April 9th Visual Essays

April 9th contributions:

Annette K Arlander, Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts, Helsinki

Day with a Bog Birch – Vegetalising

This thematic essay / video essay consists of an introduction, a video, the transcript of the voice-over text, and a note about spending a day with a tree as a peripheral and at the same time central activity in trying to reach beyond the human. The video depicts the repeated visits to a small birch on a bog in the old-growth forest on Paljakkavaara during a Mustarinda residency in Hyrynsalmi in September 2020 as part of the project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees. The video Day with a Bog Birch (with text) (20 min) was recorded on 23 September 2020 with a birch growing in the bog near Mustarinda house every hour from sunrise to sunset (7 am to 7 pm). The texts were written after each session, recorded and edited with the video the following day, and also published on the project blog. Besides this day with the birch, I had performed a single real-time session with the same birch on 14 September, making a two-channel installation With the Bog Birch (15 min). Later, I performed another real-time session on 25 September 2020 Standing with the Bog Birch (20 min) that could be combined with the time-lapse video of the day.
Day with the Bog Birch is the one that is interesting in this context as an example of a strategy I have explored with several trees; returning to them repeatedly, often for a whole year, or every hour for a day, like here, producing time-lapse videos that show the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes taking place and also creating an emotional bonding with the tree. By spending time with a rather unremarkable tree, experiencing the subtle changes taking place around them, sharing the situation with the tree, becoming with it, if you wish, the tree becomes remarkable, and a deeper understanding for our shared participation in life is potentially created.

Day with a Bog Birch (with text)

Voice-over text on the video Day with a Bog Birch (with text):

Well before daybreak on twenty third September 2020 I am down on the bog below the Mustarinda house is Hyrynsalmi, waiting for the sun to rise at 6.56 am. My plan is to visit a small birch here every hour today, from sunrise to sunset, or seven to seven, and to record my visits with a video camera, as I have done with some other trees elsewhere, before.

This September morning after the autumn equinox begins with an overcast sky and a soft drizzle. I place my camera tripod next to the duckboards that mark the path, and adjust the row of trees on the horizon, the border of the small bog, to be in balance and begin. There is no sound audible from anywhere, no wind in the trees, no birds, no insects, nothing – an expectant silence, soothing somehow. The trunk of the small birch is covered with lichen, wet and soft. The ground of moss is wet and soft, too, elastic under my weight. I am no longer afraid of sinking into it, being sucked up by the bog, but feel supported by its soft bounce. For how many breaths should I stand here? Light grows slowly stronger, the day is arriving cautiously, as if on tiptoe.

Next session, 8 am; I am early, waiting. The drizzle has stopped, and the uniform grey sky is lighter above the forest edge. The daylight is much stronger now, although no sun is visible; my eyes cannot see the difference, but the camera shows the change. Standing with the birch I look at its yellow leaves, some of them almost brown, and at the small spruces and pine trees on the bog around us. The pines are small, and the only pines anywhere near; in the forest around the bog there are mainly spruces, with some birches, aspen, rowans and goat willows here and there. A sudden breeze, very gentle, is moving the leaves and my hair. Three birds fly above us high in the sky, then five birds. When I return through the forest a bird is chirping up in a spruce, and in the yard the dog barks at me. The house is waking up.

9 am, the sky is clearing. There are dark clouds in the east, but in the west the sky is blue. The camera shows that the light has increased a lot. It is chilly, could it be colder than before? I can feel the frost on my hands. Well, it is not frost, really, but cold. The breeze is chilly, too. Although on a bog we are high up on the Paljakkavaara, the fell or hill, so there is less likelihood of frost, yet. Winter is approaching, however, there is no doubt about that, and everything around us is preparing for the freezing darkness. After the equinox yesterday, the night is already slightly longer than the day. The sun is almost piercing through the clouds, though, changing the atmosphere, but not yet. Only later, on the way back, the moss in the forest is glistening in the sun and the orange rowan leaves in the field are shining bright between the tree trunks.

