We Tree Loving Types, Hayden Lorimer – Chair of Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow

November 28, 2016

These days, whenever the label ‘tree-hugger’ gets bandied about, it isn’t normally intended as a term of endearment. The very idea of wrapping your arms around a trunk’s gnarly girth has come to be read as misplaced love, an excessive show of emotion, verging on the hysterical and unhinged, rather than a powerful symbol of the protective embrace, or as a show of greater ecological concern for our planetary future. And the fact that tree-hugging was a practice begun by peasants in rural India, who employed it as a tactic of non-violent protest against unforgiving tree-felling policies? Well, this origin story from a distant resource war seems to have been relegated to the history books.

But calling yourself a ‘tree lover’? Well, that’s a different matter altogether. Surely we’d all self-identify as one of those. To claim intimacy, attachment and affiliation with particular trees is one of the strongest structures of feeling we share with our forebears from centuries past. In fact, as I write, public votes are being cast across the Home Nations to select a ‘Tree of the Year’. “And my personal favourite?” seeing as you’re asking. From Scotland’s shortlisted half-dozen, without doubt it’s the ‘Bicycle Tree’ in Brig O’Turk, Perthshire, so-called because of its slow-growth habit of consuming bits of scrap metal. The two-centuries old sycamore having sprouted through the last remains of a blacksmith’s workshop, so legend has it. When every tree lover’s ballot has been counted, each national winner will be entered into a cross-continental competition, leading eventually to the crowning of Europe’s finest specimen. To contemplate the opposite sort of attitude – turning your back on trees – offers only the bleakest of prospects. ‘A culture is no better than its woods’, warned W.H. Auden’s verse, with great portent and finality.

Poetry is one thing. Contemporary art another. “Not always to everyone’s taste”, seems a reasonable enough way to summarise its mixed reception among the general public. Though arguably, we’re becoming increasingly sophisticated interpreters of forest landscapes where plain timber is transformed by a seasonal or site-specific installation of artworks, or community woodlands temporarily enchanted by theatrical displays of sound and light. Nowadays, it’s far from unusual to encounter sculptural art in some bosky glade, or to enter a wood after nightfall voluntarily so as to watch its canopy of leaves illuminated and re-tinted. Or, to cup an ear as amplified sounds estrange the pine-needle crunch of footfall as you pass through a coniferous plantation.

Half a century of arts-driven developments, self-consciously styling the nation’s public forests as artful places, is itself a cultural achievement worthy of notice. At its best, forest art challenges us to consider what we might mean by cultural landscapes in the British tradition. Moreover, the programming, curating and exhibiting of forest art can also happen at a distance from the physical settings that serve as inspiration or sites of inquiry. These emergent and distributed geographies now encompass the gallery as display space, and digital communities connecting through web and social media. Perhaps all this effort and enterprise merits a new descriptive category, one that would line-up with existing standards for landscape artistry: like the picturesque, sublime, gothic and romantic. Myself, I’m putting my wager on the ‘curatorial’ movement.

However well-deserved these congratulations, we metropolitan moderns would do well to recall some of the entirely ordinary ways in which arboriculture continues to take artful expression, often without much more than the most local of announcements.

Take tree carving: a once commonplace countryside custom, of which there remains plentiful evidence, visible on trunks nationwide. It might be possible to picture an example from memory. Two sets of letters cut out of the bark, your own initials and those of your childhood sweetheart. A tender coupling held together with a + sign, framed by a heart shape, shot through with Cupid’s arrow.

Now, digging your pocketknife into a tree’s soft flesh will strike some as a less then courtly way to show the intensity of your feelings; but then, urban graffiti has its sworn enemies too. Myself, I’ve always been rather taken by this desperate urge to proclaim that the love you share will be everlasting. Old carvings convert your nearest neighbourhood copse into an arboretum with a difference, where the amateur tree-sleuth can swoon a little at the thought of secret assignations under the boughs, or decipher local love-lives from a free-standing archive, open to the skies. And as middles broaden with age, stretching and warping these dating declarations from younger days, the calligrapher-cum-critic might detect a mirroring of process-based durational artwork.

Woodland aesthetics that emerge out of the unintended, or folk-art which arrives as a by-product of functional utility, has always had its place. And of late, it’s found a fashionable niche too. None more so than the traditional pastime of chopping, stacking and drying wood. Lars Mytting’s Hel Ved [Solid Wood] – a bestselling handbook in his native Norway, and breakout literary success in English translation – celebrates the expressive simplicity of the well-built pile. The author’s search for shapeliness in form opens out into an account of culture and climate operating in tandem. In Mytting’s Scandinavia, practical skills with tools, wood and heat ensure that renewable energy reigns supreme, and a seasonal round of activities keeps family pride well-kindled.

Whether commissioned, curated, crafted, carved or cut, tree-loving art of all kinds is a welcome presence in today’s cultural landscape; be it bike-eating trees, dating vows from yesteryear, enough dry wood to deliver a household safely at the other side of winter, or contemporary practitioners’ visual, sonic and performed works. And may it also mean clinging to a tree for the sake of dear green life. Yes. Yes more. More please of all this arbor-amour.

 

Hayden Lorimer – Chair of Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow

 

Film stills: Jerwood Open Forest 2016 © Steve Gammond