euroforest: Run, animals! Run!

In the uplands of the Scottish Borders, it’s mainly farming for sheep and trees – and now wind too. euroforest styles much of the landscape. (Not any company in particular  – I use a small ‘e’ generically.)

I do not know who owns the patch next to where we live – but last Monday night ‘they’ started felling euroforest by floodlight. This week a cut is extending into a familiar view.

Last year we received a letter to reassure us that the contractors would be careful when they logged the section around our water supply. This year new work took us by surprise: Now the holes in the road out of the valley will now really go to pot! Hope the drivers look out for children, dogs, chickens.

So little I know. Who pays for the holes the lorries make? How much is a spruce worth? What is the wood good for?

I wanted to film the machine at work but it’s hard to actually speak to the operator to get permission. We wave at each other. I draw. I know nothing about these vehicles. I see them in animal terms: limbs, joints, mouths, and lots of erections. I think maybe the endbit  is called a grapple-hook. It is very dextrous.

A saw appears like a tongue after it grabs the trunk. It takes less than a minute to strip a tree and chop it.  Last year I tried to hide from these scenes. This year I decided to learn about what happens. Seeing a tree fall is exciting. (I have read that artists in the Arctic cheered as huge blocks of ice fell from the bergs they watched, talking about climate change.)

Last year two girls ran along the leat which was to be cleared, shouting: “Run animals! Run!” What animals are there to run? Despite the dead space between closely packed spruce trees, we have seen squirrels, hare, foxes, deer, badgers, and crossbills (were they nesting yet?). Buzzards, pigeons, siskins, what do they do?

Maybe the brush offers shelter, voles kept in view by a hovering kestrel. ‘Snags’ –  dead standing trees – give vantage points for buzzards, crows.

One section of euroforest has been de-stumped. This seems crazy: it is rumoured to go to Lockerbie Biomass power plant. Renewable? However much oil does it take to dig stumps up and transport them? Elsewhere, ‘residues’ are scraped up. I wonder about dead wood decay into soil,  about invertebrates? I am told dead wood adds methane to the atmosphere, acidifies the soil. What do I know? We see the soil run off in heavy rain.

euroforest is busy also in the Ettrick valley. On Monday residents’ anger will be aired at a public meeting. Broken promises, potholes, scarring access roads, abandoned sheep farms.

Erasure of place upsets. We use words like ‘blanket’, ‘swathe’, ‘obliteration’, ‘monoculture’. There are traces of sheepscapes.

With occasional trees older than a single human generation.

My proposal is to plant an aspen at upper Phawhope bothy at the head of Ettrick valley – as a Way installation inspired by the Forest Bookstore in Selkirk.

Endnote: This photo-essay is an introduction to my project ‘in the present tense‘ – fieldwork as an environmental artist about land use in the Scottish Borders.  I look for entwined patterns of co-existence as animals, people, climate and land adjust to each other.  I use drawing as a tool for investigation and this brings me into contact with people whose livelihood depends on the land. This highlights the resources of knowledge, skill and design underlying what may be seen as pastoral Borders’ scenery. This takes place within an industrial scenario where commodities are extracted. I think of my task as being to look carefully, scrutinise my own preconceptions and lack of knowledge, and draw out new connections. Borders’ farmland has been described as “sheep and trees, cows and ploughs”.  I began with sheepscapes and am now moving onto trees. Tree-lines as a project started with the idea of deadwood and its generative possibilities – trying to ‘think like a tree’, prolong my anthropocentric time-line, and deepen my investigation to take in more about what is under my feet, and above my head.

Tree-lines offer a malleable idea for further investigation … land-use … climatic transition … life-lines  and shelter … diagrammatic rendering (productivity, biomass, carbon sequestration) … pattern and repetition … supply lines … cultural entanglements …

thinking like a tree: significant humans?

Aldo Leopold offers us a mountain’s view in Thinking like a mountain:

Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf … I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea. (full text on

I decided to start by trying out thinking like a tree (some images on and to make hand puppets, following discovery of Paul Klee’s puppets made for his son, and also the inspiring work of Noa Abend. The first question: who are the significant humans for a tree?

In Phawhope, at the head of Ettrick Valley, significant humans include Fountains Forestry. The website indicates a multinational company, with interests in Europe, US, and Latin America. They broker sale of the rainforest, offer the opportunity for carbon sequestration … and offer a leaflet on woodland management, bristling with plastic tubes. No images of personnel.

Meanwhile the last week has seen an opposition day debate in Parliament calling for a rethink of the plans to sell forests – for example by 38 degrees:

Every single MP heard from hundreds of us this week. But a lot of them will be hoping the fuss will now die down. We need to get back in touch quickly, to prove we are here for the long haul. MPs need to feel we’ll keep watching them until our woods are protected for future generations.

It appears that my MP thought differently, casting a neo-liberal vote in favour of the Government’s plans for  a ‘new approach to ownership and amangement of woodlands and forests’, shifting the balance from Big Government to Big Society.

Thinking bigger – from individual tree to forest – it seems that Ettrick Valley head is to be substantially replanted – an erasure of sheepscapes with another commodity production. Will it become a suitable site to reintroduce wolves? Might wolves restore it to a valley of colours, as Phawhope reportedly means?

Jim Crumley has described the wolf as ‘painter of mountains’, because the reintroduction of wolves to a heavily denuded landscape causes a gradual shift in colour across the lanscape, starting with the recovery of grasses, mosses and young trees, then the return of wildflowers, and so on.

thinking like a tree

In “Thinking like a  mountain”, Aldo Leopold wrote: Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. I start by trying to think like a tree. Paper pulp, bits of spruce, an old tree guard. In a woodland management leaflet (from Fountains Forestry) a photograph shows lines of plastic tubes beckoning to the future.

snags, and what they offer

Snags in snow, clear-felled forest: a photograph painted over to allow a focus on deadwood, and its generative possibilities.

In Glasgow, Tacita Dean exhibits her version of painted over photos (only the trees retain their form – perhaps the point is within the gelatin surface). Camouflage manuals, Disruptive Pattern Materials, where figure and ground merge.

A conversation with an entomologist: forest ecology is complex, how much do you want to know? Insects are involved at each and every stage, as living wood turns into soil. The way invertebrates and fungi move in differs whether the wood is standing or on the ground.

Papier mache: chewed paper, or mashed, with oil of cloves as an insect deterrent. A modelling material, in which I implant a small, spruce, snag.

From last summer, photographs of an emerging woodwasp. A sawfly, who can wait till the  moment is right. Who prefers live or green spruce.

on the idea of ‘tree-lines’, encountered on sheepwalks

sheep and trees held apart, cast as incompatible

trees as shelter, human and non-human

deadwood,  ‘snags’, woody debris

snow modelling lines

zones of clear-fell, replanting, first growth – delineated from pasture

broadleaves in a valley – snow was so early this year, their leaves blew over the first fall

blocks, ranks

tree-lines –  a malleable idea for further investigation:

… land-use … climatic transition … life-lines  and shelter … diagrammatic rendering (productivity, biomass, carbon sequestration) … pattern and repetition … supply lines … cultural entanglements …