One Ash – Experiencing Connection

One Ash is a project from Andover Trees United, working with the Englefield Estate near Reading. It is from the One Ash project that the idea for Ash Tree Steam first emerged, as I discussed with Wendy Davis (ATU Director) her vision for engaging local schools in using creative ways to learn about Ash Trees, and how we could enable the children to develop an emotional connection with trees too.

Last week saw the One Ash tree being felled at an event that involved schools, artists and craftspeople coming together to celebrate the life of the tree, and explore how its wood might be used. You can read an account of the day on the Englefield Estate website.

The day before the felling I visited the tree for the third time (I had previously visited to start planning school sessions, and to develop my own ideas for artwork). This time I was to work a class of Year 3 children from Andover C of E Primary, who I had met previously during an Ash Tree Stream session.

This new One Ash session was a chance to link the two projects together in the children’s minds; bringing together the techniques for recording and responding to trees that we had experimented with in school, and applying them to this this particular Ash tree.

As Becky supported groups of children to measure the tree, learn about its root system, and consider the benefits of sustainable forestry, I offered the children an opportunity to give thanks to the tree.

On a rope around the tree we hung thank you cards, made using prints, rubbings, drawing and writing, with the children thanking the tree for a range of things, from giving us oxygen to giving homes and food to animals and birds.

Children sat between its roots whilst they made their artwork, or on nearby stumps, and when it was time to leave, two children spontaneously gave it a hug. One boy also ran back and gently placed a stone on which he had drawn a face, at the foot of the tree where he had been sitting, before backing slowly away.

On the day of the felling I was excited to share the experience with the children. As the tree came down, people cheered and clapped the foresters. For me it was a poignant and moving moment. As the tree that I had witnessed children thanking and hugging the day before crashed to the ground, I felt my chest tighten, and I walked forward to touch and quietly thank the tree myself, before taking away a few black budded twigs.

I also retrieved the stone with the face from the sawdust at the base of the tree, and handed it to the teacher of the boy who had left it there. He hadn’t been able to come to the felling and it seemed the right thing to do, to save it from being trodden into the ground, and honour the connection that he had obviously felt.

As everyone wandered back to have lunch and try out different activities at ‘Base Camp’, the wood from the tree was sawn into rounds and planks. It will now either be given to artists and craftspeople whilst green, or seasoned for a couple of years before being taken away for furniture making etc. ATU are putting together information on their website on all the artists/craftspeople involved so I will share that soon, and an exhibition of all the work made will take place in 2022.

I thought for a long time what wanted to make with my piece of the tree. First of all I felt that I wanted to make work in collaboration with the tree, rather than actually use the wood, so I tried strapping my camera trap to the trunk and leaving it for a few days, but I only got one photo and that was of a human (Wendy). Then I thought about how I could take the tree to meet people who couldn’t be there, by taking a round from the stem to events, workshops and other meetings, sharing the tree’s story and triggering conversations about trees, climate and biodiversity.

Camera Trap Photo of Wendy

So that’s what I’ve done. I have a piece from the trunk of the tree, which I have sanded on one side, and which is currently sitting in my house, waiting for its first outing. I’ve started taking photographs of the grain/rings and been exploring the similarities and differences between the wood and my own body. But primarily, I’m going to take it to different places and to meet different people whilst documenting our journey together.

In the meantime I’ve tried using my camera trap on other ash trees, with better results, and am developing a series of photographs titled ‘The Ash Looks Back’, showing the animals that live alongside Ash trees (including us). I’m going to be showing the first version of this series at the Happenings Exhibition at The Walcot Chapel as part of Fringe Arts Bath in May, and possibly at The Sylva Foundation as part of Oxfordshire Art Weeks.

In my funding bid to Arts Council England I said that I wanted to use Ash Tree Stream as a way to carry out research and develop new ways of working with trees, that wouldn’t be possible without funding. My work with the children of the 5 schools, with Andover Trees United and CAS (Chapel Arts Studios) lies at the heart of this work, whilst my research into Ash trees, and new ways of working with trees in general, gradually makes its way out to feed into other exhibitions and events.

At the same time as all this I’m (still) reading The Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It’s taking me a while as I keep stopping to add post-its and underline relevant passages, and its stuffed full of those. I’m learning a lot and I’m loving it.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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