9/3/22 (Landscape / Portrait)

No post last week, because I had a stupid migraine. Ugh. Anyway, here’s a bit of writing I did about the project I’ve been drawing trees for. The project is slowly moving onwards, I just can’t quite work out what to do with it apart from draw pictures of it.

Landscape / Portrait

(A journey towards a video that’s not finished yet)

When Storm Arwen began to reach the Scottish Borders on the 26th of November 2021, I wasn’t paying attention. I was installing an exhibition. Actually, I was fretting and drinking coffee and trying to seem like I knew what I was doing while a wonderful team of staff and volunteers made sure my work was actually working. My world was stretched between the two places of the installation space, rapidly taking shape in a warm carpeted darkness, and a stressful situation ongoing at home. The storm raging over and between these two places weren’t really in focus until they were stretched across the road in the form of various trees.

I was pretty lucky on my way home that night. Three people died in the storm. I’m surprised there weren’t more.

I made two mid-storm 999 calls from the centre of a very dark A-road, beside a polite queue of halted cars that night – the first to say there’s a tree down, to tell them where it was, that we are all okay – the second was a more panicked and probably unhelpful call to just let someone out there know that the trees on the slope the road were groaning. Crying as the deep, heartwood of the trunks of unseen trees were being torn apart. The sound was awful, mournful and fear inducing. Like in a disaster movie where an awful unnatural noise precedes the arrival of a spaceship or a missile or a meteor. It makes me think about how before the sound of trucks was every day, every hour, every minute, that a huge rumbling could make one think, is the world ending? Has Armageddon started so soon?

On the dark highway with darker woods above and below, I decided I’d be safer out of the car and able to run than sat inside, potentially trapped.

It was a fortnight or so before I saw the extent of the damage Arwen and her successors wrought in the valley I spent a large part of my childhood in. In one spot, an entire plantation is gone, looking oddly neat and flat, brushed, and tamped down from a distance. Faced up-close with the task of navigating it, it is first an almost impenetrable wall of earth, the topsoil now vertical where roots hold it in space. The changes in the ground’s colour and texture move from a mat of bright needles and green plant matter to a fertile and dark topsoil then to stony and muddy earth. I see this movement in the very earth the trees clung to and wonder, how did they ever stand upright in the first place?

Once past the barrier, the trees are a treacherous climbing frame. Round solid trunks aren’t likely to move much, but anything else that looks solid probably isn’t. Scale feels completely skewed at this almost ninety-degree angle – these trunks were never that wide, were they? I was sure they were skinny wee tall things. Now they’re stacked up sideways, they’re like a Jacob’s ladder at an outdoor centre – it looks simple to step to the next rung, but they’re a metre up, and wet, and covered in branches too flimsy to be handholds, too solid to imagine the consequences of slipping.

I didn’t get all the way through; I retracted and retraced my steps to get back to the fence.

The wood I took a camera into is called the Policy Wood. It’s a small part of a larger forest, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland reaching across to Dumfries & Galloway from the Scottish Borders. I ducked under the tape blocking the entrance, and sought no permission but Scotland’s Right to Roam, as well as my own arrogant feelings of ownership towards the place. There’s a photo of me, as a toddler in this wood with my dad. Parts of that day are somewhere in my memory, solidified once again by photographs I see when I go home, just metres away from the same woods.

The Policy Woods used to (and in places, still do, even after Arwen) have little plinths beside some of the trees, with their common names on them. Over the years, they’ve rotted away, been broken and gradually disappeared. Last time I was there, I found two – although one of those looks like the wood that the plaque is attached to has been replaced – it’s a section of a limb, not a rectangular piece of timber like the original ones were, a quarter of a century ago. I wonder who did it, I’m annoyed I didn’t think to do it.

They look, from certain angles, like nothing has changed; once you’re in there on the path that gently slopes uphill, it’s not obvious until a wall of solid tree blocks the way where the footpath used to go. The abrupt halt to the path re-draws the small map of the place in my mind. Was it here, or further along… Where did that mound we used cycle over go, the space where there used to be a wildlife hide, where is that tree by the fence, the one I used to sit in to think when the midges weren’t too bad in the summer?

Instead of heading uphill, this new solid mass forces me downhill and around, through a slightly less solid mass of trees of many ages and sizes. The sky opens up bright and cold, beaming onto the woodland floor that has hardly seen it. It’s disorientating, seeing so much brightness when even in winter a canopy of branches and enough coniferous trees insulated the understory from the cold.

I take my phone with me, and a tripod. The thing to connect the two hasn’t arrived yet, so I use it with two legs out, a bipod to steady the shots. Each tree, or bunch of trees, I hold on the camera’s screen, line it up and turn it, so that they’re upright once again, or will be, when I turn the videos again and the screen is landscape. I’m sure there’s a button to stop the phone’s screen from turning somewhere…

I walk around the outer edges, skirting the destruction, and take 20 seconds of each, re-aligned to their former potential positions on-screen.

As I go, they turn. The wind came from the wrong direction that night, pushing trees in ways they hadn’t been bent before, in directions counter to where their strong parts had grown. Many have fallen into one pile, the height of those remaining upright is astonishing – surely they were never this inhumanly big when their whole community stood around them? They must have grown in the last 20… 25 years…

Contrary to most forestry plantations, this stretch of wood wasn’t (I think) ever going to be harvested; it was more than the endless spruces; it had hardwoods hiding in there, Beech trees I can name and others I’m embarrassed about because I can’t. Over the years the smaller trees with their little signs were crowded out by the Sitka Spruce, missing out on the sun they needed – the Siberian Crab, the Cherry, the Rowan, were standing corpses with their little signs intact for an amount of time I’m not sure of. That these remained upright, slowly rotting down, feels a bit of an affront to the victims of Arwen, who didn’t have the chance to die standing up.

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