Kilpisjärvi Trees

On the Tree Line

On the Tree Line

My two weeks in an Ars Bioarctica residency at the biological station in Kilpisjärvi in the very north of Finland, are coming to an end, and it is time to summarise what I have been up to or tried to do here. My plan was to visit the birches on the tree line here and perhaps record a day and night with a mountain birch, and that I have done. More specifically I have created three kinds of material.

First of all I recreated some of the works I did when I visited this place seven years ago, as described in a blog post here. The day and night with a mountain birch described in the previous blog post, here, and documented on the Research Catalogue (RC) here, is a further development of those recreations.

Secondly, I have created a time lapse work, recording one session sitting on a birch below the station every morning and evening between 2 and 13 June. I have listened to the surrounding sounds together with the tree, as described in my first blog post, here, and documented on the RC, here, and finally also written a letter to the tree. Besides this time-lapse work I have also made some single sessions with other birches in the same area, documented on the same page.

And thirdly, I have performed or posed with various birches up on the tree line, on the slopes of Saana fell and in the area between Saana and Jeahkas fell. There I wrote a letter to a birch growing next to a brook, documented on the same page, here.

Thus I have material for at least the following works: Day and Night with a Mountain Birch (already edited), Listening with Mountain Birches (working title), which is a time-lapse video of two weeks from the shore, two letters to birches that could be called Dear Mountain Birch and Dearest Mountain Birch, and quite a lot of material, probably for several works with the working title On the Tree Line. And then the amount of material related to but differing from the time-lapse from the shore. Well, not bad for two weeks, I would say. Whether the material that I have produced will result in anything worthwhile in the long run remains to be seen. At least I have something to work on.

Beginning with the letters, I tried to record them in my room today; unhappy with the acoustics I tried to record them on site, and returned to the trees with a microphone and the transcribed text on an iPad. The first letter was addressed to a mountain birch on the tree line, next to a small brook.

Dear Mountain Birch

10.6.2021 Kilpisjärvi

Dear Mountain Birch, thank you for allowing me to sit on the dead part of your trunk, the old part of you, here by the spring brook gushing into a small temporary lake in front of me. I chose you partly because of the sound of the brook, which is inspiring and lively, somehow invigorating by its constant movement. Another reason was that you were so clearly divided in parts. The old dead, or at least seemingly dead trunk lying on the ground and then the strong young fresh new trunk growing straight up, with its bright green leaves. We are here a little below the tree line I guess, or actually on the tree line but in the part where there are more trees than a few meters further up on the slope of Saana, where they are sparser, smaller and with more distance between them. I thought it would be easier to find an individual tree to address there, but although each one of the tiny small birches were fascinating in their own right, I did not feel invited to write to them, like here with you. This setting is more protected, of course, but I also feel that you are a better representative of your kin, or your family here, as part of a collective, rather than the ones higher up on the slope. I should also explain that I am sitting here on the western slopes of Saana, or I am actually not sure if this is not really the slope of the other mountain, Jeahkas, which I probably cannot spell correctly. In any case this is the high north, very near the Norwegian border, in the thumb of Finland and in the heartlands of Sapmi or sami country. There are reindeers walking everywhere and although the village is full of tourists from the southern part of Finland or then from Norway, in the north or west, it is important to acknowledge that I am a visitor and an outsider in this place, a recipient of the hospitality of the Sami people, and of the mountains and their representatives, today especially you, the mountain birches. Unlike the birches further south, you seem more like shrubs, because you often have several slender trunks from the same root. And you often bend in strange contortions, because of the wind or the weight of the snow or for some other reason. So, actually you are a good example of the difficulty of thinking of trees as individuals with distinct borders, and although that is exactly what I am trying to do, you force me to acknowledge that it is not really possible, at least not in your case. In many places coniferous trees, like pine trees or spruces, are the last ones to grow on the tree line up on the mountains. Here, however, the pines continue only about half-way into the ”arm” of Finland, and spruces give up even before that, and it is you, the small mountain birches that will climb up on the slopes and create the tree line. There are some small groups of spruces or pines in the area, but I hear that they are planted. You are the only native or indigenous trees and superbly important for all or most forms of life in this area, including humans, at least in the traditional ways of life. To be honest, I do not know so much about you, but some details are described on the sign boards marking the nature path [trail], like the dark brown lichen that grow on your trunks. One can read the level of the snow by their placement, because they grow only above snow level. I wonder what the greenish-yellowish lichen that grow further down on your trunk are called. At least further down, near the lake, they grow in profusion, and shimmer as if in a neon color in the evening or morning light, which here, this time of year, resembles afternoon light further south, because the sun does not set, of course. It hides behind the mountain, viewed from the village. Here, high on the slopes it shines all through the night, I suppose. – There, a raindrop falling in the meltwater lake, I can feel them on my head as well. Perhaps there will be a rainfall soon, or then it will remain a drizzle. In any case it might be a good idea to end this letter, before all the writing is washed away by raindrops. So, thank you for your hospitality, generosity and patience. And all the best for the future!

