September in Siluria

September 30th

Autumn is coming on gently this year, slowly speckling the bramble leaves with crimson rust, deepening the sloes from blue to indigo. But the evening primrose still flowers green-gold in the dunes, as does the occasional head of yarrow, or hardy ragwort. Among silver birches the rose pink of ragged robin, and nodding beside the bridleway, viper’s bugloss, a startling azure triffid up-close. 

 

Viper’s Bugloss

This morning, picking blackberries with my son, we watched a crane fly, “daddy long-legs.” It was tripping over itself among the leaves and got tangled in one of the hundreds of glittering webs that cover the bushes. We watched it for a little while. A strange contraption, the crane fly, it hung there, a wisp of dry grass and eyelashes, with the head of a tiny dragon. The web seemed empty, so we freed him, and he went twirling up briefly into the blue sky before sinking towards the webs again. And not all webs are empty. The fat garden spiders, conspicuous in their tiger skins, are everywhere.  A wren darts nearby, ignoring us, enjoying the spider harvest. We’ve decided it’s a good year for blackberry picking. We’ve gathered a tubful every couple of days, whenever the sun comes out. A few go in crumbles but most go into the freezer. Hopefully we’ll save up enough to make wine and jam.

Later, walking past The Prince of Wales pub, where the thinning hedge thorn is tinged with yellow, and a blackbird is sampling the scarlet haws, we notice a small bunch of juicy red rosehips, glossy and inviting, hanging out over the pavement. But this isn’t a wild rose of course, it’s bittersweet, whose beautiful purple and butter yellow flowers turn into these attractive clusters of berries. I’m often tempted to taste them. Bittersweet can be seriously poisonous though, and is a cousin of Belladonna, the Deadly Nightshade. So we point them out, name them, admire them, and move on. Further along, something much safer, almost as bitter, mugwort, which makes a pleasant enough tea for those with a palate for such things. A common weed to us, mugwort is deeply sacred to the people of the Himalayas, and plays a central role in the ceremonies of the shamans there. And mugwort too, like bittersweet, has a notorious relative: wormwood, the vital volatile ingredient of the poet’s poison, Absinthe. A cup of wormwood tea will surely be a challenge for anyone. I once idly ate a leaf in the garden of the legionary museum in Caerleon. The bite of its bitterness stayed with me for days. Mugwort grows all along this road. It’s showing its bones now though, the silvery grey leaves crinkling at the edges and the crimson hue of the stems aging to raw umber. The cars fly by as mugwort patiently endures the seasonal transformation.

The Romans planted the mugwort here. I’m an artist not a historian, but this is my contribution to a local history debate. There is some uncertainty about where exactly the Roman road passes through this region. We know it stretches from Cardiff to Neath, but what route does it take through the old borough of Kenfig? Does it go to the north of the M4, along Water Street as some think, or further to the south, through modern Kenfig, aiming for where the Normans later built the castle, on the bank of the river Cynffig? I favour the latter option for the admittedly slightly whimsical reason that mugwort is abundant along this road, but is very sparse along Water Street. And the Roman soldiers loved mugwort. They’d line their sandals with its leaves, the oils soothing blistered soles and cracked heels on the long march. The leaves also have strong antifungal and antibacterial properties. We can imagine the road builders, men of the Legio Secunda Augusta perhaps, clearing the scrub, laying the gravel, and taking the opportunity now and then, here and there, to plant a mugwort cutting, for those who come after. OK, yes, it’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but I like the idea and I’m sticking to it.

Those men of the Second Legion might be veterans of the terrible war against the local Celtic tribe, the Silures. If they are then they would have lost many comrades, because the Second Legion was almost wiped out in south Wales. The Roman invasion of Britain was achieved fairly quickly. Many tribes sensibly chose not to resist the ruthless efficiency of the Roman blitzkrieg, or were quickly defeated. But the Silures fought hard. Their resistance is slightly puzzling. It would certainly have been easier, safer and some might say wiser, to come to terms with the Romans. But the Silures waged an effective guerrilla campaign for thirty years. They could also on occasion raise large and skilful field armies, as the 5,000 soldiers of the defeated Second Legion discovered. Resisting the Romans must have become something of a local tradition. Weapons, tactics and defiance passed on from fathers to sons, and mothers to daughters too perhaps, as we know that sometimes women participated in battles. One of the gods of the Silures, Ocelos, is equated in inscriptions with Mars, the Roman God of war. It may be therefore that there was a religious element to the Silurian resistance, a sense of sacred duty. We’ve seen in recent conflicts how this sense of holy mission can make all the difference. But whatever the reason, the Silures were certainly a courageous people, “changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency” as the Roman historian Tacitus wryly observed.

