The weather has been a bit drear this last week, but the monochrome days do suit the Langstrath Birch, with its leafless winter form framed against a pale sky, and rising above the white and black of the beck. We wandered out to the tree on Monday on a planning day – we are consolidating our thoughts and testing the waters, literally, for the next colour installation.
Before we walked to the tree we stopped at Borrowdale School. We took years 5 and 6 to the Langstrath Birch last summer, so it was nice to return and bring this tree, and the other seven (through photographs), into the assembly space. Before we left, every child shared a story, feeling or thought about a tree. We will be passing these to the Woodland Trust to add to the collection of voices that are speaking in celebration of trees and will help in the formation of the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People.
The colour we have chosen to link with the Langstrath Birch is blue. About a year ago our early plans included the possibility of shining light onto the tree, bathing it in blue, but we have shelved this idea. For one, this would necessitate the carting up of a heavy battery or a small generator; another issue with this is that the casting of light on the tree leaves little room for the inclusion of poetry in the landscape, which is a feature of all the installations. We have been through a few more ideas and are beginning now to settle on the final one – a process that involves the river as well as the tree and captures the movement and sound that is the most overwhelming feature of this place.
We’ve yet to refine the details but we’re getting closer. We wanted to understand the flow of the water more closely so we used a pretty high-tech piece of equipment: a tennis ball. We threw it into the beck just above the tree and watched. The water gushes and becomes white and frantic at intervals as it travels downhill. The ball found the course of least resistance and at times disappeared. On some runs it became stuck in an eddy where even though the water seems to be constantly descending, in actual fact it returns on itself. The ball only progressed so far and then travelled back against the flow, caught in a repeated circular pattern. We had to fish it out or poke it out of its rut. At the end of each trial, Guilly had his own very important role to play – and he seemed to relish it. Jumping in the deep water and swimming to catch the bobbing green ball was a job few spaniels would turn down.
A few trials confirmed that the tennis ball took one minute, give or take a few seconds, to make its journey from the tree downriver to the main hulk of rock that we often sit on. One short minute – just sixty seconds, around twelve human breaths. In terms of tree time, not much happens in a single minute. When the birch is heavy with catkins and releasing seeds perhaps a few hundred may be carried away by a particularly strong wind in this time, and in autumn a leaf or two may fall, but, really, a minute isn’t very long.
Compare this to what happens on social media, however, and a minute somehow expands to encompass a mind-boggling amount of communication. In a single minute: on Facebook, an average of 31.25 million messages are sent; Twitter is burdened with an average of 347,222 new tweets; on Instagram more than 46,000 images are posted; and on YouTube an average of 300 hours-worth of videos are posted each minute*. That’s a lot of chatter. And here we are, quietly standing by the tree, watching the ball pass down the river, wandering through the grass, feeling our own single minute expand in an entirely different way, framed not by the noise of social media and a glowing screen but by the white noise of the river and the sweep of the valley sides.
While standing with this single tree amid the noise of the river I’ve been pondering what happens in a minute, and the messages that do make it through the often overwhelming abundance of chatter. In the symbolism of the Indian chakra system the colour blue is linked with the fifth chakra: the chakra of communication. Located in the throat, this is the energy centre associated with sound and the voice: vibrations of sound are refined into language so that ideas and feelings can be expressed in words and these can be shared. Communication is based on this expression and the listening that follows : and the influence of what is spoken can be huge, whether what is expressed is meaningful, truthful, deliberately misleading or deceptive.
Here at the Langstrath Birch, the colour installation will reflect the expression of singular voices within the countless mass of spoken and written word, past and present. Which voices stand out? Which words are remembered? Which opinions or words of advice are heard above the rest, particularly in relation to the environment and the choices we make about land use – including the protection of trees and woodlands?
The voice of the tree is quiet in comparison to the river, coming through at different times of the year only in the soft hint of falling seed caught by the wind, a shish of leaves, the merest scratch of a bird resting on a branch, the imperceptible tremble of roots and the settling of soil after rain – and more that lies beyond our hearing. If you stand at this tree for any length of time, and listen, you are unlikely to hear the tree; but you will hear in the river’s flow more tones and subtleties than you can count. The river’s voice is a constant yet variable one. The installation will involve a letting loose of words into water: a stringed poem fed into the water to become a stream within a stream, at times visible and at times hidden by the water’s rush, a brief expression of a voice against the white noise of the water.
The installation will tap into the idea of communication and the value of speaking up, of finding expression for what feels true and important. Most of us know the feeling of being ignored or not feeling heard. An opinion dismissed, a story untold, or a secret kept unspoken can be like a weighty anchor, hindering beneficial action and change. Likewise voices that are unauthentic or express lies and become louder than the rest can also be damaging. The subtle and unconscious voices of the river, the tree and the wind in this valley find a harmonic resonance and we will be aiming to capture this in the brief installation combining tree, water, words, and blue.
This installation will follow on from :
‘red’ at the Kentmere Rowan,
orange haiku at the Glencoyne Pine, the yellow line, ‘everything is connected’ at the Wasdale Oak
and green winter leaves at the Little Asby Hawthorn.
For more on the thinking behind the installations and the symbolism of the colours, check out our Colour Transformations page.
If you want to add your voice to support the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, you can email your story here.