On Friday the 13th November 2020, the sun rises 8.23 am on Örö in the Finnish archipelago. At 8 am before daybreak, in the dim bluish grey light I am already down by the shore, placing my camera tripod behind a rock, which I checked last night, in order to start my day’s work with one of the pines. To choose the pine was no easy matter, but this big beautiful pine was standing apart and had a perfect little branch to hang from. That is my plan, to simply hang for a moment on the branch, nine times, on the hour until sunset at 4 pm. There is a soft drizzle, and I cover the camera with a plastic bag before returning to the house.
9 am, the rain has stopped; the plastic bag covering the camera is covered in drops. The clouds on the eastern sky are brightened by the sun, here in the west they still look dark and damp. When hanging in the pine I notice the junipers and the rose hips in front of me. They seem to thrive here on the sandy shore. I feel weak, able to hang on the branch only for a few breaths. And the pine seems impersonal, indifferent, unlike some of the other pines I have encountered here.
10 am, the wind from south-east is rising; the changes in light, however, are minuscule. Looks like the day ahead will be grey and uniform – and chilly, + 7 degrees celsius. For November that is warm, of course, and this island is far south from the mainland. This is the only place in the country where you can find Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris), which usually thrive much further south. They bloom in early spring, though. Yesterday I saw some searockets (Cakile maritima) in full bloom a little further north on the beach.
11 am, no visible difference; the sky is grey as before. I hear a strange motor sound and see an orange quad pass by on the dirt track further away, an alien creature from another world. This is actually their world, a former military island transformed into a Nature Reserve. The radar tower to the right further up on the shore is still functioning; its red light discernible from afar in the complete darkness at night.
Noon, and all seems to be like before. The only sound is the prevailing hum or noise of the wind in the trees and the sea breaking on the eastern shore. I walk among the shrubs in the sand, stepping on lichen, moss, all kinds of twigs. This beach must be a paradise in summer time; it still is, although I imagine paradise to be a little warmer. It is a huge privilege to be able to spend the day with a pine here, although our actual moments of contact are very brief.
1 pm, and no changes; perhaps the wind is calming a little. I almost missed the correct moment, being absorbed in reading Eduardo Kohn’s anthropology beyond the human, How Forests Think (2013). The book is more about dogs and jaguars and humans than trees, about relationships of predator and prey, although some of the ideas could be extended to concern the vegetal world as well. Nonhuman beings have made and make humans what they are. (p.134) The pine tree was here before me, like the plants were around long before humans.
2 pm, the first drops fell when I returned to the camera, and the soft rain started when I returned to the house, strangely, because the rain was forecasted only for later tonight. Perhaps this is only passing cloud, temporarily darkening the pale grey sky. As if dusk would set in this early; there are still two hours to sunset. The days are short here this time of year; what counts as a day’s work is much less, too. Or, to put it in another way, the evenings are longer. More time to read and write and edit this video, for instance.
3 pm, the rain has stopped; it was only a drizzle, anyway. Returning from the pine I walk along the stony road towards north, feeling the afternoon coming to an end, slowly. Everywhere there are traces of military constructions; the sign boards describing them alternating with the ones pointing at the specific aspects of the nature on the island. Nature conservationist can be as militant as the Defense Forces, but here their presence feels reassuring; the very particular environment is protected at least to some extent. What to do with all the visitors, like me, is another matter. Now there is nobody else, but what about summer time (see visit Örö)?
4 pm, dusk approaching. The sun is supposed to set at 16.05, but no trace of the sun, no streak of light on the horizon to the left, no purple clouds, nothing to indicate sunset. Often the horizon to the left of the pine is flaming in red, today there is nothing but dark clouds. They are amazingly effective in shading the sunlight. My plan was to end at sunset, but since there is still plenty of light, I leave the camera on the shore for one more visit, covered for the raindrops that start falling again.
