A rubble road crests a ridge above the old coal pit village of Llanbradach. Breeze blocks and plastics are decaying to dust, beginning to press themselves shallow into the chorography of this place. I stand on a jumble of human fall-out, taking in the views, and think of my father; and his father.
Llanbradach Hill is one of many swells in the geodrama known unsentimentally as the South Wales Upper Coal Measures Formation. Down deep, where it is warm, labarynthine tunnels have been blasted out by men long dead, and the spaces left uncollapsed now leak with water, gas and ghosts. There are many forgotten stories. Llanbradach Coal Mine of the Rhymney Valley, with its pits sunk 1700ft deep named York and Lancaster, was one of the biggest in South Wales, employing over 2,800 workers in its ‘prime,’ and dozens of pit ponies. As in all mines, there was danger.
Men and ponies died. Men made a lot of money. Others never made enough. Though the pit closed in the 1960’s, the legacy still lives on.
From a point on Colliery Road marked simply on the OS map as ‘works,’ I push left onto an almost vertical track up into the woods. Plastic bottles, flakes of crisp packets and a bright red plastic beer crate give way to a deep scar overhung with branches. The waters of the Nant Owen fall towards the railway line, past the works (the pithead), on into the Afon Rhymney and the Severn Sea.
Further on, and the mixed forest floor reveals an exquisite shimmer of stitchworts and bluebells, a gleaming signal from deep time, the post-glacial life-colonisation of these glacial-scoured troughs. These woods didn’t exist a hundred years ago, plucked brutally from the hillside in the name of progress. The denudation is recorded on old large format images one can now find online. Yet the flowers must have continued to bloom through the loss, because here they are. I stop to take in the beauty, drawn to the colours and scents just like the scarce insects which pollinate them. And I look up at the new canopy, filtering the sunlight. On the side of the track, still steep, more wildflowers emerge. From a freshly picked wood sorrel leaf, I taste the oxalic acid also found in my own blood.
I find myself among small firs, like perfect Christmas trees, planted in the wreckage of a giant clear cut. And a fire break with electricity pilons. And the birdsong is almost deafening. I cannot hear myself think ~ an ugly inbroglio yet the most beautiful place on Earth.
Break free of the steeps, and the terrain flattens out.
Up here on top, there are more birds ~ thousands of them. This is no halcyon scene, with skeleton stumps and roots bulldozed to make boundaries to enclose sheep. And the paths are flecked with beer cans. But the birdsong fills the air between me and the clouds with an energy, a never-giving-up sound, and with sharp indignation. There are bursts of wildflowers coming through the grit and there are insects, and plenty of safe cover to make birds happy.
Up here on top, there are neolithic and feudal ghosts of Sengennedd Dyke. They wander the 20th Century waste tips, the clear-fell and baby-fresh conifers. There’s a tyre dump thick with nettles, trapping all the emotion-laden journeys and destinations into silence; the petrol long burnt high and falling back to saturate the oceans. Across a level strip of low plantation, white sheep are grazing the shoulders of muck-spread fields. The tractors groan, and I watch them for a minute ~ red diesel burning this time. Higher again, at the end of the track, three-peaked coal spoils loom like a Cirque de Doom. A buzzard circles. And then the planes above them… and the jet fuel.
All feels pulled taught, up here on top, as if the flanks of the hill are stretched in numerous directions by human ambition. And I am stock-still. There is a harshness and it is difficult. Folded up and inwards, down and outwards, is layered human fear and I’ll explain.
I have written before about fear. It’s my own greatest fear. Fear is also a vital emotion driving ecological processes. In predator/prey relationships, it keeps the death tolls in check and encourages growth via avoidance. There are moments of disperal, life and death decisions shaped by distress, such as perturbation, the anxiety of parenting, the dread of dehydration. Fear is a dynamic force. As for a fear of death itself, we don’t know for sure whether other life forms experience it, but I’m going to hazard an easy guess ~ this is the reality.
We evolved fear shaped by predators and foe, but now we cultivate it in order to justify our vestigial biochemical responses. We have substituted the predators with many things, not least a fear of not having cash, cashcards, cheques. These are the things that buy us food, clothes and shelter; the bread and butter of the banking sector.
Money: In a currency based economy we all need it. Most of our energy is now directed towards it. And quite spectacularly, our substitute fear emerges. Poverty. Once a few chieftans and monarchs cottoned-on that commodity (and later representative) money can hold so much power over others, there unleashed a beast of finding new ways to accumulate it. Money can buy war, land, water, soils. It buys miners and pit ponies. And families. It destroys and pollutes ecosystems. It can grow itself in the form of interest, or as collateral given in advance on bricks and mortar. It can earn an income in working for the machine of making money, and in dividends from consumptive companies and in their burning of energy.
Those with money strive to protect it, for the fear of losing it. Those without money… it shapes things. It manifests real things and loss, grief and despair.
Poverty is an enemy of the biosphere. Fear of poverty is perhaps its truer enemy.
