A (re)forester’s guide by Borbála Soós

A (re)forester’s guide by Borbála Soós

A (re)forester’s guide

I would like to take you on a walk, starting in my immediate neighbourhood, and eventually stretching to the far north in the Scottish Highlands. In my mind, each time I take a walk and notice the intimate instances of nature, it opens up deep connections to histories, and to all the places I visited before. The slow moments of here and now seem to be ultimately intertwined with other lives and other places.

During the pandemic, as an escape from working from home in the middle of Southeast London, I often find myself on a slow flaneur type of walk in the old Victorian Nunhead Cemetery. With its luscious vegetation, cool shady tree cover and vocal bird population, it is truly a different world. The slowly collapsing roofless chapel connects all the circular, meandering roads like honey in the middle of the petals of a flower.

Once off the well-beaten path, there are plenty of shortcuts around the overgrown graves: with each new season I am delighted to manage to get lost again in the maze of paths as the vegetation changes its features, and I slightly lose my landmarks. By early summer, nettle grows as high as possible, and where it stops it is met by mulberries, elm and alder branches that bend down far under their age. Walking between them with your arms stretched out is like swimming. There are often suffocatingly sweet scents from elderflower and entropy, while bird-cherry and rowan, especially rowan, smell like cat piss when they are in bloom (after Tove Johansen). Whilst there are plenty of rich memorials raised to remember the dead, what gives me a sense of orientation is rather the shape of the unusual trees growing out of graves directly. It is the shape of the ivy, nettle and wildflower meadows that I know intimately. I probably notice most intensely the tangled roots around the broken marble slabs as the sun comes through in interesting patterns across the tree canopy reflecting against the intense bright green colours of the various lichens of the headstones. But of course, the form of individual trees, the age, size and structure of the forest, terraces and paths are evidence of a long relationship between humans, plants, animals, fungi and soil.

In hidden corners, some trees stand witness to a much longer relationship, potentially predating the cemetery function of the land, like the old chestnut tree stump that has been coppiced, cut and allowed to regrow probably for centuries. Such trees may never die, as long as they are cut regularly. This forest is very particular, the layers of human history, the dead and the living are quite literally entangled. The personal lives and deaths become one with a rich ecosystem – full of birds singing, foxes playing, insects buzzing, butterflies pollinating – bursting with life. Life emerges from death. One being turns into another.

Forests and culture have been interdependent since humans have interacted with it. Even the Amazon Rainforest and other places we think of as deepest wild jungles have been in fact cultivated by groups of humans favouring certain plants and animals, developing intimate relationships with them, including language and other forms of representation. As Paulo Tavares puts it in his text In the Forest Ruins for e-flux, we now know that the forest can be interpreted as a cultural artefact in itself. I think of a forest as a complex entanglement of human and more than human relations as well as the social and cultural traditions, cultivation, politics, territorial wars, profit speculations, and economies they entail. London is a forest by a UN definition that only takes into account the percentage of tree coverage, and hopefully, places like the Cairngorms National Park, the largest park in the UK, will soon be a forest too at least by the same measure.

I visited the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at the foot of the picturesque national park in the Scottish Highlands in February, just before the lockdown started. Here I learned that the majority of the park belongs to private landowners. The Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who owns 11 Highland estates, has been named the largest landowner in the UK. He bought Glenfeshie in 2006 (one of the largest districts within the national park) and expanded it by buying the neighbouring farm of Killiehuntly. His nature rewilding project consists of culling deer to reduce grazing, the regeneration of important remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest on the 42,000-acre Glenfeshie estate, and refurbishing some guest houses in romantically remote locations for tourism.

The opposition of forest and city, much like the opposition of wilderness and control, have been long-standing paradigms that perpetuate a distancing between these systems and aid the exploitation of valuable resources. In my view, the idea of rewilding contains much political and activist potential to recuperate not only multi-species scenarios and dynamic ecosystems, but also the anti hegemonic, and the voices of the excluded, subjugated and suppressed.

The recent injunction by Bromley Council to limit the rights and stop encampments on public land, targeted specifically Gypsies and Travellers. The court of appeal in January ruled that Gypsies and Travellers have “enshrined freedom” to move from one place to another, and that an injunction to prevent camping on public land would breach the rights of the communities it targeted. Moreover, it is the councils who are in the wrong as they should have been providing alternatives to the formerly enclosed commons, and space where the travellers can legally stay. Had the proposal succeeded, it could have opened the way for landowners to generally contest the right of way across the UK. According to the view of the council, the groups of Gypsy and Traveller communities represent disorder, disobedience and ungovernability, belonging to the realm of the wild, something that is outside of the regular rules. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Glenfeshie, a place for rewilding, is the one part of the Cairngorms more open to visitors also beyond the right of way, including events by artists and projects by the Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Glenfeshie is not a simple case though. The Scottish Land Commission proposed radical reforms to SNP ministers that could see wealthy individuals being required in future to produce a management plan before being allowed to buy estates. The heavy concentration of land ownership in a small number of hands, including private owners, charities and government agencies, constitutes a monopoly, which undermines the public interest.