5 pm, almost dark, for the camera at least. The human eye easily adapts to the twilight, and the sea reflects the light from the sky which is still dark indigo. It is easy to walk on the shore, among the trees it is harder. I wait for the right moment, knowing that I will be barely visible in the darkness. When, writing this, I look out the window, the darkness is already impenetrable. Darkness, a rare luxury in this day and age, available daily for the pines here and for me as their guest, for now.
The videos edited of the material recorded during that day – Day with a Pine (brief) (54 sec), Day with a Pine (3 min 20 sec), and Day with a Pine (long) (11 min 20 sec) – are all available as small files on the RC here.
An exceptional, completely still and sunny day prompted me to try writing with a pine tree I had previously posed with. I was not happy with the first attempt, however, not being discernible enough among the branches, and tried again a second time. Thus, I have two letters that are somewhat similar and slightly different. Perhaps I will abandon my principle of transcribing the trace of the performance, the act of writing, and recording that as a voice-over to add to the video, and edit some form of mixture of the two letters instead, added to the second video. Or, perhaps I use this material to write a more academic style video essay. Here I nevertheless include both texts as rough, uncensored transcripts of my handwritten notes:
Dearest Pine Tree,
Excuse me for bumping into your ”lap” without notice, and coming to you like this, without forewarning. I was so perplexed hearing a motor sound, an airplane or helicopter in this silence that I forgot what I was about to write, so let me start again.
It is a great pleasure and honour to be able to sit on your branch and address you with this letter, simply to be with you on this island, a former military island that has been turned into a national park and opened to the public only five years ago. The island is full of pine trees, both old and young ones, and many of you are bent in strange contortions due to the constant wind. The reason I came to you today is exactly that, the extraordinary situation that there is no wind. It is so quiet that I can hear the buzz from the “radar” tower, not far from here. I have been here only for a week, so I cannot say for sure, but as I hear it is usually windy here, so let us enjoy this moment of stillness as a beautiful exception! I actually visited you last week and even posed for a video camera together with you, because I was so impressed by your place of growth. Half of your roots are cut off and a portion [part] of your trunk rests in mid-air. There is a big hole where sand has been extracted right next to you, to the right from where I sit, although I chose to place the camera in a such a way that your deformations and your precarious position do not show. Why did I do that, actually? Your “bravery” was what caught my attention to begin with. Perhaps as a gesture of respect, I guess. I wanted to show you at your best, not as the vulnerable creature you are, like all of us. – At this point I probably have to explain why I address you formally like this, and in English. This letter is aimed not only for you, but [also] to other humans to hear, or perhaps read as well. And unlike some other letters to trees I have written, this will be a letter pondering on letter writing and especially writing letters to trees, so a “meta-letter” of sorts, probably, at least on some level. I would not like to bother you with ponderings that have no relevance for you if I did not feel that you somehow accept being part of this attempt. With all your experience of winter storms, military assaults and now visiting tourists, lately, you are of course accustomed to human attention. And I do not really demand any response from you, I simply try to articulate my thoughts in your presence, in writing, as clearly as possible, so that you can sense them in your manner, or then my intentions at least, and my respect, if nothing else.
