Ask the Wood

Devised in collaboration with artist Marcus Coates, Ask the Wood was an event held at South London Botanical Institute, where we invited an audience to bring deep-rooted personal questions and thorny problems to be deliberated and fathomed via the wisdom of the woods. We enlisted  the help of an esteemed panel of naturalists – forest scientist Gabriel Hemery, fungi and orchid specialist Irene Palmer, urban ecologist Mathew Frith and plant folklorist Roy Vickery.

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Subverting a ‘Gardeners Question Time’ format, Ask the Wood looked at strategies and relationships that have evolved between species in woodlands to provide new frameworks for approaching questions concerned with human society. The panel drew on their specialist knowledge of the intricate relationships that have evolved in nature to open up unexpected pathways of creative thinking for everyday life.

I received several questions by email before the event, which I have sent answers to – here are a few of these, to give a flavour of our results. There is an audio recording of the event, perhaps the makings of a radio show…

I am ordinarily loath to place myself in the position of  ‘She who knows’, but with the Woods at my back I felt I had special powers (i.e. much to offer as a conduit).

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Most of the panel, snacking in the wonderful SLBI garden in advance of the event. From left to right is Gabriel Hemery, Irene Palmer, Marcus Coates, Fiona MacDonald, Mathew Frith

 

A Few Questions and Answers

‘In our small church newcomers are often met with bullying from two elder ladies who are deeply resistant to change. They are both church wardens. The vicar’s response is not to rock the boat, but their behaviour is pushing people away. Should the newcomers make an official complaint or collude with the vicar and allow it to continue?’

Your question is quite complex and provoked a number of responses rather than one simple answer.

The matriarchs of a troop or herd would normally aim to nurture the new generation. Clearly your female elders perceive you as intruders, or upstarts, as getting out of line, and are defending their territory/status aggressively. The alpha male (vicar) can fight other males but may still be put in his place by an alpha female.

Is this territory something you want to claim for yourselves? In which case you may have to fight for it. This can be through direct confrontation, or via subterfuge and cunning. Subordinate females get on the right side of dominant ones by bringing gifts, making themselves useful, grooming, looking after babies etc to increase their relative status in the group.

Alternatively, you would take the patient view of the plant kingdom, and play the waiting game. At some point the dominant tree will fall and cast light on the waiting saplings…

Or, you might decide that other territories look more inviting, and less trouble.

 

‘What is the best way of dealing with anxiety?’

Your question regarding anxiety is tricky, as we need to be careful not to under-estimate it (in case talking to a doctor is more appropriate).

But the wood did come up with a couple of things that may be useful.

Trees in woods use their networks all the time – they are continually feeding into and taking from the underground root/fungal network. 20-80% of a tree’s sugars will be sent into the fungal network, both to feed others and /or to save up for time of need – it is like a combination of family / friendship reciprocity, and an insurance policy against dark times. So the woods’ advice would be nurture your connections to your intimate networks, helping and being helped by them.

My own added inflection on your question was to critically look at how the mycorrhizal network is often seen as a metaphor for the internet. I think this is a potentially damaging metaphor, particularly in this context of anxiety. We are speaking here about beings in local proximity with physical connection.

 

‘How can two people start to really see each other after 25 years of possibly seeing past each other?’

Birds who mate monogamously enact mating rituals on reacquaintance, which they expend considerable effort and time on. So – make rituals of grooming and love-making with your partner, and… spend the winter apart!

 

‘How can we build and support human collectivity and interdependence?’

The way of the wood would be to share what you can offer with those in need of it, on the basis of asymmetric reciprocity. Trees and mycorrhizal networks continually feed each other, according to who needs what, and when. Different nutrients are continually being passed back and forth under the soil. This encourages an interconnected ‘we not me’ approach to survival and flourishing in times of plenty and scarcity.

From an animal perspective: form a strong herd, claiming and sharing territory together.

