On Mists and Monotheism
When I parked on the side of the road, just north of the town of Llithfaen, I could hardly see 3 metres ahead. The highway curved away in front and behind, disappearing into thick mist. To the side, the land dropped down abruptly, a wall of solid gray. I could just make out a trail marker, pointing steeply up a bracken covered hillside. I laced up my boots and headed into the mist.
A stone wall ran straight up the hillside before disappearing into the cloud a short distance ahead. I walked for over an hour up the hill, completely surrounded by white. It was just me and the bracken, and beyond that there seemed to be nothing else in the world. It was hard to keep track of time or space, and part of me worried I would get lost in the haze. I kept trudging on up the hill, isolated in the moment.
When the ground began to flatten out, I thought I had reached the top of the hill. I crossed over a stone wall, which looked like it could be the surrounding wall of the fort drawn out on the map. I looked around for the ruins of buildings, but didn’t find anything. I was disappointed that I had walked so far with the promise of an incredible hill fort, and this was all that I had found.
Suddenly, a massive pile of rock appeared in front of me. It was so big it felt like its own mountain, yet I couldn’t see it until I was right up against it. Everything was full white, thick cloud in all directions, and suddenly this massive fort appeared out of nowhere. I almost didn’t believe it, as if the thickness of the air was causing me to hallucinate. I had had no idea that it was there, 5 metres ahead, and then suddenly I was face to face with the best preserved Iron Age hill fort in Britain.
Tre’r Ceiri was built as early as 200 BCE, and was in use for hundreds of years. During the Roman Occupation, as many as 400 people lived within its walls. It’s perched on the summit of Yr Eifl in the north of Wales, and many of its walls are still intact, reaching 13 feet high in some places.
A rocky path headed up to the top of the ramparts, curving around the base of the fort. The going was tough. At times it felt like it was just a pile of rocks, and I had to work hard to imagine each stone being placed methodically, thousands of years ago. At 450 metres above sea level, I continued upwards, into what can only be described as a castle in the clouds.
I spent well over an hour exploring the fort. Inside were dozens of small round houses, half submerged into the ground. The outer walls connected together to form a solid mass, with spaces cleared out to make rooms. They were remarkably well preserved for being over 2000 years old. The whole time the mist stayed close in, making it feel like I was the only person in the world.
It creates an interesting sort of focus. When you can only see what’s directly in front of you, there’s nothing else - nothing to distract. You’re wholly, 100% in the moment. And it almost made things easier. If I had stood on the highway, looking up at the towering fort, it would have been far more intimidating. But when you can only see 5 steps ahead, there’s nowhere to go but forward. There’s nothing else besides rocks and mist and the inclement Welsh weather.
At the northern end of Snowdonia National Park lies the town of Llanberis, deriving its name from the nearby Llyn Peris, or Peris Lake. This used to be slate country. In the 18th century Wales was at the centre of the world’s slate industry, with the mountains of Snowdonia being carved deep. Just this week, the slate quarries of North Wales were given World Heritage Site status, cementing their importance in British history.
The Dinorwic Quarry rises above the waters of Llyn Peris, with incredible views over the north-eastern face of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain. The sides of the quarry are littered with piles of slate offcuts. They cover the mountain, looking as if they could tumble down at any moment. A passageway runs through the rubble, lined on both sides with piled slate walls. The views down are dizzying, as the path rises steeply up the side of the mountain. But at the same time, there’s nowhere to go. You’re standing there, surrounded by thick slate walls, perched on the edge, but completely enclosed in an endless mass of slate.
The path rises upward. Eventually it clears the rubble, and you can explore level terraces of shacks that used to house the workers. Unsurprisingly, they’re all made of slate. The ground is covered in slate. Tiny pink flowers crawl out through the cracks. I sat down on a pile of slate to eat my lunch, and looked out over the slate houses to the rough slate edges of the quarry below.
There’s something really special about these types of environments, where you can completely surround yourself with one specific material. You get to see different manifestations of the same thing - slate as housing material, slate as discard, slate in its natural form. It’s all the same material, but we can see it being applied in so many different ways. It’s a really immersive experience of exploring different aspects of a material and surrounding ourselves with it.