I have been experimenting with various ways of performing and posing with trees and the idea of writing letters to trees, like the one I am writing to you now, is something I have explored only recently. Earlier I wrote small texts on behalf of trees, and spoke them as the trees, as if the trees would speak, hanging some earphones on the branches of those talking trees. But that is a long time ago, and it was not a very satisfying way of performing together. It was more like using the tree as a puppet [in puppet theatre] to hang stories on. Well, what am I doing now, then? I am sitting on you as if on a wooden bench in a park, and writing “stories” again. Well, not exactly. There is a difference in trying to address you, to talk to you or with you, to engage in a communication with you, however clumsy or one-sided that might be, compared to speaking for you or on behalf of you. Speaking for others is ethically challenging, sometimes necessary, but often misguided. Listening might be the best option in many cases, and that is what I have tried to do previously. Or, if not directly listening, then being in the vicinity of, being nearby, sitting with you or some of your relatives, breathing together, growing together, sharing our participation in zoe, in life, and engaging in trans-corporeal exchanges, with all the chemicals and magnetic or other waves and various substances floating between us and through us. That is probably a more reasonable way of trying to perform together, after all, because this letter-writing is strangely one-sided. After all, letters are usually written to people who are not present. But there is an effort of creating an I-You relationship despite the risk of falling back to some kind of romantic notion of “merging with nature”, or projecting human sentiments on trees and other living beings, or even what they call the pathetic fallacy. But, in another way it would be an even more “pathetic” fallacy, I think, to assume that you would not be able to sense my presence in some manner. Ok, I am not suggesting that you can read this letter. Or even read my thoughts, but by at least trying to address you in this way, I feel there is some contact possibility [possibility for contact] opened between us. Rather than thinking of you as the “Other”, something wholly different and unreachable, I prefer to think of you as a relative, a distant one but a relative, nevertheless. And in some sense, we share the same ancestors, I guess. – Now I have used all my time, and more, and have to stop here. I want to thank you for your patience, and friendly, welcoming attitude and I want you to know that I really, really appreciate the possibility to spend time with you here today. Thank you once more, and all the best for the future!
Excuse me for disturbing you this November afternoon and please forgive me for recording this meeting with a video camera. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to spend time with you on this island, which was previously reserved for the military only, and has been transformed into a national park and opened to the public only five years ago. And I am grateful to you for allowing me to sit on your branch and to appearing or performing together with me for this brief moment. I also have to apologize for addressing you in English, which is not my native language, nor your preferred language, I assume. What your preferred language would be I do not even dare guess, something with (volatile) chemicals, perhaps. The reason for this formal address is that I hope this letter to reach other humans and not only you, that is, humans will hear or probably read this letter as an example of my practice of writing letters to trees, and also as a “meta-letter” of sorts, since my aim is to consider this practice in terms of its ethical and artistic implications, at least I will try to do that. Meanwhile, I also hope that these thoughts will somehow reach you, if not through these words, then through my thoughts. And even though you might not be able to read my thoughts in a strict sense, I hope you will be able to sense my intentions, somehow, and to affirm [ascertain] that they are benign and respectful. Anyway, I hope you are well this lovely afternoon, which is truly exceptional by being completely still. I have only spent little more than a week on this island, and so far, the wind has been heavy [strong] day in and day out. You have spent all your life here, so you should know. Many of your relatives are bent in all kinds of strange contortions due to the wind, being broken in storms and then growing from what was left; remarkable bravery, I must say. You too, have a rather precarious position next to the sand [pit], with half of your roots, or what is left of them, right in mid-air. The branches that I sit on have reached far out on the slope to counterbalance that, I suppose. I came here before, last week, as you might remember, and tried to pose with your roots, creating a small video that I call “On the Edge”. But that is another story. My concern now is this act of writing, of “performing writing for camera” on one hand and of addressing you as a tree with a letter on the other. Usually letters are written to those who are absent, not to those present, of course. Somehow it feels easier to address you in writing than through speech, though, probably because formulating or articulating my thoughts into words could make them somehow “clearer” for you to discern, This attempt at addressing you, however, is a result of various attempts at performing with trees, beginning with speaking “as” trees in a series of site-specific monologues called Trees Talk, using mp3 players with brief texts spoken as if by the trees and hanging them on the branches of those trees together with earphones for passers-by to listen to. That made the tree like a puppet to hang stories on, not a very satisfactory solution. By addressing you in writing I am of course also risking a “pathetic fallacy” of sorts, thinking of you as a [kind of] human being. But perhaps that is not so dangerous. As Martin Buber suggested and I-You relationship to other living beings is worth striving for, and as Efraim Kohak has suggested, our manner of speaking matters. – Now I hear some strange sounds, birds… – Nevertheless, it might be that simply spending time together, listening to you rather than addressing you, would be a more appropriate form of conversation. Anyway, my time is up, and I want to thank you for this moment together, for your friendliness, patience and generosity, and wish you all the best for the coming winter!
