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.

Kilpisjärvi Trees

Day and night with a mountain birch

First image, 6.6.2021, 3.45. pm

Sunday 6th June 2021 3.45 pm. I did not plan to repeat this image, I only wanted to make an experiment to improve the test I did yesterday, when revisiting the site where I performed Day and Night with Malla on June 7-8 2014. At that time I was sitting on the rock looking at Malla Fell, and the small mountain birches on the shore are barely visible to the right. By turning the camera just a little they would gain more prominence, but standing next to the birch yesterday I was too tall and dominating in the image. Therefore I wanted to try once more, today, placing the camera a little further away. After some attempts – yes, I did some tests first – I settled on a pose with the smaller birch. And while standing there, looking at Malla, I realized I could actually repeat this image for a day and night, perhaps every second hour to make it easier. They have promised rain for tomorrow, but that would be only at the end…

5.45 pm. Complete silence, no wind, no dogs, no trafic on the road, not even birds. Malla is reflected in the lake, although not visible for the camera. Some kind of insect crawls on my cheek; I resist the impulse to brush it away, and to move my feet on the rock, breathing deeply, twenty one breaths, approximately – to keep the time. When I finish I notice that the camera had moved slightly to the right compared to the first session, despite the fact that I left the tripod on the shore. The framing is actually better this way…

7.45 pm. The light is strong, like a hot summer afternoon, although it is almost eight in the evening. And it is really hot now. The sun will not set here before midnight, or rather hide behind Saana Fell. And up there one could probably watch the sun all through the night. The ice on the lake is gone near the shore, and the water is clear, deep blue in the sun. Some small sounds of birds are audible in the silence now, and an occasional car passed by later on, when I returned to the house.

9.45 pm. The sun is now right above Malla Fell, more or less blinding the camera. And there is a gentle breeze, moving the surface of the lake. In the distance I can hear the cowbells of the reindeers, and a bird which cries with strange wailing sounds. The mountain birches up on the slopes and nearer the house are already shifting into a pale green, the leaves ready to burst any minute. By the lake, where the ice keeps the air cooler, they are slower.

11.45 pm. The midnight sun shines bright above the horizon in northwest, but it is no longer warm. The soft greenish hue of the mountain birches turns orange in its pinkish light. The air is chilly and the surface of the lake is freezing, now again completely still. According the weather report it should be 11 degrees celsius, and the lowest to be expected tonight is around 7 degrees. The sun is supposed to set at midnight, very soon, and rise again at 2 am, behind Saana Fell. These nightless nights are strange, on the one hand weird and on the other hand also magic…

1.45 am. The sun hides behind Saana, visible only as a pale glow in the north and northwest. The northern slope of Malla is illuminated in a pale pink, as are the low mountains on the southern side of the lake, in Sweden. The air feels chilly, and the surface of the lake is frozen at the shore. Some birds are awake with faint cries every now and then. This is as “dark” as it will get, I suppose.

3.45 am. The sun shines bright on the mountains across the lake, and one can see the contour of Saana as a shadow on the shore. Here, in the shadow of Saana there is more light as well, but it feels like a cloudy day, despite the cloudless sky. And no mist, as in some mornings before. The first truck heading towards the Norwegian border is audible from afar amidst occasional birds. And then another one, finally passing the biological station when I return from the shore.

5.45 am. Malla Fell is bathing in light, but the part of the lake that served as its mirror is now mostly frozen and no longer reflects its splendour. It seems to be colder despite the increasing light. No mist this morning, but some clouds from the west. The mountain birches repeat the colours of the mountains in reverse – rather than dark brown with patches of white, their slender trunks are white with patches of dark brown lichen. The birch I am holding on to feels strong, although it reacts to my slightest movement, swaying.

7.45 am. Now the sun shines high above the top of Saana Fell in the northeast. And it feels warm, too, despite being diluted by a thin cloud cover. The ice on the lake, however, has not dissolved, not yet. The traffic on the road is now more or less constant, or rather constantly audible in the distance, with other cars among the trucks. The bird sounds are more or less constant as well, most of them unfamiliar to me. And humans are beginning to move in the yard, a new day has clearly begun.

