It was a perfect sunny winter's day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.
First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times - not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.
I'd spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.
After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I've been told I'd find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.
One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in '78. I wonder what their stories are...
Street art by Phlegm
I was back in Sheffield last weekend, to get together with my Tree Stories colleagues, to view potential exhibition space and discuss what we’ll be making for the project.
We met at the Workstation, a 1930s built former car showroom and garage which now houses lots of creative businesses. This whole area of the city, known as the Cultural Industries Quarter has a vibrant, creative feel, with a huge variety of street art, artist studios, silversmiths and metal workers and the lovely Showroom cinema.
The Tree Stories website is starting to take shape and we’re keen for people to send in their own Tree Story images. There’s also a new facebook page which will mean we can gather images and stories there too.
The following day, despite the soupy weather and the dimmest of light, I went out to Ecclesall Woods to immerse myself in the stories and atmosphere of this Ancient Woodland site.
Its history goes back many centuries – there are prehistoric carvings, Romano British remains and ancient field boundaries, as well as charcoal pits, trackways and even a Wood Collier’s grave from its more recent industrial past.
There are already quite a few photographs from Ecclesall on the Tree Stories website, so I went in search of some of those known but hoping also to discover some of its history myself. I wandered through the mist towards an area of big beeches which shows up clearly on Google Earth, since these are a favourite place for people to make their mark.
Although the damp and dingy weather made my photographs quite poor (I didn’t have a tripod with me so apologies for the blur!), it did mean that the trees were dark and glossy from the rain, which dramatically highlighted their forms.
Once I’d ‘got my eye in’ I found that almost every large beech I looked at had markings of some sort – many very distorted and indistinct, some letters clearly legible, some obviously old and some very new. I found a strong sense of place here, with recently made dens and graffiti layered over older carvings and even older charcoal pits and chunks of gritstone.
The idea of marking trees as a way of attaching yourself to a special place came to mind – the organically created paths, smoothed stones and modified trees all combined to give a sense of belonging, that this was a territory that generations of people had felt part of.
I came back to the studio with a good store of new material and ideas for the series of drawings I’ll be making for the exhibition – here’s a sketchbook snapshot of some of them...
Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history – Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.
For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour: it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime.
That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.
Since it's National Tree Week this week, I thought I'd join in the celebrations and share some of my favourites...though every week is tree week for me really.
This monumental ancient oak is in the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, lurking in the car park.
My rather unimaginative name for this one is 'Newbattle graffiti beech', since that's what's so amazing about it - all those layers and years of carvings. Here's a drawing of it too. I think more drawings from it will feature in my work for the Tree Stories project.
A wooded landscape next, rather than an individual tree - Glen Finglas, a Woodland Trust site in the Trossachs and a very special wood pasture with many pollarded alders. It's a fair walk but a good track into the trees.
Historic Scotland's Inchmaholme island has a long and venerable history with its ruined abbey and its Mary Queen of Scots connections, but I got most excited about this twisted old chestnut - fabulously sculptural.
Another sculptural one, this time a beech on the Novar Estate, near Alness, Easter Ross. There's a somewhat sinister quality to its deformity that attracted me, and it looked particularly impressive on the bright early spring day this photograph was taken. I know it as 'Novar fungus beech' and here's a drawing of the same.
Finally, staying on the theme of the beautifully grotesque, is this beech I found alongside an abandoned road by the Cromarty Firth. People who are expert in tree management suggested it was possibly pollarded, giving rise to the weird shapes. It also bears graffiti from the 50s and so much character that it seems to demand a whole series of works, so I'm hoping to revisit it next spring to get started.
National Tree week is about valuing and celebrating the trees we have now and ensuring that the generations that follow us can do the same. All the trees I've shown here are quite probably at least 100 years old and some are thought to be as much as 400 years old - let's allow them to age with dignity and nurture the young ones which will eventually replace them.Tags:
These are some of the trees which have inspired the works in my current solo exhibition, 'Time around trees', along with some quotes from authors and scientists whose books have helped me understand and reflect on what I see.
