 
 
Stones of the Covenant
in bog and rushes
a gleaming silence
 
 
My own way lies onwards west up the main valley. A faint track, rutted and waterlogged, keeps close to the river, then loses itself in one of Pumlumon's most impressive bogs.  I pick my way over dark stones -- the Graves of the Warriors, though who they were and what they might have died for, who can tell? Ahead rises a  huddle of huge rocks, which together enclose several low-roofed chambers. This is Encil Craig Brwynen, my Hermitage of the Rushes.
 
 
Staining the roof
above my coffin bed
blood red lichens
 
 
Upholstered with rushes it is nonetheless a dry and cosy coffin, though wriggling in and out of it can be a bone-chafing business. From a smaller chamber I draw out an image of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, together with candles and incense. She has long since forgotten her early life in a Chinese grocery, and sits at ease on her ceramic lotus leaf.
 
Suddenly a glimpse of bright synthetics: a dozen outward bound youth in single file.  Of the few people I see even in this main valley, most are too busy going somewhere to be really here. The sun glints on the leader's plastic map case. Only the last and youngest lags behind and stares about him curiously.
 
 
Graves of the Warriors
click-clack of trekking poles
young men marching
 
 
Even here, so many different floating worlds, all caught in the goddess Indra's net of time and space (4).  George Parry, Esq. disputed a boundary running through my rushes ("Marked A to B") with the Pryses of Gogerddan. Their artistic estate map of 1788 contrasts with his disputatious scrawl (though with a memo to reward a faithful shepherd scribbled in a corner).
 
Half a century ago the youths would have marched past a trim homestead and through fields of rippling rye. This was Hengwm Annedd, home to several generations of Morgans. Today I thread my way through clumps of reeds across poor pasture.
 
 
Rattling in the wind
dry thistles
their drifting seed
 
 
From the kitchen door a plank bridge led straight across the river to their neighbours. It is told that one day an elderly Morgan was returning with a gift of uncommonly fine soda water, when he was taken with a seizure on the very middle of the bridge. As to the recording of his death, the poor fellow fell into an adminstrative limbo, from which neither Cardiganshire County on the one bank, nor Montgomeryshire on the other, was willing to redeem him.
 
The Morgans gave up their tenancy and left in 1935, and at the same time ownership of the land passed to a family called Micah. They never lived in the house, which fell into neglect. In the ruins is a large iron bedstead which has fallen through the vanished ceiling into the rubble of the parlour below --
 
 
Matrimonial bed
rusty and twisted
castors spinning still
 
 
Rummaging about I find under a pig mash boiler a lady's slender boot, mildewed, among shards of willow pattern. Gathered of an evening around the family bible, did the wearer ever ponder the prophet's thunderous warnings to transgressors?
 
Therefore I will make Samaria as an heap of the field...and I will pour down the stones thereof into the valley, and I will discover the foundations thereof (Micah, 1, 6).
 
 
III
 
Sobered, I hump my pack, find my stick, and plod off over boulders up into a side valley. Ahead rise the fine cliffs of Yr Eglwys -- The Steeple. In a blue sky waves of mist break and dissolve around rock pinnacles. The Afon Gwerin is in spate, foaming through its smooth rock channel. Flinging my pack across into a reed bed, I take a running jump.
 
 
Between two slippery rocks
mid                              air
            only this !
 
 
Like much else here The Steeple is not what it appears to be. Its backside stretches away into desolate moorland, distinguished only by a large sparkling lump of quartz close to a smaller one -- Fuwch-wen-a'r-llo, the Cow & Calf. Tucked away in a little nant is Y Fagwr, the drystone house. Even for Pumlumon this is a lonely and forlorn ruin: tumbled lichened stones among bog and rushes, with a few stonechats doing their best. A family called Humfreys lived here, probably until the end of the nineteenth century. Their departure may have been hastened by a strange occurrence. One day the woman of the house went to visit a distant farm. She never came back. Only her shopping basket was ever found, lying empty.
 