Today, the second of November, I began a new practice as an apprentice to a pine tree growing right at the porch of the Öres residency house on Örö Island. I arrived yesterday at nightfall, so my November with this pine tree began only now. There are plenty of beautiful pine trees all over the island, and I will try to befriend some other ones, too. For my main teacher and partner I chose this most obvious pine tree, who was there as if waiting for me. And I thought of course of the Daily Birch in Mustarinda, that I performed with during September. This pine tree is different, as is the whole place, and I expect the experience to be different as well, although I begin with a similar practice of balancing next to the tree.
When I was about to download the first attempt I made from the camera, I realised I was standing too far from the tree, probably intimidated by its huge trunk and crown. So I made a new attempt, and placed myself closer, next to the trunk, within reach to touch it. Much better! That is the pose I will try to repeat daily while here on the island.
I also noticed a huge iron nail hit into a cut-off branch; almost spooky, grim, why such brutality? Luckily the tree seemed not to be bothered by the attack.
Annette Arlander will perform ”With a Pine” in Brunnsparken or Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki, together with a small pine tree, which she has visited a few times last summer and written letters to as part of her project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees.
The organisers wanted three sentences to make a collage, and there my contribution was as follows:
My tree friend is a small pine tree growing on a rocky area in Kaivopuisto Park in the centre of Helsinki. The tree is special by being so exceptionally unremarkable, by living on such a limited spot of soil and by being one of my pen pals this summer. I have learned, among other things, that choosing a tree friend because they resemble a previous friend is not necessarily the best starting point for a relationship, but not completely impossible.
This was all before the event. I was alone with the pine, with occasional passers-by of course, and with two tripods: one for my phone and the zoom connection, the other for my ordinary camera for recording the video. Because the camera can record only twenty-one minutes at a time, I made my writing session in three parts, returning behind the camera to restart it twice, and to check that everything was fine with my phone. The organisers will hopefully share a recording of the zoom compilation at some point. The letters I will transcribe from my notes and add to the RC, here. The images I have of the event itself are video stills:
Well before daybreak on twenty third September 2020 I am down on the bog below the Mustarinda house is Hyrynsalmi, waiting for the sun to rise at 6.56 am. My plan is to visit a small birch here every hour today, from sunrise to sunset, or seven to seven, and to record my visits with a video camera, as I have done with some other trees elsewhere, before.
This September morning after the autumn equinox begins with an overcast sky and a soft drizzle. I place my camera tripod next to the duckboards that mark the path, and adjust the row of trees on the horizon, the border of the small bog, to be in balance and begin. There is no sound audible from anywhere, no wind in the trees, no birds, no insects, nothing – an expectant silence, soothing somehow. The trunk of the small birch is covered with lichen, wet and soft. The ground of moss is wet and soft, too, elastic under my weight. I am no longer afraid of sinking into it, being sucked up by the bog, but feel supported by its soft bounce. For how many breaths should I stand here? Light grows slowly stronger, the day is arriving cautiously, as if on tiptoe.
Next session, 8 am, I am early, waiting. The drizzle has stopped, and the uniform grey sky is lighter above the forest edge. The daylight is much stronger now, although no sun is visible; my eyes cannot see the difference, but the camera shows the change. Standing with the birch I look at its yellow leaves, some of them almost brown, and at the small spruces and pine trees on the bog around us. The pines are small, and the only pines anywhere near; in the forest around the bog there are mainly spruces, with some birches, aspen, rowans and goat willows here and there. A sudden breeze, very gentle, is moving the leaves and my hair. Three birds fly above us high in the sky, then five birds. When I return through the forest a bird is chirping up in a spruce, and in the yard the dog barks at me. The house is waking up.
