I've been back and fore to the 'graveyard of the elders' many times in the last few weeks, filming, sound recording and taking pictures using digital, film and polaroid cameras. I now have about eighty percent of the footage. As you can see from the image above I've decided to return to the coloured gel technique I used in Is It Beautiful? described here. These shots will be juxtaposed with black and white shots and stills relating specifically to the formal properties of the stumps (or if you prefer, the listening elders) and to my arrival at and ritual communication with these fallen trees.
There are still some pieces of the puzzle that I haven't finished putting together yet, including the musical, sonic components which always require careful attention. I'm asking friends and colleagues for their ideas on what they might say to the forest and what the forest might say to them, were such a thing possible in language, with a view to using snippets of these 'conversations' as text within the film, much in the same manner as I did in Is It Beautiful? The final piece of the jigsaw is the idea that one of the most meaningful communicative acts between us and forests is in the domain of biochemistry, respiration, the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. As we breathe out, the forest breathes in, as the forest exhales we inhale. The sighing forest. Just imagine what a sound artist might do with such a notion....
Here in the Borders I'm fortunate to have become acquainted with a community of experimental film makers, the Moving Image Makers Collective (MIMC). The Borders is a semi-rural region with a low population, small towns and no universities, art schools or other large cultural institutions. It's therefore quite an admirable achievement to have over a dozen committed moving image artists in the one place. This is largely down to the work of those involved in establishing the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, founded by Richard Ashrowan and now run by a team of curators and administrators working out of Hawick as Alchemy Film and Arts.
I'm involved with MIMC in a group project to produce work for a forest event in September 2021 and as part of this I want to create a short film, to be screened more or less conventionally though in a unique site, and some kind of installed work for the forest itself, which allows for a much wider remit. The other artists are: Richard Ashrowan, Dawn Berry, Kerry Jones, Jane Houston-Green, Jessie Growden, Sukjin Kim, Douglas McBride, Jason Moyes and Nicoletta Stephanz. In the past my involvement with the group and the festival has been in the sonic and musical domain, with a spell as a trustee on the Board of Alchemy so I'm very pleased to come in now to such an experienced and established group as an emerging film-maker.
I've spent many years wandering in the Borders forests (I am after all The Inspector of Forests). Field recording, taking photos, listening, unburdening, watching deer run past me as I fouter with my camera's memory card, running away from civilisation, listening to the spiders scream - all the usual stuff. Now I have a commitment to put together a film project and here, even though I've been working this project over and over I'm my mind for some time now, I want to share some thoughts and details of my research. One of the problems I always face in a new project, especially outside of my usual domain, is that I come up with too many ideas. So before I wander around the peripheries let's begin with my current preoccupation. Tree stumps. Upturned trees blown over by the high winds at the top of a rise not far from Jedburgh, towards the Cheviots. I've discovered a 'graveyard of the elders', a region of the forest where all the elders rest, having in their death throes turned over massive lumps of earth, home to birds, insects and plant life. These are both the ears of the forest and portals into the secrets of the forests. If I can only find the proper and correct ritual or offering I can unlock these secrets and perhaps confess some of my own. An offering of wind and air, a small fire of twigs and leaves. Or a votive offering, something of our technology, or a baptismal rite by the small pool that appears in the shadow of the fallen trees after the rains.
All images are straight out of the camera. Taken with a Fujifilm X-T3 and a Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R
Some people have been asking me about the making of a recent film, Is It Beautiful? (13:34) . The film is built around a road trip, actually lots of different road trips rolled into one. The childhood trip, the wayward adolescent trip, the lover's escape, the older person's Sunday drive. I filmed the road trip sections to look like a nostalgic memory-laden affective tripped-out journey through the hills and moors, rising up, winding and descending with the road itself. The A68 south of Jedburgh where I live does all this on a series of tight bends as it climbs up to the Carter Bar, the Border between Scotland and England.
I filmed it using 'the best camera in the whole world', a Fuji X-T3, and different lenses depending on the shot, a 35mm prime, a 90mm prime and a 55-200mm zoom. I tied different coloured gels over the lenses with an elastic hair band from my daughter's make-up box to simulate the Super-8 look that we've come to expect from 60s or 70s road trips, at least in my imagination. Then the shot of the Polaroid to complete the set. Why that decade or era? Well there was a time, maybe a moment, maybe a few years, when it seemed as if people meant what they said, that thing about peace and love and changing the world for the better, before it all turned to dust (like the time before that), a loop replayed with every new generation but with a greater sense of purpose if you lived through the particularly intense experience. So we all sat back in the car and flew away, listening to whatever soundtrack fitted the day.
There's actually more to the film than the road trip. It also dips into the themes of disappointment, the instability of signs, symbols and icons, conflicting ideas over land use, the problematic notion of borders and nationalism. The flags of Scotland and England, the beacon at the Border, formerly lit to warn of advancing armies, the Easter cross on the mound, the red flags warning trespassers of live firing at the missile range, the sickly yellows and greens clouding a land turned to sheep desert or military training ground. Then the references to three events in my life which dispelled much of my naivety about the world - the theft of some of the best music of a generation to embellish war footage, witnessing the pollution of a quiet valley, a march of bigotry and hatred which cynically hijacked the worlds' largest arts festival.
The music I played myself, a simple folky/country-rock chord progression on an overdriven electric guitar played through a valve amplifier (actually Pancho and Lefty by Townes van Zandt, something of a road movie in itself) and the sounds of a set of hand-made steel tube marimbas. I take no credit for the silences.
It all 'came to me' as one concept, probably bubbling away for years. Anyway it's out now and I hope you enjoy the film. Thanks for reading.
Is it Beautiful on Vimeo
Perhaps not so banal, though, if one turns from tourist maps to a map of operational and projected military installations in southern France. It will readily be seen that this vast area, which has been earmarked, except for certain well-defined areas, for tourism, for national parks - that is, for economic and social decline - is also destined for heavy use by a military which finds such peripheral regions ideal for its diverse purposes. These spaces are produced.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Lord Glenamara My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that if a choice is to be made, those of us who live in that area would much rather see an extension of military training in Otterburn rather than in the north Pennines area which is much more important than the remote area of Otterburn from the point of view of tourism?
Viscount Cranborne My Lords, I draw the noble Lord's attention to the declaration of commitment to the national parks made by the Ministry of Defence. I am sure the noble Lord is familiar with that document. As regards the second part of his question, it is the Government's policy to release land in national parks which becomes surplus to defence requirements. We shall give advance notice of any impending disposal of redundant land to national park authorities.
Lord Williams of Elvel …. It is perfectly possible that the noble Viscount might say that we should bomb the Brecon Beacons and shell Snowdonia where Ministry of Defence lands are within a national park.
Snippets from HL (House of Lords) Deb 08 December 1992 vol 541 cc85-8.