I was sent on assignment to the Elan Valley. I was sent to the Caban Coch reservoir—a dam constructed so as to resemble a waterfall, it supplies Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham, with its water. The city itself, some 80 miles away, can be seen as a faint orange glow on the horizon; otherwise, the valley is empty—place a glass of water on a table and let it settle, and you know how clear the nights are there.
I went on assignments alone; yet this time there was no pub landlord, no radon-infused odour from Cornish stones. It was just me and my bivvy bag and the waterfall’s ozone. My approach to travel is minimalist, I have a fascination for reduction: I delight to see a room stripped, disposal and removal are pleasures for me. We carry too much, in my view; we could stand to lose a lot—the art of losing isn’t hard to master, so goes the lesbian refrain.
I spent a week in America with a shoulder bag, skipped baggage reclaim—roused suspicious stares, was deemed eccentric. In Wales, at the reservoir, I carried more—bivvy bag, sleeping bag. This was a more serious proposition than a transatlantic flight. When the last car left the visitor centre I felt the pall: the moment when we are really alone. Eighty miles away millions of people were huddled—and they huddled to avoid my situation. Man will stand anything rather than to stand on his own.
The immediate sensation is that there is a threat like a static charge. We were not bred to this. The man alone was picked off, by animals or other tribes—all your ancestors scurried after the hunt as it retreated. All your uncles and cousins who dawdled in prehistory died. So you stand in an empty car park and feel a non-specific threat, even though you are the only man within fifteen miles—or so you hope, for if you met a man in an empty car park at dusk he could only be up to no good; though, of course, perhaps you are up to no good. Men alone are suspect, a man alone with his thoughts has the warlock touch. Without the city’s orange glow, his thoughts might go anywhere—indeed, he might come to wonder if his thoughts are in him at all. And why so proprietorial? Are these “your” thoughts, or did you receive them from the ether? Who said that? There’s no one here.
Fear tinged with melancholy, the twilight melancholy that usually lasts a moment, becomes acute when you are alone. The aloneness comes then, as a wave—as a recollection, the voices and faces slide before you. There is a sensation that is like death: it is their death, being so far from you; and it is your death, for without another voice self becomes fungible. Oh, “you” are there; it is just the anchors have been heaved up—perhaps you will to talk to yourself. The trees and rocks telescope now, shimmer as if surrounded by heatwaves; psychic waves.
This is all a little melodramatic, no? After all, it has barely been ten minutes and I have not left the car park. All I can hear is the water in its ceaseless gush over the dam; if there is life here, it is that waterfall—it really does talk to me, although the voice is impersonal beyond reply. Expand the timeframe, from a short sojourn at Walden to a hermit’s ten-year retreat. Let it be known, men were not meant to walk alone; and the man who walks alone has become, as the ancients said, an animal—a werewolf, a skinwalker, a nightstalker. The men outside the city walls are purer, wilder—and, in a sense, not men.
I climbed up to a small ledge to watch the sun set. Here I found a sheep sprawled out, one eye pecked clean away—the rib cage was slightly exposed beneath shredded flesh. This did not provoke fear, there are no wolves here anymore—or even men to kill a lamb. It was no omen, you know an omen when you see it. I found a depression filled with heather and slid into my bivvy. As night fell, the birds called out and the calls bounced off the rock walls back and forth in answer to each other. On the far shore a car came, played music, and left—enough to prickle my hairs. An instinct caused me to sit up straight from time to time—just to be sure; and there was always nothing. In the bag, in the open, there was vulnerability: my hands were clamped to my sides; the technology that kept me warm removed my only defence, my hands.
When I opened my eyes I saw the stars, white field upon field; and when you can see the stars an ink-blue force stirs within that can be drawn up by nothing else—for the most part we forget, then when we see it we are in the deep home. I slept for a time and then opened my eyes to see the space station slide like melted butter across the star field. As with all man’s contrivances it could not stay, unlike the aeonic stars it slid away in a minute. On and off I slept, until very early I made my way down to my car and away.
How many men have stood alone? I mean really alone, alone with themselves; alone with the tension, with the emanations from rocks and trees and sunk into stars. It is death to hear the wind blow through you—to know you are nothing to it, nothing at all; to know why we build warm houses and wrap ourselves up inside and chatter to cover the space where Nothing waits for us, to swallow up everyone you ever knew or loved or even glanced at. No, few have gone to the outside.