How wild is my valley – Wanderings and ponderings in two valleys

I am making links between two sites of current artist-residency projects – the Elan Valley, Wales and the Côa Valley in Portugal. The former is supported by the Heritage Lottery funded Elan Links project while the latter is part of the Europe-wide Endangered Landscapes Programme). This text contains embedded comments from CCRI researchers and associates.

In the Elan Valley in summer 2021, I participated in a ‘gathering’ – that is the rounding up of a dispersed herd of sheep from the high moorland area; then herding to the home farm for the following day’s wool-shearing. One aspect of this seasonal ‘event’ which fascinated me was the shared collective working, as neighbouring farmers came together to assist each other, following a long tradition of cooperation and reciprocal exchange. This rural practice reminded me of the shared ‘Meitheal’ harvest/threshing gatherings which were once the norm in my homeland in rural Ireland. I have a new-found interest in these forms of intangible cultural heritage, partly linked to an artistic research programme I’ve recently initiated, titled ‘Here Commons Everybody’, with support from the CCRI and Arts Council England.

Images from the Elan and Côa

“A clear message from many upland farmers across the UK, Europe and further afield is that these reciprocal and repeated actions help root them in the landscape and bring meaning, purpose and identity to their way of life and livelihoods. The sense that they are continuing a tradition established by their forebears and by doing so maintaining a practice that underpins their presence in the landscape as well as the landscape itself. These are the cultural connections between people and the landscape that root them in that place and give their activities meaning. Sometimes regulations and policy disrupt these practices and there is a sense of frustration that nature and managing the landscape are treated separately.” Chris Short, CCRI.

In situations of extended landscape-based artist residency, there is usually a form of gathering (-in); a herding-together of disparate thoughts and findings into ‘pens’ or clusters, for separation and processing. In lieu of wool, there is even a shearing off, or extracting, of material to then weave into a useful, beautiful – or at least insightful – outcome. In the farming context, as was clear from the shearing and gathering days on the Elan hills, these functional processes also create a social bonding and binding; a knitting together of community, sustenance and – ideally – multiple generations.

Bounded, unbounded and in-between: In Elan, the project area sits in what was traditionally ‘Cwmdaudwwr’ or the Commote of Two Waters – ‘commote’ being a medieval land division in Wales. The place-name derives from the prefix cym- (‘together’, ‘with’) and the noun bod (‘home, abode’). ‘In-between-ness’ can be seen as a necessary mindset of artistic presence; the need to oscillate between the imagination and the sensing of a real and changing cultural landscape of sheep farms, water infrastructure and tourism, in transit towards a potential future of more…what? more ecology, more vitality?, more restoration?, more protection?, more sanctuary? But what is a valid braiding or resonance with/for a creative practice in such a setting, or scene? The fluidity and ‘soft eyes’ of artistic attention can allow shifts in focus and perspective; zooming-in, in a fractal sense, into hidden micro-realms.

Elan Valley, macro-photo taken at concrete post marking watershed limit

The new artistic programme (Here Commons Everybody), supported by CCRI is also concerned with the in-between; with feral-ness, transition and new horizons. Engaging with ecologies and communities, its scope includes creative explorations in some UK rewilding zones, and the depopulating (now rewilding) terrain of the Côa Valley in NE Portugal.

As humans, we inhabit an ‘entangled’ world [a nod here to Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book, Entangled Life], often made more meaningful via creativity and poetics. Artistic activity necessarily swims in the undercurrents of shifting relationships, tensions and paradoxes. When in ‘the zone’, we seek hidden subtleties; meshes of affect and knowledges that connect diverse living entities and ecologies (and non-living ecologies too). A person and a body (and a landscape) are superficially what we see/perceive with our senses, but a body is also the blood-flow, the beating heart, the zinging nerves, the complex digestive process, the vital organs – all of which we don’t readily see. In a landscape, there are undercurrents, pulses and flows; and there are also emotional currents, cross-generational flows too; and traumas.

