The writing on the tree

Newbattle Abbey College has a long and interesting history and some of my very favourite trees.  

It€™s been a regular haunt for me since I moved to Scotland in 1994 and I returned today in search of some tree graffiti to get the ideas flowing around €˜Tree Stories€™, a project in the pipeline which I hope to be involved in later this year.  It€™s being developed by Professor Ian D Rotherham at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to get the public engaged in a national hunt for marked and worked trees, recording them in photographs and trying to find out a bit more about their history. 

This idea was immediately appealing to me, as I€™ve been collecting images of carved and marked trees and incorporating these into my recent work.

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Newbattle graffiti beech, charcoal on paper (plus detail)

It raises some interesting questions for me about where the line is drawn between vandalism and culture, damage and heritage.   I€™d like to find out more about how carving a living tree affects it €“ does it lead to stress, disease or weakness, or is the tree able to repair or isolate the damage?  How much of the bark€™s surface can be carved before it starts to cause serious problems for the tree?

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This particular beech seems to have taken on a local significance as the place to €˜make your mark€™.  The oldest carving I could identify was dated 1955, but most were from the 1970s and 80s, with some much more recent.

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It€™s both shocking and impressive to see the whole surface of the tree marked like this €“ as if a large crowd had gathered by the river and started yelling their names.

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I’ve never noticed this on my previous visits, but there are coins pressed into wounds in the bark like some sort of spontaneous offering.  I’ve read about ‘money trees’ before but never seen one up close.

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There are more ‘Tree Stories’ to come from this one I think!

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Shadow woods

burbage oaks

Old contorted oaks at the base of Burbage Edge near Sheffield.

It was a relaxed but very informative first day at the ‘Shadows and Ghosts’ event, the rain held off for our site visits and the hightlight for me were these amazing oaks, with their mossy confusion of branches. I managed a very swift drawing – I’ll be back here with more paper and more time!

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First look at a new location

ardullie old road

In my previous post ‘How do I find my trees?’ I set out the process by which I find my drawing locations.  Of course I’m not that methodical really and it can be a combination of things that lead me to a new spot, or sometimes just pure chance.

My newest discovery came about as a result of a suggestion from Roger at Troutquest, Evanton in Easter Ross.  We were holidaying in the cottage he rents for his fishing holiday business and he suggested that the Old Evanton Road to Dingwall had some good old trees.  Out came the maps and after a wee drive came the discovery of this wonderful old road, strangely green and lined with trees of great character – beeches, oaks, hawthorn and others I couldn’t identify without their leaves.

map memo   ardullie memo

Since I only had an hour or so here, I recorded all I could in preparation for returning later in the year.  I use my Samsung Galaxy Note for this – it’s a bit big for a phone but the up side is that it has a large screen, a stylus and nifty apps like SMemo which are ideal for combining photos, hand written notes etc.  I can also draw on it; Sketchbook Pro is a great app which I use in the studio, but I far prefer the feel of the friction between pen and paper when drawing. 

 

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Broken beech tree

novar boundary beech 5

It’s five years since I first found this tree and I’ve drawn and photographed it every year since. Its fascinating twisted form was so interesting to draw, though so complex I struggled to make sense of it.  It’s on an old bank in a designed landscape laid out in the late 18th century, the area currently being used as a deer park – you can see how the roots on the right have had their bark removed by hungry grazers.

novar boundary beech snow    novar boundary beech branches

This year it has moved into it’s final phase of life – the winds have brought it down, the owners are removing most of its bulk and the stump that remains is rotting rapidly.  However, if allowed to remain it will continue to support life, including lichens, fungi, invertebrates and birds. It’s always a shock to see a large tree shattered and prone; like finding a dead animal there’s something very sad about the sight, but at the same time fascinating. It’s also a natural process which I don’t believe we should sentimentalise – I prefer to use it as an opportunity to make art which reflects on life and death as simple fact. 

novar boundary beech fallen

 

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Drawing locations

dalkeith oaks Oaks at Dalkeith Country Park

I’m always hunting for new locations with special old trees. 

They don’t have to be recognised as ancient to be interesting to me, but areas which are known to have ancient or semi-ancient woodland or boundariy trees are often where I find the most variety and history.

Organisations such as the Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust are doing a fantastic job recording British woodland and campaigning to ensure it’s protection. The National Library of Scotland has all its old maps available online so it’s possible to see how long particular locations have been wooded for.

Find my locations on a map here.

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Where to find my trees

location map

I was so pleased with myself when I worked out how to do this!

I have a map of the old fashioned paper variety on my studio wall but I wanted to find a way to make digital version to share so, thanks to Google Maps and various generous online forum contributors, here it is for you to browse.

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The good thing about rain

beecraigs beech in the rainIt’s been impossible to get a day dry enough to draw outside for longer than five minutes but so much rain has a wonderful effect on the bark of some beech trees.  They become very dark grey and shiny, looking almost like well moisturised hide like this one at Beecraigs, West Lothian. I’ve drawn this one one before but never seen it like this, so I’m hoping for rain on my next trip too!

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