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:
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:
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…
Sitting on the lowest branch of the birch on the hill on Harakka Island is not as easy as I expected. In May I spent two weeks gallery sitting for my exhibition The Tree Calendar in the Telegraph Gallery and waited until the very last day to go and record an image of the branch – without me sitting on it though. Why? Because the site was occupied by a goose couple who was nesting next to it. With a common eider that would have been no problem, they sit calmly even when you come fairly near them. But the goose guys are really aggressive, protecting the hen sitting on the eggs, or at least pretending to do so, by attacking everybody who tries to come near. I waited and hoped that the chicks would hatch out and start moving, but no. Today, on the last day of the exhibition, and the next to last day of the month, I decided I would have to accept the situation and record an image of the branch and the geese:
Even that simple endeavour produced quite a lot of drama, because there was an egg in the seagull’s nest next to the small oak where I was to place the camera tripod. I had an umbrella to cover my head and after a while the seagulls calmed down a little bit. And thus there was no actual battle, only threats, nor any casualties, luckily.
This time of year the birds have taken over the island, and the siege will continue until midsummer, approximately. The geese are worst before the chicks hatch; when they can move the whole family is often slowly giving way to humans if you give them the time to do so. The seagulls, on the other hand are more relaxed when they sit in the nest, and trust that people won’t step on them. When the chicks are out, they are almost impossible to notice on the ground and the parents protect them with ear-piercing shrieks as soon as you come anywhere near. And these are the nests near the houses and the path to the pier. On the rocks there are other birds, but those I do not need to disturb now. – The series of monthly images can be viewed on the RC, here.
Almost by accident I noticed that the tourist boat traffic to Bengtskär lighthouse and also to Örö Island had commenced, which meant that there were other options than visits from Wednesday to Wednesday with the ferry. Happy, I grabbed the chance to spend a week from Sunday to Sunday with the pines on Örö. Now, when the week is over I can note, with some satisfaction, that I did what I planned to do, and more. I visited “the pine next door”, which I used to pose with daily, holding on to its branch, during my visits in January and February earlier this year. And I went to see the pine on the beach and recorded my attempt at talking to it, speaking with it, in Tala om det för tallen 3 (Tell it to the Pine 3). The transcript of my Swedish words I added to my private blog, here.
I also made quite a few new acquaintances, like the fallen pine tree on the shore that has persevered and insists on growing, and also some trees that invited me to create diptychs, pairs of images, like the two small pines that seemed to be in conversation, and which I had not noticed before. I also posed with a pine bent in the form of a gate at the shore, which probably caught my eye because I happened to approach it from an other angle, and as befits a gate, recorded the pose from both sides.
The amount of morels, which looked like pine cones in the sand at first, was so impressive that I created a small video sitting on two pine stumps among them. Unfortunately you cannot see much of the mushrooms, and you might also wonder whether the stumps really count as unremarkable trees to encounter.
During the last days of my stay I looked for suitable pine trees to swing in, planning for a participatory performance that will possibly take place as part of the Öres exhibition later this summer. The first swinging session I recorded with a pine next to the road, a site unsuitable for any collective event, mostly for myself, and in honour of Beckett and his beautiful monologue, calling it Swinging in a Pine – Örö Rockaby(e).
The two other pines I tried swinging in are located on more suitable sites; the first one close to the residency house, and the second – probably the easiest option to have voluntary participants – near the barracks, the hotel and the restaurant.
Working on the island now, when the season is beginning and there are plenty of people around, has been a very different experience compared to having the place almost for oneself in the winter. And living in a hostel, at times crowded with people, makes concentrating on work more complicated. There are advantages, too, of course, like restaurant services, and the transport that made it possible for me to come here in the first place. And the main reason for my visit, the pine trees, although sometimes looking different in another light and surrounding atmosphere, are nevertheless staying almost the same. Or rather, they are transforming slowly enough for my senses to recognise them as familiar, as friends.
On the last day of April, almost May Eve, actually, I finally made it to Harakka Island – after nearly a full month in Hailuoto, another island, a very big island in the north. All the material that I made there is gathered on one page, here. I left the residency one day earlier in order to be able to record the calendar image within the correct time frame, and to avoid arriving in the middle of the party – although there might not be so much of a party in the city this year – the parties are all in peoples’ homes. There was one couple planning to celebrate with a fire on the shore on Harakka, and they politely invited me to join, and I politely declined and returned to the mainland as soon as I had recorded my small performance.
