Trees are of high cultural and ecological value. Yet many tree species are threatened by different forms of environmental change, such as the spread of novel pests and diseases. What does it mean to us if trees disappear from the landscapes that we enjoy? Are we aware of what we might lose? And how should we respond? These questions were addressed by a site-specific artwork developed for Ridgeway Responses, which formed part of the Inside Out Festival held in Dorset, England, in 2014.
The project comprised two elements: an installation of sound art, focusing on the sounds generated by an individual tree, and performance of a musical composition for woodwind trio and community choir, which was given under the canopy of the same tree. While the installation was continuous throughout the three days of the event, the performance was of fixed duration (approx. 20 minutes) and was repeated at fixed intervals over the three days.
The aim was to provide the audience with a unique and inspirational audiovisual experience, focusing on the role of trees in this ancient, ceremonial landscape. The project combined sound, music, and state-of-the-art technology, together with a theatrical element, to increase awareness of trees as a living yet vulnerable part of both natural and cultural heritage.
On visiting the site, the audience encountered a sound installation integrated with an individual tree. This captured and amplified sounds made by the tree, which normally lie outside the range of human hearing. Recent research into bioacoustics has identified that trees produce acoustic emissions, particularly during summer months, when under conditions of drought. These are primarily emitted in the ultrasonic range (20-2000 kHz) and are therefore usually inaudible to people.
Sounds of the tree
The installation was supported by a musical performance which was presented at regular intervals throughout the event.
Tree of Life (excerpt)
The performance was an original work, composed by Karen Wimhurst, performed by Palida Choir with woodwind and brass ensemble, addressing the relationship between people and trees as both a love song and a lament, exploring what the loss of these trees might mean for people. The audience and performers were arranged in rings around the tree, as an echo of its internal structure. At the same time, the arrangement of performers and audience in circles provided a visual connection with the many circular archaeological features on the Ridgeway, including both stone circles and barrows.
The performance deliberately included a ritualistic element — such as a trumpet fanfare and a march led by a clarinetist — to raise awareness of the ceremonial nature of this landscape, and the role of sacred trees and groves in such ceremonies throughout prehistory.
The project was designed to appeal to a multigenerational audience, including families. The overall goal was to provide an experience that has genuine emotional impact, to encourage spectators to value more deeply the trees present in this area, and the landscape of which they are a part. In short: to encourage people to value trees, by showing them some love.
The area where Ridgeway Responses took place is an ancient ceremonial landscape, providing insights into how people have lived for more than 6000 years. Trees and woodlands have always been a feature of this landscape, reflecting their high socio-economic and cultural value. Pre-Roman or “Celtic” populations in this area, as in other parts of the UK, would have venerated such woodland, particularly in sacred groves or ‘nemeton’.
This project focused explicitly on ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior). Ash is the focus of much folklore and tradition, reflecting its particular cultural importance throughout history. In Celtic mythology, ash is given mystical import and character, often associated with healing and enchantment. The English name Ash appears to have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Asec, which is the name for a ritualistic spear. In both Celtic and Norse mythology, ash is also referred to as the World Tree (or Yggdrasil), which connects the underworld with the upperworld, and thereby acts as the cosmic axis of the universe2. If Yggdrasil dies, then the world will end.
Contemporary life in this part of Dorset draws on this historical foundation while providing a basis for the future. We are now living in a period of rapid environmental change, which may threaten both natural and cultural heritage. This vulnerability is illustrated by the emergence of ash dieback disease in the UK in 2012, which has attracted a great deal of media coverage. This is a serious disease of ash trees, caused by a fungus (Chalara fraxinea), which has caused widespread damage to ash populations in continental Europe. For example, it has caused estimated losses of between 60 - 90% of Denmark’s ash trees. There is great concern that the disease could similarly decimate ash throughout the UK, which could have a major impact both on the wildlife associated with ash trees, and on the cultural and aesthetic value of rural landscapes. Many other species depend on ash trees as habitat, including more than 500 species of lichen and 100 species of invertebrate. In addition to its value for timber and fuelwood, it is still used today as a source of herbal remedies for the treatment of fever and rheumatism. Ash is a particularly significant element of the downland landscapes that were the focus of Ridgeway Responses, and it a major contributor to their aesthetic value.
This project was therefore developed to celebrate ash trees, and their cultural and ecological role in this rural landscape.