Bearing Witness

Flora Robson, Painting & Printmaking

Autumn

There is tree at the bottom of my garden which has fascinated me for the past 22 years. I have grown up watching this sycamore (of the Acer Brilliantissimum variety) lose its foliage each year, it’s salmon pink leaves turning yellow to green to a gorgeous emerald by summer. This hardy tree holds this parade of colour every year, living and breathing amongst its herbacious peers. It’s interesting how attached you can become to something as simple as a tree standing at the end of your lawn, the assurance that comes with knowing that as each summer arrives, so will the abundance of fresh array of green leaves, it is rooted, a constant in the ever changing tides of the everyday. For my final year, trees therefore were at the forefront of my mind, in particular Scots Pines- from charcoal plein-eir sketching in Mull, Loch Lomond and Kintyre, to the etching room, where in October I began some experimentation with Photech. (on the full Tumblr post are some etchings I made in october.)

Having decided to focus my paintings on the Scottish Landscape for my final year project, I started researching into the Scots Pine, and the history of this tree in Scotland’s landscape. It is known as a pioneer species, due to its ability to regenerate in poor soils, a native of the once vast Caledonian Forest (a title deriving from the Latin ‘wooded heights’.) At the start of the Holocene, Scotland was covered with substantial ice sheet with little vegetation. When this ice retreated, records of pollen preserved in peat bogs have shown that the land was rapidly colonized by Birch, Scots Pine, Hazel and Oak. Over the next 11,000 years human settlement and agriculture practices brought about variation in tree cover. Pollen records show a sharp decline in the extent of the Caledonian Forest over the past 400 years, due to the age of vast clearances of trees on land (Scottish Clearances) as well as natural changes in climate and volcanic activity. With the collapse of many ‘fermtoun’ settlements after the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, there was a huge dip in the regeneration of forests in upland areas, and subsequently a huge loss in biodiversity. In addition to the rise of monoculture farming, the combination of both world wars had a huge effect on the amount of timber left in Britain. The sitka spruce was introduced to create dense plantations for wildlife but only supported a small range compared to the native woodland which was being felled. Such large-scale ecologcail destruction to the Caledonian Forest has resulted in a complete transformation of the woodlands, with only 1% of the native pinewoods remaining, with large habitats suffering at the cost.

In October, I attended a curators workshop at the CCA titled ‘Being Ecological’, led by Artist Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte and A+E collective, discussing the work ‘Being Ecological’ by Timothy Morton, which gives readers an insight into a more genuine and real approach to handling ecological knowledge, how we are all part of the biosphere, and how we interact with ecological health can have a huge impact on our mental health, how ‘teaming-up’ with the non-human elements surrounding us can help us move forward in combating the effects of climate change, and deconstructing the western colonial narrative surrounding land use.

I then spoke to John Thorne, who himself mentioned a tree he remembers from his childhood garden, and how he remembers observing it from a young age how important is remains to him. The emotional response to trees and landscape in general is one that interests me, with my paintings being driven by this connection to a certain view. It’s interesting how tree-planting on even a small scale can be an act of legacy making, in a similar way to traditional landscape painting. Landscape is so transient, so fleeting, and trying to solidify this feeling into a painting seems impossible, it is an attempt at something permanent, a part of the landscape to grasp onto.

I began to research into organisations that offer wood packs to schools, universities and individuals who are interested in tree replantation, in the hope that I could make an active impact on the environment within the GSA community, whether that be around the STOW college building, on Garnethill or further afield at the GSA Highlands and Islands Campus. John put me in contact with FROGGS (friends of Garnethill community) who were hugely helpful in discussing the process of ordering tree packs and regenerating the area of land next to the Margaret Macdonald halls of residence, as well as their involvement with the Council in making Glasgow greener.

Having decided to base the planting project at the GSA Highlands and Islands Campus, I was able to look at the host and trees and wildlife already abundant in the region of the Forres estate. This project would also help me provide links between the Glasgow Campus and the students studying in Forres, in the hope that there can be future sustainable projects and a sharing of resources and space between both campuses. The Woodlands Trust Scotland campaign works to plant and halt the loss of native woods and trees, restoring woodland to peak condition. Having ordered my ‘working wood pack’ from the Woodlands Trust, a mix of Hornbeam, Pedunculate Oak and Rowan, I headed up to Forres to visit the campus and discuss the project with Sir Alistair Gordon-Cummings, the landowner of the Forres estate.

On Wednesday 30th October, I got the train to Forres, a five hour journey which took me the snow capped hills of Aviemore, through the Caledonian Forest. Driving up the lane to the Forres Estate Office was breathtaking, the October light leaking through the gaps in the pines.

Planting was discussed we opted for March, as the harsh conditions in the winter months are too limiting for growth. It was fascinating to talk to Sir Alistair, how the land at Forres has a strong ecological function in terms of having a positive social and ecological impact on the existing woodland and wildlife, as well as promoting future sustainable ways of farming and planting. The estate has over 7000 acres of sustainable woodland and this provides and exceptional resource for biomass, with facilities put in place for converting their timber into chipping. In 2015, renewable energy was provided to the GSA campus, with the introduction of the Berryburn Wind Farm, commissioned in 2014.

