A week on Örö feels like a good start for the year, and seeing the place with some snow is exciting. I came here in order to perform with a pine next to the guesthouse, as part of the Be-coming Tree event on Saturday 9th January (and celebrate my birthday that way), see here. However, I ended up living in a house in the centre of the island, and decided to “hold hands” with a pine next door as well. I looked around in the vicinity and could not decided, but when I stepped out of the door with my camera, this pine was the first one I saw. I soon discovered it was a twin pine, which was not visible from the porch, but I chose the camera position to highlight that:
This pine tree I will now hold on to daily during the week I am here, and if all goes well I might come back and visit it again for another week later on. The sessions will be documented here. The pine that I will perform with for an hour on Saturday, however, I met already during my stay here in November, and suggested to the organisers based on an image taken back then. Now the pine looks like this:
On a frosty morning at the end of November on Örö I decided to spend one more day with a pine, and chose a peculiarly formed pine on the shore near the residency house to spend time with. This time I would sit and write with the pine, while visiting it once every hour from 9 am to 4 pm, a normal workday, but also the time there is sunlight here at this time of the year. I did not count on it suddenly being so cold, so my sessions with the pine were brief. That is ok, since my small notebook does not have many pages left. In any case I decided to try to listen more and write less, and conduct an interview of sorts. I began with a huge question: What is important? and soon came up with the obvious reply from my perspective at that moment: warmth. This was only the beginning, perhaps the day will get warmer and my sensitivity to the pine better.
Two days later, after editing the videos and recording the texts I wrote I have to admit that my sensitivity did not increase that much. Yes, I spent more time listening to the pine, simply sitting there after writing, but I did not really feel any answers or responses to my questions, at least not ones that I could register or understand. Perhaps I did not even expect any responses and therefore could not detect them. The video including all my sitting in the pine amounts to 50 minutes, while a short version, synchronised with a video of equal length with only the pine (the brief ”empty” images after each session) is only 5 minutes and 53 seconds. The ”real” version, the one with the texts that I wrote recorded as a voice-over is 14 minutes. And unlike my first question, the following ones were more mundane, about light and sound and the wind.
The good thing with this day, compared to my previous experiment with hanging in a pine nearby for a day, was the weather. This time the day was not so dark and gloomy, and there were more nuances in the shifts of light. And the day was shorter, too, I did not begin before sunrise and ended right after nightfall, so this was a short working day of eight hours, from nine to four. – All the videos (except the longest one) are available on the RC, here
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.