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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Speaking in Wood

Speaking in Wood

By Anita Roy 0

Viewing a work by environmental artist David Nash can involve a journey—into a forest. Anita Roy makes a pilgrimage to a remote wood in North Wales

For a long time I was confused about the phrase ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’. It was only relatively recently that I realised that this is entirely to do with a quirk of the English language and how it is used in Britain. The plain-speaking Americans have no such problem: if you lose sight of the bigger picture because you’re bogged down in detail, you can’t see the forest for the trees—end of story. For Brits like me, though, the word ‘wood’ cuts both ways. A tree is constituted by wood and a wood is constituted by trees.

      Such thoughts circled my brain as I walked through a wood in North Wales looking for some particular trees. I hoped I was in the right place—there were no signposts or labels, and the little woodland was not labelled on my map nor did my GPS recognise its name. But then, it’s an unassuming name—Cae’n-y-Coed, ‘the field in the wood’: a field among fields, a wood surrounded by woods.

      The trees I was searching for were planted in 1977 by the artist David Nash. Twenty-two ash trees planted in a ring and then bent, trained and pruned over the years to form a living sculpture called “Ash Dome”. It is one of Nash’s most famous yet, paradoxically, least seen works: you can’t exhibit a living patch of forest no matter how big your gallery. This is work you have to travel to see, and the top left-hand corner of Wales is pretty far off any beaten track.

Ash Dome | 1977 | Photograph by David Nash

Ash Dome | 1977 | Photograph by David Nash

      Many of Nash’s sculptures are exhibited in galleries—all over the world. He is one of the UK’s leading environmental artists and arguably our greatest living sculptor in wood. He is without doubt one of our most prolific, working almost incessantly on several pieces at a time, with apparently boundless energy.

      His early works were constructed: teetering towers of paint and plyboard and metal. “They were so full of anxiety,” he laughed when, later that day, I met him at his studio. “I was just putting anxiety into the world with these things… as though the world didn’t have enough of that already! I want to put a joyousness and a tenderness into the world…”

      While he was still a student at Chelsea College of Art in London, he went to see an exhibition by the modernist sculptor David Smith. “This man can speak Steel,” he thought to himself: “It’s his language, it’s like clay in his hands, and I thought that’s what I want. Whatever the material I found my way to working with, I wanted to really speak it.”

      Over the next few years, Nash ‘found his way’ to wood—a material that suited his temperament, that became his medium, that he dedicated his life to exploring, to understanding, to shaping—and, you might truthfully say, being shaped by.

      Newly graduated, Nash found himself brimming with energy and ideas, and severely short of cash. Unable to afford London living, he decamped back to North Wales, to the slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog where he’d spent a large part of his childhood. His father owned a small patch of woodland just outside the town which had been stripped of all its mature trees by an unscrupulous logger. In return for clearing—I want to say ‘healing’—the woodland, his father told Nash he could have any timber lying on the ground for his sculptures. Nash set to work with wedge, chisel, axe and hand saw. A couple of years later, he took ownership and guardianship of the two hectares of hillside.

      “I didn’t use a chainsaw for 10 years. Partly because I couldn’t afford a chainsaw. Partly because I was very frightened of them: I’d heard all these terrible stories about injury,” he explained. It was hard work but, looking back now, he is glad of the apprenticeship. Under a chainsaw, pretty much all wood feels the same, but using hand tools, you get to understand their different properties. “When you carve oak, it really bites back at you, whereas birch or lime is very soft, very yielding,” he says. “Some trees resist splitting—elm, sycamore, yew. Some split willingly—willow, beech, chestnut. Some resist handling—oak, hornbeam. Some seem to welcome being worked—lime, birch, beech. They also smell different: the smell of birch is clean, lime is dry, holly has a strange tang to it. Oak smells of vinegar, elm can be sour and vile.”

      In other words, through physical work and the engagement of the senses, Nash was beginning to ‘speak Wood’.

      Back in his actual wood, I crested a rise and saw the trees I’d been looking for. “Ash Dome” left me speechless. The main trunks of the trees list to the right and rise upward in a series of kinks where they have been fletched and bound. The trees’ natural urge to grow straight up towards the light forms the risers, and then the human intervention, bending, binding and anchoring the trunks horizontally, forms the ‘steps’. The result is geometrical (the circle at the base) and yet free-flowing. It looks simultaneously un- and absolutely natural. It is both open and closed—the trees open to the sky and the winds and the sun, are enclosed to form a dome, cupping and sheltering this patch of ground, forming an ‘inside’ outside and outside that is inward. It feels like a temple, like a sacred grove, a place where mysteries were not there to be solved but witnessed.

      It is a work to be savoured up close—the deep-rust-coloured lichen crinkled into a million tiny fjords, patches of moss-like minuscule rainforests clambered through by gigantic ants, the ripple-pattern of bark around a knot, like water around a boulder mid-stream—and appreciated from afar.

      Can you be both too close to something to see it and not close enough? Perhaps you need to do both.

Wooden Boulder | 1978 David Nash

Wooden Boulder | 1978 David Nash

The year after he planted “Ash Dome”—one of his most static works—Nash, almost inadvertently, launched his least fixed. David Nash—a man whose surname derives from his signature tree, incidentally—is always one to call a spade a spade, and “Wooden Boulder” is just what it says it is. A crudely hewn spherical chunk of oak, it got stuck halfway down a waterfall as it was being transported back to his studio. What for others might have seemed a logistical nightmare was the perfect dream to Nash: liberated into the great outdoors, the boulder has spent years wandering the landscape, disappearing for years at a stretch and then pitching up in some tidal lagoon for a while, stained by minerals, rained on, bleached by the sun and worked on by time and wind and wave: the ultimate work-in-progress.