9.45 am. Warm sun, the clouds are fluffy shreds, more compact only in the south on the other side of the lake. The frost on the water is still there, covering large parts that were open last night. The leaves on the mountain birches no more than twenty meters up on the slopes are now bursting open, but the buds of the ones by the shore are still biding there time. The lake is a giant cooler. When I came down to the shore an off-white reindeer was lying on the path, in the only snow spot left on the grassy slope. Did it prefer the cool cushion of snow, or was it only looking for a place to merge with the surroundings?

11.45 am. The clouds gather, some of them are grey; there might be rain later today, as forecasted. Here the weather changes quickly, but these clouds still look mainly benign. And the sun is warm despite the clouds, the ice cover on the open parts of the lake near the shore is gone now. It is completely still, the mirror is perfect. There is no traffic either, perhaps the truck drivers are taking a lunch break. A crow was jumping on the ice, this time a familiar bird.

1.45 pm. The day turned into a grey one, not uniformly grey, though, because the sun appears briefly every now and then. Mostly the cloudy sky spreads a diffuse pale grey light. I’m standing next to the mountain birch, or a group of them, and look at all the other shrubs around. There are junipers on the ground, and some sort of willow creeping along the rock in front of me, which seems to turn greener by the hour. The turfs of yellow grass have small fresh leaves coming up in their midst. And of course there are various types of mosses and familiar shrubs like cowberry twigs and crowberry twigs, too. The birches are clearly not alone…

3.45 pm. So, here comes the rain, or rather a soft drizzle – the day and night ends as forecasted, although the drops are so few and far between that they are barely visible on the surface of the lake. The sky is grey now, there might me more rain, but it does not feel like a storm coming up. They are not uncommon here, I remember. When I look at the dark brown slopes of Malla Fell, they seem almost to have a hint of olive, a greenish hue, thanks to the birches bringing out their leaves soon. I wonder what the slopes look like in the autumn when they turn orange… But grey is the colour for now, many shades of grey, as they say…

Last image, 7.6.2021, 3.45 pm.

The rest of the images are available on the Research Catalogue, here

Kilpisjärvi Trees

With a Mountain Birch in Kilpisjärvi

After three days at the biological station in Kilpisjärvi, up in the high north, in the “thumb” of Finland, in a two-week Ars Bioarctica residency, I have already settled into a routine, visiting a mountain birch near the shore of Lake Kilpis below the small Wallgren house where I stay. I decided to make one visit mornings and evenings, to get the maximum shifts in light. I never seem to be out early or late enough, though, because the sun sets past midnight and rises before 2 am. The camera tripod is standing there all the time, in order to make it easier to keep the framing constant.

Finding the right mountain birch was not so easy, although it is hard to know what “right” means in this case. The birches form an almost uniform thicket along the shore of the lake and on the lower slopes of Saana fell. Many of them are bent in such manner that one can easily sit on them, although not all of them are strong enough for that. When making a time-lapse video the framing is important, because you cannot change it once you have started, and it is irritating to be forced to repeat the “wrong” image if it feels slightly off. So I tried to adjust the framing carefully by testing first:

The final choice…

Leaving the camera tripod on site means, that I cannot use it for other images. At first I thought this one repeated image would be enough, perhaps augmented with a full day and night every hour or every second hour, as planned. But soon I realized I wanted to play around with my camera a little bit, so I thought of hanging the camera from a branch in case I want to enter the image myself. I experimented with placing the camera on a rock, and that is of course possible. Here are the first examples with the camera balancing on a rock:

Evening 3.6.2021
Morning 4.6.2021

The mountain birches are a special form of dawny birches (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii), I learned immediately on arriving. They are now slowly awakening in the amazing heatwave, 20 degrees celsius, despite the cooling effect of the ice on the lake. I hope to witness the explosion of the leaves during these two weeks, although the birches near the shore might be the last to burst. Still-images of each session recorded on video are updated daily here