The Wood and the Trees

Redundancy has its compensations.  On Wednesday afternoon the clouds at last parted and some real, bright, life-enhancing sun broke through. No longer confined to an office (albeit one from which I could see Ben Wyvis) I took myself off for a walk in Reelig Glen .

When we first moved to the area in the mid 90s the walks in Reelig Glen were unsignposted, and mostly known about by word of mouth.  A few years later it became a designated Forestry Commission walk, with roadsigns and information panels.  I ought to approve of the greater access but I’m afraid I miss that sense of it being a rather secret place, and, of course, as it’s now advertised, FCS have to ensure that it’s also safe, which has taken away some of the wildness and the (very mild!) sense of adventure. But it is still breathtakingly, throat-catchingly beautiful.

Reelig Glen was a possession of the Frasers for 500 years until sold to FCS in 1949, and it owes much of its present appearance to one member of the clan, James Baillie Fraser, who planted the gorge of the Reelig Burn in the 1850s with specimens of the exotic trees being brought back by Scottish planthunters, such as David Douglas, whose eponymous firs are among some of the most spectacular (and tallest) trees in the Glen today. The upper slopes of the woods are now in the care of the local Community Woodland group, and include a beech ‘cathedral’ that is profoundly impressive at all times of year.

reelig 1

‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ wrote Hopkins, and there were plenty of dappled things in Reelig last Wednesday.  I love the Glen at this time, when everything is at its most lush, green and overgrown, and the afternoon sunlight really brought out all the different, dense layers of foliage, especially where a break in the canopy opened up views across the gorge to the opposite slopes.

The trouble with writing a weekly blog is that you’re always on the look-out for material, and so as I trudged the paths I was wondering how I could tie this open-air experience into a blog about culture. True, I did have a heart-stopping Helen Mirren/The Queen moment when a doe broke cover about 20 yards ahead of me and stood still for a few moments, as we carefully regarded each other, but that’s not quite fertile enough blog material.

So I thought about why I like Reelig so much, of all the many lovely walks in the vicinity of Kirkhill, and I decided it was all to do with complexity.  I take an intense, immediate, sub-verbal pleasure in the extraordinarily dense prospects available round each corner of the walk: the foliage and branch patterns of a dozen different types of tree, the overlapping effect multiplied by the slopes, and then the thick ground cover of the undergrowth.  This is an effect, of course, that can be equally powerful in wintertime, with the added contrast of bare branches against evergreens.

It is complexity, not chaos.  There are no less than three underlying levels of order. First, there is the original planting of over 150 years ago, and that has created a scaffolding on which a flourishing ecosytem now operates.  And of course FCS staff apply discreet nips and tucks to keep paths safe and clear, and picturesque vistas open. So there are patterns at work here which, with enough information, could explain exactly why that one particular branch has grown in that direction and taken that shape.

reelig 2

And thinking about this made me realise how much I respond to complexity in art and music.  I love paintings like Altdorfer’s The Battle of Issus   in which, reputedly, no-one has yet counted how many figures are depicted, or poor, mad, Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke  , or, closer to the Reelig experience, the paintings of Jackson Pollock. And I’m always drawn to dense counterpoint, whether in Renaissance polyphony, the fugues of Bach, or a Mahler symphony. 

I’m also fascinated by composers for whom conventional instruments just don’t offer enough complexity, such as Conlon Nancarrow who would painstakingly punch holes in player-piano paper rolls to create pieces that sound as if they’re being played by ten hands at one piano, or Pierre Boulez, who combined the resources of a modern symphony orchestra with a whole additional layer of electronic sound in works like ‘Repons’Judith finds such music instills in her a sense of panic, and I’m sure that’s not an uncommon reaction, but I find it exhilarating.

I wonder how far this is a modern phenomenon. After all, until Capability Brown introduced the concept of the picturesque into the planned landscape, parks and gardens were rigorously formal and orderly and, if complex, were so in a geometrically definable way.  And it took the Romantic movement, spurred by Burke’s essay on the Sublime, to find beauty in rugged and natural landscapes that, in previous generations, would only have instilled fear and repulsion. Have we adapted, culturally, to cope with the increasing complexity of our modern world, and even to enjoy it, or have our brains actually developed a new ability to process such complexity (in the way that London cab drivers have been shown to have physical changes in their brains as a result of learning ‘the Knowledge’)?

Either way, it means that the kneejerk reaction of the average TV producer, to reach for some ‘English pastoral’ music to overlay images of places like Reelig Glen, may be downright wrong, and the rich complexity that sees apparent chaos emerging out of a variety of pattern sources, might be better represented by something like Elliot Carter’s Variations for Orchestra !


© Robert Livingston



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One response to “The Wood and the Trees”

  1. lee bruce says :

    Lovely blog Robert putting my meagre ill educated attempts to shame.Still I learn.My blog (think) is on the the old railway line between avoch and Fortrose. Feel free to be appalled at my written english but some of it especially the snowy one are not too bad.

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