      I didn’t get to see the boulder on my short stay in Wales—it had gone AWOL again—but I did happen upon another piece in the field in the wood: 49 birch trees set in a grid called (no surprise) “Seven by Seven”. The lower branches had been lopped off, so each of the slender trunks soared straight up to a crown of shimmering green high overhead. The trunks are periodically scrubbed clean of green algae and lichen to allow the matt whiteness of the bark to shine out.

      There is a stark geometry to this piece—the cube, which, along with the sphere and the pyramid, is one of the three ‘universal forms’ that Nash returns to again and again over the course of his career.

      The essential qualities of these forms can be codified as follows:

      cube solid | unmoving | matter

      sphere movement | turning | time

      pyramid rising | expanding | space

      Yet the cube formed by these thin white stripes of living tree is not solid and heavy but quite the opposite. Its form seems to have been conjured out of thin air, all that stasis given a thrilling upward whoosh by being planted on a slope, all that dense matter feathered into dancing splinters of light by the canopy of tiny fresh leaves high overhead. It reminded me of the old joke about how to make a fishing net—just stitch a load of holes together. It was like a magic trick, a delightful sleight of hand.

      Lao Tzu, in Daode Jing (transl. Thomas Meyer), puts it like this:

thirty spokes share one hub / but empty space

makes the wheel practical // kneading clay
creates a bowl / but empty space makes the bowl useful // hacking out a door or window builds a room / but empty space makes the room work

      David Nash’s mantra is not the way of Tao, but ‘tight and loose’. The ‘tightness’ is there in the form (the cube, the dome, the sphere) and the looseness in the elements that make it up (the individual trees, the sunshine, the rain, the leaves, the darkness and light, the empty space). In Nash’s field in the wood, there is a beautiful, rare balance of control and surrender: it seems to be a place where artifice and organic growth work in harmony.

      “Engaging with, and celebrating, the elements (rather than regarding these as a negative force) was a liberation,” he writes. Like all environmental artists, his work is fundamentally about engaging with nature in partnership, rather than subduing it to one’s will. Letting the wood lead, Nash realised that there was a world of difference between ‘lumber’ and ‘tree’. A tree grows only where there is a balance of all four elements: earth (for its roots), fire (sunshine and warmth), water and air. In fact, according to Chinese cosmology, there are five elements—and that last is wood itself.

      The first step in learning a language is to listen to it being spoken—or sung—so, feeling a little foolish, I pressed my ear to the trunk of one of the trees in the middle of the grid. High overhead, the breeze set its leaves ashimmer. As the trunk swayed, I heard the sound reverberate deep within the wood, like bars of a glockenspiel tumbling together at the bottom of a waterfall in an underground cavern. The tree answered the wind like a string responding to the pull of a bow. I stayed still for a long time, until the steady beat of the blood in my own body quietened, allowing the sound of the wind in the heartwood to play. I was reminded of a recording—possibly urban legend—of crickets chirruping, slowed down many times over. At that speed, they sound like a church choir singing. I wondered whether, if we lived at a different speed, what new worlds would reveal themselves to our expanded senses.

      Nash often talks of the ‘warmth’ of wood, its ‘human’ qualities—the ‘tenderness’ of the collaboration between him and the material—even when that involves apparently violent acts: branding, charring, chopping, sawing. He wields a chainsaw like a fine sable brush, drawing empty space into the timber.

David Nash at Cae’n-y-Coed | Photograph by Jonty Wilde

David Nash at Cae’n-y-Coed | Photograph by Jonty Wilde

      The landscape painter Paul Nash (no relation) wrote in 1912, “I have tried to paint trees as tho’ they were human beings… because I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people.” Perhaps our feeling for trees has to do with their speed—most have slightly longer life-spans than ours, but are not so very different. Ashes can live to about 100, oaks up to six times that long—although there’s a yew near where I live that is 3,000 years old, and still going strong.

      The trees that make up “Ash Dome” are barely into their teens—41 human years old—but they are unlikely to become veterans. Ash dieback, a fungal disease that has already killed millions of the trees across Europe, has reached North Wales. I am appalled by the thought of those graceful circle dancers in the clearing in the field in the wood dying or dead, but Nash is philosophical. “I work with the elements,” he says, “and fungal spores are a part of that. Simple.”

      It’s not just wood that has a double-meaning; ‘field’ does too: in fact it has a plethora. A patch of land, separated from its surroundings by a boundary (‘framed’, you might say, like a painting is); but there’s also the sense of a ‘field of study’—an area of focus for investigation or analysis. Cae’n-y-Coed has been for the best part of 50 years, Nash’s laboratory, his subject as well as his teacher. And I love, especially, the word used “to describe work or study that is done in a real, natural environment rather than in a theoretical way or in controlled conditions.” The ‘field’ is where you go to test out your ideas, to rub them up against the real and see how they stand up. ‘Field work’ implies concrete, lived experience, the engaging of the senses, unfiltered, unpackaged, raw. It involves encounters with others—human or non-human. It is rooted in place, located in space and time. It is here. It is now.

      I can write about “Ash Dome” until I’m blue in the face, but I want to take you by the hand, take you there, walk you up the slope between the oaks, wade you ankle-deep in bluebells and show you the trees before they die, or you do, or I. Because while we are alive, and they are too, it is the least we can do: stand among them for a while, listening to their wooden heartsong and breathing the same air.

 This essay was published in the July-September 2018 issue. The theme of the issue is “The Forest”.

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