Beginning again with a beech

a twisted beech tree in springEver since I found this strange tree in Aberdeenshire last summer, I’ve been longing to get back to Aden Country Park to spend more time documenting it.

It’s striking twists and contortions are vegetatively mysterious, visually exciting and emotionally disturbing – a perfect combination to captivate this tree artist.

a red chalk drawing of a beech tree

When I heard that last winter’s Storm Arwen had devastated the park’s forestry, I felt a sense of panic that I’d missed my chance. It was clearly a very old tree with the usual signs of decay – had it been toppled by the wind or broken by the successive storms? It was with great relief that I learned from local Landscape Officer Calum Davidson that it had survived where thousands hadn’t, so I made a plan for a drawing trip this spring.

Back to the beginning in art making

 

tansy lee moir at the easel drawing

Why was I so desperate to travel 3 hours north just for one tree? It does seem a bit impulsive but this singular organism has lodged itself in my imagination and I have a strong feeling that I need to make art about it. That means going back to the beginning of my process, connecting with the tree through drawing, asking it questions, tracing its surfaces and listening to its stories.

red chalk drawings of a twisted tree

I’m just back from a perfect few days with this tree, with some first impressions, sketches, photos and videos (and a song thrush as accompaniment). Calum gave me a warm welcome to the park with a coffee and a wide ranging discussion about our cultural and historical connections with trees in the landscape. He also told me this one was locally known as the Witch’s tree and thought to be a site of hangings. We agreed that the tree was unlikely to be old enough to have been mature at the time of the Scottish witch hunts, but the link was a grim reminder of the hundreds of such trees across the country which were used as a means of execution.

The unmistakable strangeness of this tree will stay with me and I can already feel new ideas bubbling just under the surface of consciousness. See (and listen) for yourself…

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Discovering Derbyshire oaks

drawing of an old oak tree
‘Chatsworth 007’ conté and sanguine on paper

Heading south

Following six months hard graft in the studio preparing for my exhibition, it felt like the best reward to spend a week in my homeland, discovering some new trees.

So, I packed my drawing kit and headed for Derbyshire, excited to be feeding my imagination once again, turning the creative cycle back to the beginning of the process.

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Meeting the Chatsworth oaks

I grew up in Matlock and as a child used to visit the Chatsworth estate often with my grandparents. I have warm memories of lolling about the grounds with a picnic, paddling in the river and getting towed reluctantly through the big house. I had no inkling at the time that one day I’d be back with a drawing board to study the trees there.

Tansy drawing in Chatsworth park

The whole estate is vast, but close to the house are the remains of a centuries old deer park, the slopes cloaked in old oaks and still stocked with red and fallow deer. This was the area I focused on exploring for the week and I went there every day to draw and photograph these stunning trees. I also made detailed location notes and learned my way around that area of the park, tracking my walks and plotting photos using the Outdoor Active app.

I made quite a few of my ‘Woodland’ drawings, though they should more accurately be called ‘Wood Pasture’ drawings in this instance, since the trees are open grown in pasture covered ground, rather than a closed canopy wood. They have specific characteristics as a result and support an extremely high number of other organisms.

a conte drawing of an oak tree
Conté and sanguine on paper

What really struck me was the sheer scale of some of these trees – perhaps a more benign climate than that of Scotland has led them to grow so big, perhaps they are extremely old, it’s hard to tell.

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One of the largest oaks, with Dr Moir for scale

I’ve come home with a rich resource of new material to inspire future work. It might take a few months to percolate through my subconscious but it’s definitely fired up my imagination again  – I’m creatively refreshed.

old oak tree in Chatsworth park

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Ancient trees with wet feet

This December I’ve been away tree-hunting – I was so ready for a road trip!

These journeys are like mini residencies for me – they are intense periods of research, exploration and new developments. They’re an essential part of my process, connecting me back to the old trees and their stories, eventually stimulating whole bodies of work.

An open wood pasture in ScotlandDrawing on location in Langholm

My original plan was to stay in Aberdeenshire as there are some great tree drawing locations I wanted to return to there. Sadly the whole region’s woodlands were devastated by Storm Arwen and my accommodation and drawing locations were closed to the public. It will take decades to recover from and I really feel for the tree people there.

an easel in a courtyard patioI found a last minute place to stay near Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, a great cottage with a courtyard I could use as a studio space.

According to the Ancient Tree Inventory the area had some potential new sites to investigate with the kind of ancient trees which inspire my work. This is a fantastic resource and citizen science project – you can find out about trees in your area and how to add your own finds here. It’s of immense value for protecting our special trees.

Finding Aldery Sike

I’d identified some sites to explore, one being just down the road. A small burn was marked on the map as Aldery Sike, so that’s become my name for the location.

