I can’t remember who bought me ‘Deep Country’ for Xmas, but Neil Ansell’s autobiographical account of five years living in a Victorian game-keeper’s cottage in the Welsh hills turned out to be a lot more than a stocking-filler. Indeed, by the end I was rationing myself to a few pages at a time, just to prolong the number of nights that I went to sleep with images in my head of duelling sparrowhawks, darting kingfishers and glow-worms “shining in the night like a star that had come to earth”.
Ansell was in his early thirties when he decided to escape the big city for unspecified reasons and without any particular plan, other than to get away from everyone and everything.
His chosen bolt hole was a stone hut in the Cambrian mountains, which lacks running water, gas, central heating, or plumbing. After fixing up the guttering and unblocking the chimney, the author’s days “were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching”.
He recalls so much and is able to describe it so beautifully because his “attention was constantly focussed away from myself and on to the natural world”, while “my nights were spent sitting in front of the log fire, aimlessly turning a log from time to time and staring at the flickering flames.”
In contrast, the rest of the animal world seems to have been quite active in the Welsh Hills, from Gosshawks soaring with an eye on prey, to boxing hares (apparently it’s not just Jacks duelling with Jacks over a mate, but also Jills fighting off unwanted attentions), and female gossanders managing creches of up to thirty chicks at a time, while other new mothers claim a few moments of me time.
Choosing the favourite observations to note here is almost as hard as picking desert island discs (‘Thunder Road’ aside), but I can’t write a review without mentioning the passage where Ansell is about to concede defeat in a quest to work out where a favourite bird of prey has made its nest, only for the shadow cast by a setting sun to reveal the perfect silouhette of said owl in the ghostly outline of massive oak tree. The sub-plot where the owl-chicks learn to fly almost had me in tears.
Duelling sparrowhawks were more easily visible:
“A sunny morning in late spring, sitting on the doorstep looking out over a silent hillside. Suddenly a sparrow-hawk pair burst from behind the cottage, one to the left and one to the right. They were flying straight out at great speed, the ground falling away beneath them. As they reached the bottom of the front field, the little male plunged down, then turned and swooped direcly up at his mate, as if he were about to attack her from beneath. As he reached her he rolled on to his back and locked talons withher, and the two birds started to tumble downwards, wings flailing wildly. Just as it seemed they were beyond the point of no return and would be dashed on the ground, they separated and raced into the woods below, their wingtips brushing the tops of the long grass. It was a breathtaking display of aerial mastery that was over in seconds but was unforgettable. As quickly as they appeared they were gone, leaving just the fields basking in the morning sunshine, and the hillside ringing with sudden emptiness.”
Which just leaves a story related to Ansell by his landlord, of a tenant farmer who ran home shouting that otters were killing his sheep. Preposterous as it sounds, it turns out that:
“A pair of [otter] cubs had constructed themselves a mudslide on the riverbank, and they were evidently having such fun chasing each other down the slide and splashing into the water that they decided to spread the joy. They began to bound around the riverside field and round up sheep as though they were sheepdog puppies, and drive them one by one on to the slide and into the river.”
I could go on until I have reprinted practically the entire book. But suffice it to say that while there are plenty of boringly introspective memoirs of unhappy people who escape in order to find themselves, this isn’t one of them.
Instead, the author turns out to be somewhat incidental to the tale. Indeed, on reviewing his diary Ansell notes that after about twelve months in the cottage he disappears from even his own narrative, having achieved what a Buddhist friend of mine described as a state of ‘no mind’, able to observe the world around him without worrying about his role in it.
I’m not sure I could ever attain a state of ‘no mind’, but sitting here in yet another hotel room (this time in Beijing), at the whiskey end of yet another hectic day, ‘Deep Country’ has once again made me instantly relaxed, and this time just from writing about it. Thank you Neil Ansell – ‘Deep Country’ is a five star hit.