This week’s been a little better though not without its frustrations.
A big step forward was that (thanks to a contact through my Airbnb hosts) I was able to meet with the guy who manages all the city’s gardeners. It was a great meeting, felt like we were on completely the same page about the need to respect the trees and give them what they need rather than grudgingly squeezing them into spaces and then hacking them back. (He also pointed me to a couple of really interesting books.) This means that the work I want to do in a couple of the parks and the streets can be facilitated (authorisations are needed, of course…). I left the meeting with a big smile on my face.
Also this week I held an audition for the dancers/movers I plan to work with for a couple of weeks, exploring resonances between human body and tree-being, and working out how to make a dance that really feels shared between the two (not just a dance ‘for’ the trees). The dancers were all great and it was really difficult to make a selection, but I now have a team of four, plus Claudia (the intern on the project), to start work with in a few days.
Yesterday I did another walk through the city, taking bark rubbings from the trees I met. Once again it was a dry day but with a very cold wind. Claudia was with me documenting, and we were both chilled by the end. Around 260 trees this time, and much more monocultural – whole stretches of roads with one kind of tree, again not always in the best conditions. It gave me ideas for working with movement around the trees.
The map is growing very slowly (so far I’ve only managed to squeeze in a few minutes each day on it, and it’s another frustration that I can’t get into the studio at weekends or stay late at night). I would love to have time to do many more long
walks but probably won’t. Using the database, I do plan to map a few suggested itineraries (e.g. ‘The Beech Tour of Grenoble’, tour of the oldest and youngest trees, etc.), to offer as walks for anyone who fancies taking them.
(This was originally a much longer post venting a huge load of frustration…) Last week was a very up and down week, with some major frustrations and some more exciting openings, as well as (some of the time) being able to get into something that feels like I’m actually doing something.
It’s been really frustrating with having meetings slotted into my days, often in places that take time to get to, which mean I’m breaking off in what I’m trying to do with the research. Some of these are about meeting people (there are a lot of people to meet as there are several organisations involved in holding this project), but quite a few are just admin and bureaucracy that feel like unnecessary time-wasting – like having to get a quote, then an order confirmation, before I can buy any materials out of my budget – it can take me a week to get a sketch pad and a stick of charcoal.
With some materials finally in hand, I have been making some trials of them. I especially want to find a sustainable way of placing markers or signs on trees, to say they have been twinned. The aim is still to take a bark impression from one tree, that I can then tie to its twin tree, and vice versa. My previous version was laminated paper, but I
don’t want to use the plastic any more. So I’ve been trying clay – both paper clay (fired) and self-firing clay. I wanted to get an impression of the hand pressing the clay into the bark so there’s also a trace of the tree-human exchange. The bark texture comes through well on most of them, but it’s much harder to get the skin texture on the other side. Still, I like the kind of hybrid creature these suggest – the bark-hand. I’ve also tried eco-friendly ink prints on fabric, but so far the cotton and linen I’ve been using are too coarse to make the bark texture visible. I’m now thinking about how to waterproof the paper bark rubbings in a sustainable way.
Last Friday I spent the whole day out, walking from one side of the city to the other (and from the shiny hi-tech quarter to the much poorer social housing at the other end), and taking bark rubbings from each tree I met. This was not nearly all the trees there were along the route – I only took rubbings from trees on the side of the road I was walking on, but it was still over 300 trees, on a walk that took around six and a half hours. I’m planning to make an experiential map of the walk using those small (about 1×1.5 cm) graphite marks, and also to do at least one more long walk like this.
I’ve been here 2 weeks now, and I’m beginning to get more of a feel for how I, at least, relate to the trees here, feeling like I am actually meeting some of them and getting more of a sense of what I might want to do in relation to them. I’ve been taking bark rubbings but in some cases this is hard to do, as I noted before, because they are so inaccessible. I’ve been talking to a few more people about their experience and knowledge of the trees here – from someone who’d just seen trees planted in her street (one of the big main streets in the city) the day before, to someone who remembered the old mature plane trees that are no longer there. One of the reasons there are so few mature trees in the city centre, it turns out, is a disease of plane trees which, so far, has not reached the UK. It makes me think I need to be very careful about what I bring back from here – drawings, bark impressions etc.
Last week Claudia, the intern I’m working with, took me to a couple of different districts of the city to see the trees there and how people live with them. First we went to Villeneuve, one of the poorer areas with a big social housing project and a huge park. The roads around here have a lot of beautiful mature trees, as does the park. Then we went to the Presqu’île, a new tech industry district on land partially reclaimed from military use. The buildings there are all shiny and new and massive, (rather than dilapidated and grey and massive), and the trees are new plantings in regular rows. There are very few people around and the place feels quite sterile, but there are some interesting trees. These two are on opposite sides of the city and I’m planning a walk from one to the other to map trees and changes along the way.
Yesterday I also went to see the ‘Vernon oak‘, a venerable 400-year-old tree outside the village of Vernon, which stands on a hillside and is visible for miles around. It is well known and protected, and it makes me think how split we can be in our thinking about protection/instrumentalisation/neglect of living beings, depending on where we meet them. This oak would come into the category of ‘charistmatic megafauna’, unlike the tree you let your dog piss on in the street because it’s there.
There have been storms across the UK and most of France, but this corner has had its own freak weather with an incredibly warm day of 20 degrees. The buds are of course coming out on the trees, as well as many spring flowers like primroses and violets. I’m still hoping to talk to someone from the city or metropolitan area about the policy on trees, and how they respond to global heating is one question I’d like to know more about.
As I walk around the city centre and other areas, I’m still feeling disturbed by how unloved the trees seem to be, and how it’s sometimes hard to feel their presence even though there are so many of them. It’s different from London, where the trees seem much more present in the streets, even though very often ignored and worse. This may be partly because there are fewer big, old trees, and most of those are in parks rather than on the streets. It’s also to do with the containment I wrote about earlier – as in this photo of a young Turkey oak. Obviously the fencing is for protection, but it also makes the tree very hard to connect with. One of my regular practices with trees has been taking bark rubbings on thin layout paper. I was out doing this yesterday (an exceptionally mild day, with warm sun), and tried to make a rubbing from this tree and others in that street (which is a long row of these young oaks). Although I was just about able to reach, I didn’t feel connected and the rubbings are not as detailed and subtle as the ones I took from a circle of basswoods in a nearby square.
I have an intern working with me, and she has found me a huge database of over 31,000 trees in public space in the city – which is how I’m able to confirm species identification. I’m not interested in this naming in order to pin them down, but I am planning to look more at the origins of the trees and how they got here, as well as the aesthetics of planting, how happy different trees are likely to be where they are, and hopefully, whether local residents have particular feelings about different species. I’m also relying on the expertise of the estimable Paul Wood, who’s an absolute expert on London street trees. He’s already helped me identify a rare urban planting of female ginkgo trees…
The university campus where I’m based is another huge, massively treed area (around 25,000 more trees). There’s a different feel here, with a lot more open space and the trees are mostly in grassy or wooded areas (including an arboretum). But as in the city parks, I’m noticing a lot of ivy on the mature trees. When and if I get to talk to people who look after the trees, I plan to ask about this and whether it’s a conscious decision not to remove it.
I’m heading off now to do some sound recording – it has stopped raining which I’m disappointed about because I wanted to record the sound of rain in the trees/ trees in the rain. But in this extremely mild winter, more rain is very likely…