My way, however, lies west up the wild valley of the Gwerin. Its entrance is guarded by a crag, surmounted by the only pine in a dozen miles.  Dramatically bonsai'd by the westerlies, it has survived the sheep by growing out of a deep cleft. On my first visit I lost my compass down that hole, and slid down the tree after it, into the dark acrid smell of fox.
 
 
Fox spirit's den
cold against my shin
white bone
 
 
A shepherd once told me that the Ordnance Survey's "Gwerin" is a missprint for "Gwarin" --a fox warren. Fox -- trickster and shape-shifter of the animal kingdom; Cwm Gwarin is a foxy place. In all my years here I have only met people on two occasions, the first being a pair of hunters. They ranged the head of the valley with gun and dogs but it gave them no sport. The second were a young couple, seriously lost.
 
As to that solitary pine, my hermit name is Coeden ar yr Mynydd (“Tree on the Mountainside”), -- I Ching  hexagram 53. There is a wonderful word disgwylfa, for a place of watching and watchfulness. On a sunny afternoon I ramble down from my base at the head of the cwm, offer incense at Encil Brwynen, chant blessings for the shades of Hengwm Annedd, and sit under the pine here at Disgwylfa Coeden ar yr Mynydd. These vigils are shared by a mythic senior member of the profession. Somewhere on a bracken-infested belvedere, higher up among the cliffs, lies Ffynnon Esgob -- Bishop's Spring. But I have never found it.
 
 
No Holy Well --
stone saucer of rain
ripples in the wind
 
 
Time to get on, now crossing a broad vein of quartz. In the early lean time of the year fleeces of dead lambs lie among the white boulders, with the blackness of crows hopping from one to the other.
 
 
Slim pelvis
slender legs
sheep skeleton
 
 
Swinging back towards the river I pass a pool beneath a slippery  outcrop. Once upon a time Ifan lent his horse to Siôn, and it was just Siôn's bad luck that it was his neighbour's animal that lost its footing here and drowned. If it's going to happen, it'll happen to something borrowed from a neighbour. Yes, Sod's Law, or, up here, Pwll Siôn, ceffyl Ifan -- "John's pool, Evan's horse". But it also says something else, about the high value placed on trust by people who so much depended on each other.
 
This bare landscape was once alive with names, many signalling myths and stories -- even history and biography. They mapped a landscape of collective memory. It is a land now largely denuded of meaning as well as of trees, but unlike the trees, what has been lost can no more be replaced -- ever -- than can the species of plants and creatures that disappear each year in this great die-off. A few disembodied fragments are mercifully retained on the large scale Ordnance Survey maps. For instance, the map shows on the opposite side of the cwm from here a "Lluest y Graig” ("Crag Farm"), but no amount of poking about has revealed the remains of any building nor can anyone remember one.
 
Weighed down by these melancholy reflections I blunder through the Afon Felen, heedless of what a lively, gracious little character it is, with its mossy falls.
 
 
Sliding softly
over green baize
the Yellow River
 
 
Half way up the cwm is a riverside place of rest and refreshment. And if its standing stone is not a Standing Stone then it should be. Such an erection sustained for three millennia deserves respect.
 
 
Phallic stone
its ginger lichens
            lambswool
blowing in the wind
 
 
Propping myself against the sunny side, I ease off my boots, cut a wedge of bara brith, top it with black-rind goat's cheese, get the spirit stove going for coffee at the first try, enjoy my company, and count my blessings. Loitering with intent.
 
 
Through dimpled water
yellow pebbles
washed in yellow light
 
 
I recall walking here with Erwyd, a shepherd friend.  Llonc a clonc, saunter and chat -- the only way I can keep up with him. A bottle of Lucozade sticks out of one pocket and a wire brush out of the other, for scraping off moss and lichens. We are looking for names and dates cut in the rocks by shepherds long ago. To meet anyone here would be remarkable, but the distant figure across the valley is even more remarkable. I put the glass on him. The pied synthetics of your state-of-the-art walker. A strange looking dog too.
 
