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9 September 2020

From British woodlands to the massed gum trees of Australia, pay attention to the trees.

It has been my good fortune to walk in variety of real forests, and that quality of being listened to and watched has often recurred.

By John Burnside

When I was a child, my friends and I spent our weekends on a patch of rough woodland at the edge of town, a parcel of trees and scrub just wild enough that we could pretend we were in a real forest, like the lost boys in a folk tale. We loved the natural mysteries that greenwood had to offer, from the outcrops of shield fungi that sprang, seemingly overnight, from a fallen tree trunk, to the holy sites where carrion lingered, a lost intelligence fading from the stalled faces. We loved the old sandstone building where, allegedly, an abattoir had once operated, and we treated it as a venerable ruin, venturing into its dank interior in hushed fascination. Most of all, we loved the wide clearing that filled with willow-herb and nettles over the summer and great mounds of pristine snow as Christmas approached – a spot that, in any season, might suddenly be transformed by the morning sun.

Yet, as much as I loved playing hide-and-seek or climbing trees with my companions, I never really felt that place until I went there by myself for the first time and, standing alone in the sunlit clearing, I realised that, just as I was listening to the woods, so that company of other lives was listening to me.

It has been my good fortune to walk in a variety of real forests since then – and that quality of being listened to and watched has often recurred. From the massed bloodwoods and gum trees of Australia’s Blue Mountains to the giant redwoods and Douglas firs of California, I have faced the life of the forest, not only as a gathering of individual presences, but also as one vast, intelligent, constantly shifting entity. The experience has left me touched with a hope that, rather than being directed towards some end, is larger than circumstance, a hope born of the feeling that, for reasons that I cannot put into words, an enduring order prevails.

That order has informed the work of artists throughout history, from Caspar David Friedrich or Ivan Shishkin to Anselm Kiefer and, more recently, the extraordinary British photographer Ellie Davies. Davies’s work draws out the mystery of the forest. Using various “interventions” – “creating pools of light, suspending smoke within the space, or using craft materials such as paint and pigment” – she explores the ways in which, in the words of John Berger, “a forest is what exists between its trees, between its dense undergrowth and its clearings, between all its life cycles and their different  timescales… A forest is also a meeting place between those who enter it and something unnameable and attendant… Something intangible and within touching distance. Neither silent nor audible.”

In Davies’s photographs, mysterious pools of light appear in a dark thicket, a fir plantation is haunted by starlight or tidal waters; amid a stand of silver birches, clouds of smoke both fill and recover the spaces between the tree trunks. Elsewhere, the darkness of the forest and the starry blackness of the Milky Way are revealed as a continuum. What results is breathtaking work in which, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the eye through which I see the forest is the same eye through which the forest sees me; my eye and the eye of the forest are one eye, one seeing, one knowing. That should not sound mystical at all – not if we pay careful attention to the life between the trees; the fact that it does only goes to show how careless we have become in our dealings with the forest. 

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