‘Cofiwch Cwm Elan’, echoing the Welsh Nationalist slogan ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’/ ‘Remember Tryweryn’

In the Elan Valley, trauma is evidenced in the presence of the reservoirs and imposing dams; and in the hints and upwellings from memories, stories, histories, songs and graffiti (see images above). Through the glass darkly comes both light and shadow as well as reflections. The currents here are not just underwater – but in the rain, clouds, mists, lakes, streams, bogs, underground waters and piped waters. All in a fluid continuum. And the stories, songs and species are in a continuum. This is ecology; it changes, morphs, coexists. We humans seek to precipitate change, but also to resist change – through systems, infrastructure, fences, boundaries, rights, laws, force…

Deep-time erases and ‘overcomes’ all. Poetics is partly about absorbing this reality. This was one of the themes of a short video (Between Two Waters) that I made for an Elan-derived installation at the Ten Acres Of Sound festival in Stirchley (Birmingham) in 2020. A second video in this series (Reservoir Birds) also touches on deep-time dynamics, hinting at the eventual dissolution and erosion of these enormous built structures – the Elan Valley dams. The birdsong included in the soundtrack echoes an imagined past as well as an anticipated future.

In a third short video piece for Ten Acres of Sound (Roadside Picnic), recorded under strange, uncanny lighting, I zoomed in to into a micro-community of mosses and lichens. With certain prosthetic tools (original meaning: ‘giving additional power’), we are enabled to go deeper, closer, smaller. Within the concept of Indra’s Net, everything is inter-connected…and by extension everywhere is connected too. While present in the Elan hills, we are connected – physically and imaginatively – to different places, such as: Birmingham (via a water pipeline); Iberia (rhododendron as an ‘invasive’ introduction); Germany (WWII ‘bouncing bombs’ testing); Ireland (my own origins, and the local archaeological feature called Crugyn Gwyddel Cairn or ‘Irishman’s Grave’); Rome/Italy through the nearby ‘Roman Camp’ archaeological remains.

Dwelling, refuge and restoration: In the braiding of the Elan and Côa valleys, I’m wondering too about a commonalities or correspondences between the Portuguese term saudade and the Welsh heraeth, which relates to ‘homesick’, but is much more. It is a longing which contains bitter-sweet pain, related to time, place and people. And then there is also the Welsh cynefin:

“Cynefin” is the state of being influenced by multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal and linguistic for example…It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.”

Cynefin is sometimes translated as ‘dwelling’.

Comment – Aimee Morse (CCRI):

“I have worked with farmer groups and farming families in Wales, researching these topics – especially in Snowdonia.

Overall, one of the most notable things in my research was the family element, with sons and daughters interested in staying on – instead of going to college, or going away. But this ‘passing down’ also needs to be supported with appropriate succession planning and business advice. Related to this, I was interested in what people had to say about their sense of loss. Like when farms are sold, and the new owners are not interested in livestock, but in  – say – creating a nature reserve. In one example there was some disquiet about a working sheep farm becoming a holiday-let business. The land was still rented to a neighbouring farmer, but it wasn’t the same; there was, again, a sense that something had been lost. The new owners did want to integrate with the local community, but as they weren’t farming, this was difficult, despite the community’s openness to newcomers.

There is also concern about the loss of the Welsh language. During my time in north Wales I was able to visit the annual Eisteddfod – here I was able to make connections with local farming families and begin to learn Welsh, or Cymraeg, myself. Its importance to local communities, particularly in the north, is undoubtable. A week’s immersion in Welsh song and poetry only emphasised the importance of both language and landscape; a real admiration for, and connection to, the landscape emerged in many arrangements I listened to and read. Moreover, I learned that if you lose the farming interactions and networks, this has implications for the vitality of the Welsh language. There are also some terms that are specific to farming, that don’t readily translate.

There are concerns about areas of rural Wales continuing to be living – and lived-in – landscapes. Going forward, we can’t just develop visions for rural communities which are based on seasonal employment in service sectors; we must consider solutions which support the development of diverse, sustainable rural communities. Nor will farms bought for tree-planting continue to contribute to rural communities in the way they once did – again, we witness sociocultural loss, for corporate businesses’ gain.

