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Aberthaw


Upon the half-damp earth – the fresh, living memory of petrichor still-settling sits; where the ghost of last-night's rainfall dances with the echoes of last-month's dry dust.

Under the moist layers of loam and sandy silt lie the long and low memories of the land. These lodged splinters – thorns caught under calloused earth-skin – are the scars of industry; still white, and raw, and healing slowly. I journey – one-foot, two-foot – over mud that hides a bed of old lime, coal dust and the traces of cement that fall whenever the winds blow from the west. This land holds their story; I try to listen – the land tries to tell. It speaks with the subtlety of birdsong spun daydreams; ephemeral as smoke on the winds, as passing-permanent as the slow-shifting grind of continents.

Its language is larger than my own; a murmur made of many mouths woven in an interconnected hum of inhuman tongues – impenetrable and profound to my smallness of being.

I'm moved to digest it in fragments. To take the whole and break away that which I can safely swallow. For me – it is in myth and metaphor that I find comfort, so this is what the land offers me – stories.


It's a bright-grey early May evening – close and muggy – the damp thickness of humidity clinging to my body. The sun hastens towards the hidden west; the light through the clouds breaking into sparkling nothings and a squint-eyed white glare.


I'm walking the narrow old railway scar that once rattled with wagons transporting stone and coal to the lime-works and the long dismantled Aberthaw docks. I pass crooked old-man hawthorns, decked in trailing robes of ivy; past speedwell and dock; hogweed and bramble – all bursting with spring vigour. As my feet take me deeper into the tangled undergrowth – one adder-wary eye on my ankles – I reflect on this peaceful moment – far removed from the distant war grinding on – disconnected from the lingering spectre of the pandemic.

Even the faceless threat of the mass extinction ensnaring the globe feels alien to this calm, birdsong laced hush of moody coppices and twisting thorn-limbed giants. The timeless tranquillity of the green is still – and silent.


A crack-snap underfoot spooks me – jump-start – heart-beat – eye-sharp – fear-feet.

The threat triggers an ancient wariness, some low-down deep and dirty animal instinct inside. I scan the floor for serpentine shapes.

It was a stick.

Neither dangerous nor frightening.

Simply bone-dry and ready to break.


I breathe out - a heady exhale of released tension and self-mocking humour.

The snake in the mind is always the most frightening.


Passing the towering stand of sycamores that watch me with inscrutable bark-eyes – keeping a silent council amongst themselves – I duck-weave down the fox-trail of blackthorn thickets, where creeping old man's beard battles the mile-a-minute vine for supremacy. The buzz of insects is low and infrequent and I wonder if this is normal for such a thick-sticky swamp-woodland. What would my grandmother have seen, if she had visited here as a child? How far has our baseline perception of normality shifted in these few generations?


The close-tangling web of trees opens out into the wide channel-path that leads to the ruins. My steps quicken as I break free of grasping branch-claws and thorny spike-snares and cross a wide carpet of daisies – specks of beauty conspiring with the hawthorn blossoms to make floral constellations – white stars on a galaxy of rough earth.

Before me – the steep-rising lime-works wall; part fortification, part hollow temple to the gods of lost industries. I weave through, and in, and under, and out – eyes crawling for a way up the sheerness. I take in the iron hopper of the kilns; the deep channels where the wagons would circumnavigate; the piled off-cast lime-heaps buffering the winds blowing through the high doorway. I eye up sunken crooks where wooden joists once sat; empty brick picture-frame windows, the bulging buttress of a broken wall – an invitation to climb.


Up and up – slow-steady with sure movements I ascend – a gentle layback, bridging to a rough smear and a hook to balance. There's no rush or quickness in my body, every cell knows that precision is worth more than speed. The lofty jug of a windowsill offers the perfect temptation. For a moment I'm aware of the height and the severity of the exposed wall, but that fades quick with the ease of the transition. I'm up and content to sit – just above the treetops – safe on the window-ledge.


Below me - two men walk past, oblivious to the verdant landscape, talking about IT systems. Away on the path – a dog-walker; head down, hands in pockets, trudges by; rejecting the tranquillity of the lakeside for speed and efficiency. Beyond the lake itself – with its nesting waterbirds, impenetrable reed-beds and dense borders of deadly water-dropsy – is the sea wall; squat, grey and hard as a clenched fist. Following it to the horizon, I see the bulkhead of the coal-dust spoil-heap obscuring the rising chimney of the decommissioned power plant. Northwards lie the rusting-red towers of the cement works, gently rumbling. Just out of sight – beyond the hill – runs the chained river Thaw; diverted and channelled to feed the steam-fires. The lake below me and the shape-shifting lagoon beyond remain in testimony to the estuary that once was.