9 am, the sky is clearing. There are dark clouds in the east, but in the west the sky is blue. The camera shows that the light has increased a lot. It is chilly, could it be colder than before? I can feel the frost on my hands. Well, it is not frost, really, but cold. The breeze is chilly, too. Although on a bog we are high up on the Paljakkavaara, the fell or hill, so there is less likelihood of frost, yet. Winter is approaching, however, there is no doubt about that, and everything around us is preparing for the freezing darkness. After the equinox yesterday, the night is already slightly longer than the day. The sun is almost piercing through the clouds, though, changing the atmosphere, but not yet. Only later, on the way back, the moss in the forest is glistening in the sun and the orange rowan leaves in the field are shining bright between the tree trunks.
10 am, the sun is shining through a soft haze, strong enough to feel warm. For the birch these rays would mean nourishment, but now, when all the chlorophyll is stored in the roots for the winter – as far as I can see, there is no green left in the leaves – it can rest and hopefully enjoy the warmth, like I do. The sun really feels almost warm at times. The small spruces and pines with their evergreen needles can go on working as usual. I guess the reason why they have such hard time living in the bog is either lack of minerals, or lack of oxygen in the water, or both, lack of light is not an issue. But they clearly seem to suffer some hardship. Many of the spruces look rather old, even though small and skinny. Between the birch and the path there is a small spruce and a small pine, growing together by coincidence as if from the same root, both clearly very young, almost like babies. I wonder if they are locked in combat or actually like each other, their lives in any case being completely intertwined.
11 am, the sky is overcast again. The grey autumn mood is back, silent and chilly. The plastic bag I covered the camera with has disappeared. I find it among the trees far to the north; it seems the gusts of wind blow from the south. While standing with the birch I look at the colours of the peat moss around us: deep maroon purple, rust and orange, almost copper, mustard yellow, brownish green, pale yellow and well, green in all shades, soft and spongy, alluring and deceptive. The small puffs of white cotton-grass seem to float in the air, bent here and there on their long stalks. Now the wind is audible as a murmur in the distance. The bog is a place to disappear in, to drown in a suddenly opening bottomless pool or to get drawn under the peatmoss by some evil elf. Holding on to the little birch feels safe and comforting when being lured into thoughts of threatening mythology by the ominous sound of the wind.
Noon, the light as before, grey. The wind comes in sudden gusts, first from the east, then from north-west. I think I hear the sound of a bird, a croak of some kind, far away. When I return from the birch to turn off the camera there is a tiny fly examining its surface carefully. Is there something to eat, some dust from my fingers, perhaps, that could be of use? It seems so fragile I wonder how it survives in the wind. This is the time when all of us have to prepare for the winter, whether hibernating or not. The time when the incredible abundance of the harvest season turns to a time of cold, dark scarcity. The loads of blueberries, lingonberries, crowberries even rowanberries all around will soon be gone, and all the mushrooms, including the masses of funnel chanterelle or yellowfoot will disappear. These are the last moments to gather and preserve what you can for the coming months, and here I am, idling with a birch…
1 pm, already afternoon. The wind is almost howling in the distance, momentarily. The sky is not uniformly grey, there are brighter patches and the clouds are moving across the sky, towards the east, it seems. There are insects, some kind of mosquitoes, dancing above the bog in front of us when I stand by the birch, I wonder if they were there before and I simply did not notice them. The lichen on the birch look rather big on the slender trunk. There are mainly two kinds, the ordinary grey and somewhat leafy ones that are common on the tree trunks here, and then smaller pale yellowish green map-like lichen between them. There are a few of a third type, too, slightly brownish and with bigger leaves. The world of the lichen is foreign and fascinating, something to explore later. When I turn off the camera the sun suddenly comes out, almost, for a brief moment of bright clarity, and then disappears again.
2 pm, the cloud cover is thicker, the grey tone of the sky darker, the wind more persistent – it might even rain again. It is as if everything would be cringing, expecting a storm or simply preparing to endure six months of winter. I’m feeling cold despite my clothes. At the end of the session I hear movement, and suddenly a colleague from the residency and the beagle are walking on the duckboards. We greet each other with a wave, and I wonder whether the dog actually entered the picture, as it did when I was standing with the birch a few days ago. He is allowed to move freely with some kind of transmitter attached to his collar, so he can be found if he strays too far. Although it feels like being far away, ‘korvessa’, ‘korpi’ being the Finnish word for wilderness or deep forest, the bog is actually right behind and below the house.