Farmers are open to change, but specifically changes that respect the way of life in the community and offer those living and working locally good lives and livelihoods. Many are already working with organisations such as Natural Resources Wales, the RSPB and the Snowdonia National Park Authority. They’re not set in their ways, but want change to happen on their terms, with their involvement, and I think that’s where ‘cynefin’ comes in as well. There’s this strong sense of local attachment, thriving relationships and collective voice, which can be used to bring social and environmental benefit. Dwelling is perhaps the best translation of cynefin into English – the word carries a sense of presence and, to take Heidegger’s work on dwelling as an example, suggests a sense of being at one with our surroundings. This place attachment is unique to an individual, lending them a feeling of belonging and a deep understanding of the land in which they work. Change which respects local knowledges, voices and livelihoods is likely to be respected and upheld in return.

My main research focus is now in England, and on the social outcomes of a particular scheme which aims to encourage collaboration in farming; how do we build relationships and share knowledge with one another in a way which will hopefully lead to environmental change? I’m hearing similar stories of attachment and commitment to the land on farms and in communities across England; however, the strength of feeling and place-attachment that is apparent in Welsh hill-farming still interests me and I hope a return to Wales may one day be on the cards. It’s safe to say that it was only when my time working in the area had ended that I truly began to understand another word which was frequently mentioned by farmers: hiraeth, a deep sense of longing for a place.

As well as imagined birdsong (video-link above), there is also a real and present soundscape of birdsong, and insect buzzings too – recorded over my many visits. In a way, it is clear that the role of refuge, shelter or sanctuary (awaiting future habitat expansion) can be seen as a key aspect of many of these ‘limbo’ rural landscapes. This arguably applies to culture as well as nature. In the Elan Valley (and similarly in the Portuguese Côa Valley) one witnesses a deep connection and interdependent relationships between farmers, dogs, horses, sheep, grass etc. This is an intricate mesh, and is part of cynefin. Although sheep dominate the Elan farmer’s herds, there is another player on the stage – cattle – and their numbers are increasing. 

These lands, in pre-history, have hosted large herbivores – auroch, elk, bison, even elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus.

In lieu of sheep, cattle are being ‘restored’ in certain places, on conservation grounds – producing a richer more robust ecosystem; conservation grazing as a form of restorative agriculture. To some extent this is part of the valid contemporary shift to payments for good ‘stewardship’ of land and ecological health (as one purpose of farming). Broadening this out, there are growing tensions at play in the increasing moves to assign monetary value to ‘ecosystem services’, zones of ‘natural capital’, tax-derived payments for land-based carbon off-set projects etc., which collectively have been termed ‘biofinancialisation’ (“the financialisation of life and matter” ref. Experimental Practice. Technoscience, Alterontologies and More-Than-Social Movements, Duke University Press, 2018)

Comment – Chris Short (CCRI):

The new reality for many uplands might be juggling a blend of private and public funding streams as a result of the range of ecosystem services that are attribute to these places.  The reality is off putting, something akin to the wild west at the moment, with unproven frameworks offering carbon credits that might be discredited, and a lack of confirmation from public schemes as to how these align. But the financing on nature has already begun from the accepted and understood inclusion of water company to ensure a clean supply of water supply to the less regulated carbon offsetting.

Through all of this, we should not forget restorative human aspects – i.e. mental health, well-being and quality of life. Of course, these benefits have long been associated with green (and ‘blue’/water) spaces, but probably not truly linked to ecological understanding/appreciation and entanglement. Today, writers such as Merlin Sheldrake, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Anna Tsing, David Abram and many many more point to a resurgence – a new-found tuning-in to a non-instrumental, non-extractive ‘environment’ – a complex holism (despite the limitations of our senses and ‘post-modern’ culture).