It was important to Sir Alistair that my intentions were clear, whether the site was to be an ‘open’ or closed space, an exhibition or an ecological protest. It is hard to draw a conclusion as to what this space will become, there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding planting, i am unsure that these saplings will survive the cold biting winter months of 2020, perhaps a herd of confident deer will chew the saplings up. I asked Sir Alistair a series of questions, and just as I began he placed a small object on his desk. A root of a Scots Pine from 3000 years ago, from Rochlin. A phenomenon, sitting next to his teacup.

I asked him, ‘In terms of History of Farming at Forres, how do you manage the traditional patterns in terms of the future of the land and the soil?

We have just embarked on a new type of farming called ‘holistic’. We are converting the farm froma traditional style of managing the farm to this new form. Well, it’s not really new, just in terms of perception. It involves organic matter and the soil. What we are hoping to achieve in the next 7-10 years is a transformation of the soil, allowing it to grow in a way we want it to. You start by taking soil samples, and from there you find percentages of organic matter that you have at the minute, and then you ‘ween’ the soil so no fertiliser no spraying no direct drilling. This will hopefully mean my yields of corn be higher, the health of the invertebrates will improve, the birds the bees, there will be a general improvement overall. It seems all thoroughly sensible to me.

I then went on to ask,

‘In terms of the history of trees here, can you tell me a bit about them?’

Trees have been here for hundreds of years and essentially what one does with trees is replace what one has before. So for me I find the tree business the biggest in terms of land mass. We grow all the traditional types, I think we are over 50% Scots Pine. It used to be 70% but now it’s 50. Sitcus spruce, lodgeball pine and more and more lark which I like. We have a wonderful bank of stuff, of all shapes and sizes which gives the estate a wonderful autumnul feel. It has always been like that, and I don’t feel any need to re-invent the wheel. And they bring new species to you and sometimes you say fine but sometimes you don’t. That’s part of everyday life.

In terms of coppicing, is it an industrial method you use?

To me it’s quite suburban, when I was born here there were a lot of foresters, and they used to coppice, I call it prune, to make soil logs. But now they don’t because we haven’t got the time or money. So coppicing isn’t a thing we get hugely involved in, we prune hardwoods in normal fashion in order to get oak in 100 years.

I then went on to speak to Fergus Fullarton Pegg, a research associate who focuses on the impact of digital interface on creativity in remote and distributed communities. Last year he started to grow a permaculture garden- a space in which students and staff work cooperatively growing a variety of wild-flowers, vegetables and plants. Fergus is particularly interested in what he refers to as the ‘circular economy’ of textiles and plants and how this can be embedded in a dye garden next to the campus. Addressing the complexities of a sustainable future begins by the deconstruction of product ecology and our dependency on these products. He was interested in the tree planting project, as its intentions sit alongside this idea of sharing values of sustainability and looking to the future of a site and the produce we can garner from it. Fergus mentioned he had planted hedgerows around the permaculture garden and had to be experimental in terms of his tools for the indentation of the soil, switching to a metal pole as an alternative. In terms of the benefits of planting by the campus building, we spoke of the fact that the trees will soak up water (up to half a tonne a day) which will aid flooding, as well as decrease soil erosion. The trees could act as a social project for students studying at the innovation school to work with, as well as admire, with the neighboring crossbills, tree-creepers and red squirrels also hopefully benefiting! What is interesting is the mutability of this project, similarly to the importance of understanding the mutability of a landscape. It is irregular, its rough edges exist in order to have a non-hierarchical understanding of our position as humans in the biosphere.

Spring

Over the next few months I spent a huge amount of time in the etching workshop, creating a series of prints to illustrate each of the 45 saplings that I was going to plant on the Altyre estate, gathering keen volunteers and orchestrating a plant to get the train up to Forres for March 12th 2020.

Clutching two of Toby’s spades, Rebecca’s camera and tripod, plenty of layers and snacks for the journey-we caught the 10:10am train to Inverness from Glasgow Queen Street. As well as the 45 saplings as well as deer protectors which has been nestled in my room for the past week. Our arms were full to say the least.

As the train whistled once again through the hills, passing Perth, Aviemore and Nairn, it was alarmingly snowy. A moment of doubt crossed my mind, if there was snow on the ground these saplings would be off to a chilly start. But thankfully, Forres and Findhorn are known as having a micro climate, boasting a warm spring/summer due to the shelter of the western and northern highlands.

We were greeted at Altyre Office by David Clark, the resident Forester there. Along with his trusty dog, we hopped into the truck and drove up to the GSA Campus, the grey sky starting to descend. We began to plot the distance between each sapling, with a row of hornbeam at the front, followed by rowan and finally oak, 6 metres apart stretching across the edge of the field. Setting up at tripod in the corner of the field we managed to film the process from start to finish, just as the light was fading. The delicate sapling which had begun to flower were placed within the protectors, attached to wooden stakes. David mentioned how in summer they manage to plant thousands of trees each week, covering areas of the estate in new saplings with a team of helpers. Below are images of the final stage. My intention as an artist is only a small part of the process, the planting in a way a performance, a protest and an act of empathising with our environment. I look forward to visiting the site in the near future to see their growth. For my degree show I plan to show the etchings alongside the film of the process in real time. I am hugely grateful for Sir Alistair, David, Rebecca Gill, Toby Mills and the team at the GSA Highlands and Islands Campus for allowing me to embark on this planting, as well as of course the Woodlands Trust. I hope in future for future collaborations within the GSA community surrounding sustainability and the processes we can take in order to take the steps to a greener future.

Follow Flora Robson’s work on her website

More pictures on our Tumblr feed