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Oriel Davies Gallery
The Park, Newtown
Powys SY16 2NZ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1686 625041
Fax: +44 (0) 1686 623633
Email: desk@orieldavies.org
Monday - Saturday 10am-5pm
Free Admission

Essays

Zoom

Exhibition: That morning he watched the dawn
Date: February 2009
Writer: Mike Parker
Publication: That morning he watched the dawn
Publisher: Oriel Davies Publications

Thanks to Google Earth and its ilk, we are now fully familiar with the idea of zooming in and out of our landscapes at breakneck speed. In a matter of seconds, we can go from hovering far above an entire continent, to crashing down into a close-up inspection of our own back yards – or, more interestingly, those of our neighbours, friends and complete strangers. This startling advance has bequeathed many new hobbies, from poking our noses into erstwhile secretive military installations to impromptu parties in the gardens of those with private swimming pools.

The zooming in has become a regular shtick of the news media, who increasingly use it to illustrate their stories. You can see why: it infers that they are keeping tabs on the whole globe and, here we are, hurtling earthwards to take in some detail from today’s frontline, be it in Thailand, Tobago or Trefeglwys. The sudden change of perspective can be dizzying, however, suggesting an aeroplane in free-fall rather than the all-seeing eye of the BBC or Sky News.

As so often in life, the Super Furry Animals caught the idea rather more elegantly. Their Welsh-language album Mwng, from 2000, concluded with an epic track that started on the ground here in Wales (“Yma yw lle dewisom ni / I gael plannu gwreiddiau dwfn”: “This is the place that we chose / To plant the deepest roots”), before lifting us up gently into the heavens and seeing our little patch of land recede into cosmic insignificance. It’s a tune that soothes your soul while it breaks your heart: the very epitome of the Welsh relationship with its milltir sgwar*.

A decade of living in mid Wales has played merry hell with my perspective on the landscape. Arriving as a fired-up travel writer, it was the broad-brush view of a dazzlingly physical Wales that attracted me. Soon, my outlook began to zoom in as fast as a BBC newsflash: instead of the postcard views and guide book sights, it was the unsung detail of my adopted patch that enthralled and absorbed me. It started in the physical realm: the patterns of lichen and mosses on particular trees or rocks, the whirlpools and dragonfly hotspots in local rivers, knowing where the best hedgerow raspberries or wild mushrooms would shortly appear. The longer I lingered, however, the more each detail developed contexts that were cultural, spiritual, political: the invisible threads that bind communities together, even those spread over many apparently remote miles, the unbroken Old Ways winking from beneath the cracked veneer of chapel piety, the quicksand of loss – of farms to conifers, industry to rusty ruin, population to ‘away’, Cymraeg to English – that underpinned it all.

Carwyn Evans’ work plays with this change in perspective. He goes in deep to the tiniest details of the plot that spawned him, and then tugs us back to take a wider look, before plunging us back in again. If that makes it sound muddled and contradictory, then it shouldn’t, for it is his clear-eyed talent as an artist, together with sharp senses of humanity and humour, that prevents such chaos. The roots that we can see here, such as in the portraits of his childhood home and parents, or the farm tools fashioned from their hands, help locate him on the map, but that tells only a fraction of the story.

For starters, these influences are located in an area that I have long contended to be Wales’ answer to the Bermuda Triangle: the Teifi-side
borderlands of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, an area that defies conventional divides of county loyalty, politics, urban / rural and industry / agriculture. No matter how many times I go there, it always conspires to get me lost and disoriented down roads I can’t recall from previous visits; it seems impossible to nail down.

If his roots are there in this opaque corner of Wales, Carwyn’s branches have spread far and wide. He is one of a growing cavalcade from the rural west and north who have revivified the capital, Cardiff, and doubled its proportion of Welsh speakers in less than twenty years. Meanwhile, the language has slipped further in his own heartland, under the pressures of rural depopulation, globalisation and the inexorable movement of people across national borders. In the small Teifi-side market town of Llanybydder, for instance, over two-thirds of the 420 workers in the Dunbia (né Oriel Jones) abattoir come from abroad, most noticably Poland, a proportion impossible to lose in a west Welsh valley. Perspectives are changing: zooming in and out, hopping across boundaries and re-positioning themselves with rapid, and sometimes bewildering, restlessness. The view is both timeless and fleeting, our greatest challenge and our boldest opportunity. Mike Parker, January 2009.

* milltir sgwar – “square mile”: a phrase much used in Welsh to define your patch of land, the place that created you, the location that tugs your heartstrings when hiraeth – another uniquely Welsh concept for a yearning that is tied to a particular place – kicks in.

Mike Parker has written five editions of the Rough Guide to Wales and is the only author to have co-written the Rough Guide to England, Scotland and Wales as well as having had seven other guide books published (by Harrap and GMP) to parts of Britain and Ireland. He is a regular columnist for Planet: the Welsh Internationalist (winning the 2001 Attitude award for the best piece of the year) and has written for many of the Welsh and UK papers. His ITV Wales’ series, Coast to Coast (2003-4), saw Mike sailing around the entire Welsh coast and his subsequent ITV project aired in 2008, Great Welsh Roads, saw him and his faithful dog comb Wales in a camper van, hunting out the amazing, the amusing and the absurd. His book Neighbours from Hell?, published by Y Lolfa, looking at the history of English attitudes to Wales and the Welsh, was published in 2007. His next book, Map Addict, a lively and loving study of the place of maps in our history and culture, will be published by Harper Collins in spring 2009. Mike Parker lives in the Dulas valley of mid-Wales, near the historic Welsh capital, Machynlleth.