Comment – Owain Jones (ex-CCRI and Bath Spa University):

I think in the lovely world of cultural geography and related disciplines, it is now widely accepted that all places and landscapes are unfolding ‘becomings’; entanglements of forces and flows, materialities and agencies (human and non-human) which span from the mineral to the cultural, from mycelia to politics and economics. These are manifested in makeshift arrangements with a whole set of ecologies woven within them. This is ecology as in nature as commonly understood, but also culture, economy, community and so on. Importantly, this also includes temporal ecologies where some elements of the entanglement can stand for centuries, or even much much longer, such as rocky outcrops (or large stone dams), while others will come and go in the space of a few weeks (flowers, insects), or days, even over seconds, such a burst of sunlight through a stormy sky. The outworking of economy, politics and culture bring their own temporalities too. The growth of cities. The need for water.

Any place, or landscape, such as the Elan Valley is thus. And it should remembered that many of the flows and agencies that are present may not be immediately sensible even to careful observation. Whole aspects of a place’s life are hidden, such as mycelial networks, as so artfully explained by Merlin Sheldrake. This is where procedures which are good at looking ‘beneath the surface’ and at the deep time, and fleeting time,  such as artistic-based research, deep mapping, archaeology, geology can help. All places have hidden depths. These hidden depths can be forms of haunting, or latent haunting.

In the contexts of the proliferation of new ‘rewilding’ and regenerative agriculture zones – in the UK and worldwide – there is a lot of emphasis on providing economic viability through eco-tourism, as well as draw-down of carbon-capture funds. What is perhaps not receiving due attention is the human health potential (and indeed community health/healing/sustainability potential) of these newly-framed dialogues with the natural world. The emerging methods of ‘social prescribing’ are part of this mix, and I’ve previously discussed these in the context of a model community-based ecological project in the Cotswolds (UK).

Eco-education and eco-literacy is also part of the mosaic and rationale in these projects, and an area that deserves to be hugely expanded.

Comment – Chris Short (CCRI):

The potential for social or green prescribing is finally being realised and could ensure that a broader range of beneficiaries might benefit from rural areas natural assets. In an increasingly urban-based world and lifestyles three is an increasing need for ecoliteracy and eco-education for all ages, whether part of a social prescribing scheme or not.

Shepherds: In both of these valleys, pastoral farming activity is also shared. However, in the Côa Valley, this activity is in sharp decline. Some years ago, I spoke to a shepherd there who was certain that his sons would not be following in his footsteps, and doubted that the sheep-herding lifestyle would continue for very much longer. There are also some local tensions between pastoralism and the new rewilding strategies (involving e.g. reforestation aspects and fires/burnings). In the Elan Valley, the traditions of sheep-farming are still very strong, although stock-levels today are lower than in the past – largely for conservation reasons. Trans-generational continuity appears to be functioning reasonably well, and my encounters show that it is not just the sons, but daughters too who are now taking on the herding and farming duties.

Horses and Feral-ness: For the recent ‘gathering’ in the uplands of Elan, I witnessed horses being used, in a traditional manner, to help round up the sheep herds for shearing. Also, in these high moorlands, there are small groups of semi-feral horses roaming widely. In the short atmospheric video (HWS) I featured some of these animal residents. The role of horses in the Côa Valley is somewhat different. Over the past ten years they have become one of the cornerstones of the rewilding efforts. The need to have roaming large herbivores is key to the ecological restoration strategy. One very important function is the clearing of low-level vegetation or brush that can lead to rapid spread of fire in dry conditions. Ancient breeds have been re-introduced (Sorraia & Garrano) and new water-holes have been excavated to support these herds; this being one of the many interim management interventions needed to shift – hopefully – to a self-supporting functional ecosystem. (you can lead a horse to water…but…)

Feral-ness is strong, resourceful; adaptable, fluid. Also I’m interested in the wider application of this term ‘feral’. It is associated with rewilding (as in the book, Feral, by George Monbiot), but, arguably, artists also need to be feral – existing both ‘inside’ and outside’ (the system); both embedded and free. As discussed above, this echoes the nature of artist-residencies – which necessitate integrating insider and outsider perspectives – through collaboration and conversation.

