26 Oct 2021

The Hills Are Alive

The Hills Are Alive...

[Adapted from published catalogue text] In Autumn 2020, invited by Artefact Projects in Stirchley, Birmingham, I set out to weave together field recordings (video and sonic) from two places - the Elan Valley in Wales and River Rea trail that passes through Stirchley.

The hills of Elan are the source of Birmingham’s water supply, and the site of a complex system of reservoirs, some dating back over 100 years. I chose the title 'Long Exposure' for my artist-residency hosted by the Elan Links heritage programme, and my involvement has indeed become extended by circumstances. For the past 2 years, I have been exploring the moors, dams and pipelines - with the help of farmers, rangers and others. Tuning-in, listening, observing, my focus ranging from the big picture to the microcosm0s. This artist residency is also linked to a newly developing international programme with the title 'Here Commons Everybody'.

With a hybrid art/science attention to ecology and landscape, I describe my approach as ‘geopoetic’, but also kinaesthetic i.e. relying on the experience of moving through physical spaces and places. When reaching out to the landscape, an attitude of openness and non-attachment to outcome can lead to the emergence of something unexpected, or strange. Ostranenie. Seeing the familiar in a new light. Also important is the conversation between 'outsider' and 'insider' perspectives - a subject to be addressed in a forthcoming blog-post.

In my installation for ‘Ten Acres Of Sound’, field-recordings were manipulated and meshed together to produce a looping programme of 6 short video-sonic works, each 5 minutes in length. Given that my primary theme was ‘water flows’, it seemed fitting that the works were exhibited at the Birmingham Brewing Company - in their tap room. The subjects included:
 - Water, and waterways; the preciousness of water and its role in healing; water as a gift, and much more than simply a substance that emerges from a tap.
 - Landscape entanglements over deep time, including with other (non-human) dwellers, observed at different scales.
 - using metaphor and juxtaposition to explore undercurrents and questions about commodification, control, commons, freedom; wild water and 'tamed', domesticated water (and wild/tamed nature).

 [more detail on this series of video works is at the end of this article]

During my time roaming the Welsh mountains, I naturally gravitated towards an interest in the water supply pipeline to Birmingham. Pipelines are linear - usually - but there can be a circularity too; they can form rings and even intertwining knots. At the Elan Valley I met someone - an artist - from Stirchley. Alis Oldfield was just beginning her own artist-residency project here with Elan Links. Like me, she was also involved with the Ten Acres Of Sound festival. Circles, spirals, echoes, reverberations.

In a sense, I also met - or heard echoes of - a poet in these hills. Percy Shelley is associated with the Elan Valley, having visited a number of times, and sought - unsuccessfully - to establish a home here, with his young wife Harriet (HWS - Harriet Westbrook Shelley). Even if they had managed to settle here, it is unlikely they would have stayed around for very long, given Shelley’s perpetual itinerant existence for the rest of his (short) life. All the same, there is now a monumental statue of him outside the Elan Valley visitor centre. In his poems and notebooks he viscerally expressed his connection to the natural energies and qualities of this (pre-dammed) landscape - of water, rock, wind, forests; elements core to his life-long sensibilities. Given that the valley they loved is now drowned, it is curious to reflect that both Harriet (by suicide) and Shelley (a storm at sea) ended their lives by drowning.

Here, I would like to draw out a resonance with Stirchley. My starting point is the line “Ye are many, they are few”. This is from Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ written after the Peterloo massacre of 1817. Two hundred years later this morphed into “For the many, not the few” in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 UK election campaign. I’m making a link with Stirchley because of its rich local history (extending to the present day) of the cooperative movement, labour politics and a vibrant collective spirit of solidarity. This is something that I absorbed from my time involved with Stirchley and its people; especially from Artefact and its activities in the heart of the community.

With his primary interests in wild, sublime nature and deep introspection, Shelley may seem an unlikely flag-bearer for ‘the left’, but a golden strand of progressive activism runs through his life and published works. Shelley was conflicted, and lived a life of complexity and chaos. Son of wealthy landed gentry, he became very politically progressive, anti-establishment and penned numerous calls for political and social reform. But he could never completely jettison an aristocratic flavour and privilege.