The Povlsens believe restoring the Highlands after several centuries of damage from overgrazing by sheep and deer, needed to be carried out on a significant scale and over several generations. Breaking up their estates would be indeed counterproductive to this plan, as merging neighbouring estates and creating a single master plan for that area made it far easier to reverse the damage, and have a consistent strategy for the future.

Further ideas to consider include carbolonialism and the recent financialisation of nature. According to Cooking Sections’ essay, Speculations of Disappearance, the CEO of Nature Conservancy, the biggest environmental non-governmental organisation, is Mark Tercek, who previously spent years at Goldman Sachs. While on the one hand, the heritage of colonial territorial control and power structures are still in place in relation to owning nature or destroying nature in favour of monoculture plantations. New phenomena complicate their claims on nature, such as the manifestations of a new wild through attempts at rewilding; and carbolonialism (the act of an organisation investing in the control of a forest, to offset greenhouse gas emissions, hence financially connecting far away realities of high and low emitting territories). The financialisation of nature is contingent on assigning a specific value to it, whether it is through measuring and banking nature to determine what is there, and what value could be generated and traded by say the protection of specific endangered species.

Is rewilding pine forests the future to prevent global warming? Does rewilding have enough political potential to prevent various social groups melting into the monocultural pot of the empire? What could a rewilded world look like territorially, ecologically, politically? I, of course, can not be sure of Glanfeshie’s Povlsens’ aims with rewilding, but suspect that all of the above-mentioned issues and motivations are at play all at once. But once again, such entailed relations and complex dynamics will create a complex ecology.

For the investors, the story of nature being separate and a resource, was inspirational: it allowed them to treat species, locations and people with alienation. If certain elements of nature can stand alone, then these elements can be used without consequences to the rest until the resource is exhausted, at which point the investors just simply move on to the next place. Nowadays the global landscape is full of these abandoned and exhausted former forests, mines, lakes, rivers etc. This alienation obviates living-space entanglements while it ties in with the idea that assets can be replaced by other assets.

Creating value in nature is also achieved through assigning a price to specific (rare or endangered) species. Once a value is assigned to a territory (rather than landscape > words are important), it becomes more valuable for offsetting harms that have been committed elsewhere. However, the actual protection and re-establishment of specific species might decrease the potential for investment long term (once they are no longer rare).

Why is it so hard to convince people and reach an agreement about the effects of the global climate crisis and the steps we have to take against it? According to Chuz Martinez, in our dualistic world of nature and culture accepting that ruling nature is not the right way equals to negating enlightenment, moreover, negating personal freedom. With our current vocabulary, it is hard to imagine a paradigm shift for a different world view, even though I strongly believe that during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are indeed currently experiencing a major paradigm shift in the making… Is art currently more interested in science and ecology than before? I think art is only interested in art, however, as such, it has the power to notice and connect things, to tell tales and to do so without hiding that fact. (Scientists also tell tales when they frame their data findings into a narrative to interpret, just these narratives are perhaps less often presented as stories, rather as facts). 

Historically, it was left to fabulist, mostly non-Western and not from scientific circles, to tell other stories of interconnectedness. Think about Silvia Federici and her description in Caliban and the Witch how the figure of the witch, the sage, the woman who knows the forests and plants etc. was marked as dangerous, and to be eliminated. Perhaps it is now artists and to certain degree curators, who can also take on this role. I am interested in the connections through materials, forests and histories and both the true and (sometimes simultaneously) fabulous stories we used to tell. I want to recuperate something from them, and this is what these Decameron stories are about.

Borbála Soós (b. 1984, Budapest, Hungary) is a London-based curator and an active advocate, participant and organiser of artistic and ecological research. Borbála’s practice responds to, disrupts and enriches environmental thinking and related social and political urgencies. In 2012 she obtained an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London. Between 2012 and 2019 she was director and curator of Tenderpixel, a contemporary art gallery in central London. She curated projects in collaboration with the OFF-Biennale, Budapest; Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, Budapest; ICA, London; Camden Arts Centre, London; tranzit, Bratislava; Rupert, Vilnius; and Nogueras Blanchard, Madrid among others. She is regularly invited to teach by universities such as Goldsmiths College, the Royal College of Art, and Central Saint Martins. She is currently the leader of a Peer Forum in collaboration with Artquest and the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and Research Associate at CCA Derry~Londonderry.