Several weeks ago I moved to the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, washing dishes and plating up food for hungry hikers and tired cyclists at the Danywenallt youth hostel. I am, irrefutably, in the sticks: a forest of hazel, rowan and oak overhangs the rear of the staff cottage, whilst a band of hills and low-lying mountains – the park’s central peaks – dominates the front. Sheep graze the nearby slopes, brought down from higher ground by shepherds onto the lush lowlands of the Caerfanell river valley, and, just metres to the south sits Taylbont Reservoir – a placid sheet of freshwater, topped-up by its bordering topography.
Within the first few days of my arrival into the park, I had climbed most of the peaks within view of my bedroom window. Though far from outlandish ascents, the vistas – each standing between four-hundred and six-hundred metres – allowed me to gather my bearings. Over the days that followed, my focus fell upon the valley floor: the sunken tramroads, cobbled and worn; the boulder-filled rivers; the thickets of walnut saplings, blackberry bushes and wild raspberries. Gradually, I began to understand where I was.
‘Tawny owls’, Stephen, a bush craft guide and local to the area, informed.
‘I thought so, but I couldn’t be sure,’ I returned. Singing through dusk, I had gone to bed each night with the call of the bird close to my ears.
‘It’s two, you know.’
‘The sound you hear, ke-VICK… hu WHOOooooo! The first call – ke VICK – is the female, and the second – hu WHOOooooo – is the male. They sing as one.’
Later that night, a little before retiring to bed, I opened the front door of the cottage and looked out at the night. There was no moon and, in spite of the faint starlight, darkness filled the valley before me. Fulfilling their nocturnal courtship, the owls began to call, first the female, then the male. Two spirits perceived as one. Now, if that isn’t love…
We climbed to the cave in the midday heat, appreciative of the shade as its vault eclipsed the sun. Fifty metres separated its base from its roof. We cut off the steep path and scrambled between two crags, pausing to catch our breaths as the ground beneath our feet became loose. For all its height the cave was relatively shallow, and our hands were soon upon the dusty surface of the back wall.
A hundred metres below lay the flatlands of Santorini’s south-eastern coastal plains. Lethargic waves rolled onto the island’s black volcanic sands, pushing the scent of sea salt and plant resin into my airways.
Waking me from my reverie, a flock of turtle doves winged into the cave, dislodging a bank of debris as they came to rest somewhere in the cavity’s upper reaches. Landing not far from my person, part of me wished I’d been beneath the rockfall; I could think of no greater souvenir from our adventure than an abrasion from a dove in a cave.
From the blackbird to the robin, the chaffinch to the dunnock, to begin a day to the dawn chorus is to remember ourselves and to truly feel alive.