Crichton shattered beech Near Crichton Castle, Midlothian
Here veteran beeches line a little hollow lane beside an Iron Age Fort and a neighbouring field boundary.
When I first found the site on a walk with a friend, one tree stood out in particular for its striking form, following the collapse of one of the main limbs in a recent storm. Its distinctively separate twisting trunks suggest that it may have been ‘bundle planted’, where several saplings are planted together to give the impression of an older tree. Its surface is patterned with scars and marks from graffiti, barbed wire fencing and hole boring insects.
'Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch. What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up? Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings
Dalkeith burred oak Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian
These ancient oaks, in their rare wood pasture landscape, evoke for me the difference between a tree’s lifespan and that of a human.
Likely to have been at least 400 years old when it died, this tree continues to provide habitat and sustenance to the organisms of the woodland. The bark has rotted and been returned to the soil, revealing the whorls and contortions of the underlying structure. It could stand for another 200 years, dead but filled with life. As if to emphasise the point, a crow flew suddenly out of one of the holes in the trunk as I was drawing.
‘...the burr is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring... A burr may arise as a reaction to some itch in the tree, a kind of benign wood tumour. What begins as disfigurement ends life as an opulent adornment.’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Hopetoun half tree, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian
Before it was lopped, this beautiful beech by the side of the Bo’ness Road was a marker in the landscape for me on a regular route near home. Then one day it had simply been beheaded – perhaps it was deemed to be unsafe or diseased.
The remaining stump was at once shocking and fascinating, as the removal of the branches had revealed the torso-like sculpture of the trunk. The problems of drawing trees that I was struggling with then had been solved by the chainsaw, and a whole body of work was inspired.
‘...trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities. If all trees were like the ideal, they would lose most of their significance, all their historic meaning, most of their beauty and most of their value as habitat.’
Oliver Rackham, Woodlands
Newbattle graffiti beech, Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian
In the grounds of this adult education college and former Cistercian abbey, stands this single large beech on the banks of the South Esk. It has accumulated decades’ worth of carvings, initials, dates and symbols on every accessible surface. The oldest decipherable date is 1945, perhaps because there were Italian prisoners of war held in the grounds and the house was used as barracks during the war.
Coins are pressed into the bark along the tree’s massive lower limb. It’s evident that hundreds of human lives have had links with this tree.
‘To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.’
Ian D. Rotherham, Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts
Novar fungus beech, Novar Estate, Evanton, Easter Ross
I discovered this site on a family holiday and have drawn there in early spring for five consecutive years.
The Novar estate was laid out in the mid 1700s as a deer park and as a symbol of the laird’s status. It has many great old trees, but the beeches there are special for me.
This solitary beech stands in the parkland wearing its convoluted crown covered in lichens, its trunk stacked with bracket fungus which is recycling the heartwood.
‘... at each place where [the tree] has been bent or cut it has grown stronger, swelling into a callous like a human knee or puckering into a bump of scar tissue round the little star-cracked crater of each amputated branch. Every one of these details represents a decision, a little setback for the tree to which it responds with redoubled vigour...’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Scone grafted beech, Scone Palace Grounds, Perthshire
I was introduced to this tree on an Ancient Tree Forum site visit in Perthshire.
Clearly planted as an ornamental tree, this beech reflects in its bark the battle going on between the common beech rootstock and the copper beech grafted onto it. The join is unusually high, which accounts for the very visible bulges, bosses and scars, and which immediately attracted me to draw it.
‘A known tree was a solid link with the past, an embodiment of continuity. It could be welcomed as one of the family – or at least the family estate. It could be appropriated as a trophy, a proof of clever husbandry, a symbol of ancient occupation or social standing.’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings
I'm wondering who Pete and Lisa are... one or both of them were at this beech tree recently and left their mark, so fresh that I thought it had been painted at first. It's a perfect example of the capacity of tree carving to provoke our curiousity and an ideal starting point for inspiring other artworks - just what 'Tree Stories', a new project I'm involved in, seeks to capture.
'Tree Stories' will be launched soon, with a Discovery Day event at the end of October to introduce the project to the people of Sheffield and North Derbyshire.
