In May 2021 I was invited by Professor Kirsti Bohata to join a reading group she was convening for Peak, an arts organisation based in the Black Mountains. The group was one of a series of reading groups being held to commemorate the centenary of Raymond Williams’ birth – a strand of work titled, ‘Walking backwards into the future’. During the session which focused on a range of texts relating to the rural, the climate emergency and re-wilding I found myself unusually vocal.
I spoke about my ambitious hopes for the content of a project I had just
embarked on in the Preselis seeking to create a radio ballad weaving
together oral history and song. As the reading group drew to a close I
started to muse on what the impact of this latest project was likely to be. I talked of the need for anthems capable of inspiring a common purpose
and I mused on the pertinence of Dafydd Iwan’s song Peintio’r Byd yn
Wyrdd whose chorus proclaims:
I’r caeau awn â’n cân
A bloeddiwn yn y ffyrdd,
Rhown Gymru oll ar dân
A pheintio’r byd yn wyrdd.
Cawn beintio’r byd yn wyrdd, hogia,
Peintio’r byd yn wyrdd;
Rhown Gymru oll ar dân, hogia,
A pheintio’r byd yn wyrdd.
We’ll take our song to the fields
And we’ll shout in the streets,
Let’s set all Wales alight
And paint the world green.
We’ll paint the world green, friends,
Paint the world green;
Let’s set all Wales alight, friends,
And paint the world green. 
In June 2021 I embarked on a project to produce a radio ballad in response to the Preseli Heartlands. The Song of the Golden Road features interviews with farmers, recorded walks, themed talks and songs of place both old and new. It is a piece of art, a community heritage project, an oral history but it also seemed to be a provocation for discussions about the future.
In between the 11th and the 18th January 2022 I read a small book first published by the Ecologist magazine in January 1972, A Blueprint for Survival. The book is referenced by Cynog Dafis in his autobiography Mab y Pregethwr in which he writes of his lifelong concern for environmental issues stating that Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s first manifesto was also inspired by this publication. A Blueprint for Survival drew attention to the urgency and magnitude of the environmental crisis. The Cymdeithas yr Iaith manifesto written largely by Dafis appeared later the same year. Amongst the reasons for the decline of the Welsh language the Cymdeithas yr Iaith manifesto cited the in-migration of English speaking families.
I first became aware of Dafis’ relationship to the ecologist publication through my Doctoral research on the archive of artist and theatre maker Cliff McLucas, Croesi’r Bar: Archwilio Hunaniaeth y Mewnfudwr Prydeinig trwy archif yr artist Cliff McLucas (Crossing the Bar: Exploring the identity of the British incomer through the archive of the artist Cliff McLucas). My thesis was a comparative study of my performance work with that of the artist and theatre director Cliff McLucas. I had termed my early performance work ‘radical pastoral’ after my reading of Raymond Williams. In the Cliff McLucas archive I found a similar terminology for the performances he had instigated or helped to make in the early 1990s in Ceredigion: “I viewed these works as a kind of ‘rural radicalism’ – for I was determined to avoid an automatic correlation between ‘rural’ and ‘traditional’. Instead, I sought adventurous ways of dealing with real life issues in locations such as Ceredigion – economic decline, suicide, linguistic conflict, cultural tension and so on.”
The second chapter of my PhD thesis dealt explicitly with agriculture and rural change being an essay that sought to provide a description of the cultural context within which Cliff McLucas lived and worked – a context as McLucas wrote was probably, “only fully accessible through the medium of the Welsh language…”. In the 1980s Dafis gave up his single issue stance to politics marked by his language campaigning activity and stood for election as a member of parliament for Plaid Cymru. Dafis was finally elected to parliament in 1992 when he stood as the Plaid Cymru / Green Party coalition candidate for Ceredigion. This was the cultural context that McLucas lived and worked in and the cultural context of my own upbringing and work, a context which Kirsti’s reading group allowed me to tap into once more.
The Song of the Golden Road took it’s title and inspiration from an ancient trackway that runs along the ridge of the Preselis enigmatically referred to as the Golden Road. On the 18th January I was walking another path as part of a network of individuals who had been brought together with a shared interest in ‘narrating rural change’. On our walk in the lee of Frenni Fawr we were taken on a new permissive path created through the work of a project called Growing Better Connections. A strip of land has been given over by the landowner to create a footpath linking land and trees together in a new public right of way. We see the newly planted hedgerow that will grow up alongside this path, the work of volunteers, which will result in the release of the sessile oaks, the stunted treescape of Frenni Fawr.
We learnt about the coppiced Chestnut that created the new fence posts and I am reminded of the old tale regarding the laburnum arches of South Ceredigion and the prevalence of that tree in local hedgerows as the result of it being used by farmers for fence posts that then struck. Golden chains, another name for the laburnum, a non-native species whose seeds are apparently toxic.
Concurrently with reading a Blueprint for Survival I read a book called Soulcraft by Bill Plotkin. Plotkin a former clinical psychologist who threw off the ‘chains’ of his discipline to become an ‘ecotherapist’ and wilderness guide considers that the current dominant Western capitalist culture makes us a society stuck in adolescence. When I consider the cultural reference points that I so often call to mind I recognise a truth to this.
Yw’r Cwlwm dioddef
Rhaff ein perthyn
Rhaff ein loes
Lyrics from Cadwyn Aur (tr. Golden Chains) a song from the Welsh language musical Trafferth Lawr yn Tseina based on the Merthyr Rising which I performed in as a secondary school pupil in West Wales . A rough translation might be, ‘Gold chain, Is the Knot of suffering, Rope of our belonging, Rope of our hurt’.
Arwel Evans, farming liaison officer with the Pembrokeshire National Parks talked about soil and nitrates and the lie of the landscape perceived as electric green. There is discussion that perhaps it is the soil run off itself and not just the slurry that is polluting the rivers. Returning from the walk we pass through the new gate installed by the path makers.
In the past Iain Biggs, a keen supporter of this new network has often quoted a statement by the performance artist and green party candidate Joseph Beuys, ‘education is more important than art’. Looking back through the photos I have taken on the day I am struck by this one:
Hedge School, Frenni Fawr, Ionawr 2022
Hedge schools small informal schools rose out of the particular historical context of the penal laws in Ireland which meant that only the children of those professing the Anglican faith of the Church of Ireland could receive an education. Hedge schools sprung up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to provide schooling for the children of ‘non-conforming’ faiths that is Catholic but also Protestant dissenters (non-Anglican). They were not generally held outdoors but maybe in a barn.
Basic precepts of ecology, such as the inter-relatedness of all things and the far-reaching effects of ecological processes and their disruption, should influence community decision making, and therefore there must be an efficient and sensitive communications network between all communities.
Blueprint for Survival (Penguin, 1972, t. 53)
Rowan O’Neill 2022