The shape and song of this nature reserve - at first, wild and unrestrained, becomes one of human hands toiling; creaking old ships, the clash and clang, the sweat and bang, the back breaking, arm aching, hot fires raging, roar of workmen and laboured breath.

The rise of industries – and then – their death.

Each has left its mark – the old harbour is a lake of faded memories; the lime-works is a ruin, ageing in the wind; the power-plant is freshly abandoned and imposing; the cement-works rumbles on, on for another fifty years.


As I sit – in a high and quiet reverie – reflecting on the fate of industry and the resilience of nature – focus drifting from scrubby sea-buckthorn to the hunched crab-apples cowering on the seaward side of the wall – I hear a voice upon the wind.

Once upon a time - “

the voice says -

“When the world was young,

and things had yet to find their true shape;

there was -

a city;

rare and fine,

towers glittering in the morning sun,

palaces of gold and glass;

and yet the people of that city were discontent -

they sought a way to live forever.

The wisest of them said “This cannot be done! We must find our peace with Death, not seek to escape her!”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


One day there came to the city a serpent-

a serpent made of mind-stuff and the song of thoughts on the wind-

with a voice like honey and eyes like stars -

and the serpent said to the people “I have that which you seek, I have the knowledge of life eternal.”

This brought great rejoicing amongst the people,

there was laughter and merriment on the streets,

but the wise said “Can we trust this serpent? Where will this lead us?”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


Under the guidance of the serpent the people constructed a great engine -

a Machine that fed on many minerals;

that rumbled,

and roared,

and growled,

and groaned.

The Machine spat fire-

the Machine belched smoke-

the Machine shook the earth-skin-

and the wise spoke “This Machine is violent and destructive! Nothing good can come of it, we must turn it off for the sake of the earth!”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


The serpents promise came true -

the river of Death was diverted -

when the Machine ate -

the people could not die -

when the Machine slept -

a wave of deaths would wash over the land.

So -

the people decided-

for the sake of all-

never to turn it off.

And the wise asked “Must we forever feed this beast? What happens when there is nothing left for it to eat?”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


All was good -

and fair-

and fine -

all was free within the immortal city -

and the people lived lives of great ease.

Until a dark day came -

the sources of food for the Machine –

the mines and plantations -

were bare and barren,

the Machine clunked -

and sputtered -

and spat -

to a halt.

Death walked and the old immortals hid in fear from her.

A council was called to solve the dilemma -

at the council the wise asked “Would it not be better to simply leave the Machine to sleep? Must we destroy more of the land in order to feed it?”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


The decision was made -

new mines would be dug,

new forests cut,

new land harvested -

to feed the Machine.

And the people of the city worked harder than ever,

and spent less time at leisure,

and more time feeding the fires,

and yet still the new mines would dry,

the new forests fail,

the new land would waste -

And the wise asked “Must we watch everything we love be destroyed, simply that we may live forever? Is it worth the price?

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


Eventually there were no more mines to dig,

no more forests to fell,

no more land to barren,

and the Machine would stop and start -

and stop -

and start -

as the people struggled to find food for the furnace.

So they turned on their city itself -

dismantling their fine towers -

their palaces of gold,

all so that they might live forever.

And the wise asked “What will you do when your city is no more? What will you feed it next?”

But the people mocked the wise and called them fools.


The city was gone;

rubble and ruins -

broken glass -

ash-grass -

rust and dust.

The people suffered -

and fed the Machine the scraps they could find -

their soil,

their food,

their clothes,

and the wise looked at them in pity.

“You may be immortal, but this life is far more miserable than the one you had before.”

But the people had no strength left to mock.

So the wise said -

“We will do what we can to help you.

We are old.

We have lived far longer than we had any right too.

Death holds no fear for us.

Let the Machine take us, that you may live a little longer.”

And so -

the wise stepped into the fire,

into the noise,

the iron teeth,

and the jaws.

Yet the moment they entered -

and Death came to collect them -

the Machine

broke

down.


And the people looked at the hollow world they had created,

as Death began her walk once more,

and they realised that it was they - who had been the fools all along.


The Machine now lies red-rusting in the healing-green.

The descendants of the once-immortals ask their elders what it had once been.

'A mistake.'

- they are told -

'Just a foolish mistake.' ”


I relax on the window-ledge, watching the setting sun weave honey-gold snake patterns on the water below. From the shell of the lime-works I look – to the power-plant, awaiting its unknown fate; to the soft smoke rising from cement-works – and I wonder what tomorrow's children will see here. I wonder what stories will be told of these ruins we leave them.

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