The island had assumed its spring appearance; it is completely overtaken by birds. I noticed with horror that there was a nesting seagull sitting on her eggs right where I would place my camera tripod, and expected some high drama. When I approached slowly the couple did not make any noise, however, but slowly walked away, as if directing my attention elsewhere. And due to the fact that I stayed a bit further away, they waited patiently, only emitting slightly worried sounds occasionally, while I was sitting on the birch branch, posing for the camera.
The framing of the image was not exactly the same anyway, because I decided to switch to a new tripod. I bougt myself a new one ages ago, but kept using my old one because it was much smaller and lighter, easier to carry around. One leg was damaged in Hailuoto, and the temporary repair that saved the day there, would not provide a permanent solution, so better to switch now, I thought. And my angels were helping me again, with the help of the wind, adjusting the framing by dropping the camera a little lower right in the beginning – thank you for that.
Practicing with a pine in Hailuoto, already for a week, during my residency in Kulttuuritalo Päiväkoti (see here), where I am planning to stay for the whole month of April. Hailuoto, a large island outside Oulu in the Bothnian Bay (see here) is rather far north in Finland, which means that the winter is lingering on. While I am writing this there is a soft snowfall, and the piles of snow along the roads are melting very, very slowly. Nevertheless, spring is approaching. Besides my daily practice with the pine next door, I hope to meet other pines introduced to me by local artists that I have met here. One such pine I have already recorded, Eija’s Pine, which awaits her approval to be uploaded online. See still image here:
I went to see a local celebrity, the Askelin pine, a few days ago, and wrote a small note about my visit on my personal blog (see here), but did not feel any urge to pose or perform with that tree. I would like to find a tree to perform with, or write a letter to, or perhaps even try to interview, in order to use in a “provocation” that I have promised to create for the Pluriversity project (see here). I forgot that the interview with a pine in Örö last autumn, which I thought I could use as an example, was made in Swedish. And to use a language that most people would not understand in Arizona would be a rather useless provocation, I guess. In any case I will be performing as part of the fourth Be-Coming Tree event on 24 April here, see press info:
That performance will take place with my first pine friend, the pine I practice with daily. For the performance I will try to attach a small swing to one of its branches, in order to be able to perform for an hour. Hanging from the branch – as I do in the press photo – for that duration would be too much of challenge, or rather completely impossible for me right now.
After several weeks of thaw season, with the ice melting and only a narrow bridge left to walk across to the island on – which I did not have the courage to try, unlike some of my braver colleagues – the sea was now open. There is still plenty of ice on this side of the jetty, which will make for large ice floes blocking the passage at some point, but for now there was no problem. A group of us got a ride across with the caretaker. The idea is to get at least some of the rowing boats to sea today, despite the rainy weather. My main interest to get to the island, however, was to be able to make my image with the birch within the month of March, as planned.
While waiting for the ice to melt I have considered various alternatives to a monthly calendar, like “The Four Seasons”, or better still, “The Seven Seasons”, or something similar. That might become a relevant option, if I have trouble getting to the island for other reasons, such as my coming visit to Hailuoto Island in the north in April, or my stay at the Eckerö Post House in July. That remains to be seen. For now I am done with March.
It was nice meeting the birch after six weeks; I began this calendar on fifteenth of February, in bright sunlight and lots of snow. Today there is a soft drizzle, wind from the south and most of the snow is gone, at least around the birch. A manmade birds’ nest is lying on the ground next to the tree; it was probably covered by snow last month. And finding exactly the same position for the camera tripod was not so easy, because I had no other mark than the branch of the small oak tree, but I guess I managed reasonably well.
My main occupation during this month has been visiting the sea-buckthorn on the mainland, on the shore further towards the west, and only three visits remain – the month is ending. Returning to Harakka Island after a break, whether due to bad weather or travels elsewhere or some other reason, always reminds me of how excellent a space it is for working and getting things done, at least compared to working at home as I have done during these pandemic times.
I do miss Örö Island, too, although spending a week there, as I did in the beginning of January and in the end of February, is something else compared to working here in a house full of colleagues and with more than twenty years of memories and materials surrounding me. Instead of returning to Örö in March – I planned a series of monthly visits but did not receive the funding I hoped for, so that plan might have to be adjusted – I am going to spend a month on another island, on Hailuoto in the north. More of that at the end of the week…
An old sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) bending down over the rocks bordering the sea shore in Ursinin Kallio Park in Helsinki is surrounded by a fence and decorated with a sign stating that it is a protected nature monument – “rauhoitettu luonnonmuistomerkki” in Finnish, “fridlyst naturminnesmärke” in Swedish. “Puumainen tyrni” and “trädformig havtorn” would translate as tree-like or tree-shaped sea-buckthorn. It is protected, because it is unusually big and old, I assume. There is a smaller one only a few meters further west on the shore without any fence.
