“Ever since Genesis decreed ‘thorns and thistles’ as long term punishment for our misbehaviour in the Garden of Eden, weeds have seemed to transcend value judgements, to be ubiquitous and self-evident, as if, like bacteria, they were biological, not a cultural, category”
Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defence of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants
Conventional wisdom suggests Ancient Britain was dominated by dense Hansel and Gretel style forest. But the myth of the dark scary woods is being challenged by new research that suggests large swathes of the landscape supported open ‘savanna like’ grasslands and thorny scrub trees. ‘Scrub’ trees that have become ‘cultural outcasts’. Outcasts because they don’t comply with the economics of agribusiness or the aesthetics of the landowner, ‘Middle England’ or town planner. Our Hawthorns, Blackthorns, Wild Pears, Goat Willows and so many more beautiful invader species have been forced to the margins. Confined to hedgerows and pockets of land no one wants and described as ‘invasives’ like unwanted immigrants. And yet, these trees and plants create the richest most diverse habitats for birdlife and insects and may offer the best hope of coping with the increasing impacts of climate change. Isabella Tree suggests in Wilding: The return of nature to the British farm, 2018, ‘we have become a nation of gardeners, more interested in exotic flowers than native trees’.
Here at Ffynnonofi, where I live and work in West Wales, the Hawthorn is one of the defining trees. Described by my Italian friend Hugo as ‘the olive tree of the North’, this hardy species has endured the salty winds that come off the sea for centuries and is at the heart of Celtic mythology. Their twisted and distorted trunks often defy gravity and tell us everything we need to know about the power and direction of the prevailing winds. Their tight foliage provides cover and habitats for numerous species. In late April, the trees become covered in white or pink blossom. It is the sign that spring has turned to summer. And in late autumn the tree is a mass of red berries providing food for birds. In recent years the berries have become more abundant. This isn’t just due to our warmer summers but the fact there are now less birds to eat them. According to the RSPB, farmland bird populations have declined by aprox 60% since 1970. The ‘untouched’ berries reflect an increasing confusion in nature as climate change and species loss creates havoc in the hedgerow. To make things worse, current farm subsidies encourage farmers to cut back or ‘tidy up’ the hedgerows. A process described so well by Ben MacDonald and Nicholas Gates in Orchard : A Year in England’s Eden, 2020
‘…the annual October destruction of hedgerows – as nature is given its worst ever haircut – is one of the most senseless acts of vandalism that we, as a nation, have become accustomed to in recent decades. Such destruction continues at large across our country. In the slashed, stunted metre-high hedgerows that increasingly constitute the norm, bullfinches, warblers, marsh tits need not apply.’ ‘The chilling mathematical hedge-lines we see in most of Britain today are entirely useless to most of our scrub-evolved wildlife’.
I photographed the Hawthorns to leave a record of this landscape and presented them in a grid to emphasise their wild sculptural forms. Just as the Bechers wanted their work to encourage the preservation of industrial relics, I’m keen to record our natural living architecture whilst it still exists. It’s as much a topographical inventory as it is a pictorial document. I also made a grid of sixteen wild willow trees that thrive in the wetter parts of the lower fields. Something attracts me to these sensuous delicate leaved bog lovers. Maybe it’s because they are regarded as ‘weeds’ by many farmers, or maybe it’s their pale green semi symmetrical round forms that appeal to my minimalist tendencies.
I’m interested in giving significance and a presence to the stuff that culture marginalises, rejects or simply doesn’t notice. Depictions of forests in the European art tradition have often emphasised verticality, denseness or in Thomas Struth’s case, ‘Paradise’ is somewhere far off in exotic rainforests. For me, these scrub trees in West Wales, which light up the hedgerows for a few weeks every year provide a sense of optimism in what is becoming an increasingly meloncholic landscape. Nature has always been in a state of transition but the transition we are now talking about looks increasingly like extinction for many species.← Back