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Spotting newts in the pond

 

 

Mycorrhizal Meditations

I have been working on a drawing of a mycorrhizal meditation that I developed earlier this year, for inclusion in a publication. Initially I wrote this meditation  for a workshop, which was part of a project with Katriona Beales on internet addiction and our ever increasing digital connectivity. My role in this project has mostly been curatorial, but for the workshop I enjoyed devising ‘offline’ versions/games/exercises of some of the topics we were discussing (some of which involved homemade playdough, hurrah!) But this meditation has seemed to gather force, and keeps being requested. I have since performed/led it several times, and I am developing it as a full artwork for exhibition in September, at which point it may also become available as an MP3.

The meditation takes you slowly down through your body, and into the soil beneath you, your feet becoming roots, which become ever finer, and then meet with the fine filaments of other beings, and meet and intertwine with them, exchanging nutrients, and information, and strength. Although its clearly imaginative, the interchange of nutrients and information under the soil is based on solid science. Some people like to call it the Wood Wide Web.

Mycorrhizal fungi connect to and penetrate the fine roots of trees and plants, and connect one organism to another like this across wide distances. Perhaps a whole woodland is connected in this way! The relationship is mutually beneficial – the plants share their sugars (made via photosynthesis) with the chlorophyll-lacking fungi, while the fungi’s superfine filaments – hyphae – can reach into the nooks and crannies that the roots cannot access, to retrieve important minerals like nitrogen, which they pass to the plants and trees. And there’s more. The mycorrhizae, (also known as mycelium)  also acts as an information system, much like our own interweb – where messages of danger such as aphid attack can travel swiftly underground, so the trees can raise their chemical defenses long before the aphids get across to them.

More surprising to me was the news that via this connectivity, trees can (and do) choose to support an ailing neighbour, or a young shaded sapling, or choose to keep feeding a cut tree, or choose to die. Why they might do these things raises the kinds of questions that science ordinarily sneers at, but I’m yet to be convinced that sneering at anthropomorphism gets us anywhere as interesting as engaging (if critically) with anthropomorphism. The decisions that trees are making, to send or withdraw support, look like they could be emotional or moral. Why continue to support a cut tree?

I’ve been reading about all this for some time, but was grateful for a link to this New Yorker article, because Dr Merlin Sheldrake (what a name) has a deeply scientific and quirky and imaginative take on the subject. And I learned something new – ‘In addition to penetrating the tree roots, the hyphae also interpenetrate each other—mycorrhizal fungi on the whole don’t have divisions between their cells. “This interpenetration permits the wildly promiscuous horizontal transfer of genetic material: fungi don’t have to have sex to pass things on.”‘

Sheldrake also goes on to describe the way the relational behaviour he observes in the ‘wood wide web’ should alter our partisan moral models of nature. He proffers “the socialist forest, in which trees act as caregivers to one another, with the well-off supporting the needy… [as opposed to] the capitalist forest, in which all entities are acting out of self-interest within a competitive system”.

Which is food for thought, as Trump accedes to office :/

 

Tick Worlds

Jacob von Uexkull, writing in 1934, made the unusual assertion for the time that “All animal subjects, from the simplest to the most complex, are inserted into their environments to the same degree of perfection.” (50) He doesn’t mean we all have the same perceptions or same intelligence or same worlds for that matter, but he does mean that we as humans are in any way the pinnacle of evolution, the best yet at being adapted to the conditions of Planet Earth, which was a truism of Western philosophy and science of the time. What Uexkull says is rather that each creature lives in its own unique lifeworld, or Umvelt, which is created by their particular perceptual tools.

So instead of an objective world, to which each creature has particular limited access, with human beings at the top with the most, he describes interlocking lifeworlds as something like a Venn diagram of overlapping spheres, the overlap being made up of those perceptual tools we share with, say, dogs, ants or birds. A dog, of course, totally outdoes us in the power and acuity of their sense of smell, and its impossible to imagine what impact this has on the picture of the world as experienced by the dog. A bloodhound comes top of the league, with 300 million scent receptors, compared to a mere 5 million for humans.