Because most of the trees I have spent time with this year, the pines on Skifferholmen as well as the pines on Örö are rather unremarkable, generally speaking, I felt it was about time to engage with a remarkable tree. And a tree designated as a monument is remarkable, isn’t it? Instead of trying to make direct physical contact, which would be easy, because the tree reaches beyond the fence, I decided to simply sit next to it and try to see what I could learn by observing it closely. I had in mind some exercises in perception described by Craig Holdrege in his book Thinking Like a Plant (2013). The aim is also to place myself inconspicuously next to the the tree in a manner that will not disturb (or be disturbed by) all the people walking along the shore. Moreover, I decided to write some “field notes” after each short session, and upload them on the RC together with the usual still images from the video, to form a diary of sorts.
The first thing I noticed were the strange buds covering the shrub all over, looking like weird bugs or outgrowths. They will probably become leaves only much later in spring, and remain like this during March, which is the month I plan to spend with the sea-buckthorn.
My second visit to Örö this year has resulted in some new acquaintances. I have resumed my daily practice with the pine next door, of course, and I went to sit with the pine on the shore and even recorded a talk or attempt at a conversation, in Swedish. The text, and the text from my first visit in January, are added to my Swedish blog, in a post called “Tala om det för tallen” (tell it to the pine) here.
I have also met some new pines, however, like the spider pine that I recorded briefly from two opposite directions for In the Spider Pine 1 and 2 (see images below).
I wrote letters to pines as well, one letter to the small strangely bent pine on the northwestern shore on 21 February in the video Dearest Pine(with text) (15 min 45 sec), and another letter to the large pine tree on the northeastern cliff on 23 February in the video Esteemed Pine Tree (16 min 15 sec). These two letters, written by hand in English, and added to the videos as text scrolls rather than spoken voice-overs as I did before, are archived here below as well.
I hope you don’t mind my climbing on to your trunk, or branch, like some giddy goat – quite inappropriate behaviour for an old lady, I guess. But you are bent in such a funny and almost inviting way, so I simply had to try if I could get up on your “back”, as it were. Today the whole island of Örö is silent, almost miraculously so. Not only because there are no people – well, there are four people in the residency house in the south, and one woman is staying in her cottage not that far from the cottage where I am staying for now – no, it is because there is no wind, absolutely no wind – and that is rare in the outer archipelago; or is this the middle archipelago, perhaps. And not only is there no wind, there is a soft mist, almost like rain, that dampens all sounds. Here on the western shore the silence is so poignant because the sea is completely silent, too; it is not only still, it is covered with ice, frozen. Usually, the sea is roaring at least on some side of the island and is audible from everywhere. It is very beautiful for human eyes, with the soft greyish white hues conforming by softening all the hues of green and brown and the rust of the pine trunks. I wonder if you would find it so? Perhaps bright sunlight is what you find most beautiful, because that is energy for you, your food. Or then the equivalence of beauty is the pleasure of a soft rain shower. At least it is probably nice when there are no insects trying to get in under your bark, and they should be asleep or dead now. I guess you would not like me to sit here for very long, because my more than 50 kilos mean quite a burden for your trunk. I don’t feel it sway or bounce under my weight, though- I wonder what made you bend like this. Was there another branch that has fallen away, or did this part of the trunk bend in such a strange manner to counterbalance some other part that has now disappeared? Anyway, I guess I should better leave you to “stretch” yourself after my weight, and to be honest I can feel the dampness through my clothes. – There is a duck or something similar sounding somewhere towards the north. I am not completely alone as an “animal” here, after all. Well, of course not. Although all the human footprints in the snow, at least the fresh ones, are my own, from yesterday or the day before, there are other footprints by hares, those I recognise, and then something that could be deer and then the small dog or cat like marks that are probably of the invasive species that has come here and is called raccoon dog in English. They move around mainly in the dark, I guess. The ones I see, or rather hear, are the birds. But they, too, are mostly silent now in the mist. So, thank you for letting me play at being a youngster here on your branch, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the winter and the coming spring. Bye, bye for now…