On the other hand, his poetry overflows with the sense of feeling at one with universal elemental energies, nature kinship, empathy, sympathy and a pervading sense of love (in a sense of dissolving into, and fusing with, his surroundings). An early ‘Nature Boy’? Possessing a lifelong fascination with the microscopic world, he had a biophilic sense of the natural world and its unending mutability.
“O that I may be melted away
Like a mist in the warmth of the coming day”  
[see 'Being Shelley' by Ann Wroe p203]

Through a collision of politics and poetics, he shares some commonality with fellow ‘Romantics’ Wordsworth and Coleridge (whose footsteps I’ve previously followed, for a creative project in the Quantock Hills in Somerset). Having said that, the differences between these three are, I feel, far greater than the similarities.

The works I presented in Stirchley for Ten Acres Of Sound were - in the exhibiting, as well as the processes of preparation, dialogue and support - all about commonality; not overtly social commonality and collectivism, but common kinship with other species, other inhabitants of the Elan landscape and the end of pipe waterscape of Birmingham’s River Rea. And in this way, we return to ‘The Commons’ (and issues of power, control, appropriation). It can be said that the Elan area represents a substantial appropriation of land and water. In March 2020, I was privileged to see the play, The Valley of Nantgwyllt [written by Peter Cox, and performed by the Rhayader Young Farmers Club] This portrays the forceful actions by Birmingham Corporation in the early years of the 20th C - the compulsory purchase of farms and appropriation of most of the common land. An invasive force - like the Romans before them who bivouacked here at the ‘Roman Camp’ (likely on their way to erase the druidic refuge on Anglesea). History doesn’t repeat…but it rhymes. Here in the valley, the reverberating echoes are still bitter-tinged, 3 or 4 generations after ‘the drowning’. Homesteads and hamlets are occasionally revealed, when the reservoir water-levels drop. In the summer of 2021, I walked amongst the remnant low walls of a cluster of former dwellings - a multi-sensory experience of tuning-in to the past.

So we have a complex tale of loss (for the rural society; for the migratory fish species); and gain (for the urban industries and public health of the population of Birmingham); displacement, domination, belonging. Today, within the echoes of trauma, there is reconciliation too, including a reconciliation with the deeper ecological mesh.

“Belonging can also be experienced and practiced between people who have little in common, and not a shared experience…the past is always plural” Irish poet & theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama, 2021

Flows of deep(er) time:
One of my 6 films for 10 Acres in October 2020 obliquely and poetically highlighted a deep-time imaginary, and it feels relevant to me to speculate on longer-term future ‘flows’. Despite our belief in powerful human agency, we are still puny - in the context of ice-ages, forest dynamics and in the context of the multitude of animal and plant species that pre-date our emergence on this planet - many of whom are likely to outlive our species (in spite of our mass extinction-causing actions).

Water (flow), in both its scarcity and abundance is key to the long-term narratives of these places. The core geographical formative processes are the actions of water. The combination of glacial ice-action, rain-storms and stream/river flows has carved out the terrain of Elan and Stirchley over hundreds of thousands of years. In Stirchley and nearby neighbourhoods, many large boulders moved by ice (erratics) can be found, mostly volcanic rocks from north Wales, carried by outwash from the Irish Sea and Welsh ice-sheets. So the Elan-Birmingham aqueduct is not the first major movement of water from Wales!

Through this lens, we see that human agency is not predominant, and the cycles of biophysical movements repeatedly erase all superficial imprints and patterns. This is not to deny that human-caused extinction, and the converse - human nature-protection/conservation - are not of great influence; just that the greater geological ‘flows’ form the meta-narratives of life on earth. As I’ve mentioned, it was abundant water that - 130 years ago - lured the engineers, from the rapidly expanding industrial city of Birmingham, west to the Welsh hills, thus starting the current chapter of this dammed landscape. Across the hills, they established a network of gauges to collect the rainfall data that gave them confidence to go go ahead with the massive investment in infrastructure. I have photo-documented the sites of some of the former rain-gauges in the course of my creative research.

