Time to start a new project. I’m taking part in North Fife Open Studios this year, doing a ‘mini-residency’ at the Centre for Stewardship Falkland over the weekend of 29th April to 1st May. I’ve decided to create a new piece of work for the event, a multiple, composed of stitched baskets and pods; two for each species of tree I find on Falkland Estate between now and the end of April.
I’ll name the work for the number of species I find. I’m hoping for more than ’28 Trees’. That’s the number I came up with while trying to get to sleep one night after Christmas. I started with native species – oak, birch, alder, elm – and worked my way through to the exotics: horse chestnut, Norway spruce, redwood, sycamore. Some of these are old favourites, for example the birches and willows, I love working with them. They are very flexible, have interesting bark colours and sweet scents. Some trees will be more challenging, like the horse chestnut with its sturdy branches and sticky leaf-buds.
I’ll post progress reports on this blog. There is a self-imposed set of rules: baskets/pods to be roughly similar size and shape, same black thread to be used throughout, one handful of twigs to be used for each tree species: one larger basket/pod to be made first, one small one to be made from the remaining twigs. More about the reasons for that in a later post.
First two completed last week: oak. I think this is English oak, Quercus robur. That would fit with it growing in a hedge round an arable field in lowland Fife. I’m happy to be corrected on any of these twig identifications though!
Birch (silver and downy), oak, willow, bog myrtle, all the monofil fishing line I pulled out of the loch (untangled and wrapped round an oak twig), a weight and a swivel. The little rusty hook broke as I was trying to impale it onto an oak twig, so it’s in the bin.
I made a quick visit yesterday to this lovely coppice at Lochore Meadows Country Park:
There’s plenty of evidence of recent work (and picnics?) by volunteers and ranger Dallas Seawright. Each compartment of the coppice woodland is looking great. The hazel is growing well, there are less spruce trees than I remember and the big oaks, birch and other hardwoods look happy in their clear spaces.
I scavenged some twigs from the ground near the fire pit, sat on a mossy log and made a very quick prototype ‘nest’, as an idea for Spring workshops.
I remember making a nest before and realising very quickly that birds must use a ‘stitching’ technique, holding the materials at the thick end, pushing through, catching, pulling through and winding. There must be video footage out there to watch. I had the advantage of secateurs for trimming stray twigs. With the next nest I’ll take my time and use no tools. I wonder if birds stand back from their work in progress, cock their heads, assess and decide where the next piece should go?
I bumped into the ranger as I was leaving the wood and reassured him that I hadn’t been stealing sticks from the neat piles he’d set aside for pea-sticks and brooms.
For as long as as I’ve recognised trees as different species, I’ve known there are two kinds of birch tree native to Scotland (not counting the tough little mountain birches). Silver birch is Betula pendula, Downy birch is Betula pubescens. The silver birch prefers drier ground, has jaggier leaves, more beautiful white bark and tends towards an elegant pendulous shape. The clue is in the scientific names as well as the English ones. Downy birch has hairier twigs, a more compact form, rounder leaves and tolerates wind and wet, so is more common in the north and west of Scotland and higher up the hills in the east.
I thought I had this all sorted out in my head years ago but it was brought home to me over the last week while making ‘Birch and oak’. These birch twigs were collected beside the road from Fowlis Wester to Buchanty, up on the moor by Murray’s Hill. It was a bitterly cold day. We walked down the road past the Buchanty Burn, to the fields where we saw black grouse last year. The wildlife was quiet this time, though what we did see was a treat. A stoat in pure white ermine fur-coat was hunting amongst the clearfell stumps near the road. It stopped a few times to watch us watching it, then went about its business, not in the least camouflaged. I’ve a clear memory of a pointed little face with brown fur on its nose, rounded white ears and an intense stare. And a black-tipped tail as it turned 180 degrees round itself and disappeared into the tree roots.
I cut the birch twigs from some saplings growing near a much older sessile oak and collected a few low-hanging oak twigs as well, with the intention of building them all into one basket. I wondered whether the lichen would stay on.
Every basket teaches me something new. This one transformed field-guide knowledge about birches into better understanding of differences between downy and silver. The twigs from Fowlis are matt-effect and soft, compared to the shiny-brown-with-warts twigs I used to make the Loch Tummel baskets in 2014. Those were definitely from silver birch. We untangled the fishing line from some very beautiful pendulous branches…
The Fowlis birch must be downy birch, or maybe a hybrid. I’ll go back for another look in the summer and photograph its leaves. It has a very sweet scent. Combined with beeswax-flower-meadow (on the linen thread) and aromatic-old-oak, the whole basket smells great!
For more info about birch trees: