3. A Critical Forest Art Practice: Future Forest Workshop

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The Forest is Moving

In the first blog post we wrote about the creative inquiry that lead to initial ideas about a ‘Critical Forest Art Practice.’ In the second we wrote about the struggle of ‘Working Onsite in the Black Wood’. Our efforts to experience and know the forest, while reflecting on the opportunities and challenges the arts and humanities face when working in a historic forest reserve. At the end of our last post we talked about a tension that emerged after the first ‘all partners’ meeting in the forest. In essence everyone present was told that the Black Wood is accessible, but any changes that would result in additional interest or footfall in the forest were forbidden. (At this point in the creative inquiry, we had hit what we call the muddle point.) The Community interests and Core Path planners were not surprised by the response, but everyone was disappointed. Unpacking it with everyone separately we found more common ground than difference.

Reviewing this we would learn that the Blackwood, Forestry Commission management practices meet the standards of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, in that there are no fences or gates impeding movement. However we were told that the policies and practices set out in the 2009-2019 Black Wood Management Plan (pages 10 and 15) limit changes within the forest. In essence anything that might contribute to additional footfall in the forest could be considered detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. This is attributed to the status of the site as a Special Area of Conservation regulated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). In a meeting at SNH we were told that any proposed changes to awareness or access would need to stand up to scientific evidence, cause no possible harm to that sensitive ecosystem and support the primary conservation goals set out in the Black Wood management plan.      

For clarity it is important to repeat that physical access is not prohibited in the Black Wood.

What we began to understand was that the problems of ‘public access’ or ‘public awareness’ were couched in discomfort with anyone that wasn’t a scientist, being on that ecologically sensitive forest estate. The culture of scientific conservation, which had been embraced (by Forestry Commission visionary Gunnar Godson) to protect the Black Wood from the shifting winds of the Forestry Commission itself, had slowly (and without malice or intent) become a force that excluded all other social and cultural interests. Working closely with our partners we needed to find a way establish an artistic and cultural discourse that might compliment the dominant ethos. We planned a two-day workshop to explore the critical-creative potential that the arts and humanities might bring to the scientists and managers who had protected the Black Wood for the past forty years. Going in everyone agreed that the first rule of thumb was no harm could come to the Black Wood.

 

The Future Forest Workshop:
Evolving Perception and Thinking.

(Download the workshop programme here.)

The Key Question: Do the Caledonian forests of Scotland provide a higher level of cultural value due to their biodiversity and iconic status? If so how important is it that the public has access to and/or awareness of this ‘type’ of forest?

The Goal: To use the Black Wood of Rannoch as a setting to examine the ideas, knowledge, values and experiences that enable and constrain public access to, and awareness of forests with significant ecological and cultural import.

The Black Wood is one of a handful of Caledonian Pine Forests that is over 1000 hectares. It is the southern-most forest in relative proximity to the great cities of the central belt of Scotland.

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Walking the Black Wood

To develop the workshop we worked closely with Anne and Bob Benson of Rannoch, Peter Fullarton of the Forestry Commission, Bid Strachan and Paul McLennan of The Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust and Dave Edwards of Forest Research. Mark Lough of Aberdeen came onboard as facilitator through Anne and Bob Benson. Our collective intention was to explore the social and cultural potential of the Black Wood of Rannoch to examine the present meaning and future value of the Black Wood from a broader social and cultural perspective.  We worked with Gareth Roberts of the Landscape Research Group to propose and agree a plan for a workshop that would occur before winter set into the Southern Highlands. We were interested in initiating dialogue and developed a community-ecology-arts-humanities approach to the workshop. We assembled a Black Wood ‘futures team’ a core group of 28 local citizens and outside experts; including artists, humanities scholar, scientists, planners and managers that we thought would work well together. After various walks in the forest we ate dinner together and began work Thursday evening, then all day Friday. We planned a public review with the larger community on a Friday night, then a walk in the Black Wood with the larger community led by the Forestry Commission and supported by various workshop participants on Saturday morning. The Workshop was held at the MacDonald Loch Rannoch Hotel. The question and goal was embedded in recent ideas about cultural values in relationship to the emergent UK National Ecosystem Assessment process which intends  “A generic framework for incorporating the holistic consideration of Ecosystem Services and their value into policy, plan and decision making at all levels of Government.” (Defra 2010) Much of the critical discourse to date focuses on a tension between cultural facts (material culture) that can be identified mapped and enumerated by experts versus social/cultural values, that may be more ephemeral and harder to consider ‘holistically’. Notably the traditional material culture in the Black Wood has neither been properly examined nor recorded. The social and cultural relationships to the Black Wood were undermined by post-Culloden conflict, radical changes to land ownership, use and management, the rapid loss of the native language in the twentieth century and most recently fifty years of conservation management.