It’s curious that we don’t really remember the Silures today, we don’t tell our children about them. But they are part of who we are after all. They lived in the region roughly between the River Wye in the east and the Tawe in the West, modern Gwent, Glamorgan, and Brecon.  It’s possible they migrated from the Basque region. Mostly farmers living in roundhouses, they also used the hillforts at Margam, Dunraven, Llantwit, and elsewhere. These forts were sometimes used for defence, but more often perhaps for seasonal ceremonies of grain storage and trade. They seem to have been excellent horsemen and charioteers. They produced a distinctive hawthorn red enamel with which to decorate their intricate “La Tene” style metal work. Their descendants formed the bulk of the ragged band of barefoot archers who slaughtered the French nobility at Agincourt. A recent book appraises what we know of them, Ray Howells’ excellent “In Search of the Silures.”

Walking home from The Prince along the back lane this evening, boots slipping in the rucked mud, I caught a glimpse of the harvest moon, rising through the clouds in the east. It seemed very close, a pale smokey yellow face peering through hazel trees. The trees are already stripped of nuts, the grey squirrels take them even before they’ve ripened. Autumn has been mild so far but the first big frost can’t be far off. Soon we’ll turn the clocks back and the evenings will be dark. The next full moon, the hunter’s moon, will rise just before Hallowe’en.

 Evening Primrose


Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.

@kenfigdunes on twitter


Betrayer Moon

August 31st  

I’m standing among the alder on the western shore of Kenfig Pool, looking east across the still water. A full moon is rising over the ridge that, perhaps, gave this place its name: Cefn y ffigon, the ridge on the marsh. All around me, unseen among the ragwort and the wild carrot, hundreds of crickets are singing their love songs, shaking their rattles, the sound rising and falling in intensity as they drift in and out of harmony with each other. 

It’s the second full moon this month. That rarity: a blue moon. The term seems to come from the old English word for betrayer: belewe. This name dates back to the old Gregorian calendar, when the end of the lent fast was determined by the calculations regarding the start of Easter. If two moons fell in the same month, then Easter could seem delayed, apparently extending the fasting period. A moon that delayed Easter was dubbed by the famished flock a belewe moon, a betrayer moon.

But the second moon is a welcome sight this evening. A glimpse of any moon in a clear night sky has been unusual this year. Summer 2012 has been the wettest recorded since 1912. After early drought warnings it seems not a day has passed without serious rain falling somewhere on the archipelago. Our vegetable patch, inherited from a previous occupant, now more like a muddy pond, has had to be neglected. Slugs and snails have thrived, lounging stuffed in hammocks of lacy lettuce. Potatoes have succumbed early to blight. Apple blossom has been lashed from the boughs. The bees have hidden in their hives and survived on emergency slurps of sugar water from the beekeeper. Kenfig Pool looks like a wineglass filled desperately to the brim, about to spill over.

One consequence of the neglected veg patch is that I’ve found, growing among the hogweed and the nettles, the bindweed and the vetch (where the potatoes should be) a few flourishing specimens of Chenopodium album, aka fat-hen. A staple of the stone-age diet, this wild ancestor of spinach is now one of our commonest weeds. It’s also extremely nutritious. The succulent, pewter-green leaves - shaped at first like duck’s feet - and the generously clustered flowers - which look like fat little grubs, or crumbs of suet - are especially rich in calcium and protein. The seeds formed part of the last meal of Tollund Man, one of the “bog bodies” – those ancient sacrifices, preserved by the acidic peat water, who are occasionally turfed up across northern Europe.

Fat Hen 

I’m reminded of those bog bodies tonight as I watch the moon’s face drift across the black surface of the pool. What drew those people to the lonely wetlands? Water shows us another world, a mirror world of unknown depths, rippling with strange life. Where left is right, right is left and breathing can be fatal. And the bog itself is a place of blurred borders, where water can be confused with earth and sky. A place where the stars and the moon might rise beneath your feet. A place where the dead might find another life.

Rain (click for larger image)

Many of the bog bodies had suffered the “triple death” common in Celtic and Germanic mythology. They’d been hung or strangled, then stabbed and drowned — an offering to the spirits of the sky, the earth, and the water. A cruel death, but there’s some evidence to suggest that the victims were unusually important  – Shamans? Druids? Maybe they went willingly into the mirror world, special emissaries in a time of crisis, the song of the crickets chirring in the air around them, and not so far away the Roman legions on the march. Or maybe they were just criminals, hostages, outsiders, bringers of bad news. People who had in life already crossed the important boundaries.

Anyway, Kenfig’s a marsh not a bog, so the chances of finding the pickled bodies of witches in the water are slim, even if it is a blue moon. But what about those fat-hens? We picked the leaves and seeds and dropped them into boiling water for a minute or so, drained and served them with a twist of white pepper, a pat of butter and a glass of yarrow ale. The ale is a bit young, needs a few months to mellow in the bottle. But the plant is a surprise, tasting of the soft earthiness of sprouting broccoli with a distant citrus whisper of raw sea-beet. 

Tonight the blue moon in a rare clear sky, the betrayer moon, sees a chill wind hiss across the water. Coatless as I head home, I realise it’s the last full moon of summer.

 


Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.

@kenfigdunes on twitter