10 am, the sun is shining through a soft haze, strong enough to feel warm. For the birch these rays would mean nourishment, but now, when all the chlorophyll is stored in the roots for the winter – as far as I can see, there is no green left in the leaves – it can rest and hopefully enjoy the warmth, like I do. The sun really feels almost warm at times. The small spruces and pines with their evergreen needles can go on working as usual. I guess the reason why they have such hard time living in the bog is either lack of minerals, or lack of oxygen in the water, or both, lack of light is not an issue. But they clearly seem to suffer some hardship. Many of the spruces look rather old, even though small and skinny. Between the birch and the path there is a small spruce and a small pine, growing together by coincidence as if from the same root, both clearly very young, almost like babies. I wonder if they are locked in combat or actually like each other, their lives in any case being completely intertwined.

11 am, the sky is overcast again. The grey autumn mood is back, silent and chilly. The plastic bag I covered the camera with has disappeared. I find it among the trees far to the north; it seems the gusts of wind blow from the south. While standing with the birch I look at the colours of the peat moss around us: deep maroon purple, rust and orange, almost copper, mustard yellow, brownish green, pale yellow and well, green in all shades, soft and spongy, alluring and deceptive. The small puffs of white cotton-grass seem to float in the air, bent here and there on their long stalks. Now the wind is audible as a murmur in the distance. The bog is a place to disappear in, to drown in a suddenly opening bottomless pool or to get drawn under the peatmoss by some evil elf. Holding on to the little birch feels safe and comforting when being lured into thoughts of threatening mythology by the ominous sound of the wind.

Noon, the light as before, grey. The wind comes in sudden gusts, first from the east, then from north-west. I think I hear the sound of a bird, a croak of some kind, far away. When I return from the birch to turn off the camera there is a tiny fly examining its surface carefully. Is there something to eat, some dust from my fingers, perhaps, that could be of use? It seems so fragile I wonder how it survives in the wind. This is the time when all of us have to prepare for the winter, whether hibernating or not. The time when the incredible abundance of the harvest season turns to a time of cold, dark scarcity. The loads of blueberries, lingonberries, crowberries even rowanberries all around will soon be gone, and all the mushrooms, including the masses of funnel chanterelle or yellowfoot will disappear. These are the last moments to gather and preserve what you can for the coming months, and here I am, idling with a birch…

1 pm, already afternoon. The wind is almost howling in the distance, momentarily. The sky is not uniformly grey, there are brighter patches and the clouds are moving across the sky, towards the east, it seems. There are insects, some kind of mosquitoes, dancing above the bog in front of us when I stand by the birch, I wonder if they were there before and I simply did not notice them. The lichen on the birch look rather big on the slender trunk. There are mainly two kinds, the ordinary grey and somewhat leafy ones that are common on the tree trunks here, and then smaller pale, yellowish green, map-like lichen between them. There are a few of a third type, too, slightly brownish and with bigger leaves. The world of the lichen is foreign and fascinating, something to explore later. When I turn off the camera the sun suddenly comes out, almost, for a brief moment of bright clarity, and then disappears again.

2 pm, the cloud cover is thicker, the grey tone of the sky darker, the wind more persistent – it might even rain again. It is as if everything would be cringing, expecting a storm or simply preparing to endure six months of winter. I’m feeling cold despite my clothes. At the end of the session, I hear movement, and suddenly a colleague from the residency and the beagle are walking on the duckboards. We greet each other with a wave, and I wonder whether the dog actually entered the picture, as it did when I was standing with the birch a few days ago. He is allowed to move freely with some kind of transmitter attached to his collar, so he can be found if he strays too far. Although it feels like far away, ‘korvessa’, ‘korpi’ being the Finnish word for wilderness or deep forest, the bog is actually right behind and below the house.

3 pm, grey and chilly, there is an opening in the sky above the forest edge in the west, a patch of bright white below the dark clouds, indicating that the sun could potentially break through the clouds somewhere there, as it did later, after the session, albeit briefly. This time the beagle followed me to the bog, and I was worried that he would start barking or messing with the tripod, but he was very silent and attentive and somehow sensed my concentration. It seems like he sat behind me on the path the whole time, but I cannot know for sure. When I took my coat and turned back towards the house, he seemed very confused and disappointed; probably he expected a long walk after this brief introductory pause. Today I am focused on the birch, however, rather than on him.

