Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig (2013)

This exhibition curated in 2013 by Amy Cutler (now online in catalogue form here) investigates the properties of forest memory through text, archive, and “xylarium”, or wood collection. Between the French horticultural term “forest trauma” and Robert Pogue Harrison’s “forests of nostalgia”, a whole discipline around history, witnessing, and the memorial qualities of woodland opens up. Art works examining the cultural expression of time and history in the forest are placed here alongside archival photographs, small press texts, artefacts, and museum objects, in an old, low-lit belfry designed by Sir John Soane.

The use of trees and woodland to invoke the past is all around us, from local tree registers and writings (with titles like Legacy Trees, Our Living Memorials, Heritage Trees of Ireland, and Silent Witness: Diary of a Historic Tree), to the Forestry Commission’s 2005 policy for ancient and native woodland entitled “Keepers of Time”. This idea of “Keepers of Time”, of trees being stewards for human memory and the human story, catches the imagination of the government and the media; but it is also the subject of a number of works by artists, writers, and researchers. Relics, by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, uses the linguistic record to chart eleven lost tree genera, identified by pollen grain analysis in the 1960s. Edmund Hardy’s A Forest Set fragmentarily re-quotes Rachael Holtom’s Echoes of Epping Forest: Oral history of the 20th Century Forest, drawing attention to the logic by which historical experience is ‘accessed’ in the forest, and by which different voices become federated in a single account of social memory.

Dendrochronology specimens and core samples loaned by dendrochronologist Martin Bridge show some of the procedures for counting tree growth rings. The spruce section in particular shows how historical scars grow in the flesh of the tree, with lobate growth caused by rocks falling down a mountainside and crashing into the tree. Above this, Gail Ritchie’s memorial tree ring drawing series conflates the stunted lives of fallen trees with the fallen of the battlefield (a similar pun on the fallen dead and the felling of trees to Zoë Skoulding’s ‘In the Forest Where They Fell’, displayed written on birch bark nearby). Paul Gough comments on Ritchie’s diagrams of memory that ‘the response by visitors when these are exhibited are various: some choose to see faces, brain scans, targets, or even bullets embedded in the outer carapace of the tree’s cross-section.’

The link between trees and mourning, as with the yew tree of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, is touched on in a number of works, including The Grief of Trees, by Peter Jaeger and Zoe Hope, which in its material form provides an index similar to the catalogues of trees in Drayton and Spenser (where we hear of “the Fir, that weepeth still”). Paul Gough’s Upas Tree drawings take inspiration from Paul Nash’s wartime paintings, which link corpses to shattered or blasted trees, but also from the enigmatic fable of the dreaded Upas Tree, based in turn on the tale of the poisonous anchar tree, first revealed by 18th century botanist Erasmus Darwin. The French term “forest trauma”, used for post-war ecological devastation, is echoed by the linking of man and tree in the commonly used phrase ‘veteran tree’.

The spectre of ash dieback haunts this exhibition, both in contemporary works such as Carol Watts’ Ash Pastoral, and in earlier works which create keepsakes of trees, particularly herman de vries’ In Memory of Scottish Forests. The sound in the exhibition is Richard Skelton’s Noon Hill Wood, which ‘with its achingly beautiful interleaved bowed melodies (…) drifts through ranks of pine, larch and birch’. The film projected is Chris Paul Daniels’ Family Tree, which shows J. W. Brunskill’s glass-plate portraits of residents of the Windermere region, collected between 1860 and 1900, interwoven with micro-environments of bark. These portraits of family members rooted in the same space, branched across time, gives another model of how we as a culture orient “memory” according to models born out of wood or the woods.

 But, mean glory of the world, / misshapen memory of other seasons, / the forest remains   -         Andrea Zanzotto