Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Women of the Well: 4th of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Mothering Sunday and the Sunday following International Women’s Day was a good day for ‘Women Remembering Women’. This 4th of the ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ series took me to a beautiful village hall in St Nicholas, West Wales. Some of the women remembered that day were known to us - mothers, daughters and friends. With others, we have drawn inspiration and drunk deeply from their art, their actions and their activism. Ann brought photographs of Earth activist Vandana Shiva; Jo embodied the spirit of iconoclast Frida Kahlo in her clothes and the flowers in her hair; nature poet Mary Oliver was celebrated by reading ‘Wild Geese’ and ‘On Blackwater Pond’; and ecological art champion, Suzi Gablik, author of the 'Reenchantment of Art', participating at a distance, sent us her personal good wishes for the day. On one level, the remembering was domestic and political, and on a deeper level, the remembering was in the realm of myth and imagination.
Fern Smith, Pearl Smith, Kathe Kollwitz, Suzi Gablik & Mary Oliver. Photo by Ann Shrosbree

The day came into being as the result of a phone conversation early in the New Year with Ruth Jones, artist, film-maker, mother and director of Holy Hiatus. Her work is motivated by exploring how ritual can be used creatively and therapeutically to engage with people, places and communities. Ruth and I have a shared interest in how ritual can create community and how it has the potential to connect us to a deeper sense of being human that goes beyond personal preoccupations, social bubbles and political alliances.

My ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ Creative Wales art project is fundamentally about the power of ritual. One of my hopes for the project was to connect to the ‘genii loci’ of particular places as well as connecting to different people who have a personal connection to those places. I’d already had a creative encounter with Ruth through a recent residency at Small World Theatre as part of my ‘7 Conversations Before the End of Time’. We had together reproduced and performed: ‘The Liminal Zones of Soul’, a conversation from 25 years earlier between Suzi Gablik and Thomas Moore, author of many books on art, theology and archetypal Jungian psychology. It felt that Ruth and I had begun a conversation which could go on for some time to come and might lead to some other interesting places…
Ruth Jones. Photo by Fern Smith
Ruth lives on the outskirts of St Nicholas in North Pembrokeshire. The Welsh name of the village is Tremarchog, which translated means ‘place of the knight.’ In the village - though you would never know it if you didn’t know a local – there is a hidden well.

During our phone conversation, I asked Ruth if there was somewhere – a venue or a place local to her in which we could run one of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ gatherings, to which I planned to invite: ‘All the Women I’ve Ever Met’. Immediately she mentioned the well in her village. It used to be the only source of water for the people and now she told me “it seems a bit forgotten, overgrown, unloved.” She had a desire to connect to the well and perhaps even begin an ongoing practise of caring for it, whilst maybe including her two young daughters in some way.

The American artist and author, Suzi Gablik, who has now become a dear friend, is one of the ‘artists at a distance’ who has helped co-create this series of 7 events by offering her unwavering support and mentorship at all stages of its evolution. She has written in her books of ‘synchronicity’, and we speak often in our phone conversations about its power and its predictable unpredictability. She advised me to read Jung’s essay on the subject - specifically his foreword to the 1949 edition of the I Ching or Book of Changes. Suzi quotes a description of synchronicity in one of her own books as being: "the methodology of the marvellous". In recent years, I’ve been tuning into and seeing if I can more consciously in my own art practise connect to this "methodology of the marvellous" – or at least notice when it is knocking at my door! Ruth Jones is someone who understands this too, so when she off-the-top-of-her-head mentioned the possibility of visiting her local well, I didn’t need any more convincing. She and I hatched a loose plan that I would facilitate a day whereby we celebrate women we want to mark, remember or mourn, find time to visit the little church in the village, and to make a pilgrimage to the Well. We would collect water. We would sing. We would take it from there…
Food offering. Photo by Fern Smith
In the run-up to preparing for ‘Women Remembering Women,’ I remembered a talk I'd heard, given by psychotherapist and Director of the Annwn Programme, Ian Rees, a number of years ago on the Women of the Wells. In it he spoke of a beautiful and mysterious poem I hadn’t come across before.