Moving Waters – Moving Sounds: Specifically to the Elan Valley, and its water pipeline link to Birmingham, I have initiated a series of experimental sonic works – the Aqueduct Series. The first is online, and the next one is ‘in the pipeline’ – being undertaken as a collaboration with sound artist Nikki Sheth. For this series, the pipeline is both real and imaginary; the concept being that, as well as the one-way water flow, there are sounds that travel and reverberate in both directions – a flow and a counter-flow. And there is interference and mixing of the ambient soundscapes of Birmingham and Elan. These are geopoetic works and open to poetic insertions from elsewhere – in a metaphorical and symbolic mode, as well as the in-situ locative field recordings. Light too could be said to be able to travel through this pipeline – perhaps imagined as a giant fibre-optic conduit! An associated ‘aqueduct’ short film (H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness] contains video+sonics from each end of the pipeline, and from various points along the route, recorded on a challenging field expedition in Sept. 2020. [To be discussed in a follow-up blog]

Grasses: In the case of Elan, one appellation long used for this region has been ‘The Green Desert of Wales’.

“The world does not give us very much now; it often seems to consist of nothing but noise and fear, and yet grass and trees still grow”  Hermann Hesse

In most of the discussions about rewilding and biodiversity protection (and extinction), it seems that the humble grasses can get overlooked. For this reason, a lot of my filming in these sites has focussed on grasses – attracted by their play of movement and light. In a more scientific mode, I have been interested to hear of the efforts to control Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) in the Elan Valley area. The expansion of Molinia is linked to drying out of bog areas, and it can in turn exacerbate moorland fires. Trial re-wetting of bogs is being undertaken, but also there is support for the Rhos hay tradition. “Rhos hay is a strongly localised, culturally significant, agricultural activity, traditional to some hill areas of Mid-Wales. The practice involves cutting excess and less palatable (largely overgrown molinia) forage on suitable areas of open hill and using this to make hay for feed or bedding.”  

Comment – Chris Short (CCRI): 

The expansion of Molinia is a characteristic of many upland areas and the impact is felt in terms of loss of biological diversity and agricultural productivity – basically no one wins as the areas are less attractive for wildlife, livestock and walkers. The causes are contested but it is clear that a different approach is needed, perhaps a blended of local custom and expert knowledge in a shared problem solving forum.

Continuing on the subject of grasses and grasslands, I recall that a central theme of the 2004 best-selling Chinese book Wolf Totem (2004) is the health of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia – on which every other species (including humans) depends. In many ways, it is a tragic tale of destructive human interference, but also an eye-opener into a mode of co-existence that may need to be re-discovered, and re-enacted, if humans are to have much of a future in a thriving biosphere. We live in a time when the limits of human expansionism and exceptionalism are finally being accepted. However, there is a strong current of belief in techno-fixes, technoscience and ‘post-nature’ (and post-human) futures. This anti-ecological thinking is fostered via media, device/game-addiction and indeed an education system that lacks fundamental eco-literacy. And it lacks a sense of, and celebration of, a ‘commons’ – for all humans (not just a portion), and for all species and ecological webs.

On the topic of grazing, bio-abundance and deep-time, pre-history considerations, I turn to the evidence of palaeontology and rock-art. Here we often encounter predators and prey, grazing herds (some differences; some similarities to todays fauna) and hunters. In the Côa Valley, the abundant and impressive rock-art illustrates predominantly a small set of what could be classed as ‘prey’ species (ibex, horses, deer, bovids etc). I am reminded too of Doggerland (now a ‘drowned land’ off the coast at Orford Ness, Suffolk), where bones of mammoths, elephants etc. have been recovered, echoing the finds at the Welsh cave mentioned previously. The so-called ‘Irish Elk’ (Megaloceros giganteus) is worthy of note, in imagining the wilder prehistory of these lands. A dwarf relative of this ‘giant deer’ (Megaloceros matritensis) was common in Iberia in the Middle Pleistocene and another related species of giant deer (Megaloceros novocarthaginiensis) is found in the Early Pleistocene. In these deep-time ponderings, it’s also interesting to recognise the importance of grasslands to the early evolution of Homo sp. 

