Last Tree Dreaming
memory, nature, learning, community, dreams
Oak trees are the bearers of dreams – lovers carve their names into them, swings are suspended from them, their branches reach out towards the sky. They outlive us, yet we can see in them many aspects of the human condition: growth, renewal, ageing, and disease.
Young people, working with experienced artists, will ritually transport and resurrect a recently-fallen, 80 foot high, 20 tonne, 250 year old oak tree. Lying in the nearby Stourhead estate, it will be brought to and re-erected on a school playing field in the Somerset market town of Frome.
Frome Community College has a newly-appointed Principal who inherited a large school (recently classified as having ‘serious weaknesses’ by Ofsted) which is in need of re-establishing its once- vibrant community links. Artist Barry Cooper discovered a huge fallen oak tree whilst walking in the locality of the ancient Selwood.
Inspired by Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks (an artistic and ecological intervention which enduringly altered the space of a German city) and Robert Golden's iconic HOME photographic exhibition (which revealed how the processes of globalisation have affected English urban industrial life in the past and how present rural life is being altered), he approached the Assistant Principal of Frome Community College (Lisa Millard) and the warden of the National Trust’s Stourhead estate. His proposal was that, working with them (along with other local artists and sculptors), young people might engage in a communal activity of renewal and renaissance; creating a ‘path to the stars’ by means of the resurrection of the fallen oak tree.
With equipment already available to the Stourhead estate, the entire tree (once trimmed of excess diseased roots, damaged boughs, and smaller branches) will be transported to the playing field of Frome Community College, connecting two disparate places and worlds 10 miles apart, as the crow flies, across the once densely wooded forest. This will be the beginning of its future life as a ‘time capsule’ containing evidence from a particular moment in a particular place in February 2013 until the time when the process of entropy finally returns this hardy symbol of Northern European culture to the humus from which it originated (in time the tree will need to be laid on the ground again to live out the final years of its aspirational life in the horizontal position of exhumation).
The resurrection of this mighty oak into its afterlife on the edge of the playing field at Frome College will symbolise, inspire and mirror the ambition and achievement of the local children. It will be a landmark beside the main road out of Frome towards Bath and Bristol. During the active phase of this project, the hopes and dreams of Frome’s future generations will be etched on to the tree as declarations of intent, helping to shape both the project itself and the lives of those who come into contact with it.
At present, the nature of these carvings is unclear, a blank canvas. The intention is that they will evolve out of a dialogue between the pupils, artists, Artangel and others. Sections/shards up to 2 metres high by 0.5 metres wide will be cut from the trunk (and later reinserted) so that students can work on them individually or in groups, in a workshop environment. Sections could be cut into, carved, scorched, screen printed, painted; parts could be attached to them, areas cut away and objects embedded within them as if in a display case.
Once erected, the great communication mast will continue to be open to shaping by the messages sent to and received by all who come across it, whether in person or virtually. The oak will be anchored to its base to keep it in a fixed position. Stability will be achieved by means of a triad of stainless steel guy ropes from a high 'neck' level collar down to anchorages at ground level. The intended structural effect lies somewhere between a Gulliver and a Maypole. It will stand as an emblem of our earliest forms of industry and communication; raw, exposed, stripped, unprotected. Through it we will come to question the very nature of our new technology as it impinges on our lives.
Not only in action will this project inspire, but in thought as well. A major aspect of the project will be its integration into the full spectrum of the wider curriculum of Frome schools, both during its active phase and in the longer term. In Maths, students will use formulae to work out the correct angle of the guy ropes which will support it; in English students will write poetry, draft newspaper articles, and have debates about the purpose of art; in History students will explore the central role played by oak trees in our heritage; in Science students will study the lifecycle and processes of entropy; in Art students will study Turner’s ‘View over the Lake at Stourhead . . .’ from 1798 and his use of watercolour to represent the then 30 year old oak; in Engineering students will help determine how to transport the tree safely; two slices from the base of the tree would provide a simple lesson in age, weather and biology (one displayed in the school, the other as a teaching aid); the list goes on...
The oak’s effects will not be limited to a single place. This tree will also live out its afterlife in real and virtual classrooms throughout the town and beyond, its varied appeal connecting Frome’s creative past (the textile makers, printers, and decorative iron-workers) with its vibrant cultural present (two theatres, three art galleries and nationally renowned Frome Festival). Local radio stations and newspapers will report on progress; it will spark discussions in coffee shops, around the table at town council meetings, in the streets. The tree’s newly formed roots will extend far beyond the school playing field, uniting the town. Through osmosis the roots will bring knowledge, engagement and opportunities back to the tree, opening up a wealth of possible futures. The sculpture would remain a symbolic cipher amongst other signposts on the campus pointing towards opportunities for young people, now and in the future.
Time, place, circumstance, environment and humankind will shape the branches of this tree. Through widespread collaboration with potential partners (including The National Trust, wood sculptors and civil engineers) the germination of this artistic acorn has already begun. ‘Last Tree Dreaming’ will be a signpost which will remind succeeding generations of young people in Frome that they live in an ephemeral world on which they can make their mark. Most importantly it takes the form of an open book waiting to record their dreams and transmit them into the ether of posterity.