 
Big country --
to greet a far-off stranger
a whole arm
 
 
But this sets the stranger scuttling off as if he were hurrying to catch the 8.23 from Tunbridge Wells or some similarly outlandish place. Sais?, mutters Erwyd, then bellows a greeting in the language of heaven: '"Sut ydych chi heddiw? At this the stranger starts as if he had been shot, makes a curious gesture, and changes course up the side of the cwm. Puzzled, we gaze at his departing back, our two pairs of boots settling gently in the bog.
 
Here now are the first hermetic works: little cairns marking a way through livid green bog to Craig y March.
 
 
Lapped by bracken
looming through red mist
high prow of Stallion's Crag
 
The Cave, Stallion's Crag
 
IV
 
A grassy rake angles breathlessly upwards. Then there's the heart-thumping steepness of a stony shelf. This in turn becomes narrow and airy. At nightfall, descending with a handful of dirty dishes, a foolish place to be.
 
My cave is no more than an overhang in the cliff, with a fern-hung rockfall to keep out the wind. The interior is bright with lichens and pungent with sheep shit. Maybe St Curig, the Irish missionary, was the first distinguished resident, staring out through the same mist fourteen centuries ago. Did the mountain she-devil invade his dreams?
 
 
Her heaving flanks
her flashing falls
love song in the wind
 
 
Glyndwr must surely have passed some nights here, for he dossed in more Welsh caves than Queen Elizabeth slept in English beds. Another resident could well have been the great fifteenth century bard Lewys Glyn Cothi. On the wrong side at the battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461, he became a Pumlumon outlaw. In happier times "he sang much to the gentry of Carmathenshire, Cardiganshire and Radnorshire," working their coats of arms in colour into his manuscripts. On a nearby rock face a more recent visitor has chiselled his name: "John J Morgan, Tach [November] 1928". This could have been one John Jenkin Morgan, Hengwm Annedd, drowned of a cramp after haymaking, only a few months later.
 
 
Creeping up the mountain
consuming the day
the shadow
 
 
There is much to do. A stone rolled aside reveals a cache of stores: candles and canned lentils; a tin opener and latrine scoop. The sheep dung is swept out, rushes cut to make a bed, and a drystone wind break heaped up. With billy can and water bottle I climb above the crag to a tiny grotto. The little Buddha, his hand in blessing, is slowly turning green in the plashing spring. Back to the cave, and sizzling vegetarian Carmarthen sausages. The couple in the flat above, a pair of elderly ravens, are already quarrelling, scattering twigs and turds down the cliff face. After dark I have an occasional neighbour, a big mysterious snuffler on the other side of the rock fall. We have always respected one another's privacy.
 
Yet another visit, yet another latrine dug in the same peaty patch:
 
 
Marking my dead latrines
one after another
little tombstones
 
 
From thence there's a scramble over a reef of rock and down steep grass to the washing place by the river. If the timing's right, the midges will have gone to bed. The toothpaste cap is perched always on the same big lump of Ordovician slate. It is handsomely decorated by extruded bands of white quartz, beside which my toothpaste is also carefully extruded. This is a good time and place to lose Small Objects:
 
 
In the pebbles of the stream
my delicate pink dental plate
 
 
Chores completed, sitting on a rock, the busyness subsides, and the mountain breathes again.
 
Before turning in I take a meditative turn on the flat top of the crag.
 
 
Seventy years --
in that gun-metal tarn
another dying day
 
 
Also still visible through the gloaming are those two big mysterious cairns. I muse about the shadowy Gwilym after whom they may be named. The stallion of Stallion's Crag is Grey Fetlocks (Llwyd y Bacsiau)', "Glyndwr's great war horse. Galloping across the crag in one death-defying leap he delivered the hero from his pursuers.
 
 
In the falling light
soft rain
in rock hoof prints
 
 
I grope my way down back to the cave, the flickering candle lantern a small delight. My sleeping bag is already stretched out peacefully.
 