One of Uexkull’s most famous and evocative examples of a nonhuman lifeworld is his description of the sensory perceptions of the Tick: “From the enormous world surrounding the tick, three stimuli glow like signal lights in the darkness and serve as directional signs that lead the tick surely to its target…” 51 “…this eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint [at the top of a tall blade of grass] with the help of only its skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass/bush) and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood.”

tick

Erm, yum 😉

Wood to World exhibition

I’ve got rather behind with blogging by way of being busy finishing work for and installing a solo exhibition at Kaleidoscope Gallery in Sevenoaks. SO here is some pics of the show and some explanation of how things were made.

It’s my second solo exhibition of work made as the result of persistent engagement with one smallish, ordinary-extraordinary wood near the M25 in Kent. This wood, actually two interconnected woods and some scrub and steep pasture, is on the hills between my house and the motorway, on the North Downs. I hope to spend more years exploring with/in, and learning, this particular place.

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The exhibition Wood to World places several kinds of things alongside, against or even inside another, to evoke how disparate large and small things nest and entangle to produce a unique ‘ecology’ in wooded space. It does not attempt to be a scientific or objective or realist study, rather it is very personal exploration of learning a place and becoming-with a place, by making art with and in and through it.

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The large sculptural hanging drawings are tree portraits, but portraits more ‘with’ than ‘of’ the tree. Each one is made by encasing a section of tree in my chosen paper, and then making a rubbing of the bark with graphite. This is making that requires touch, literally rubbing up against a place – thus a meeting of bodies, a co-production. There is an indexical relationship between the drawing and the tree, which I think is stronger than that of a photograph. These rubbed marks are made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite. The tree and me meet here on this paper. What is produced by that meeting is the artwork, but also a transformation of our relationship. The tree becomes individuated, personified. As my project carries on into the future, my aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood (I have counted twenty-three so far) but the trees are approached as individuals, and acknowledged as co-creators of the piece.

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There are two rings of sculptures that look something like dancing figures. The shapes of these sculptures are derived from woodland flower petals, from the Common Spotted Orchid, the Yellow Archangel, the Bee Orchid, and one petule of the conical Bugle, all of which species are relatively common in the chalk-hills of the Kent Downs. Each shape is made from four colours, the four soils types I have collected from soil dug out by animals in Shoreham Woods (Kent has a notoriously complex geology, having intricate layers of sedimentary rocks and soils laid down by successive river basins and shallow seas). The yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud was a molehill. I am not sure where the ash originated from, but I do know that during World War Two, these woods were heavily used by the army, and I find metalwork (billy cans and the like) that date from this time lying about, and even one shattered shell casing still sits grimly among the bluebells. There are lots of craters as well.

The panoramic ‘landscape painting’ is made outside, working on the ground on Polhill Bank, looking towards Sevenoaks, using just-picked berries held in the hand (blackberries, dogwood, old man’s beard). I had a pony companion/observer while I made this painting, and as the sun set and the moon rose I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Palmer (if you don’t already know him, do look him up, he’s good). The texture and imagery comes partly from the grass underneath the tracing paper as I drew, and partly from the bushes that surrounded me. It is not representational, but evocative. As an artist, I think that it is a fine thing to be captivated by a good view, but it can become a problem if one is interested in the view without any real imagination of or care for what it actually contains – with who actually lives there (creatures and plants of all sorts).

Romantic Sublime painting of the 19th Century helped persuade people to love and value the wild and beautiful places of Britain, where before they had found them frightening. Yet concentration on the glory of big views can obscure so much, including, sometimes, the very problems that create the views, like deforestation and overgrazing by sheep. In woodland, the big view is rare (especially in summer months). Instead you get thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.

