As the days have been getting shorter and shorter, and winter sets in for real, the Merched Chwarel have been settling down to think about the next phase of the project. As well as getting out and about meeting people involved in contemporary quarry activities and with potential galleries and spaces, we’ve been wondering - and wondering while walking (as above at Cwmorthin) - about the walking element of Merched Chwarel. Not least because that is where we started.
Our ‘research and development’ walks in Chwarel Dinorwig (once from Deiniolen side, once from Nantperis), Penrhyn, Rhiw Bach, Penmaenmawr felt like reconnaissance. They were about catching up, passing through, making connections (to each other, to stories, to people we met), assessing potential. Overwhelmed a lot of the time by what we found. It was very sociable. We did a lot of (monoglot/bilingual) chatting, and a bit of performance. We found ourselves picking up things. Pionting things out. Some sketching. Quite a bit of photographing. Picnics. Lots of looking. Listening. Discovery.
We found that walking together is a very different experience to that of walking alone. It is much more complicated. We were not at all like the classic ‘walker’ (male – from Caspar David Friedrich's image of the 'Wanderer' to the Situationalists to Richard Long), unfettered or separate from the world. It was quite the opposite, most conversations about life complexities, relationships, stories. It took quite a bit of effort to get us to ‘focus’. And the moments of focus were almost always over a picnic, in an abandoned house or old chapel, rather than as we were moving.
It feels unclear whether this was a problem, or whether it is illustrating something about the essence of the project.
So, as we re-start the Merched Chwarel project and our walking as a core part of that, it seems timely to reflect on what it means for us to be women in the landscape, in a monumental and (largely/in most places wholey) man-made landscape. And about women walking – together.
Things to avoid?
There are some obvious bear traps, such as:
- the pathetic fallacy (a landscape viewed through overly emotional interpretations eg clouds gather angrily; the brook babbles merrily; the crow caws mournfully)
- women = landscape (and in this context, exploited mountain = exploited woman)
- women = domesticity (and partly we do!)
- self indulgence/privilege (can it possibly be of interest - or use - to anyone else, especially people unable to access 'walking'?)
- pathos (romanticizing the hard lives of the quarry men… and women, their resilience, culture, character)
- reaction to precidents set by men (‘unfettered’ male walkers and artists, redressing absence of women by re-inserting into male monumental landscape)
- women can only speak/act for women (with an overwhelmingly strong historical precident as described by Mary Beard in Women and Power)
- does it need to be gendered anyway? (and what of non-able bodied? Different ethnicities? Different ages?)
Things to try?
Luckily help is at hand. A bit of research has revealed two insights that might together provide a great framework within which we, Merched Chwarel, could think of our entangled collaboration, and potentially avoid some of the bear traps (although inevitably, we will become involved in some)!
The first is a paper by Dierdre Heddon and Cathy Turner called “Walking women: shifting the tales and scales of mobility”, 2012. It’s an interesting and insightful read, with analysis based on lots of examples, including the work of Alison Lloyd, Linda Cracknell, Elspeth Owen. As suggested by the title, they suggest two dimensions that, although not exclusive to the work of walking women, nor present in the work of all walking women, are interestingly distinct from the persistent narratives of walking practice:
a) Entanglement vs freedom: the political potential of a walking that mobilises social relationships, the relational politics of the spatial (without aspiring to an idealized notion of the free man, or free-footed nomad)
b) Everyday vs heroic: avoiding the prioritizing or opposing of distance and dislocation over locality and rootedness; focusing on (confusions of) scale rather than the freedom of the epic task.
The second insight came from Jill Pearcy, who has joined Merched Chwarel as our curator. In discussing how we might collaborate towards an exhibition (in 2019), she suggsted we could consider working with Deep Mapping, and to take a look at the work of Clifford McLucas. He gives a ten point 'checklist' for his deep mapping process, and each of these is full of potential:
Deep Mapping was a term first coined by author William Least Heat-Moon (in his book PrairyErth). The 'other well-known Deep Mapping practitioner' (there are others ‘less known’ that are women!) is Iain Briggs. As with Least Heat-Moon and McLucas, his work is always collaborative, and engages directly with the complexity of the place and relationships:
These approaches seem to bring in all sorts of elements that we have been grappling with, and provide a flexible and creative way of dealing with them.
As Les Roberts says in 'Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology':
“very little of what deep mappers are doing is in fact oriented towards the production of maps so much as immersing themselves in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. It is from that performative platform—that space—that the creative coalescence of structures, forms, affects, energies, narratives, connections, memories, imaginaries, mythologies, voices, identities, temporalities, images, and textualities starts to provisionally take shape”
This all seems to fit so well with where we keep finding ourselves as Merched Chwarel! Perhaps we these ideas might help frame our project, and our collaboration itself, as we take our first tentative steps back into the project in 2018….