Greetings, AA.

The second letter was written to the birch I have visited daily on the shore:

Dearest Mountain Birch

Kilpisjärvi 11.6.2021

Dearest Mountain Birch, I guess it is about time to try to explain to you what I have been doing, sitting here on your bent branch every morning and evening for almost two weeks. It is actually rather rude of me to do that without asking for your approval or consent or any kind of permission, but I did not know how to approach you in order to ask for your consent, and in many cases I usually choose to “just do it” rather than ask for permission, which often makes things unnecessarily complicated. I nevertheless sincerely hope that I did not offend you by my behavior, especially since I plan to continue with it for a few more days. I chose you of all the birches growing near or below the biological station because you live here on a small hill right by the lake, and have a beautiful view, on the shore. I did not realize that the lake functions like a cooler, so you and your immediate family here below are among the latest to grow out your leaves. Now, you too, have turned green and “dressed up” in small fresh leaves. This time of year, there is no real dusk or dawn, except in the middle of the night, perhaps, because we are here in the shadow of Saana fellm so visiting you in the mornings and evenings is more of a change in the direction of the light, not its amount. Right now, the sky is clouded, though, so those usual shifts of light and shadow do not apply. And I am dressed in my ordinary grey clothes rather than my black “performance” outfit. When I say I have been visiting you that is not completely correct, because I have come down to sit on you and with you mainly in order to listen to the surrounding sounds. Now, for example, I can hear some birds, but on many occasions the traffic on the road between the mountain and the lake provides most of the sounds. Especially the huge trucks travelling to the Norwegian border can be heard from far away when approaching. I wonder what they transport, and where? Perhaps there is a harbor in Tromsø, or something. Besides listening to the sounds with you I often count my breaths slowly, trying to wind down and become present in the moment with you. Twenty-one breaths are my usual duration, a way of keeping track of time, approximately. That is of course a very brief instant in your temporal experience. Although birches do not live longer than 100 or 150 years, that is way more than most humans. And here, where the shift in light conditions is so extreme, with a long night-time, the winter, and a long day, the summer, rather than the constant fluctuation, your sense of time must be different, too. – I actually learnt a lot about your way of life from a biologist who kindly gave me a private lecture today. She explained, among other things, that there are two types of birch woods here, the maritime and the continental ones, and the whole ecosystem in them is different, as well as the form of the birches. Here, obviously, we are in the “maritime” type of wood, with blueberry shrubs [twigs] on the ground and the trunks of the birches relatively straight and singular – well, most of you are bent to some degree, but not as twisted and divided as the ones higher up on the slopes. The term “maritime” refers to the way the birch woods look on the Norwegian side, and even though Lake Kilpis is a lake, of course, the northwesterly winds come from the Arctic ocean, which is actually not that far from here, and bring in sea air. In both habitats one can distinguish the height of the snow from your trunks, because the dark brown lichen that decorate them do not like to live below snow level. That I learned already from the sign board on the nature path [trail]. Why some of you have a completely white bark while others are pale grey, I do not know, and it might be just a coincidence. There are two types of birches that have hybridized, the dwarf ones and the downy birches, and you can see the difference in the autumn, because the dwarf ones turn read rather than orange yellow. I realize I would really like to come and spend some time with you in the autumn, too, and to listen to the sounds of autumn together with you, like we now have listened to the sounds of spring. I want to thank you for your hospitality and generosity and sincerely hope that I have not been too much of a disturbance for you. I hope you can somehow sense my gratitude and appreciation, and I wish you all the best for the coming summer. Let us hope it will be a peaceful, invigorating and productive time for you. Take care! AA.

By Annette Arlander

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