What kind of night will it be? Sometimes the clouds clear from the mountain and I am moon-struck. Wide awake, I listen to my most constant companions:
 
 
In floods of moonlight
enchanted stonechats
sing the night away
 
 
Pulling on my boots and tip-toeing down the crag, I wander off in the soft cheesy light, taking my strange nocturnal shadow with me. And, just once, aghast at a familiar strangeness:
 
 
Bathed in moonlight
Sister Anima
my full-breasted self
 
 
But mostly Pumlumon is soaked in every kind of wetness, for days and even weeks on end. It was an all night storm some years ago that ended my romantic honeymoon with the mountain -- all those exquisite poems and brush drawings celebrating the life of Ch'an and Taoist hermits and nature-loving Celtic saints. Forked lightning flashed along Tor Glas, the ridge opposite. Thunder shook the mountain and cannonaded round the cwm. Rain curtained off the front of my cave, pouring down the cliff face above. And within, every nook and cranny sprung a leak. Came the dawn --
 
 
Damp goose down bag
a svelte brown slug
creeps in beside me
 
 
Sometimes a starless night of damp stillness hangs over the mountain, amplifying whatever sounds there are.
 
 
Somewhere in the mist
a sheep's hacking cough
the night wears on
 
 
The dawn landscape is narrowed to the reeds which fringe the front of the cave, each delicately beaded with drops of water. As the stove struggles to produce the first coffee of the day, on some mornings a miracle occurs. The sun cranks up behind the ridge opposite, pouring blinding light and instant warmth straight into the cave. Leaning back I gaze across to where the Princes of Arwystli lie waiting to be called.
 
 
Slanting rays
thinning the white mists
that drift across the princes' graves
 
The Hermitage of the Rushes, Pumlumon
 
V
 
"How interesting, but what do hermits actually do?" she asked, balancing a wine glass in one hand.
 
The main concern of this one is not to be in the same place and time as the clouds of midges which share my habitat:
 
 
This midge
like me
enjoys the hazy sunshine
 
 
In fact this hermit's job description is a blank; just bare attention, disgwylgar, to be all here and not somewhere else, and to let the mountain do the rest. Mind is free to wander as it will in the first day or two, but never far. Gradually it homes in to the steep slopes of so many shades of brown and green, grey screes and cliffs, mists creeping along the ridges, the bark of ravens, the call of sheep, the little stonechats. Sometimes attention is drawn fifteen inches away:
 
 
This old rock lump
mosses and lichens
every inch
 
 
Sometimes it's fifteen miles away;
 
 
Cadair Idris
lion couchant
floating on a cloud
 
 
Huge blocks of empty time confront me. When the weather closes in and confines me, time stretches out, emptiness deepens.  All there is is too much wetness, too much mist, too much battering wind, too many maddening midges. The words of the Zen sage Seng Ts'an come to mind:
 
Cease from action, and rest itself becomes restless; linger over either extreme and Oneness is forever lost (5).
 
In the cave there is only room to crouch, so I sit nearby  in a tolerably dry cleft. When I get cold, stiff and damp, I pace up and down the ledge in front of me. I watch the rain fall. I watch the curtain of mist, which sometimes lifts a little to reveal a bit of mountain. There is nothing else to watch except my own frustration, which soon becomes as boring as everything else. All those "B" movies projected in the skull cinema, whether trailers or vintage screenings. Already all too familiar. All escape routes cut off, I'm now my own inescapable problem. Driven silly enough, it becomes easier to just let it be. So, sooner or later the monkey gives up, and the mountain claims its own. Glyndwr's leap to freedom! Except that he just clung on and Grey Fetlocks carried him ... which is how it happens.
 
 
Sheep shit and incense
sunshine and drizzle
the unchanging view
 
 
So, at seventeen hundred feet, I practice the Zen of Just-Hanging-Out, with different rocks and perches to mark the changing shifts of sun, wind and rain.
 
The cave and its rocky disgwylfa have a strong masculine feel -- dry, bright and hard, with that home-made standing stone to drive home the message. The meditation rock -- Y Castell -- where I sit time out of mind and mind out of time, commands a panoramic view.
 