THE PRESENTATIONS

[VIDEO LINK HERE]
On the first night of the workshop Reiko Goto welcomed the delegates and asked them to imagine a much larger Black Wood that many people care about. Anne Benson, Chair of the Rannoch and Tummel Tourist Association talked about the need for awareness and knowledge to support a wider and more meaningful experience of the iconic forest. Bob Benson of the Loch Rannoch Conservation Association called for an evolutionary dialogue that would recognize the import of past actions and current conservation policies while exploring the value of a wider awareness and a broader community with an interest in the Black Wood. Peter Fullarton provided a history of the Forestry Commission role in the Black Wood, and the pride they all take in caring for the largest Caledonian Forest in the Southern Highlands. Landscape Research Group Chair Paul Tabbush suggested that cultural values could be objectified, artifacts within a landscape as is commonly understood, but they could also be institutionalized (language, stories, art, music or literature) and/or ephemeral values that are embodied in users or practices, memories that occur in a place or in some aesthetic relationship or condition within the forest itself.  After an initial charge by Mark Lough, Thursday morning began with Forestry Commission ecologist Rob Coope. He provided insight into the complex ecological community that exists in the Black Wood, and why it is so important. He was followed by Forest Research social scientist Dave Edwards who provided a rigorous review of ecosystem services and the tension between facts and values, and what is lost in the process. Tim Collins launched the arts and humanities presentation restating the intention and recognizing a series of essential issues that had already emerged in discussions. The philosopher Emily Brady of University of Edinburgh started off the session with an overview of environmental aesthetics and the social benefits of ecosystems based on her own work on the National Ecosystem Assessment ‘culture’ team. The social anthropologist Jo Vergunst of University of Aberdeen asked us to consider the politics of footsteps, the aesthetic, ethical and political roles played by Scotland’s walkers; an example of embodied values.  Murdo MacDonald of University of Dundee spoke about the Scottish Gaelic language its descriptive qualities, ideas about colour and the relationship to ecology of mind and contemporary Scottish art practice. Chris Fremantle an arts producer and cultural historian provided a review of related artwork and an overview of ideas presented at the workshop suggesting that cultural values were an essential compliment to the facts and data of science. The independent forester Jamie MacIntyre reported on the Sunart Oakwood helping everyone to think about the relationship between ideas and ideals, what it means to sustain and develop a community of woodland users, harvesters and managers in the Sunart Oakwood, and SAC woodland not dissimilar to the Black Wood.

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Talking

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Morning Breakout

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Afternoon Breakout

 

THE BREAKOUT GROUPS

Friday afternoon was spent in break out groups considering questions about the scope of the forest, the relationships between landscape, culture and ecology, how new social and cultural values might be established and how the arts and humanities might contribute to the evolution of eco-cultural values? Two groups were established each with a slightly different focus. There were more community interests in the ‘birch’ group, and more planners in the ‘pine group. We worked to get a semblance of balance between men and women, there were scientists, artists, humanities scholars and land use planners in each group.

Reviewing the sound files from the Birch Group facilitated by Mark Lough we realize there is an important tension that is developed around a series of moral provocations by the artist Alex Maris. An empathic dialogue ensues often lead by Anne Benson talking about a forest interface that is more about people than signs and structures and Peter Fullarton helped everyone to think about the multiple benefits of a good forestry plan. Chris Fremantle helped everyone think about cultural objectives and strategies, Paul McLennan guided the thinking on trail issues and options and Jeannie Grant addressed the need for a historical and scientific narrative describing the forest. That set the stage for Jo Vergunst’s comments about a locally led social narrative that touches on history, ecology, arts and culture but is uniquely crafted from a local perspective. The group closed with a sense of shared purpose agreeing the need to do no harm to the Black Wood; while recognizing the import of the Black Wood forest experience to the local culture and its flagging tourist economy. Everyone agreed the challenges of moving through an unmarked forest that is devoid of user-friendly trails and mapping.  Jeannie imagined Rannoch in one hundred years with the hills covered in native pine, birch and broad leaf forests. Alex heard the return of lynx and wolves in the future forest!