“The fundamental importance of grasslands may lie in the complexity and heterogeneity they added to the range of habitats available to the early species of the genus Homo.” 

The Commons, and ‘here commons everybody’…

“The upland landscape provided the community with pasture for livestock (organised through a pattern of ‘sheepwalks’: areas of grazing reserved for designated flocks); peat (an important fuel into the twentieth century); and estovers. This pattern of landownership and land use went through dramatic changes in the late nineteenth century, when large areas were purchased by Birmingham Corporation for the creation of reservoirs. Birmingham’s purchase created a large new estate – the Elan Valley Estate – replacing common rights with tenancies; whilst those remnants of waste not purchased were put together to form Cwmdeuddwr Common.  Though these contiguous lands have different legal status, they remain open and unfenced, and continue to be used as communal hill grazings today.”

Today, the completely fence-less expanse of the Elan Catchment has some of the quality of a huge commons, even if formally not so. On the OS Explorer map, most of the land area of the catchment is shown as ‘Access Land’ – allowing free range beyond the paths and tracks. On a foray uphill to the watershed line high above the artist cottage, I was reminded of former delights taken in free-ranging over many moorlands – in Dartmoor, Bodmin, Lake District – and especially memorably on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.

Coming back to the topic of ‘The Commons’, it must be said that the Elan catchment also represents a vast appropriation of land and water. As portrayed in the local play, The Valley of Nantgwyllt, by Peter Cox and the Rhayader Young Farmers Group (which I was lucky enough to see live in March 2020), the event was a forceful move by Birmingham Corporation – a compulsory purchase of farms, and a taking over (appropriation) of most of the common land; another invasive force – as were the Romans who bivouaced here at the ‘Roman Camp’ – possibly on their way to erase the residual druidic refuge on Anglesea. Here in the valley, the reverberating echoes of the dam-building are still bitter-tinged, 3 or 4 generations later. Homesteads and hamlets are occasionally revealed when the reservoir water-levels drop. I visited one such location in July 2021, feeling somewhat in archaeological mode – trying to piece together a sparse narrative of place – based on scant footprint-remains of dwelling walls and an old river pier or platform.

Exposed at low water

So we have a complex tale of loss (in the mountains) and gain (for the industries, people and public health of Birmingham). This theme is another potential resonance between Elan and Côa valleys. One form of ‘commons’ is the ‘kinship’ and entanglement with other species in ecological webs. Thus, ‘commons’ has more connotations than that of human sustenance and agriculture, though that in itself is a rich and still very relevant story. Two recently read books have been Plunder of the Commons (Guy Standing, 2019) and The Book of Trespass (Nick Hayes, 2020) – both dealing with the struggles to maintain ‘commonage’ and access rights, in defiance of appropriation and exclusivity by powerful feudal and oligarchical forces. Over the centuries in the UK, radical movements such as The Diggers and The Levellers resisted but were crushed. Then in the 20th C, the Kinder Scout ‘mass trespass’ created ripples that led to the founding of the openly accessible UK National Parks that exist today. It feels that now, in a time of looming collapse on many registers, there are new weavings and fresh disruptions in the air.

Yes, there are many who are convinced that the future is being constructed in the frenzy of Silicon Valley, or in leaps in micro-processor design and AI; even in digital currency and global connectivity; and still again in laboratory-formed ‘meat’. But there are counter-narratives to be found in these seemingly peripheral landscape zones – rewilding and striving areas – seeking new accommodations and fusions between nature and culture; between human and non-human; between protection and extraction; between essential food/livelihoods and a biophilic/Gaian understanding; between shamanic/animistic & creative imaginations. It is perhaps not obvious that these places are all hives of future potential, creative-seeding and rejuvenation. But if we look at them through a kaleidoscope or spectral-prism of ‘wilding’ then we clearly see upwellings in action in all these seemingly peripheral locales.

Useful links