 
Mountain wind
    through my ribcage
                already
 
 
If there's sun, I follow it down from the yang to the yin of the Blaen Gwerin, where the valley head stream manifests the goddess. Skirts of underwater moss flare in the pools, beneath the smart green facings of the waterfalls. The blaen is a place of soft-flowing ease, like up on that heather-clad basking rock,
 
 
Snapping off
black heather twigs --
the whiteness!
 
 
And downstream is the laundry rock, another beguiling spot.
 
 
The current
snatching away my shirt --
those two blue butterflies!
 
 
Higher up the valleyhead from a rock oratory Kwan Yin contemplates the little streams rushing down from their gathering grounds
 
 
Swirling china robe
her enigmatic smile
heart of the mountain
 
 
Over the years I have become more aware of the power of such places. As if impelled by some magnetic field, I have been moved to amplify these channels and knots of energy with well placed cairns and stones.
 
 
VI
 
On a sunny afternoon there may even be an excursion planned: a little flutter of anticipation in the landscape of mind.
 
In one direction, along a broad windswept ridge, are two posts in a bog -- a God- forsaken spot even on Pumlumon. They make nowhere somewhere. For these are   the insecure bilingual markers of the true source of the Hafren or, if you prefer, the Severn. Stones are hard to come by hereabouts. Sometimes I find them piled up around an upright Welsh "Hafren", leaving a sagging English  “Severn", and sometimes they have been shifted the other way round. But never half-and-half. It is a drear and toilsome plod up from the car, following a line of linguistically blank guideposts. Finally arriving at such a place, featureless apart from "the language issue", what else to do but make a point, by shifting -- or not shifting -- a few stones? George Borrow, that garrulous Victorian traveller through "Wild Wales",  also found this to be "rather a shabby source for so noble a stream". However, "it is not only necessary for me to see the sources of the rivers, but to drink them, in order that in after times I might be able to harangue about them with a tone of confidence and authority."
 
The source lies in a labyrinth of "unsightly heaps of black turf-earth", as Borrow called these looming peat hags, some slimy and some dried up, some shapeless and some sculpted by nature to resemble hags. Never a dull moment on this dull mountain. They cry out for silly verses:
 
 
Prussian blue tarn
surrounded
by elegant hags
 
 
In the opposite direction is the excursion to Pen Pumlumon Fawr, the highest of the five summits. The start is a stiff pull up behind Stallion's Crag, meeting with more variations on the theme of slate and quartz:
 
 
In hanging mist
a charnel ground
grey rocks flecked white
 
 
Above, the almost featureless ridge is a great place to savour Pumlumon mist. It can even turn a cryptic metaphor for the spiritual search:
 
 
Alone in the mist
still trying
    to get lost
 
 
Ahead lies the most desolate stretch of the old upland track from Machynlleth to Llanidloes, marked at irregular intervals by fallen cairns. Here, many years ago, an old pedlar woman collapsed and died in a snow storm. As well as being a packwoman she was a welcome and well-loved visitor to the isolated homesteads, a healer, story teller and bearer of news. A stone shaped like a stooped figure marks the spot where Siân Groca -- Jane Crookback -- was found. Sad, also, to learn later that it was in fact the curious shape of the stone that inspired the story.  Here the snow always lingers on.
 
I pick up a shard of slate to carry to the already untidy summit cairn. The ancient practice of adding your bit helped to maintain these landmarks. And if that were not reason enough then failure to do so would attract the ire of the mountain spirits and bring bad luck. This, the highest cairn, stands at 2468 feet.
 
 
In a shaft of sunlight
tiny house
never seen before
 
 
Was it seen by the Mabinogi Kai and Bedwyr (later gentrified as Sir Kay and Sir Bedevere), sitting up here "in the highest wind that ever was in the world".  But certainly "they looked around them and saw a great smoke to the south, afar off, which did not bend in the wind." And there began another adventure (6).
 
For the great Zen Master Dogen, sage of mountains and rivers,
 
In the stream rushing past to the dusty world
my fleeting form casts no reflection  (7).
 
Time now to return to that dusty world.
 
Of the three rivers that are Pumlimon's daughters, Hafren and Gwy (Wye) rose early for their long easterly journey to the sea. Their feckless young sister, Rheidolyn, slept in too late to be able to follow them. So, she simply swept off west. Beautiful throughout, day and night she ripples her pebbles past my window. Now I keep company with her off the mountain, down towards the western sea.
 