Esteemed Pine Tree, or should I say esteemed colleague in this business of living on earth. Pleased to meet you this rainy-misty Tuesday afternoon, at the end of February, here on Örö or Ear Island in the southwestern archipelago of Finland. Only a few days ago there was a thick snow cover on the island, and the sea is still frozen – quite unusual in these times of global warming. Now, however, the thaw season seems to be here, and there are heavy drops of water landing on this paper every now and then. From where I it her on your lowest branch I have a beautiful view to the sea on the eastern shore, and the small rocks and islets that rise up from the whitish grey ice. There is not much wind, which is unusual, and makes the place very silent. Normally, you would have the roar of the sea from some part of the island and also the sound of the wind in the trees, now that the sea is silent. Today I can only her the occasional “drip”, “drop”. – We have not met before, you grow here a little to the side from the walking path, and I noticed your beautiful location only a few days ago when visiting another pine in the vicinity. At that time, I mistook the low-growing juniper on the rocks to be part of your branches and decided to return. And that I did, today. When I tried to place my camera tripod, I noticed I had forgotten the memory card – incredibly stupid of me. There was nothing else to do but to return, have some lunch and rest a little, and then start out again. And here I am. Luckily dusk is falling later and later, so there is still time. And after all, I wonder if I have anything special to tell you. Yes, they are killing some of your relatives on the other side of the island, in order to keep the landscape at least partly open. Basically, you can live here in peace because this is a national park now, so nothing to be afraid of, unless they want to restore some earlier landscape on the island, when there were less trees. That is the nature of trees to spread out and grow into woods and forests, I guess. You are invaders, for sure. That is natural, so why combat that? Well, probably because there are some species of plants and animals that need the open landscape in order to survive. So, you will have to endure some restrictions to your expansion, like everybody else. Everybody else except humans, or so it seems. There seems to be no limit to our rights of intrusion and exploitation. And in some manner my sitting here on your branch is an example of that brutal mentality, although there are much worse examples, of course. Anyway, that is another story; that I will not bother you with now. Let me finish by simply expressing my gratitude for your generosity. I really appreciate the possibility to spend this moment here with you, on you, talking (or rather writing) to you. I wish you all the best for the coming spring. Take care!
Yesterday the online, open access publication Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees in Johannesburg and Environs, published by ARA (Arts Research Africa) at Wits University in Johannesburg was officially launched with an event on zoom. The publication itself is openly available here, http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/30395 ; there is an online version and a print-on-demand version for ‘self-printing’. The publication is the result of my ARA residency about this time last year, which was interrupted by the pandemic. Originally we had the plan of organising a screening consisting of some of the video works made together with the trees introduced to me by generous colleagues. Now it feels like this option, a publication, which was a surrogate at first, is in many ways much better, since it a) remains and b) is accessible to more people.
The launching event was quite fascinating, too, organised by professor Christo Doherty, who had invited some of the contributors to say a few words: Manola Gayatri Kumarswamy, Myer Taub, Donald McCallum and Busisiwe Mahlangu. And some of the reviewers, too, I guess, and experts in the field like Anna Birch and Mareli Stolp. They all had beautiful presentations, questions and comments, but I want to remember especially the idea Manola mentioned, about the tree as a kind of ‘third space’, which enabled meetings across differences without focusing on those differences, or that is how I understood it. And then one of the points Myer took up, the poem by Brecht from 1939, which he quoted: “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?” That poem I remember very well from a Finnish political song in the 1970’s. And somehow it feels like these are such times again…
Should I choose a tree to visit for the year of the ox, which begun at Chinese New Year on 12 February, or not? Should I be repeating myself again, with these eternal time-lapse videos? On the other hand, why not? In the end I decided to choose a tree on Harakka Island and to visit it only once a month, to create a simple calendar as the one I made with a pine in Koivumäki in 2007 and by returning to the site of the year of the horse in 2014. Visiting a tree once a month is very easy compared to visiting them once a week or daily. And although the depiction of the year will be rather rough, it will hopefully be enough to indicate the major changes. But which tree, then?
Initially I thought of the maple tree on the hill above the so-called nature house, because it has a branch that I thought I could climb up to sit on (see image above). When I went there with my camera on the sunny Monday 15th, I realized it would be hard for me to get up without some kind of stool to assist me. And as a lazy person I chose to sit on the lowest branch of the nearby birch. The branch was bent so low, and so conveniently, that it was almost welcoming, so why bother with more complicated things (see image below).
After all, a birch is a nice and supportive pal for all kinds of beginnings, and the birch on Harakka will hopefully serve as my trusted friend for the coming year. I will see it every time I go to my studio, and perhaps I could go and sit with it even without a camera as a witness? That I usually never do, but this birch is growing so near that I could give it a try. For the calendar, I need the camera, though, and I tried to find a place for it that I could somehow recognize and repeat, next to the branch a small oak tree growing between the path and the birch.