3 pm, grey and chilly, there is an opening in the sky above the forest edge in the west, a patch of bright white below the dark clouds, indicating that the sun could potentially break through the clouds somewhere there, as it did later, after the session, albeit briefly. This time the beagle followed me to the bog, and I was worried that he would start barking or messing with the tripod, but he was very silent and attentive and somehow sensed my concentration. It seems like he sat behind me on the path the whole time, but I cannot know for sure. When I took my coat and turned back towards the house, he seemed very confused and disappointed; probably he expected a long walk after this brief introductory pause. Today I am focused on the birch, however, rather than on him.
4 pm, no perceivable changes, no bright openings, no warm afternoon sun, no sculpting sidelights, no dramatic shadows, nothing spectacular whatsoever – the same grey sky and the same silent bog, waiting for winter. In a few months more than a meter of snow will cover all this life, press down on it and also protect it. This area has the most snow in all of Finland, they say. That is why some of the trees have weirdly bent forms and broken tops. Probably the birch is doing wisely to store all its chlorophyll down in the roots and hibernate all winter. Some plants do sleep at night, but do they sleep during the whole winter? At least the life-processes are slowed down. Perhaps humans should try that, too; simply cover up and sleep in the cold… I can hear some hammering from the house, faintly; they are building a new staircase before the snowfalls begin.
5 pm, soft drizzle when I walk down to the bog. The plastic bag protecting the camera is wet, but the drizzle finishes and transforms into soft humidity while I am standing with the birch. The light diminishes slowly now, already two hours before sunset at 7.03 pm, and the wind dies down. There is something deeply romantic and national about this view, a small birch in a bog, an archetype of Finnish romantic nationalism or national romanticism, and that is probably one reason why I chose it. It reminds me of the paintings of the Golden Age of Finnish Art, although I should be wearing a long woollen skirt and a scarf on my head, of course. Turning one’s back to the camera or the viewer is romantic in itself; the birch and the bog make the image national, or even nationalistic. Or then not, that remains to be seen; neither what I see in front of my eyes nor what I imagine the camera to see is what will actually be recorded, I guess.
6 pm, evening mood, grey, calm, chilly, almost dusk. I stand with the birch and look around me on the bog and suddenly realize that I see only spruces and tiny pines, no birches, except far away at the edges of the bog, and wonder why. Is the soil too acid, or simply too damp, or is this fact pure coincidence? When I return to the camera, I realize there is a small birch behind the spruce to my right, outside the image to the left, and two birches about the same size as my partner further down the path next to the duckboards. The spruces towards the centre of the bog do not seem to thrive that well, and the pines are all very young, but still, how come most of the birches are on the fringes? They form a row of beautiful golden guardians around the bog, probably with some aspen and rowans, which I cannot distinguish from the distance. My friend is obviously one of the few brave ones, who survive here in the damp swamp.
7 pm, dusk, invisible sunset, darkness proceeding slowly. The day ends like it began, with a soft drizzle. What did I learn about my companion and partner in performance during this day? Do I know or understand birches better now, or bogs for that matter? Did I gain insights about the similarities and differences between birches and humans, or why not bogs and humans, too? Our inter-dependencies, or rather the complete human dependence on vegetation I knew about from before, did I learn something about it now? Perhaps it is unfair to demand that I could express that right-away? I do have a feeling that the thing I somehow realized more deeply is the shared suffering involved in life, the sheer endurance needed to survive, and how impressed we should be by every tall or tiny creature that somehow manages to do that. When I think of the birch standing here through the night, not to mention through the winter, I shiver, stunned by respect. It is too easy to think that well, they are used to it or made to cope with it, and so on. No, a birch, too, must be sensitive and vulnerable in order to live and change, and at the same time so unbeatable, so strong to stay alive…
“Papin Petäjä” or the priest’s pine is a memorial tree or historical tree and as such truly remarkable, with engravings as far back as 1750, but also very unremarkable standing next to the parking lot by the lake amongst other pine trees of similar size in Hossa Natural Park with stunning views around every bend of the road. A group of artists from Mustarinda in Hyrynsalmi drove up to the park for an excursion to “Värikallio” or colour mountain, with old rock paintings and spectacular nature. On the Hossa tourist website listing all the attractions of the area I saw this pine tree mentioned, and on the way back from the park we managed to find it. There are some remains of stone-age habitation on the spit nearby, and this pine tree shows that the place has been important later on as well. Before there were proper roads Christian priests used to move between villages by boat, and stop in some places to baptise people. This pine tree seems to have marked such a spot.