 
Crimson waters
sweeping homewards
this body of joy
 
 
Notes and references
 
1  From the Welsh Gazette, 16 September 1954. Englyn: an ancient metrical form still alive and well; its affinity with haiku is more apparent than real. Cywydd: another verse form, consisting of a rhyming couplet of seven syllables written in cynghanedd, an intricate system of sound-chiming.
 
2  Gruffydd Hiraethog, Annals of Owain Glyndwr (Peniarth MS. 135), translated in Sir John Lloyd, History of Wales, Longman, London, 1911.
 
3  Thomas Ellis, "Memoirs of Owen Glendower", being a supplement to his History of the Island of Anglesey, London, 1775 and subsequent editions.
 
4  Indra's Net:  Buddhist metaphor to prompt insight into this elusive mountain. The Net is three dimensional (with time as a fourth). Each jewel (or "event") at each intersection of the Net both exists in its own right and yet also exists only as a reflection of all the other jewels. So this is an interbeing which paradoxically transcends mere interdependence.
 
5  Hsin-hsin-ming [On trust in the Heart ], probably the most widely translated of Ch'an (Zen) scriptures.
 
6  From "Culhwch and Olwen", in Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion.
 
7  Steven Heine,  Zen Poetry of Dogen, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1997. 62-J, p118
 
 
 
Five shorter haibun selected from the Stallion’s Crag collection
 
 

Luxury Spring Break
 
“Double room in sage and apricot. It has an interesting oriel window made from an old Indian four poster bed. Dog allowed."
 
 
In the immaculate bath
a well-groomed spider
 
 
We exclaim at the bonnet de douche and the tiny phials of shampoo and "body lotion". Perhaps fellow guests are also seduced by the appareil de bain, because the little mountain torrent suddenly refuses to provide instant baths for all. Y Mynydd Mawr (Big Mountain) has no time for your Anglo-Norman fripperies. The "complimentary bath robe" (in salmon pink) prompts us to check the dining room dress code. "Smart casual" says the brochure, from its beaten leather cover.
 
In the discreet Victorian dining room heraldic escutcheons and objets de vertu flicker in candlelight. Ordered in Welsh, our servitors unbend.
 
 
Red headed waitress
serves the lamb --- then
back to the lambing
 
 
The glazed monkfish pronounces itself excellent... Gilded mirrors, heavy drapes, high art on elevated themes adorn the lounge. Overawed by unrelenting good taste we sink into the armchairs and sofas.
 
 
Decaffeinated conversation
the clink
of fine boned china
 
 
The "Full Welsh Breakfast" turns out to be a restrained English one.
 
 
Taylor's English Breakfast Tea
silence
of couples
 
 
The menu, however, does prove to be intellectually challenging: orange grapefruit, undyed Loch Fyne kippers, coddled eggs, and black pudding, with American muffins, Greek yoghurt and home made marmalade to follow. Not an eye blinks. I round off a splendid weekend with something truly feudal.
 
 
Across my scrambled eggs
bar sinister
of anchovies
 
 
The Battle of Pilleth

Above the death pits
of Celtic warriors
grove of cedars
 
 
The four huge trees stand tall on the flanks of Bryn Glas -- the Green Hill. They were planted by Sir Richard Green-Price, Bart., in the eighteenth century, where the skulls and bones of a mass grave had come to light.
 
The slope is still as steep as it was on the Feast of Saint Alban, 22nd June 1402 when Owain Glyndwr won his second victory in the war of independence. In plate armour and chain mail it must have been a sweaty, exhausting uphill flog for Earl Mortimer's men at arms. It is still heavy going, head bowed, with a twin lens reflex camera.
 