The affect of water on humans - conscious and subconscious - has been discussed by many writers - from Carl Jung to Ivan Illich…to Bruce Lee! These perspectives - and more - are always woven into my videosonic works, which never stray very far from elemental entanglements. As a creative collaboration, I am next planning a collaboration to transcribe the annual data from rainfall and river/stream flows into a music score for voices. The moving-image content of a videosonic ‘ecological symphony’ will also include meditative observations of water influences, spanning nature and culture in these places. The streams are alive with the sound of music…

Another strand involving ‘moving sounds’, or ‘piped sounds’, is a series of sonic works
called the Aqueduct Series. The first of these is online, and more are currently ‘in the pipeline’ - undertaken as collaborations, including one with Nikki Sheth, a sound-artist connected to Artefact. Nikki and I had met previously on Orford Ness at a specialist field-recording workshop, at a time when I was starting an artist residency there with the National Trust. Our re-meeting in Stirchley was fortuitous. For me there is also a further cyclical ‘returning’ - based on my having studied in Birmingham in the late 1980s.

For this sonic series, the pipeline is both the real and imaginary inspiration, the concept being that, as well as the one-way water flow, there are sounds that travel and reverberate both ways  - a flow and a counter-flow. And there is interference and mixing, of the soundscapes of Birmingham and Elan. These are also geopoetic works and open to poetic insertions from elsewhere - in a metaphorical mode and symbolic mode, along with the in-situ locative field recordings.

Light too could be said to be able to travel through this conduit…perhaps imagined as a giant fibre-optic tube! - and there is a corresponding series of videos. One of these is the short - ‘H2O and The Waters of Forgetfulness’, which not only contains video-sonics from each end of the pipeline, but also from various points along the route, following a difficult expedition in September 2020. This and the other video works in the series were described in a previous blog-post, but the info is updated below. The videos can be seen here.



ANASTOMOSIS (underdarkneath)

an interconnection between two channels, cave or pipework systems
(medicine) the surgical creation of a connecting passage between blood vessels, bowels or other channels
the insertion of one word within another, as in "underdarkneath" (James Joyce)

An exploration of the atmospherics of working and being in underground waterworks. Video and audio recorded in waterworks in Bristol and at the Elan Valley dams in Wales, source of Birmingham's water supply.
Included in the soundtrack are pre-natal heartbeat recordings from various sources, including my daughter’s.




Filmed at the Pen y Garreg reservoir in the Elan Valley.
Music/vocals from my audio recording of the play, 'The Valley of Nantgwyllt', by Peter Cox, performed in February 2020. Composer & Musical Director, Bob Walters. Piano accompanist, Eleri Davies. Sung by Rhayader Young Farmers Club Cast Members.
"This was the valley where a wild stream ran,
And then the breath was gone
Dyma Cwm Nantgwyllt, Dyma Cwm Nantgwyllt “

The title 'Between Two Waters' has a number of connotations. On one level, the experience of being, and moving, in any landscape is situated between the moisture of sky (mist, fog, cloud, snow, hail, dew etc) and the subsurface waters (aquifer, groundwater, bog-water, soil-moisture etc). Often these waters are invisible, but are still very much part of our lives and ecological dynamics.

In the Elan Valley, the cottage provided for the artist-in-residence also sits between the Elan River valley and the River Wye, within the historic 'commote' (commons) of Cwmdeuddwr ('commote between the two waters’). Birmingham Corporation took over the entire catchment of the Elan Valley in 1892, purchasing all rights of common, 'to the exclusion of all others’. Creatively exploring these Welsh waters and also the River Rea in Stirchley meant that I was navigating 'between two waters'. This perspective is further enhanced by field excursions to parts of the 73-mile pipeline that connects the two places. In another way, the recording (both video and audio) references a place 'between two waterscapes' - the once farmed and forested landscape of the River Elan, now obscured under the Pen y Garreg reservoir.

Travelling further on an imaginative path, I see this 'video-sonic poem' as also suggestive of a deep-time story. The momentary 'white-out' of the landscape by a brief snow storm alludes to the eventual covering (re-covering) of this place by the expanding ice-sheets of the next 'ice age'. Today, we live in an inter-glacial time, but the terrain of these valleys was formed during the last ice-age. We are in-between these frozen waters.



