Committal in Snowdonia – a guest post on mourning and place-time
July 6, 2012 2 Comments
The following is a guest post by my friend Elizabeth Trott. In text and photographs she presents a rich description of the interwoven nature of time and place in an event of devotion – the committal of her mother’s ashes to the mountain streams of Snowdonia. The account resonates deeply with a quote I heard at one of the sessions in the RGS conference this week:
“Death takes from us…someone through whom the world, and first of all our own world, will have opened up”
Jacques Derrida (2001) The Work of Mourning
Committal in Snowdonia
The land is so green. Who can be surprised? It rained so much that we saw the legs of the benches next to Llyn Padarn under water as we drove to Betws. It is June. Driving up to the pass (Pen y Pass) was hairy. Great plumes of water flying up at every bend, and pouring, even leaping, off the rocky streams and rock faces high above us, and overspilling their drainage resevoirs behind the stone walls which mostly edge the road. Cloud covered Snowdon, Crib Goch, Crib y Ddysal and Moel Siabod as we descended the other side of the pass. One could see the weather moving across the valleys and mountains.
The valley, ‘our’ valley, struck me with force as I saw it again for the first time in probably 25 years. The part our cottage is in is like an amphitheatre of grass and granite mountain, less towering than the Snowdon range opposite it, but still of a scale and stark grandeur, with its proportionately tiny signs of human habitation (unchanged since our childhood), that coming face to face with it, and recollecting it as Ma’s and Dad’s chosen place (and the cottage as their find and labour of love – a site of a happy part of all our lives – ) brought tears to my eyes. Catching sight of the cottage in the vast land vividly brought to mind their taste and commitments in wanting to be in this place – the most severely beautiful in all North Wales.
I began to see then that this place – special both to us and independently of us – is exactly the right resting place for our mother. B was more inspired in his desire for it than he knew at the time perhaps. And when, the following morning, we did walk down the valley and once again up the track from the road, and up through the field below the cottage, and over the stile and up to our ‘Children’s Rock’ and beyond to the stream, then I did also feel how much this was a homecoming and a uniquely right place to lay Ma to rest, to return her to the earth, the creation.
Over the fence, which had been erected (to our disgust) since our time there and which cuts off access to the waterfall along its whole course, we seemed to enter another atmosphere. The steep sides of grass and earth rise sharply from the stones and rushing water. We sat down and looked about us. The sun slanted between the trees and lit the water. After a brief discussion – we’d come to the confluence of the two waterfalls (which flow down the mountain) and agreed it was appropriate – there was silence. The sun was now hot. We all still sat and looked around. B roused us, “Well, shall we do it?” We scrambled down to the particular spot we’d decided on. One each on three large flatish stones next to a pool C and I poured in Ma’s ashes, taking turns; B watched, though not fixedly. The water coloured and the ashes sank strongly into the current and were whirled away. As C poured near the edge the ashes seemed to swirl right into the rocks we squatted on, colouring the water pinkish grey. We joked about Ma being earth-loving. There was no other talking, but everything felt natural, and unstrained. It seemed good to have put her remains into a moving thing, and a natural and beautiful one.
Earlier I’d mentioned to the others the document which had come with the ashes. It said any disposal on private land must be agreed with the landowner. We did not do this. More from a sense of entitlement than conspiracy, I think. We lingered by the bank, fixed by the live, bright sound of the water, and the hiddenness of the intricate network of pools and falls, pebbles and stones, with trees filling the steep sides and blocking out all sight of the waterfall, on this stretch, from the hill. It was as if all the childhood times here I had known this delight, but memory didn’t do it justice, couldn’t truly serve. Being there does do it justice. Then one knows what it is.
We decided to walk back down the course of the stream until we found the ‘Grown Ups’ Pool’, and just below it our island, which sits like a tiny grass Eden in the middle of the stream. At the far end there is a steep drop down smooth black rocks. But along its sides the water runs level and not very deep. We waded across and sat for a while on the grass, surrounded by trees and squinting in the sunlight. What an idyllic playground we’d had as kids here – unfettered freedom to play, immersed in nature. The grown ups never worried about us drowning, it seemed. I began really to notice all the amazing variety of flowers growing tight in the turf, the astounding fungus in a decayed tree nearby the spot we placed the ashes, the mossy rocks, ferns, and, as B said, to recognise individual rocks that are in exactly the same place as they were in our childhood. The sight of the tall moss-lined rock wall enclosing the far side of the Grown Ups’ Pool in particular made me feel I was seeing it again as my ten year old self. It was joyful, not disconcerting. I suppose the sun shining on us also recalled the heat and light, feel and smell of the grass and rocks, the sheep and insects and skies of childhood’s experience here. We must have sensually absorbed this place time after time to have it reawoken in us now. It is both a grand and an intimate place, to us and in itself; and this seems fitting for Ma.
Certainly there was an effect coming away up the wooded banks, sheep fleeing before us, back over the fence and down the steep field. I stood on the upper stile and stared out across the huge extent of the valley; I looked over my shoulder up to the horizon, to where the two waterfalls crash down the astonishing green face of the mountain surrounded by massive buttresses of granite to left and right.
I strongly felt we’d joined ourselves to a sacred past and sacred present place, and to Ma forever, by placing her here, amongst all these enduring, if not eternal, physical things to begin her eternity.