 
Green hill
site of the battle
a few daisies
 
 
Led by Rhys ap Gethin waves of Welsh spearmen sweep down the hill. "Sir Robert Whitney and Sir Kinard de la Bere are slain", laments the chronicler. Few of the English host escape across the river Lugg, shining and winding on the valley floor below. At the foot of the hill is the tiny neglected Church of Our Lady, with its rough stone tower and low roofed nave in stained whitewash. Behind, worn steps lead down to a healing well, shored up with timbers. In front, a second mass grave lies beneath the churchyard brambles. Until recently rusty armour, holed and dented, hung in the church.
 
 
Five hundred year old yew
its cool green leaves
 
 
On the top of Bryn Glas, beneath the golden banner of Uthr Pendragon, Glyndwr commands the battle, astride his great war horse Llwyd y Bacsiau (Grey Fetlocks). Today it is a quiet sunny place, with this year's lambs gambolling about. The tinkling little stream that rises nearby has now run clear of blood for 597 summers.
 
 
Old battlefield
wheeling shadows
of ravens
 
 
The Grey Stone
 
 
Father Time on the weathervane
WSW
scything over green fields
 
 
Y Maen Llwyd -- The Grey Standing Stone. Gives its name to a small farmhouse folded into the Radnorshire hills. Around a muddy yard are sheep pens and a barn, now a meditation hall surmounted by a weathervane. All silent and empty for my seven day solitary in the lean-to. KLONDYKE is embossed in cast iron on the stove.
 
 
Lightness of spruce
little dried blocks
iron belly
 
 
There is room enough for shrine, cushion, camp bed, desk, and easy chair. The other occupant is a winter fly, who sleeps upside down above the stove. Each morning, two hours before dawn, she and I and the pot belly all come to life together
 
 
The wind whistles
the stove grumbles back
between them
I sit
 
 
Out for a pee under a starlit sky. One face of the cheesy moon is alreadylit up by the sun rising, I suppose, somewhere over England. Owls return totheir roosts in the dingle. Back on my cushion, vast space.
 
Later, I sit at the little desk...
 
 
Morning star
hiss of the pressure lamp
the sutras black on white
 
 
Turning off the lamp, staring out of the window.
 
 
Restless buzzing --
dawn filters slowly
through ragged clouds
 
 
The bliss of morning coffee is not mentioned in the sutras. Nor marmalade on toast. I brush my teeth, and get into Dogen's Life and Death.
 
Along the track another of my kind greets me. "Nice day, it is!" Thecare-worn face of a farmer, heaving a dead ewe into the trailer. Later, in fading light, I wander up onto the hill. Shoulders hunched, searching asusual for something too shy to show itself. Hands tighten on the rust of an iron gate.
 
 
Warmed by the setting sun
my skinny shadow
stretching across a field
 
 
Down in the valley the searchlight of an occasional car, swinging round a bend. And then ... against the evening sky, there it is.
 
 
Again that thorn tree
rooted to the spot
standing and staring
 
 
Again the old fool is reminded. Doffs his cap, and bows to the tree. For only when the self retires do the ten thousand things advance and enlighten.
 
The Maen Llwyd is an electricity free zone, apart from my torch. It picks out this and that as a flood of light can never do. Once, a fly..
 
 
Down on paper –
drawn to the torchlight heart
transparent speckled wings
 
 
And later a hatchet:-
 
 
Old axe
the sway
in its haft
 
 
Here are two centuries of heat and light. There is the generous soft light of the Victorian lamp, the ultimate in paraffin technology and elegance. And the battered "VALOR" heater, recalling the draughty bed sits of my youth.The oldest exhibit stands with a box of Co-op matches beside my bed.
 
Made for thick fingers
pewter candleholder
its brass snuffer
 
 
Down in the valley lies Pant-y-Dwr -- the Watery Hollow of some ninetysouls, with the lowest temperatures in Wales, and its most central pub, the Mid Wales Inn. A ghostly moon, veiled in mist, floats above the nine sodiumlights.
 
I throw more logs into the stove, pump up the flaring Tilley lamp, and heat a can of baked beans.
 