By the time we were beginning our journey home and stopped briefly by the pine evening was approaching and we had a long way to drive; there was no way I could perform with it there and our brief encounter could not really be called a meeting either. I had managed to drop my phone in the lake, and had to borrow the phone of my colleague to make a quick video clip, more as a souvenir than anything else. For some reason I cannot upload it here, but a few still-images from that blurry video in evening light, which seems to colour the trunk with shades of blood, can perhaps give you an idea of this nearly dead and rather unremarkable albeit venerable old pine tree:
Spruces are the dominating tree species in the forests around Mustarinda and create the characteristic atmosphere here, but there are other trees too, like birches, aspen, rowans and also goat willows, which seem surprisingly old and big. The first tree I chose as my performing partner was one of the old birches growing near the house, one behind the house overlooking the forest. That birch I have now performed with every morning since I arrived, that is, for more than two weeks. The time-lapse video I hope to make of our shared moments, presumably 29 altogether, will be called Daily Birch. The moments are documented as still-images on this page. And there are other birches. The small video The Reciling Birch is made of a performance with – well, a reclining birch, on the forest path not far from the house. And the latest birch partner I made acquaintance with, growing on the bog down the hill, performed with me for a video called With the Bog Birch. These two later ones are completed, edited and added to the project archive on the Research Catalogue here. Unlike my difficulties in finding a proper, reasonable or possible way to perform with the tall spruces, these birches have been easily approachable and somehow willing to collaborate, at least according to my impression, which is rather biased, of course. The birches seem familiar and easy, perhaps not so exiting, but approachable. Actually some of the old aspen trees here, with their nearly black bark and deformed branches would be exciting to collaborate with. So far, I have not dared approach any of them but have preferred the birches almost unconsciously. There is not so much time left of my stay at Mustarinda, and autumn is proceeding fast, so perhaps I should brave myself to make an effort…
How to perform with a really big tree? And especially a tree that you have not chosen, or that has not “chosen” you, but one that has been pointed to you as a local celebrity? These notes will document my first attempts at visiting and performing with or in the vicinity of a tall spruce tree growing in the Paljakka area near Hyrynsalmi, not very far from the Mustarinda House. It is visible from the road, with an overgrown carriage path leading up to it. My hostess Hanna pointed at it already when we were driving past it on arrival on Tuesday 1 September. On Wednesday I decided to walk and see if I could find it, and came easily to the path. The grass was so high that I decided not to continue all the way to the spruce but to return the following day wearing rubber boots.
And so I did, in soft drizzle on Thursday. I walked up towards the spruce and realized that the path was bending so I could no longer see the tree, but continued for a while until I saw it again. The path did not lead up to spruce, however, but ended up in another path forming a T-cross. In order to reach the spruce I had to enter the forest and try to find my way through the shrubs. That was not difficult as such, but I was suddenly afraid of not finding my way back. I could find the spruce alright, it was a landmark, but how would I find the path again, if I lost my bearings. I tried to note particular stubs on the way, to be able to turn back into the right direction when returning from the spruce. It was majestic, for sure. I did not take out my camera and tripod but decided to make two simple videos with my phone, one further away and one quite close, simply following its trunk from the root to the top. How on earth could I perform with a giant like this? Performing with trees is always difficult if you would like to show the tree in full, but in this case almost impossible, because of the surrounding vegetation. I felt slightly scared in the midst of the forest and decided to return and come back later.