The title of this 'video-sonic poem' echoes that of a book by Ivan Illich which delves into two very different modes of relating to water. The common (modern/functional) way is to view water as simply a domesticated commodified substance that comes out of a tap (or bottle) - to be used for drinking, washing, bathing, industry, beer-making etc. In his book, Illich also explores other, older, elemental perceptions of water and the shift in how we view urban space, water supply and sewerage. Illich swims in different streams of consciousness and ended 'H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness' with:
“H2O is a social creation of modern times, a resource that is scarce and that calls for technical management. It is an observed fluid that has lost the ability to mirror the water of dreams. The city child has no opportunities to come in touch with living water.”

There are other aspects of water (management) that I'm hoping to include in the context of this (unfinished) short video. One of these relates to water disputes and conflict; or even the actual weaponisation of water held in reservoirs. The dams of the Elan Valley played a part in the preparation for the 'dambusters' aerial bombing in Germany's Ruhr Valley in WW2. In the early 1950s, the US attacked North Korean dams on the Yalu River and destroyed the Hwacheon Dam to cause flooding. In the 1960s, The US extensively destroyed dikes and irrigation systems in Vietnam and used 'cloud seeding' to cause flooding. Similarly, water releases from dams on the Euphrates River in Syria have been used for war purposes.

The mention of Syria segues from 'water displacement' to 'people displacement' (refugees, migrants). Whilst walking the River Rea trail in Stirchley, and encountering examples of 'invasive', 'non-native' plant species (some featured in the video), I have been pondering the resonances of the use of such language in social contexts, as well as in the nature conservation world.



#Horses #Water #Slate
Hws - horse-cloth, covering (Welsh)
H.W.S. Harriet Westbrook Shelley, who, with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed in the Elan Valley in 1812, and sought in vain to make a permanent home there.

The focus is a herd of feral horses who inhabit, or dwell in, the upper Elan watershed. This is their habitat, and they range over a very wide area. Their freedom to roam is enabled by an interesting aspect of the legislation that established the ownership and management of the Elan water catchment over 100 years ago. One stipulation was that the whole area would remain free from fencing.

"Fencing of the open hill land is precluded by Section 53 of the 1892 Birmingham Corporation Water Act which gave to the public 'a privilege at all times of enjoying air exercise and recreation' over the open hill land. This was effectively the right to roam over 100 years before its introduction through the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act."




Part of the video is filmed from inside one of the Elan dams, looking out through the water torrent. In the Elan Valley the 'technological sublime' has largely supplanted the 'natural sublime' that the poet Shelley (and many others) found and celebrated here.

The sublime spectacle of the Elan dams in full flow is communicated in this short video-sonic piece. But an extra audio layer has been introduced - featuring a chorus of birdsong - birds that would have been commonly heard in this forested valley in the pre-dam era (and even more so in the pre sheep-farming era).
[samples include the common Blackbird, Crow, Wren, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Dunnock, Thrush, and the less common Black Redstart, Redwing, Pied Flycatcher and Fieldfare]

This resonates with something written about the Niagara Falls:
"It does not look like water, or even feel like water. Most present is the tremendous rumble, a roar of flowing Earth. This precedes all other perception... A violent, rough course of dynamite and explosions made this..." David Rothenberg



Macro-photography from the upper zones of the Elan Valley watershed/catchment.
Soundtrack assemblage derived from selected audio extracts from my recording of the play, The Valley of Nantgwyllt, by Peter Cox, performed in Feb 2020 at the Rhayader Leisure Centre, by Rhayader YFC.

Roadside Picnic is a Russian science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, written fifty years ago. It describes one of six zones visited by alien landings (during 'The Visitation'), all of which subsequently exhibit strange forces and unexplained phenomena. The 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is loosely based on the novel.

‘Ostranenie’ is also Russian - a term meaning 'seeing the familiar in a strange light'
My experience of delving into the micro world of mosses, liverworts and lichens was evocative of entering an alien landscape - with its strange forms and colours. On the one hand, this type of upland bog landscape is very familiar to me, but the change of scale renders it unfamiliar and fascinating. A re-enchantment perhaps?

In a related way, the soundtrack takes sounds familiar to the cast of the play and, via very simple manipulations, aims to achieve a defamiliarization.

Most of these macro-photography images are from the rotting remnants of the wooden posts that once fenced-in a series of rain gauges, originally constructed by Birmingham Corporation.