St. Melangell’s Pie

For The Cycles of Truth – the presentation of The Cave Hunters And The Truth Machine at Revolution Bike Park, Llangynog – I worked with farmer Rhian Williams of Pantri Peniarth, Penybontfawr (just down the road) to create ‘St. Melangell’s Pie’ as an offering to everyone who came to participate in the experience.

I wanted the pie to be be based on the shortest possible ‘supply chains’, thereby (a) reducing its carbon footprint and (b) supporting local producers. As it turned out, the end product – a lamb and honey pie – was (a) incredibly delicious and (b) founded on the ‘hyper-local’; both in terms of its ingredients and its associated cultural narrative.

The honey in the pies was sourced from my neighbour in the village Rob Broome who has several hives populated by indigenous black bees – which gather nectar from the wildflower patch in our garden. Black bees are fascinating in that they’ve evolved in a colder northern European climate and as a consequence are slightly hairy (which makes them retain heat better) and have shorter tongues than others bees – a consequence of co-evolution with the smaller flowers that are typical of our native flora.

Black bees were almost wiped out by Isle of Wight disease in the early twentieth century and remain threatened, not least as a consequence of growing numbers of apiarists keeping bees of more southern European origin – which are adapted to a Mediterranean climate. These Italian bees will in all likelihood do fine until our climate cools; a predicted consequence of anthropogenic warming that will alter the course of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic (the principal agency in maintaining our mild climate). So it’s absolutely essential that we preserve all these different adaptations (which is what biodiversity is) to have the best chance of keeping it all going in a universe of constant flux.

Anyway, for now, the black bees are here and the unfiltered honey they make is absolute, well; nectar. As Rob says “you can taste the flowers”. It’s as sophisticated and nuanced as a fine wine. 

The lamb in the pies was reared in Cwm Pennant which runs to the south west of Llangynog – and so the two principal ingredients were the fruit of the landscape visible from the quarry at Revolution where the installation was sited. Thus, everyone who came to the event was physically imbued with the land around them – via the labour of the bees and the grazing of the sheep.

And this immersion didn’t stop with the physical, for Pennant was also the home of St. Melangell, patron saint of small mammals, for whom the exquisite pilgrim church there is named. Melangell’s hagiography tells of how she saved a hare from the huntsmen of Brochwel, Prince of Powys who, struck by her radiant sanctity, gave her the valley as a sanctuary for nature. (It’s often written that hares are referred to here as ‘oen Melangell’ – Melangell’s lambs – though I’ve never heard the phrase used).

Nevertheless, it seemed apt to be thinking about the hare and sanctuary at a time when so many people (and creatures) in the world are being displaced by the actions of the greedy, the profligate, the plain evil and also – if we are being truthful – the reality of universal flux.

The hare I used in making the artwork for the pie label is featured in The Cave Hunters And The Truth Machine and is a mountain hare (Lepus timidus) – our indigenous hare, itself now displaced from Wales. The species is now rapidly disappearing from England (where it was reintroduced into the Peak District) as a consequence of climatic warming. And from Scotland, where it is being exterminated by gamekeepers because it nibbles on the same heather shoots as young grouse – who are themselves blasted out of the sky by wealthy ‘sportsmen’ participating in a strangely ritualised and illogical evolution of the subsistence hunt.

It strikes me that the angry, fearful types who feel threatened by migrants and migration should note that all those who regard themselves as ‘indigenous’ are in fact descended from refugees and migrants; many from communities once living where the North Sea is now who were flooded out by rising sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age – and those who, at the other end of the last cold phase, were forced to retreat to refugia in the Pyrenees in order to survive.

And given the catastrophic and sudden impact of a tsunami on the peoples of the north-eastern British Isles 8,000 years ago we might bear in mind that the unwanted status of ‘refugee’ can be thrust upon us all in a split second – just through bad luck. In the twenty-first century, given the combined impacts of the fearful power of nature (which we can’t control) and the toxic consequences of our own actions (which we can) Melangell’s compassion is more needed than ever.

Perhaps because of all these resonances there seemed something incredibly nourishing – both physically and spiritually – about Rhian’s works of art; something deeply positive and filled with hope.

Here she is at Revs with one her wonderful ‘soul food’ creations…

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