Project leader Christine Handley, myself and poet, song and scriptwriter Sally Goldsmith went out last week to investigate marked trees in Graves Park, Sheffield. We'll be visiting some of them again with people on the Discovery day, then making prints, plaques and poems in response.
An illustration of how letters have stretched over time, with interesting contrasts between crisp new carvings and deformed old ones.
We thought this one read IAN + MARC, with what at first looked like a cross, but on closer inspection seemed to be a butterfly with little antennae. Beautifully mossy inside the carvings.
The project will run until the end of next year, so there will be plenty more tree graffiti related posts. Until the next installment you can find more information on the project page and my first Tree Stories post, and also regular updates on my facebook page.
drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself. Maybe this is what comes next...- whilst looking at these photographs I can relive memories of a drawing trip here in early spring this year. Ancient oaks, gorgeous light, solitude apart from buzzards and the occasional frog. I've done a few 360 degree
So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?
It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at my work that I have a deep and enduring interest in trees – the origins of which I’ve talked about in other posts. Over the last five years or so, my drawings have developed in parallel to my knowledge of and appreciation for trees, their history, ecology and our cultural links with them.
The more I read and understand about them as a subject, the better I feel that creative connection which is essential for me to make good work. There are some key books which have influenced me, but even better than reading is meeting real people sharing their expertise and passion.
So last week I went along to the Ancient Tree Forum's Highland Gathering in Perthshire to meet some proper tree people and hear talks and discussions on things ancient and arboreal. The morning session in Perth included talks on themes around wood pasture, parkland, tree recording and preservation, Atlantic hazel woods, along with perspectives from England and Scotland.
Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.
Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.
Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.
My favourite tree from the field visit was a huge copper beech. The strange contortions in its trunk are due to the copper beech tree being grafted onto common beech rootstock at an unusually high graft point.
So what did I learn? Loads more than I can write but here’s a start...
- Here in the UK we have ancient trees and landscapes of European and even global significance.
- They are really rare, very rich habitats which are only just beginning to be understood.
- Our ancient trees and treescapes have very little protection from destruction or damage – even relatively recent important buildings have much more protection.
- They are irreplaceable – planting new trees is not enough. They are complex ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds, quite possibly thousands of years.
- They are a living link to our past, representing a depth of history which can be hard for us short-lived humans to comprehend – for example the oaks I draw in Dalkeith Country Park are known to be at least 500 years old.
- Death and decay is a very important part of this ecosystem. An old tree with bracket fungus growing from it is not necessarily a sick or fragile tree – the fungus is recycling material that the tree no longer needs, making the nutrients available to the tree roots again.
- Hollow trees are especially important for the habitats they provide for all kinds of creatures, plants, fungi and lichens.
- There’s a growing movement of people – campaigners, scientists, ecologists, academics, arborists, historians and artists of course, who are raising awareness and appreciation of this amazing heritage that we have.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...Tags:
Words probably won't add much here, but just to give a little context, this is an oak on the Dalkeith Country Park Estate, in a large area of ancient wood pasture which was once a deer hunting forest. The wood continues to be used for cattle grazing but is managed for conservation - this tree has broken in half very dramatically, but the dead wood will not be cleared away or otherwise tidied. Instead it will be allowed to slowly decompose and provide habitat for countless millions of other organisms as it does so. Not to mention also providing both shocking and endlessly beautiful subject matter for freezing artists in the winter months.Tags:
Back in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey today drawing this fallen beech:
It's unusual for me to have the opportunity to get close to the upper parts of a tree as big as this, since I'm not any kind of climber. It came down in the January storms of 2012 and the photo below was taken shortly after, while the torn trunk was still very fresh and smelling of sap.
I've been collecting as much visual information as I can while it's still in situ - it's possible that next time I visit it could be removed for safety reasons, though I'm hopeful that it will be left to sustain life as it rots.
Here's the very beginnings of a drawing made from photos taken of the tree when it was still standing, it's almost ready to leave the board now but I'm not quite ready to say "finished" yet.