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This artist wants you to gather videos in the woods

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
7 min read
A woman, artist Ruth Maclennan, pictured smiling at the camera with trees in the background.
Ruth Maclennan's film Treeline will premiere at COP 26 in November. Credit: Mariam Zulfiqar.

“Not a drone shot – not another drone shot – but from the ground. What does it actually feel like to be in,” says artist and filmmaker Ruth Maclennan as she describes the kind of contributions she’s seeking for a crowdsourced film called Treeline, which will feature footage from forests and woodlands around the world.

Maclennan stresses that she doesn’t want to set too many rules, though. People should interpret the call for contributions in their own way, she says. That comes with some risk because there's no knowing what material she'll end up with. Whatever comes through, Maclennan's task is to sort through and assemble people's videos and sound recordings into the final film.

Treeline will premiere online this November during COP 26, the UN’s climate change summit in Glasgow.

The instructions for those who want to take part, published by Forestry England (which commissioned Treeline along with Film and Video Umbrella) ask people to find horizontal lines in the forest – fallen trees, horizons, close-ups of logs, and so on. Anyone can take part, though content featuring recognisable people under 18 must be cleared by a parent or guardian.

Maclennan is enthusiastic about the project partly because it will, by definition, comprise a multitude of different perspectives. She says that she hopes to receive recordings that include people’s voices or comments, as well as ambient sound.

Representing a wide variety of viewpoints is an approach she has used in her work before, in different forms.

“It doesn’t tie it down or tell you what to think,” she says. It's something she calls “the polyphony of place”.

Referring to the title of the yet-to-be-made film, Maclennan recalls hiking in the mountains of New Hampshire, in the US, with her family. The tree line is the point on a mountain above which trees won’t grow. This varies from country to country partly due to local temperatures. Walking up forested mountainsides and suddenly entering the more alpine and open environment above the tree line is “really quite magical”, Maclennan says.

She adds that there are arguably other kinds of tree line – the boundaries between forested and deforested areas, for instance.

A river in a forest in Kazakhstan, pictured in the sunshine. There is a rocky bank on one side with trees all around.
Credit: Ruth Maclennan.

Out of curiosity, I searched for examples of videos people had made in forests and then uploaded to YouTube, to get a sense of how individuals choose to document these places. I found lots of video diaries from wild campers and self-sufficiency aficionados. It made me consider how, in Western culture, we think of the woods as places of escape. Including, supposedly, from civilisation itself.

“I think it’s a very important urge that people are having and it no doubt comes from feeling disconnected and alien and separate from nature,” says Maclennan. But while the assumptions we have about forests may be simplistic at times, perhaps they offer gateways to deeper understandings.

“Let them also work to protect and grow and learn, actually, what is happening – as opposed to having a romantic view," Maclennan says.

Many of our ideas about woods and forests come from European fairy tales that position these places as dangerous. Locations where unpredictable things occur, or where social norms become inverted. Woods can be very dense and enclosed, they are full of endless detail and yet they let the mind wander. You pick a path through them. Eventually, you come out the other side.

I’ve written before about how, for me, woods were the perfect antidote to lockdown. They were places to regroup and simply just to be. I was interested to hear that Maclennan focused on the idea of horizons after a work trip to Russia last year was put on hold due to the pandemic: "I felt like my horizons were really shrinking."

Since then, she has explored horizons collapsing and widening during and post-lockdown for an online art project called The Crown Letter.

And now this image, this metaphor, lies at the heart of Treeline. The lines of the woods, horizontal and vertical, are a little disorienting, I think. They could be interpreted as boundaries but then again they make you feel as though you are constantly stepping out into new places. I am reminded of the (vertical) lines in Robert Frost's poem, “The Wood-Pile”:

[…] The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

Maybe we all want to get lost in the woods, sometimes. Much of Maclennan’s filmmaking has taken place in Russia, where the forests are breathtakingly huge. The East Siberian Taiga, for example, spans nearly 4 million sq km. Forested areas in the UK and Ireland are tiny by comparison. “We imagine they’re bigger than they are,” says Maclennan.