4 pm, no perceivable changes, no bright openings, no warm afternoon sun, no sculpting sidelights, no dramatic shadows, nothing spectacular whatsoever – the same grey sky and the same silent bog, waiting for winter. In a few months more than a meter of snow will cover all this life, press down on it and also protect it. This area has the most snow in all of Finland, they say. That is why some of the trees have weirdly bent forms and broken tops. Probably the birch is doing wisely to store all its chlorophyll down in the roots and hibernate all winter. Some plants do sleep at night, but do they sleep during the whole winter? At least the life-processes are slowed down. Perhaps humans should try that, too; simply cover up and sleep in the cold… I can hear some hammering from the house, faintly; they are building a new staircase before the snowfalls begin.

5 pm, soft drizzle when I walk down to the bog. The plastic bag protecting the camera is wet, but the drizzle finishes and transforms into soft humidity while I am standing with the birch. The light diminishes slowly now, already two hours before sunset at 7.03 pm and the wind dies down. There is something deeply romantic and national about this view, a small birch in a bog, an archetype of Finnish romantic nationalism or national romanticism, and that is probably one reason why I chose it. It reminds me of the paintings of the Golden Age of Finnish Art, although I should be wearing a long woollen skirt and a scarf on my head, of course. Turning one’s back to the camera or the viewer is romantic in itself; the birch and the bog make the image national, or even nationalistic. Or then not, that remains to be seen; neither what I see in front of my eyes nor what I imagine the camera to see is what will actually be recorded, I guess.

6 pm, evening mood, grey, calm, chilly, almost dusk. I stand with the birch and look around me on the bog and suddenly realize that I see only spruces and tiny pines, no birches, except far away at the edges of the bog, and wonder why. Is the soil too acid, or simply too damp, or is this fact pure coincidence? When I return to the camera, I realize there is a small birch behind the spruce to my right, outside the image to the left, and two birches about the same size as my partner further down the path next to the duckboards. The spruces towards the centre of the bog do not seem to thrive that well, and the pines are all very young, but still, how come most of the birches are on the fringes? They form a row of beautiful golden guardians around the bog, probably with some aspen and rowans, which I cannot distinguish from the distance. My friend is obviously one of the few brave ones, who survive here in the damp swamp.

7 pm, dusk, invisible sunset, darkness proceeding slowly. The day ends like it began, with a soft drizzle. What did I learn about my companion and partner in performance during this day? Do I know or understand birches better now, or bogs for that matter? Did I gain insights about the similarities and differences between birches and humans, or why not bogs and humans, too? Our inter-dependencies, or rather the complete human dependence on vegetation I knew about from before, did I learn something about it now? Perhaps it is unfair to demand that I could express that right-away? I do have a feeling that the thing I somehow realized more deeply is the shared suffering involved in life, the sheer endurance needed to survive, and how impressed we should be by every tall or tiny creature that somehow manages to do that. When I think of the birch standing here through the night, not to mention through the winter, I shiver, stunned by respect. It is too easy to think that well, they are used to it or made to cope with it and so on. No, a birch, too, must be sensitive and vulnerable in order to live and change, and at the same time so unbeatable, so strong to stay alive…

With hindsight, when listening to this diary of a day and/or reading these spontaneously written and relatively uncensored field notes, there is perhaps not that much new or deeper understanding generated. Trying to “vegetalise one’s sensorium”, to follow the suggestion of anthropologist Natasha Myers, is not so easy. In order to learn alongside trees or plants more generally and to support their world-making projects one has to “reach toward them with the openness of not knowing and forget what you thought counts as knowledge.” (Myers 2021, step 7). Moreover, it is only one step. And it takes time.


The project blog Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees https://meetingswithtrees.com

The Bog Birch (videos) https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/761326/999357

Natasha Myers (January 2021) “How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene.” ABC Religion and Ethics https://www.abc.net.au/religion/natasha-myers-how-to-grow-liveable-worlds:-ten-not-so-easy-step/11906548


Annette Arlander

is an artist, researcher and a pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and a trailblazer of artistic research. Graduated from the department of directing at the Theatre Academy 1981, Doctor of Arts (Theatre and Drama) 1999. Professor of Performance Art and Theory at Theatre Academy 2001-2013. Professor of artistic research at University of the Arts Helsinki 2015-16. Professor in performance, art and theory at Stockholm University of the Arts 2018-2019. AVEK, Media Art Prize 2014, State Prize for Multidisciplinary art 2018. https://annettearlander.com/