I found a large collection of ancient alders there which appear to be a remnant of ancient wood pasture, now surrounded by heavily sheep-grazed land and grouse moors. These trees are a living link with a past way of life and show evidence of extensive coppicing and pollarding. Wonderfully grotesque forms result from this traditional kind of management and the sheer exuberant inventiveness of the trees was captivating to draw.

a sketch of an ancient tree

They grow on a steep hillside which was streaming with water – I had no idea a bog could be quite so sloping! Alder loves wet ground, so they seemed very happy there. It was a magical thing to find such old trees with streams of water flowing around and through them – I had a feeling of reverence and wonder listening to it trickle past as I drew them.

artist sketching a tree

a sketch of a treeNow I know what special trees live there I’m planning to go back to Aldery Sike next autumn for a more focused drawing trip. Next time I’ll be taking a more extensive drawing kit (only had my sketchbook that day) and hopefully some more waterproof boots.

ancient alder with broken branch

Here’s a little video to give you a flavour of this special place

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tansy Lee Moir (@tansyleemoir)

 

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my tree drawing locations you can find more of them here.

See some of the drawings from my other ‘tree meetings’ in my Woodland gallery.

 

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Hills and horse

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It was a perfect sunny winter’s day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.

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First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times – not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.

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I’d spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.

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After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I’ve been told I’d find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.

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One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in ’78. I wonder what their stories are…

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Tree stories trip

tree-stories-18Street art by Phlegm

I was back in Sheffield last weekend, to get together with my Tree Stories colleagues, to view potential exhibition space and discuss what we€™ll be making for the project.

We met at the Workstation, a 1930s built former car showroom and garage which now houses lots of creative businesses.  This whole area of the city, known as the Cultural Industries Quarter has a vibrant, creative feel, with a huge variety of street art, artist studios, silversmiths and metal workers and the lovely Showroom cinema. 

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The Tree Stories website is starting to take shape and we€™re keen for people to send in their own Tree Story images.  There€™s also a new facebook page which will mean we can gather images and stories there too.

The following day, despite the soupy weather and the dimmest of light, I went out to Ecclesall Woods to immerse myself in the stories and atmosphere of this Ancient Woodland site. 

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Its history goes back many centuries €“ there are prehistoric carvings, Romano British remains and ancient field boundaries, as well as charcoal pits, trackways and even a Wood Collier€™s grave from its more recent industrial past.

There are already quite a few photographs from Ecclesall on the Tree Stories website, so I went in search of some of those known but hoping also to discover some of its history myself.  I wandered through the mist towards an area of big beeches which shows up clearly on Google Earth, since these are a favourite place for people to make their mark.

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Although the damp and dingy weather made my photographs quite poor (I didn€™t have a tripod with me so apologies for the blur!), it did mean that the trees were dark and glossy from the rain, which dramatically highlighted their forms.

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Once I€™d €˜got my eye in€™ I found that almost every large beech I looked at had markings of some sort €“ many very distorted and indistinct, some letters clearly legible, some obviously old and some very new. I found a strong sense of place here, with recently made dens and graffiti layered over older carvings and even older charcoal pits and chunks of gritstone.

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The idea of marking trees as a way of attaching yourself to a special place came to mind €“ the organically created paths, smoothed stones and modified trees all combined to give a sense of belonging, that this was a territory that generations of people had felt part of.

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I came back to the studio with a good store of new material and ideas for the series of drawings I€™ll be making for the exhibition €“ here€™s a sketchbook snapshot of some of them…

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The influence of Oliver Rackham

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Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history €“ Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.

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For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour:  it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime. 

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That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.

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National Tree Week 2014

Since it’s National Tree Week this week, I thought I’d join in the celebrations and share some of my favourites…though every week is tree week for me really.

This monumental ancient oak is in the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, lurking in the car park.

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My rather unimaginative name for this one is ‘Newbattle graffiti beech’, since that’s what’s so amazing about it – all those layers and years of carvings.  Here’s a drawing of it too.  I think more drawings from it will feature in my work for the Tree Stories project.

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A wooded landscape next, rather than an individual tree – Glen Finglas, a Woodland Trust site in the Trossachs and a very special wood pasture with many pollarded alders.  It’s a fair walk but a good track into the trees.

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Historic Scotland’s Inchmaholme island has a long and venerable history with its ruined abbey and its Mary Queen of Scots connections, but I got most excited about this twisted old chestnut – fabulously sculptural.

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Another sculptural one, this time a beech on the Novar Estate, near Alness, Easter Ross.  There’s a somewhat sinister quality to its deformity that attracted me, and it looked particularly impressive on the bright early spring day this photograph was taken.  I know it as ‘Novar fungus beech’ and here’s a drawing of the same.

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Finally, staying on the theme of the beautifully grotesque, is this beech I found alongside an abandoned road by the Cromarty Firth.  People who are expert in tree management suggested it was possibly pollarded, giving rise to the weird shapes.  It also bears graffiti from the 50s and so much character that it seems to demand a whole series of works, so I’m hoping to revisit it next spring to get started.

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National Tree week is about valuing and celebrating the trees we have now and ensuring that the generations that follow us can do the same.  All the trees I’ve shown here are quite probably at least 100 years old and some are thought to be as much as 400 years old – let’s allow them to age with dignity and nurture the young ones which will eventually replace them.

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Time around trees inspiration

These are some of the trees which have inspired the works in my current solo exhibition, ‘Time around trees’, along with some quotes from authors and scientists whose books have helped me understand and reflect on what I see.