 
Closing curtains
opening curtains
this long life
of nights and days
 
 
Later, I light a single candle before the pale green figure of Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion, austere and erect. A slender stick of pine incense perfumes the air. Three times the sounding bowl ripples the silence, and thefirst watch of the night begins. An hour passes, and I stretch my legs across the passage in the cold shadows of the meditation hall. On the other side of the yard the weather-beaten planks of the old barn are silver bright.
 
 
Slow pacing meditation
reassuringly
a floor board creaks
 
 
Returning, I wrap my black robe about me and ease my body into the last sit of the day.The short chant has a depth and richness that takes me unaware. Kuan Yin stares back, with that elusive smile of hers.
 
 
In the murmuring stove
soft cry of owls
incense
burnt out
 
 
 
Communion
 
 
Ringed by tilted pagan stones
the huddled church
 
 
Four thousand years have led to this frosty Christmas morning. Here was both a pagan place and a pilgrim stopover on the way to the great abbey of Strata Florida. They crossed a two-plank bridge over a gorge, and then came down this same track. On the gate in wrought iron are the scallop shells of pilgrimage.
 
 
Scoured rock
worn hips and knees
the steepening path
 
 
Cypress, yew and monkey puzzle crowd the churchyard amidst a confusion of headstones. On 17th February 1856 four babies were born to Margaret Hughes. By the end of the month all had died. On 1st March her five year old son passed away, and on the 6th her 32 year old husband, Isaac. Then, four days later this epidemic carried off her daughter Hannah. The headstones of her family are Margaret’s only memorial
 
 
Bone hard chill
long dead griefs
chiselled in the stones
 
 
I slide into a pew behind a cowled lady. Let into her black cloak is a neat bible pocket. Dafydd ap Gwilym and Samuel Pepys, with their box pew flirtations, keep me company.
 
 
Bare breasted ladies
holding up the font –
“A generous donor”
 
 
Looks Flemish, and wildly out of place here. But, understandably, the priest at the time found it “hard to refuse”. I am moved to puzzle over the Commandments, picked out in gold on a black oaken board. New words for my Welsh vocabulary.
 
Mildew and paraffin hang in the damp air, forming haloes round the oil lamps. None of your High Church incense here. The front pew fills with elderly ladies bundled up against the cold, completing our congregation of a dozen souls. The wheezing harmonium cranks up, but with surprising verve.
 
 
Welsh hymnal
my tongue round vowels and consonants
the hwyl takes off
 
 
Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd. The solemn rolling anthems of Williams Pantycelyn; the mystical visions of Ann Griffiths:
 
 
Guide me O Thou great Jehovah
Pilgrim through this barren land
 
 
We raise the roof, and the strains of Cwm Rhondda drift out over the crags and pastures of Bryn Glas as they have these last three hundred years. Bread of Heaven.
 
Our priest mounts the pulpit.
 
 
Mary
neat in her cassock
her blond hair
 
 
The sermon is about the evils of ageism. We all nod. Mary has liberal views. Holy Communion is on offer even for this Zen fox.
 
 
The wine and the wafer
on her pale finger
a wedding ring
 
 
Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1320-70): greatest of medieval Welsh poets.
Hwyl : inner power.
 
 
 
A selection of haiku from the Stallion’s Crag collection
 
 
Solitude
 
Well thumbed public map
you are here
no longer there
 
 
Returning home
quietly
self returns to self
 
 
On the faded carpet
window panes
printed in moonlight
 
 
Digging the ditch
behind me
a curve of new year light
Neighbours
 
 
Pale light on the Chapel Field
good morning, says Dai,
to gas the moles
 
 
Strolling for miles
arm in my pocket
hoping she’ll take it
 
 
Rolling home
with his stumpy shadow
and half a moon
 
 
To you, telephone pole
No. A 97381
I tip my hat
 
 
Woodland and Moor
 
Too much grief
quietly I oil and sharpen
the old chain saw
 
 
On my seventieth birthday
marking oaks
to be felled
 
 
This fine evening
stacking firewood
how simple death seems
 
 
These hills
have nothing to say
and go on saying it
 
 
Looking for Ireland
thirty years
nothing but sea
 
 
The last of the day
filling a tiny tarn
 
 
Mountain of false summits
even the true one
its blank stare