Paul Tabbush and David Edwards co-facilitated the Pine group. The Conversation began with an attempt to describe the vision. Rob Coope described the Black Wood as a ‘…jewel in the crown’, and Caledonian pinewoods as a feature of the forest estate that we should all be culturally aware of and proud of. Jane Dekker and Dave Friskney spoke at length about the import of the Black Wood to the cultural and economic life of the area. Paul got the group talking about a landscape scale forest, Murdo MacDonald suggested a Caledonian Forest way inspired by the Scottish Literary Landscape and in particular the work of Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Pammie Steele, Jamie McIntyre and Rob talked through a larger network linking the Black Wood, the Barracks forests and the Pinewood on the Meggernie estate to the poet’s birthplace at Loch Tullla. The conversation then turned to the idea of Caledonian Forests and the Black Wood in particular as an under-utilized educational resource. Pammie agreed saying that it is important to remember that the solitude and silence of today is very recent, she wanted to be able to walk the forest and through history at the same time.  Murdo suggested a programme modeled on the arts, music and writing residencies at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye. The session closed with a set of commonly held ideas. All agreed a wider understanding of the forest is needed. The landscape ecology and literary landscape as well as the artist residency programme deserved careful consideration. All agreed the need to take advantage of the Forestry Commission provision for guided tours of the Black Wood, as well as the fact that the core forest needs no additional paths or car parks; it needs to remain protected but become more accessible and visible.

The Poster announcing the public programmes related to the workshop.

Public Programmes Poster, Nov 22 and 23, 2013

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Black Wood Walk and Talk, Nov 23, 2013

 

CONCLUSION

The Future Forest Workshop included a public presentation with twenty-five people present hear a panel talk about the workshop. Saturday morning many more would come for a long walk and talk  in the Black Wood led by Rob Cooke of the Forestry Commission. The most important outcome was the realizations that everyone agreed that the Black Wood was something to be treasured and never harmed. The tensions that led to the muddle had eased up significantly as everyone found common ground in the ethical approach and even in the aesthetic appreciation of the Black Wood. The Forester policy of ‘leaving the forest alone’ for natural regeneration was interrogated and some common ground was found on the meaning of awareness and access as well.  Although details on publicity, awareness and actual access still needed to be worked out. All recognized the import of the Black Wood forest experience to the local culture and its flagging tourist economy. Everyone wanted more information about the research carried out onsite over decades.  There were productive critical discussions about the meaning of terms and ideas used by the various disciplines involved. There was also broad agreement that the Blackwood at one thousand hectares was large enough to maintain itself but not large enough to prosper or withstand catastrophic changes. As the iconic forest of Scotland, with enormous biodiversity value and cultural value everyone agreed it simply – needs –  to expand.

Recap of Breakout Group Conclusions

1. To do no harm to the Black Wood; while recognizing the import of the Caledonian forest experience.
2. Challenges of moving through an unmarked forest that is devoid of user-friendly trails and mapping.
3. The core forest needs no infrastructure; it needs to remain protected but be accessible and visible.
4. A broader understanding of the forest is needed, both scientific research and cultural history.
5. Rannoch could one day be the anchor point in a much larger, much wilder Caledonian pine forest.
6. Expanding the Black wood was essential, a Caledonian literary landscape adds essential value.
7. Establish a Caledonian Forest Culture artist, writer, musician in residence programme.

The final residency at Forest Research occurs in January and February. We are working toward a draft final report to all partners. We are also examining historical and aesthetic approaches that would validate cultural input into future plans for Caledonian Forests. We are working on final translation and mapping of Scotts Gaelic place names and are looking into traditional printing methods for the map (a give-back to the partners) and potentially a subsequent studio video about translating that map. We have one exhibition video complete and a half dozen rough edits in hand. We are working toward a multi-monitor installation hopefully for exhibition in 2014 or 2015.

Tim Collins and Reiko Goto     2014
Blog number 3 of 5.

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