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Crichton shattered beech Near Crichton Castle, Midlothian

Here veteran beeches line a little hollow lane beside an Iron Age Fort and a neighbouring field boundary.

When I first found the site on a walk with a friend, one tree stood out in particular for its striking form, following the collapse of one of the main limbs in a recent storm.  Its distinctively separate twisting trunks suggest that it may have been €˜bundle planted€™, where several saplings are planted together to give the impression of an older tree.  Its surface is patterned with scars and marks from graffiti, barbed wire fencing and hole boring insects.

‘Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch. What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up?  Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?€™

Richard Mabey, Beechcombings

 

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Dalkeith burred oak Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian

These ancient oaks, in their rare wood pasture landscape, evoke for me the difference between a tree€™s lifespan and that of a human. 

Likely to have been at least 400 years old when it died, this tree continues to provide habitat and sustenance to the organisms of the woodland.  The bark has rotted and been returned to the soil, revealing the whorls and contortions of the underlying structure. It could stand for another 200 years, dead but filled with life.  As if to emphasise the point, a crow flew suddenly out of one of the holes in the trunk as I was drawing.

€˜…the burr is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring… A burr may arise as a reaction to some itch in the tree, a kind of benign wood tumour.  What begins as disfigurement ends life as an opulent adornment.€™

Roger Deakin, Wildwood

 

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Hopetoun half tree, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian

Before it was lopped, this beautiful beech by the side of the Bo€™ness Road was a marker in the landscape for me on a regular route near home.  Then one day it had simply been beheaded €“ perhaps it was deemed to be unsafe or diseased. 

The remaining stump was at once shocking and fascinating, as the removal of the branches had revealed the torso-like sculpture of the trunk.  The problems of drawing trees that I was struggling with then had been solved by the chainsaw, and a whole body of work was inspired.

€˜…trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife.  Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities. If all trees were like the ideal, they would lose most of their significance, all their historic meaning, most of their beauty and most of their value as habitat.€™

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands

 

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Newbattle graffiti beech, Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian

In the grounds of this adult education college and former Cistercian abbey, stands this single large beech on the banks of the South Esk. It has accumulated decades€™ worth of carvings, initials, dates and symbols on every accessible surface. The oldest decipherable date is 1945, perhaps because there were Italian prisoners of war held in the grounds and the house was used as barracks during the war. 

Coins are pressed into the bark along the tree€™s massive lower limb.  It€™s evident that hundreds of human lives have had links with this tree.

€˜To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.€™

Ian D. Rotherham, Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts

 

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Novar fungus beech, Novar Estate, Evanton, Easter Ross

I discovered this site on a family holiday and have drawn there in early spring for five consecutive years.

The Novar estate was laid out in the mid 1700s as a deer park and as a symbol of the laird€™s status. It has many great old trees, but the beeches there are special for me.

This solitary beech stands in the parkland wearing its convoluted crown covered in lichens, its trunk stacked with bracket fungus which is recycling the heartwood.

€˜… at each place where [the tree] has been bent or cut it has grown stronger, swelling into a callous like a human knee or puckering into a bump of scar tissue round the little star-cracked crater of each amputated branch.  Every one of these details represents a decision, a little setback for the tree to which it responds with redoubled vigour…€™

Roger Deakin, Wildwood

 

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Scone grafted beech, Scone Palace Grounds, Perthshire

I was introduced to this tree on an Ancient Tree Forum site visit in Perthshire.

Clearly planted as an ornamental tree, this beech reflects in its bark the battle going on between the common beech rootstock and the copper beech grafted onto it.  The join is unusually high, which accounts for the very visible bulges, bosses and scars, and which immediately attracted me to draw it.

€˜A known tree was a solid link with the past, an embodiment of continuity.  It could be welcomed as one of the family €“ or at least the family estate.  It could be appropriated as a trophy, a proof of clever husbandry, a symbol of ancient occupation or social standing.€™

Richard Mabey, Beechcombings

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Tree stories in Graves Park

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I’m wondering who Pete and Lisa are… one or both of them were at this beech tree recently and left their mark, so fresh that I thought it had been painted at first.  It’s a perfect example of the capacity of tree carving to provoke our curiousity and an ideal starting point for inspiring other artworks – just what ‘Tree Stories’, a new project I’m involved in, seeks to capture.

‘Tree Stories’ will be launched soon, with a Discovery Day event at the end of October to introduce the project to the people of Sheffield and North Derbyshire. 

Project leader Christine Handley, myself and poet, song and scriptwriter Sally Goldsmith went out last week to investigate marked trees in Graves Park, Sheffield.  We’ll be visiting some of them again with people on the Discovery day, then making prints, plaques and poems in response.

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An illustration of how letters have stretched over time, with interesting contrasts between crisp new carvings and deformed old ones.

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We thought this one read IAN + MARC, with what at first looked like a cross, but on closer inspection seemed to be a butterfly with little antennae.  Beautifully mossy inside the carvings.

The project will run until the end of next year, so there will be plenty more tree graffiti related posts. Until the next installment you can find more information on the project page and my first Tree Stories post, and also regular updates on my facebook page.

 

 

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