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The lilac humps are painting-sculptures made with meadow ants (Lazius niger). The paper covers the nest, the paint (food colouring) is dripped on, and the ants run through the paint to make the drawn lines (or don’t, and drink it, or ignore it, or are scared of it). The thicker, woobly lines are made by the ‘fatter’ ants that droop their abdomens into the wet paint, whereas the tiny scratchy lines are made by antic feet. What never ceases to intrigue me is how one nest differs from another in their attitude and activity. Ant nests have distinct personalities. In fact, there is also the odd subversive ant who behaves quite differently from her fellows – who is obsessively interested in my paint drips, repeatedly wading into them and running around in them, and these ants are by far and away my best artists. You heard it here first. Or, if you didn’t, please get in touch.

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The photos and videos add a little bit of the ‘real’ into the exhibition (and are used sparingly as the real is a tricky business).

My aim for this research – these artworks, experiments and exhibitions, is to interpret and promote a world view that is less anthropocentric, and which highlights “the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter, 2010 p.11) such that we can see beyond the end of our noses to the vitality and significance of the nonhuman world that surrounds us. It isn’t there for our benefit. It follows a different agenda, has its own frames of reference, its own purposeful and playful activities.

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P.S. In my experience it’s often worth checking under snaketraps. Especially in the morning.

 

 

 

 

Embodied Knowing

It has been a time of meetings, walks and conversations – with other artists and practitioners of other disciplines – around how we ‘meet’ the wood.

My first of these significant encounters took place in Gloucestershire rather than on home turf, visiting a shamanic practitioner I met on the Dark Ecology course at Schumacher College led by David Abram and Stephan Harding.

Mandy Pullen made me laugh, and her shamanism, which is a subject I can feel skittish about, appears to rise up from the ground. It is embedded in this living world rather than in separate cosmologies or sparkly unicorns. At Schumacher she mentioned that she was communicating with plants, and building her relationship with particular species, and I wanted to know more.

Mandy lives in a house she looks after herself. It is white, but its window-frames are painted with carefully cut-in sections of red, orange, yellow and blue. The garden wraps around the house, and all of it is kitchen garden. Beds of vegetables and medicinal herbs, fruit trees and bushes are bordered by large hedges; a pond full of frogs nestles under large leaves, there’s a small greenhouse and a huge woodshed full to the brim with carefully stacked wood and decorated with bull’s head sculptures she made herself.

We go and watch the Severn bore together. It is a 1* (the smallest) but the initial hump of brown water is followed by swelling and filling of water that just keeps coming, in a way that moves us both. A swan, who had been dabbling about downstream as we walked up the footpath, comes floating past, riding the tide sideways on and moving too fast like when you walk along a travelator, in a way that is frankly ridiculous. The tide fills my belly and head. We are talking about home, and my longing for one (and the difficulty of affording one in the place I love) and the water seems to reassure, in a generous but muddy way… if not one thing, then another.

Link to Bore-d Swan video

In the Forest of Dean there are hundreds of people following the Sculpture trail, or the Stick Man trail, depending on age group. The trails cut into the landscape with human narrative, and thus frame the forest for a family audience. The forest as theme park. I like it that children are making nests out of leaves and twigs – maybe it makes them think about what it might be like to be a bird? As a kid I lived in a very rural place and messed about in the woods a lot alone or with my brother. My experience was amplified by a series of books (by who? They were bound in identical red material with the title in gold lettering on the spine, and I cannot remember the author’s name, nor have I ever found anyone who has read them) each of which took an animal (the Badger family, Fox, Rabbits etc) as its central protagonist/s. I think that the title of the series was the name of the wood, but of course these characters inhabited ‘my’ woods in my imagination. I feel those books were important in developing my sense of living alongside other lives in the woods, as rich as my own, if more mysterious.

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It was quite something that Mandy took me to her place of work – a regular walk where she undertakes her private shamanic journeying and experimentation and communing with nature. I met her Spiral Tree – this is her in it, she just fits – where, she said, every time she visited she was shown something new. Did she mean a vision, I wondered? But it was more embodied than that – it was mushrooms proliferating deep inside the point of the spiral, or one day noticing that the tree was still alive and was sprouting new growth.