Production, waste, driven to the wall. It’s all here on this hill. We can argue the good that has come from these competitive efforts. There is even creativity and innovation in widening market niches, and in producing breakthroughs in medical science and global communication. But it has also produced a culture where the ‘wolves’ of Wall Street become idols, where the richest 1% own 45% of the world’s entire wealth, and where debt and suffering are accepted as a human cost. Global-inequality, catastrophic biospheric change (the ultimate cost), the capitalist extremes and the neoliberal power with a vice-like grip on governments and economies. The effects of this truly invasive alien here on this hill ~ poverty and the fear of it ~ are obvious and ingrained.
Yet all I hear, still, is an ornicophony of birdsong.
After the retreat of the ice, and for a very long time, these valleys and hills were rich, living paradises. Steep temperate rainforests and cool rivers thrummed lush with the mainstay of life, diversity and interconnectivity. Then the people came, and cordoned hunting grounds and small farms. But it was the ironstone and coal ~ the black gold ~ fused between the mudstones and ferricrete that fetched in the opportunists, the mine owners, the Marquises and the most radical upheavels and then brutal pit closures. This is the tension I still feel today.
Lower down, in regenerating woodland, near the old pit-head laden with car breakers and high fences, the Anthropocene reveals itself again as a black smear of coal dust atop cuttings made for logging trucks. I stand and glare, noticing the thickness of about two inches, imagining it in future excavations as a thin black line. It goes into me. The thought is a unique kind of depression. It aches. It represents the displacement of so much, on a planet so rare and beautiful, and for the temporary advancement of one species only. Humans.
I miss my father. We would have talked about all of this across the kitchen table. Kettle boiling, the back door propped open with an old cobblers anvil; he’d have told me stories of the mines, the men, the ponies, his mother. My father’s family drifted from Welsh rural and Bristolian industrial poverty to the Swansea chemical works and then to the Valleys of coal, like magnets to ironstone, to suffer from the damp and dust, and a daily threat of death in the deep mines. To be trapped in a cycle of the fear of poverty. Despite my strong mitochondrial Mid Walian DNA, I surely have blood in these hills too, like the oxalic acid of the leaves of the wood sorrel. Away northwest, at Mountain Ash, his father was a smithy, fixing tools and pit pony hooves. The paternal grandfather was a pit head winder controlling the cage lifts, an honourable and responsible role, though known as Mad Jack. Make of this what you will, but he disliked the maternal grandfather ~ muscle at the very same coal face, who rode those cages each day.
Pit ponies felt fear ~ such beauty and strength locked into darkness with explosions and air pressure blasts, engines, metal, sweat. The men shared a fate of injury or death, but then also of dependents left with nothing. In just one incident (out of hundreds in South Wales), 8 men lost their lives and 43 horses, as brutal a scene as any witnessed and traumatic for all survivors. And yet now it has passed. There is silence in those tunnels. This path I walk ought to be made of bones.
My father loved the pit ponies and the vision of their annual holiday ‘up top’ as been gifted to me. Once a year, the ponies would be raised from their Hadean stables and shackles to run wild in light and on grass. Manes and tails high, I imagine the frisk, the nose nods, the eyes blinking in stark sun and the sudden and shocking speed of sore, muscled bodies. Then, the misery of returning to the austerity of the pit head buildings, a cage and deep, dark hole. Down in Llanbradach mine, a pony went mad, bolting into engines and starting them, resulting in a man’s death. There’s no mention of whether the pony survived, though because of my father, I know there would have been men more devastated by the pony’s death. They were loved. These animals were comrades in the face of danger, soldier-buddies of the smithies, the ostlers and the timbermen.
Today, down in the valley, the vrum of the cars on the dual carriageway paid for by European cash snakes its way up through the air and to my ears. In these Valleys, in ribbons of human development that loop in and around the rivers and the railways, where rates of arson and violence are high, the Far Right lurk, garnering support from those who kick back at the ‘establishment’ Left. The Left in Wales is a legacy of pit deaths, tuberculosis, and the rise of the glorious NHS. But it tumbled into a trap of Thatcherite ‘inward investment’ economies, delivered by quangos in cohort with slick retailers and call centres. Labour became the elite, and it’s getting a kicking. In the Euro Elections, the xenophobes are winning here. Wales has a problem. With poverty, and the fear of it. The re-greening of the valleys after the mines is not a linear course.
But there is hope in these wood sorrels and the bluebells. And in the birdsong. But for the coal that started the death-grip of the biosphere, and the unspoken fear that drove its extraction, and the coal spoils that loom Tolkien-like, and the bones of men and ponies, and the ghosts… this is still a bounteous place. The seeds are here. The birdsong. The insects. A new yet ancient kind of wealth could grow, if we allow it.
Even shiny new wind turbines on the horizon, pale arms waving to a prevailing wind, cannot quieten the birds. 415ppm Co2, and they still sing.