Today I realized I should take this spruce as my partner and challenger to explore various strategies of performing, rather than trying to “solve” the problem with one solution. So I decided to try to return to the tree and try out different approaches each time. And I also remembered the text “Befriending a tree”, that I encountered online, here. The writer Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder has some good advice to think about: finding a tree, introducing yourself, avoid referring to “it”, quiet yourself, observe the tree, let the tree surprise you, ask the questions that come up, maybe find out facts about the tree, return several times, spend at least 30 minutes each time, and try to write, photograph, draw, and share. – In my explorations with trees I have never been so systematic, or, on the other hand more systematic in the sense of being practical, deciding rather quickly what I want to do and how I will repeat it. And all the experiences usually come up during those repetitions. But now, what if I do not allow myself the comfort and security of a repetitive routine, but try something new each time, try to acknowledge the specificity of each moment? That is a challenge…
My meetings with trees tend to be based on repetition, repeated visits, rather than durational performances, long sessions together with a tree. When the action is to balance on your toes and reach up with your arms, in a yoga pose of sorts, 21 breaths is plenty. This, time, however, I was supposed to continue for an hour, in order to participate in the Live Art event via zoom called Be-Coming Tree. A quote from the event description:
“The Zoom live art event will showcase a network of artists communing simultaneously with their local trees and woodlands across the globe. The initiative wants to grow kinship and mutuality with more-than-human forms of life through a heartfelt, collective and connective action of communion with nature throught a creative use of Zoom: the most used video conferencing platform these days. Audiences can use the chat room as they witness this global experience. /–/ With performances by and from: O. Pen Be (UK), Danielle Imara (UK), Jatun Risba (SLO), Surya Tüchler (GER), Emma Cole (UK), Annette Arlander (FIN), Yolande Brener (USA), Caroline Frizell (UK), Anne Murray (HUN), Izabela Waszak (SCT), Sumedha Bhattacharyya (IND), Phil Barton (UK), Nitesh Kushwaha (IND), Satadru Sovan (IND), Chaturi Nissansala(LK), Lucy Stockton-Smith (UK), Prashant Jha (IND), Dinesh Solanki (IND), Agathe Gizard (GER), Pierce Starre (UK)” For a full description of the event, see here.
Since I was to finish my daily sessions with a small pine tree on Harakka Island only the day before, the most natural thing was to perform with the same pine. The only way I could think of to extend my 21-breath performance to last for an hour, was to repeat the action for ten breaths at a time, with ten breaths of resting in between. It was not too hard, the weather was fine – the sun was almost too hot and the occasional cloud felt like a relief, as did the small gusts of wind from the north. The setting up was quite a hassle; I have not used zoom on my phone before, and my small tripod was rather unstable. Luckily Marika Maijala agreed to act as my assistant, guarding my phone and telling me when the thing was over. She also took some nice photos and video clips.
Performing for a live audience feels almost absurd in these Corona days, especially since I usually only perform for the camera. Now, when everybody else is performing via zoom or other media, I was invited to give a lecture performance at a private festival – yes, a three-day garden party with Finno-Ugric folklorists or ethnographers, sociologists, artists and general intellectuals, in short, a great event. My planning consisted of asking the host whether there was a projector, so I could show a video, or then a tree. No projector, but several trees – fine. I translated a short text about my project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees into Finnish, checked that I could show the video with the Spruce of Independence on my iPad and send it around among the audience, and decided to choose the tree once on the spot and to ask the audience to document my standing with the tree with their phones and send to me by email. There was a beautiful apple tree in the garden, remarkably high, actually, and after a brief introductory talk I invited people to come to the tree and then did what I do for the camera, raise my arms, and try to balance on my toes for a while. Due to my nervousness, or my shoes or both, I did not stay put longer than one minute, but that was enough. This was like a prototype performance, and I would be happy to make more similar type of brief performances with other trees at other parties. The documentation is compiled on the RC, here.