Among The Trees: Body to Body

I’ve been focusing on trees in all of my recent work, from Ash Tree Stream in Andover (with Andover Trees United and CAS – Chapel Arts Studios) to Among The Trees at the Hayward Gallery with Climate Museum UK.

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Children interacting with Horizontal – Vaakasuora, by Eija-Liisa Ahtila.  Hayward Gallery

I wanted to write a post today that made sense of all the links between this work, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. One key element that stands out for me though, is the role of embodied experience when learning about (or re-membering), our relationship to the more than human world. As my friend and collaborator, the artist Kathy Mead Skerritt reminds me, this is about experiencing what on one level we already know – our continuity with everything that is.

Ash Tree Stream is all about paying witness to what is happening to Ash Trees – as Ash Die Back disease spreads across the country we are set to lose between 80 and 90% of our them. So with the other project partners, I am supporting children from five Andover schools to get out and notice where Ash trees grow and what life they support. Alongside this hands-on, artful approach to noticing and recording the place of trees in the local environment, we are helping the children to understand the role that trees play, in storing carbon, giving us oxygen and providing a habitat for other species.

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Photo: Becky McGugan, Andover Trees United

In parallel to this work, as a member of the CMUK team, I recently facilitated a teacher’s CPD session and a session for Year 6 children at The Hayward Gallery, considering how to make links between the Among The Trees exhibition and the Climate and Ecological Crises. There’s a lot of noticing and talking about loss in all of this work, and one of the teachers asked me a really interesting question at the CPD session last week. It was something along the lines of “Why did you choose to do all this work about death and loss?”

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Among The Trees Teacher CPD Session at Hayward Gallery. Photo: Meg McKenzie

Why did I? There’s something about facing what’s happening that I find empowering. I feel like by bringing my full attention to what’s happening to Ash trees for example, and encouraging others to do the same, I may not be able to stop it but I can go away feeling like a process has been set in motion that will have some benefit. A little vague perhaps, but in these times of great loss, and the grief that comes with it, I have come to realise that we need to let go of being in control, of pretending to know what will happen. That doesn’t mean we ignore the science, or that we give up, but that we recognise our place within natural systems and work with those.

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Ash Tree Stream with Andover Trees United

The difficulty of writing about the value of this work, is that it is like the roots of a tree in a woodland, the elements all connect with and feed each other. I can’t know where my interaction with each child, each tree, each deer will lead any of us. Every action causes a ripple across the social and natural systems of which we are a part, but we can’t know what all the consequences of those actions will be. In the meantime, children are walking out from their schools, to touch and map their Ash trees, to listen to skylarks, track deer and draw with mud, and to ask questions.

“Can trees see?” Year 6 Boy at Hayward Gallery

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Among The Trees Teacher CPD Session at Hayward Gallery

Will this process stop Climate Breakdown? No. Will it make us feel better? Yes I think so. Will it enable each of us to find a way to feel useful in times when the loss feels overpowering? I hope so. It helps me. And on a more practical level, my work with teachers and children offers them a way to notice and start to value trees differently. Hopefully that in turn leads to them protecting existing trees, and supporting the planting of new ones, which in turn helps to mitigate the effects of Climate Breakdown.

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Responding to Roxy Paine’s work Desolation Row at Among the Trees, Hayward Gallery

“If the trees are cut down and die, then we won’t have any oxygen to breathe and we will die too.” – Year 6 Girl at Hayward Gallery

It’s not an easy subject, but children are largely aware that Climate Change exists, and they need us to face up to what is happening, in order to provide them with ways of learning about Climate and Biodiversity that are engaging and supportive.

If we don’t do this work with them, then they go into the future ill-equipped to face what is coming. By focusing on their embodied experiences and emotional responses, both to real trees (Ash Tree Stream) and  to artworks made from/about trees (Among The Trees), we give them an awareness of the wider systems which support them and give them life, and an understanding of the threats that face them. And then together we can explore what to do about it.

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Ash Tree Stream with Andover Trees United

“If  you’re doing art in nature, you connect with nature” – Year 4 Girl reflecting on Ash Tree Stream session

In contrast to how I may have made it sound, there is a lot of joy in these sessions. Participants are given permission to bring their whole selves to the work – their senses, emotions, imaginations and intellect. They feel seen and heard, and they experience the wonder of noticing and learning about trees as living, sentient beings, empowered and inspired to go on and share that learning with others.

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Ash Tree Stream with Andover Trees United

Climate Museum UK is all about conversations, and for me this work with Among the Trees and Ash Tree Stream is about opening up those conversations to include trees and other organisms. As we reach out to touch a tree, they touch us in return, as we stop to listen they speak to us, and if we pause for long enough, making an effort to understand them, then we can start to develop a sense of empathy with them too.

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Ash Tree Stream with Andover Trees United

As we discussed in the Hayward Gallery CPD session, planting millions of trees won’t ‘save the world’, because we also need to drastically reduce emissions from fossil fuels too. Doing one doesn’t cancel out the need for the other. But yes habitat restoration/regeneration is vital and planting the right trees in the right places can go some way to righting some of the imbalances that we have caused. Spending time getting to know trees through artful, embodied engagement can only help in that process. Re-membering that we too are of ‘the world’ that we seek to save. We are Nature, as interconnected with the rest of life as the roots of trees in a wood.

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The Ash Tree Stream exhibition will take place at CAS (Chapel Arts Studios) in Andover from Saturday 11th to Saturday 25th July, 2020. 

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