In just one week – a pile of stones transformed into a thing of beauty.
In Cumbria when the sun shines for a few days in a row you might be forgiven for thinking that’s a bit unusual – last week that happened, but the week was unusual in another way, and in a wonderful way. We were in the sun, on the flanks of Carron Crag, creating the first of three treefolds in celebration of many things: trees, art, the environment, the creation of a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, and the continuation of an exceptional collection of art in the forest of Grizedale, the UK’s first forest for sculpture.
So – lots of sun, and the growth of something solid and real after many months in the planning stages. That certainly makes for a week to remember. What now stands in the midst of a working forest is a place to pause with the trees and – once an aspen has been planted in the centre of the treefold – a place to rest with a single tree and witness its slow change, year after year. The landscape around it will also change: it will be planted with other trees and after a few decades the view that exists today, taking in distant fells to the north and east, will alter, and the trees will come into focus.
The best way to tell the story is through pictures, and I’ve added in a few snippits from the notes I made in the windows of time between sorting stones.
We started with an idea, and followed through with a plan. Now we are standing on the edge of Carron Crag in Grizedale Forest, in sweltering heat. It is just after midday and we have been sorting stones for a couple of hours – the stones have come from a fallen wall nearby. They are now laid around the rim of a circle that Andrew has marked out, using a central metal pole and a piece of string with two knots in it – on for marking what will be the inner edge of the wall, to give an internal diameter of 7 feet, and one for the outer edge.
We have set aside larger stones that will become through stones (which double as seats) and top, or cam stones, and e’ve arranged the remaining stones ready for placing. The first stones to go in are the footings, and need to be big, forming a base layer, a twinning of two large stones, the spaces between them filled with small stones (heartings).
Our work is all hands and bending and lifting. The sound is of stones being knocked on stones, a gentle flow of conversation. And there is silence, the kind of hum you get on still summer air that’s a blend of grasshoppers, flies buzzing, light breeze, and sun.
During the day the Forestry Commission has been on hand: John dropped by with a tractor full of stones, dumped them, and helped move the piles that we’ve been sorting. He and Rob spent a couple of hours retrieving stones from a ‘retired’ wall elsewhere in the forest, and while they were gone, foresters Joe and Andrew stopped by for a chat. Joe is in charge of planting and has a vision for this section of the forest: aspen, Scots pine, douglas fir and spruce. They’ll be planting around February time – while the trees are still dormant, but not so early in the winter as to provide the deer with fodder for too long. There will be an aspen in this treefold, overlooking its fellows that will be planted on the sloping ground below. It will take them 15-20 years to grow up and begin to impinge on the far reaching view, maybe longer.
A dry stone wall is just that, dry. There is no cement, no bonding of any kind, only stone and air. Andrew sizes up each stone with his eyes before he selects it and places it, and uses his hammer to shape top, bottom and edges where necessary. Over a few days, a circular fold takes shape.
There’s a kind of knowing, an artful skill, to the setting of stones. I watch Andrew as he works to fit them into place. Some stones go straight in but others need a tap with the hammer, which just chips away an edge, somehow makes it a better fit. With the poem stones there’s a lot of work to be done, particularly with the word ‘graft’ which Pip has carved into a large chunk that we selected from the quarry. Andrew chips off some of the edges then he works at the bottom – the shape he’s creating is one that will work with what’s underneath as well as what is to come – and although the stones that will be laid on top haven’t been chosen yet, Andrew has in his mind – or perhaps more so in his hands – the knowledge of what kind of shape will work best with whatever comes next. he is chipping away, turning the stone, eyeing it up, turning it again, knocking it, chipping it.
It feels as if it has some similarity with the way I work with words – you kind of get a feel for what’s building and which words to use and how their edges fit, one to the next. Some edges beckon another word while others close the sentence down. There’s a rhythm in the placing of words – and in the placing of stones – and a rhythm in the finished pattern of a wall, as there is in the reading of words.
Here in the treefold, words and stones are now blended, static and held in place, but as I walk around to view the piece, to climb inside, to read the words, there is a movement … eventually there will be the constant movement of an aspen tree that sways and, over time, changes: season by season, year on year, within the solid, celebratory circle.
The words in treefold:centre have been carved into the stones by Pip Hall.
seeds, ideas, earth, light,
a slow graft of time
These words form the central fragment of a poem that will spread across the three treefolds, with the first section appearing in treefold:east on Little Asby Common (being built early August) and the final section finding its place in treefold:west in Wasdale in September.
Of course, although treefold:centre has now been built, the sculpture is not complete. The ground around it will soon green up, and the piece will find its completion when the tree is planted within it. Watch this space for a celebration in winter!
Huge thanks to the Forestry Commission team at Grizedale Forest for lots of hands-on help and enthusiasm, to Pip Hall for carving the words into the stones and, above all, to Andrew Mason for skilful building.