No one who wandered the highways,

Whether at night or in the morning,

Ever needed to alter his route

In order to find food or drink;

He had only to go to one of the wells.

These words are from an anonymous 13th century source, a poem which served as a prologue to the earliest recorded account of what was to become the Story of the Holy Grail by Chrétien de Troyes.
Alabaster Egyptian bowl with Well water. Photo by Ann Shrosbree
Whenever a tired and hungry traveller would stop at a well, a maiden would come out carrying a golden bowl, bringing food and drink with no payment expected. The poem goes on to tell of King Amangon, who violated this hospitality by raping the woman and carrying off her and her golden bowl. Led by the King’s example, the men of the country followed suit, the women stopped protecting the wells, the water dried up, and the land lay dry and wasted.

The Kingdom went to ruin,

The land was so dead it wasn’t worth two bits:

They lost the voices of the wells

And the maidens who dwelled in them.

This first story tells of the ‘Welsh Knight’ Parcival and of Gawain. Four more ‘continuations’ were added in subsequent years which went on to tell a more complete story of the Knights of the Round Table who appeared on the scene to find the Grail and restore the health and wealth of the wasted land… St Nicholas/Tremarchog  – the name of the village in Welsh means, 'The Place of the Knight'. Tremarchog with its hidden, over-looked well – the methodology of the marvellous.

As the planning for the ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ evolved, the days began to insert themselves into my diary in succession. The dates were set according to which venue was free and which local ‘host women’ could make which day. ‘Women Remembering Women’, as luck or of course synchronicity would have it, landed on Mothering Sunday – 18th March. For some this made little difference, though for others needing to be with families, it made it harder for them to schedule a visit to spend a day in a remote part of the country in the company of other women. Our number was small – myself plus 7 Women. By now, I have learnt the lesson that those who turn up are the right ones. Some of those who couldn’t make it sent messages and a number wrote me long, loving descriptions of those women they would like to be remembered as part of our day – Phoebe, Beryl and Eirlys. 
Glade by Well. Photo by Ann Shrosbree
It was good to talk of those women we wanted to remember. It was powerful and moving to speak of those women who have guided, supported and inspired us. The women who make each of us who we are – whether we are blood relations or not. Throughout the morning, the sun poured through the great floor-to-ceiling windows of the hall onto our small gathering. In the afternoon, as soon as we were ready to visit the Pilgrim’s church in the village, the sky opened and the rain came down in buckets. We sat silently dripping in our waterproofs in the half-light on the wooden pews, “looking like we were in a Tarkovsky film,” one remarked later. We took our empty bowls – wooden, ceramic and alabaster – to the well. We each gave an offering and filled our bowl. Remembering the story of the dried-up land and the disappeared women, we tasted the water, sang under the green and mossy, dripping trees and did what each of us were called to do.
Woman collecting well water. Photo by Ann Shrosbree

I dip my cupped hands. I drink

a long time. It tastes

like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold

into my body, waking the bones. I hear them

deep inside me, whispering

oh what is that beautiful thing

that just happened?

(From Mary Oliver’s poem At Blackwater Pond)

We gather for a final time in the village hall, noticing the palpable atmosphere of silence, stillness and spaciousness that has descended, hoping we are able to return with this into our lives. We draw to a close, sweep the floor, pack up the uneaten food, put away the tables and lock the doors, leaving the little village hall as we found it. We take away with us memories from the day and the water we've collected, decanted into jam-jars to take back to our own lands, our own places.

I have a plan to take my water from the well of Tremarchog to scatter as part of the next Sunday in Spring: Women Dancing. Women will come from all over the country to dance together at dawn on the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox. The closing of one circle, the opening of another, and so it continues...
Woman Dancing. Photo by Phil Ralph
Fern Smith is recipient of a 2017 Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales.

If you are interested in joining one of the 7 Sundays in Spring gatherings contact me at

Future work includes:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)

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