I think that’s why I feel so connected to sheep. It’s not enough for me to simply buy yarn and knit with it - I want to know the sheep, and pick its fleece. I want to wash out the lanolin, and smell it on my fingers. I want to spin the wool once, twice, and ply them together, touching every fibre with my fingers before I finally knit it up. It’s not enough to experience it one way, I want to experience it from every different angle.
That’s what these places felt like to me. A hill fort on its own is nice. But a hill fort that projects you into the clouds and shrouds you in such intense mist that there’s nothing to do except be with that mist is incredible. A slate quarry where you walk on slate and sit on slate and look at slate and are fully immersed in slate is unreal.
In the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), when Moshe is soliloquizing to the Jewish people before they enter into the land of Israel (4:35), he says to them:
אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד מִלְבַדּֽוֹ
Ain Od Milvado
There is nothing besides Him
The simplest interpretation of this statement is a denial of false gods. Moshe is telling the Jewish people that their idol worship is no good, Ain Od Milvado.
But a deeper reading of the text focusses in on the first part of the sentence - Ain Od. The commentators explain that there’s literally nothing else - that every material and energy in the world comes from one same place. There is no other source. You may think that that place is God, or energy, or atoms, or whatever it may be, but our tradition speaks of this connection, of the materials of the world all being deeply intertwined.
We see so many different objects in the world. Our tradition calls us to look deeper and acknowledge that while externally these things may look different, they all come directly from that source. Even though I see a table, or a flower, or a bottle of water, when you get into it, these are all physical manifestations of this same core energy. The slate is an excellent metaphor, because although it may appear to us differently - as houses, crumbled on the ground, as a path, as a mountain - it’s really all the same thing.
At times it can be obvious. At times we get the gift of experiencing entire landscapes made entirely of slate, and we can see the real tangible metaphor for this energy that permeates every object in creation. At times it can be more difficult. During my daily life, it’s a lot less obvious. I see things which seem good, and things which seem bad, and it’s not immediately obvious that they all come from this same place. I see things which can feel really detached from myself, and I need to work hard to understand how we’re all part of the same thing. But whether it’s obvious, or we don’t see it at all, this source of energy, of creation, surrounds us as completely and thickly as the mist clinging to the top of Yr Eifl.
As I descended from the hill fort, the mist began to clear. Blue peaked out through the clouds, and I could make out hilltops higher up, and the valley far below. The stones became more saturated, the grass a vivid green. The world I descended to was wholly different than the world I had left that morning. But I brought with me that experience of being surrounded, that reminder of what totality can feel like, and the desire to continue acknowledging that hidden presence in every aspect of my life.
Tre’r Ceiri Hill Fort is at the northern end of the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. From Llithfaen, take the B4417 northeast towards Llanaelhaearn. There is a small, unmarked parking lay-by on the left side of the road, about two-thirds of the way to Llanaelhaearn. From there, a small trail marker points uphill to Tre’r Ceiri. It took ages in the mist, but you could probably get to the fort in 45 minutes in good weather. There’s an option to extend the walk up to a second summit. A map is helpful, as there are multiple trails at the top, but no trees so in good weather you should be able to make it out. Parking was very limited, room for 3 or 4 cars, although there were a few other small lay-bys earlier on.
The Dinorwic Slate Quarry is next to the town of Llanberis, in the north of Snowdonia National Park. There is no free parking. You could park at Padarn Country Park or the National Slate Museum, both are around ￡5 per day. Head up a way-marked trail, starting just east of the traffic circle that crosses between Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris. It’s quite steep, and heads up through trees and then across the slate quarry. Even though it’s steep and uphill, it is a properly made path. Once in the quarry, there are all sorts of detours you can take to explore the old mining huts. At the top, you reach a viewpoint. The path continues on to the right to loop around Llyn Peris, but I opted to trace my steps halfway down, then detour through the forests of Llyn Padarn Country Park, ending up back at the National Slate Museum parking lot. The museum is free and looked great, but was closed unfortunately.