An old tree stump, covered in moss, with lots of plantlife and leaf litter around it.
What horizontal lines can you find in the woods? Credit: Chris Baraniuk.

She explains that her interest in nature and climate change developed during her time in Russia, where she studied Russian language and culture. Maclennan has shot multiple films in the Russian Arctic, documenting communities who face particularly rapid warming due to climate change.

“Global warming was no longer something I could touch on tangentially,” she says. “It was not just the subject matter, it was the context in which everything else unfolded.”

Like everything that lives on this planet, the world’s forests are under increasing pressure right now. Ecologically, many of them are in bad shape. But rescuing woodlands might start with us recognising their troubled beauty. Perhaps that will be one of the achievements of Treeline. I’ll certainly be very intrigued to see it when it premieres.

What videos or sound recordings would you make in your favourite woodland? What would you want to show, through them?

If you want to send Maclennan your contributions, there’s information on how to do so here. The deadline is 10 September 2021.

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I read and heard a lot of things this week that went straight into my “mention this in The Nature Gatherer” satchel! So, are you sitting comfortably?

To begin: a quick mention of Big Nature Day, a special series of events from Fight For Scotland’s Nature. There are a handful of online events to look out for if you can’t attend in person, including a virtual guided walk through a peatland pool system.

When out walking in real life, you might spot an edible mallow plant with its charming pink flowers. Writer Nic Wilson has just published a lovely blog post about the species, full of facts and references to history and literature.

She mentions the related marsh-mallow plant, from which sap was once extracted for use as a foodstuff. It eventually became a key ingredient in, you guessed it, marshmallow sweets.

Gelatin is used most of the time these days. That sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole through which I discovered that vegan marshmallows rarely, if ever, contain the extract of the marsh-mallow plant from which the sweets originally got their name! Vegan marshmallow makers tend to rely on other plant-based substances instead.

Regular readers will be familiar with my links to Inkcap Journal, a great newsletter about nature and conservation in the UK, and here’s another plug. Nick Drainey’s piece on mountaineering and Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak, is full of interesting observations on people’s hillwalking habits. Here's one idea: spurn the race to the top and enjoy being mindful on your walks.

“By calming their pace, visitors may learn that there's more to the mountain than the summit, whether that be a mountain hare, rare lichen or the waving of meadow grass in the wind.”

It made me think of Nan Shepherd and her famous book The Living Mountain, in which she rolls her eyes at walkers who race to six summits in the Cairngorms within 14 hours. “This may be fun, but is sterile,” she quips.

A hillwalker with a backpack and sleeping mat, viewed from behind, looking towards a mountain.
Credit: Dziana Hasanbekava from Pexels.

After mention of Shepherd it seems apt to segue to the writer Robert Macfarlane (who penned the introduction to a recent edition of The Living Mountain). He appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this week, where he discussed his childhood, his love of nature and his ideas for bringing people closer to it.

This included the suggestion that every school in the UK take on a tree-planting project. “In that way, we grow together – people and place,” he says.

Coincidentally, last week the Shropshire Star mentioned an interesting initiative at a school in Telford. Teachers there have designed an outdoor classroom that they hope will allow pupils regular contact with nature.

Finally, you may have read criticisms of the UK government’s biodiversity “net gain” plan, which is supposed to ensure that certain building developments achieve a 10% net gain for the environment. However, some have argued there are potentially serious flaws with the algorithm designed to help developers implement the policy, as The Guardian reported this week.

Methodologies aside, some think that this whole approach – "accountancy for nature" – is wrong-headed. Conservation and environment campaigner Miles King is one. I had a brief but thought-provoking chat with him on Twitter and he linked me to this blog post he wrote on the subject, which I recommend.

It contrasts with the idea I discussed a couple of weeks ago: that we might make offerings or paybacks to nature whenever we deplete a resource or damage the environment.

I think King’s point about not reducing nature to numbers is well worth thinking about. Though I wonder what the solution may be. If not net gain, then how else? How can we conceptualise and package the good work we need to do to strengthen biodiversity and protect nature?

There must be many other ways forward – let me know your ideas!

WoodlandsArtFilm

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.