The following text was written long ago in February 2020—a time when boundaries and priorities were a world away from our present co-ordinates. It is dedicated now to navigating a future in which our relationship with nature in all its forms rises to the very front of our minds. Can we place our environment beyond the political and claim it as essential?
Salix babylonica, despite its name is not from Babylon, but a native of northern China. In 1736 Carolus Linnaeus classified it mistakenly in reference to the biblical willows where ‘we sat down and wept’. These turned out to be poplars, and while in 1978 the bible was corrected accordingly, the tree we know as the weeping willow kept its name and reference and continues to be associated with sorrow in western interpretation. Contrastingly, across the world in its country of origin, it is seen as a symbol of immortality and rebirth: the Mandarin word for willow also means 'stay'.
Whippy, its young, thin arms weep to earth, humbled, reaching the stars bent double. A rapid grower, a delicate deciduous dancer in the wind, lime green both leaf and trunk. Its modest lifespan, up to 75 years, carries it across two generations.
At the planting, a small crowd gather near the Nordic Ski Centre on the outskirts of Huntly town, under a sweeping heartbeat of rooks, thousands of them, flying up and over in black dot formation. One breakaway gang slips off west to roost as the rest go east, cawing and calling back to each other. A dense twilight din.
Trees are reliable collaborators. Nurturing those already with us, planting new and encouraging their reproduction makes sense. Practical, living, they breathe in our ever-increasing carbon waste while freely offering shelter, pleasure, beauty, sound, nourishment, stability, habitat, foundation, building materials, tools, medicine, fuel, structure, colour. Companions to trust and to be relied upon.
They mark time and weather too. Smart systems. Ring by ring, steady and unassuming—their giant ambition embodies nature's promise of a future. All the while, short-lived leaves dapple the sun.
Let’s hear it for trees. Top ranking life coaches. Silent, articulate advisors to those who live among them and nations.
Deveron Projects invited Berlin-based artist Clemens Wilhelm to mark the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the first time a member has taken such monumental action. His living collaborator, a young specimen Weeping Willow selected for the occasion, is associated with an international ocean of emotion—mourning, hope, romance, joy. It also has practical applications when coppiced or felled, its supple branches being age old perfect for weaving baskets, making brooms, fences and even homes; its bark perfectly composed for distillation into disinfectants and treatments for headaches, fever and arthritis.
In 2019, on 29 March and then 31 October, a procession walked informally from Deveron Projects headquarters to the riverside planting spot to mark the double false starts of the Brexit story. Third time, on 31 January 2020, the deed was done, the sapling was in and as if by magic, after midnight, UK nationals were no longer citizens of Europe, destined, in their future travels to and business with the continent, to be visitors, just passing through.
In collaboration with the community of Huntly, local authorities, tree and other specialists, the right location—watery, open, low lying—was found for the tree. The bench around it invites picnics, conversation, rest and was designed and made by Wilhelm and local joiner David Whitehead. It was planted on the designated date by four local residents—two women, a boy and a forester.
A standing stone, inscribed 31.01.2020, was also unveiled that evening by artist Richard Demarco who spoke passionately of druids and journeys and inspirations in the settling dusk.
Following the planting, the group walked back to town to feast on food made by the town’s new catering phenomenon Neep and Okra. Hummus, cheese, beetroot soup, chunks of bread, chocolate salami, all priceless recipes without borders.
Then on to DP's Square Deal shop where writer A.L. Kennedy performed as stand up thinker on the state we’re in. Laughs. Some squirms and some curious thoughts.
An informal ceilidh overseen by penny whistle, pipes, guitar and fiddle—newfound and old-practiced skills were tested on the floor, ending at the 11 o’clock bells with an Auld Lang Syne (pronounced s not z band leader Steve kindly reminds), as if forgetting might be on the menu. We all think that unlikely and look forward to the future, none of us realising what was ahead in the weeks to come.
Undoubtedly many branches and shoots will grow from this year's uncompromising, unfolding story. Sadness, loss for many, hope for others. The willow becomes a symbol of ever more resonance now, three months since this planting, as the world faces new fears and hopes, challenges and uncertainties.
Alice Bain is editorial director of MAP
Clemens Wilhelm is an artist & filmmaker based in Berlin whose practice ranges from film/video to photography and performance. His work asks questions such as: why are memories stored so efficiently in stories and pictures? Why do pictures and stories hold groups together? Why and to what point does a stranger appear as strange? Why do tourists always take the same pictures? His work is shown internationally in institutions and festivals.
Richard Demarco is a renowned artist/arts promoter based in Edinburgh with a rich relationship to, and with, international art, Edinburgh Festival (he has attended every one), Europe, generations of artists, Scotland's history and landscape. His archive, www.demarco-archive.ac.uk is an idiosyncratic, gigantic, sprawling, important and inspirational trove dating back to the late 1950s. He is still a practicing artist and celebrates his 90th birthday this year.
Iman Tajik is an Iranian artist and photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. His work is anchored in a strong social interest and addresses issues of contemporary conditions of life with particular focus on migration and globalisation. His new work, Bordered Miles, was to be part of Glasgow International 2020 and would have included a group walk on Sun 3 May.
The Neep and Okra Café is a community cooking initiative by Deveron Projects in collaboration with the Amal Project set up by the Syrian new Scots (SNS).