Our verbal conversation was fascinating, it started the moment I arrived and will continue on for a long time yet I hope, but what I treasure, what I understand in my bones, is that embodied thinking and experiential knowing, with and in our physical world.

Mandy Pullen’s website

 

 

 

The intimacy of a remote view

‘Meeting’ other species is key to my thinking, (in a Donna Haraway infused way, for those of a philosophical bent). But what does this mean in practice? My art practice revolves around intimate engagement – making with, up close and personal, rather than pictures of.  So my purchase and use of a trail camera is a contested venture.

However, in retrieving my first footage, I am thrilled with my (several) ten second video bursts of an inquisitive and lovely fox, a brief badger appearance, three appearances by beautiful roe deer. The videos feel intimate, despite being ‘remote’, I suppose because these creatures inhabit my little corner of the world, and came into view where I tied the camera up. Where I am making other work too, so these visitations weave into the density of the portrait I’m making of this wood.

 

 

Trust technique

Wood to World is in large part a research project with which I aim to deepen my relationship to beyond-human nature. I am experimenting with differing (aligned and contrasting) ways of thinking and practicing relation to and communication with nonhuman beings.

Animal Communicator James French’s one-day course in the ‘Trust Technique’ is a newish venture for him, and draws on his Reiki practice (to Grand Master level) and many years of teaching and practicing animal communication. It aims to condense and clarify his understanding to date, such that the technique is clear, simple and effective enough to teach the key elements to people with animals in their lives in a single day. Almost uniquely among the 38 participants in the barn in Surrey, I do not own a pet or work (exactly) with animals.

James separates his approach from that of ‘whispering’ calmly but vociferously. Whispering, he says, is about applying pressure, and rewarding a desired behaviour by the release of that pressure. In as such, it is still intrinsically dominating, replicating the core hierarchies that conventional animal training employs. The trust technique, on the other hand, seeks to commune with an animal for the purpose of healing, and of deepening the relationship, resulting in loving relation rather than obedient servitude.

James asks us all to become completely still and fix our gaze on a point. The process is described as ‘delivering the present moment’. We note and release each of our thoughts as we would note and regard an animal’s distraction or activity when we are practicing with them.

He defines the key concepts as ‘creative reaction’, ‘realization learning’ and ‘trusted cooperation’: Creative reaction uses the innate sensitivity of intelligent creatures to one another’s moods and actions, and encourages positive change by managing one’s own role in that dynamic. In practice, this means giving the animal your active, thoughtful understanding and loving attention, or ‘mindful regard’. Realization learning is described as a deep process that can heal the sufferer of traumatic events by providing an alternative (contradictory, positive, nurturing) experience of human beings. This deep process-learning works only when the animal is completely peaceful (indeed, for a portion of it, asleep). Trusted cooperation is the position in which one can then ask the animal to do something, perhaps scary, without dominating them – they look to you for reassurance and guidance, because they trust you.

After a morning learning the theory and practicing ‘delivering the present moment’, we follow James around the Mane Chance Sanctuary as he demonstrates his technique with (and tells us the horrific histories of) some of the rescued horses. We all stare at a point near the horse with him, and whenever it flicks an ear or changes its position we think actively about it. Some horses drift easily into snoozy relaxation, one lies down almost immediately, one seems more interested in nuzzling James and licking his ear. Everything proceeds at the animal’s pace. Patience and persistence are watchwords.

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It is a very windy day, but many of the horses are still remarkably keen to come and see forty people and ‘get present with us’ which considering that one of them was nicknamed Doctor Death, for no small reason, is pretty impressive. I ask if it is possible to use the technique with the birds in my garden (my code for wild creatures of all sorts). James says he has had considerable success with his own garden birds, although he doesn’t elaborate. (He has worked professionally with lions and turkeys among other things).

James is practical, grounded and remarkable. His kindness and clarity is refreshing in a world so often dominated by ego, pretension or woo. His thoughtful passion and intent to benefit animals (and indeed people) is palpable.

Trust Technique website

James French animal commnication website