Field trip to Old Tjikko with documentary film crew, March 2015
Early Tuesday morning. I enter the decommissioned military tunnel complex on Skeppsholmen, an island in the middle of Stockholm. The postwar naval installations in the bedrock have been turned into exhibition spaces. Undulating sheets of corrugated sheet metal mark the entrance to the mountain, where the most recent exhibition featured artifacts and sculptures from the Yoruba culture of Ife in present day Nigeria. My friend Mats comes to let me in and takes us through a series of doors that require passkeys and codes. The air inside is surprisingly dry and warm. While working on the Nigerian exhibition, I remember the auxiliary outer tunnels being significantly wetter and colder than the innermost exhibition tunnels that were duly climatised to protect the objects on display. Mats points to a large banner advertising an art fair in the mountain and explains that the climate system finally has been tuned to work throughout the tunnels, creating an artificial but decidedly pleasant atmosphere in the hollows of the mountain.
I lug a cheap backpack that I have spent some hours modifying at the studio, sacrificing the backpack, the hose to my vacuum cleaner and my best darkroom funnel to construct what I hope will be a functional portable container/dispenser for the finely granulated black sand I have come to pick up. The sand is a slag product from processing iron ore commonly sold as a sand-blasting agent. We used the sand to create a non-reflective, organic looking floor in some of the displays of the exhibition, and Mats managed to retrieve a good deal of it when taking down the show for future use. I have estimated a need for about thirty kilos, and we load up my backpack with as much as we can. I give it a try. It is very heavy. Ridiculously heavy in fact. Very doubtful that I will be able to carry it for any length of time or distance, and I make a quick calculation of alternative possibilities. I could pour the sand into a mound shaped heap but that would entail a lot of running back and forth to replenish a smaller dispenser (funnel? sack? tray?) which might jeopardise the overall feeling of the performance… but… the sand is in any case necessary, and we haul it onto a dolly and roll the swollen backpack to the staff coffee room in one of the side tunnels. I will have to think of something. I half knew it when sawing off the vacuum cleaner hose: this is not going to work the way I want it to.
I will use the sand to make a large-scale drawing in the snow around the world’s oldest tree. The krummholz spruce known as Old Tjikko is close to 10,000 years old and resides in the national Park of Fulufjället in Dalarna, Sweden. It will be my third trip to this particular tree in less than a year, making me, I suppose, a frequent visitor to the park. This time I will be going up there with a French documentary film crew who are going to shoot the tree for a series on very old and remarkable trees in Europe.This segment will be the last in the series, and has the working title Histoires d’arbres. It is produced by ARTE and scheduled to air sometime this fall.
The drawing I am making is directly inspired by the Nigerian exhibition. I came across a design of the Vodou deity Papa Legba when researching the Yoruba creation myth, a narrative in which sixteen Orishas descend on the Earth and give rise to humankind in the region of Ife in Nigeria. Papa Legba is the god of the crossroads, the guardian of the threshold between this world and the other side. I thought his veve — a graphic symbol used in Vodou — would be a pertinent symbol for a tree that has lived throughout the Holocene and come to see the dawn of our present predicament — the geological era known as the Anthropocene. Papa Legba is usually invoked by libations of rum and other savory offerings — cigars, meat and such. I will bring a bottle of water from the nearby waterfall and pour it around the tree.
I meet up with the crew at Arlanda airport and the five of us pack into a rental van and head up north. I am usually the driver and take advantage of being a passenger this time, confident that the satellite navigation system will guide us right. When I wake up an hour or so later, the GPS has directed us to a small village off the highway, a place where I was was stranded a few years ago with a broken car in a snowstorm. We pull up in front of a combined petrol station/ roadside café, but the establishment is all boarded up and empty behind tangled window blinds. I direct us back onto the highway where I know there is an open truck stop a few miles ahead. We pass a towering Chinese construction that seems to have been forever suspended in a state of almost-finished on the banks of Dalälven. I first saw the building in 2007 when I drove north on the recently opened highway and it has lost none of its weird apparition-like qualities since then.
It becomes apparent that we are on a filming schedule right away. Henri de Gerlache, the film’s director, allows for a quick sandwich and a coffee before we get back on the road. He wants to get some shots from a lake en route, with water, ice and sun setting on what I imagine might be an opening sequence of the film. I estimate that we will be able to make it to Lake Siljan in Dalarna before dusk. The lake would be a good place to start, I tell the crew — it’s very much in the heartland of Swedish vernacular tradition, sitting in a landscape flush with midsummer poles, ornate clothing and the ornamental design known locally as kurbits. Also, in the spirit of deep time, the lake itself is the largest known meteorite impact crater in Europe. The event took place some 377 million years ago and although most of the characteristic crater shape has since eroded, there is still a sense of the truly ancient about the area. Driving westward we hit upon the southwestern shore of the lake just before dusk. Taking pictures of people taking pictures in a muddy field overlooking the waters that shift in a full range of blues, greys and silver streaks, canopied by a intensely technicolored sky. This is the money shot. If we were real tourists, we could pack it up, call it a day and descend on the hotel bar.
We get to the village of Särna in the valley below Fulufjället a few hours later and gather round the table in a rustic, quaint and somewhat confusing dining room — all wood, very Scandinavian country-style, but with walls adorned with vintage theatre posters from London. I spot a grinning Dave Allen, a comedian I distinctly remember from my childhood as making a lot of fun of nuns and Catholics while proceeding to get increasingly drunk on his barstool. We are served a fantastic dinner. Alan and his wife run the place, which can best be described as an upscale B&B, and Alan rather promptly informs us of his establishment’s top rating on Trip Advisor. How very un-Swedish of him! We are having bear and reindeer for dinner. I mumble something about me being a vegetarian, but then again — I’ve never had bear, and the food is already on my plate. It’s very good. And I am very hungry. Bears are prolific in the area, and Alan thinks that this one was shot a few miles north of here. Local bear. The beer is local too, from one of the many micro-breweries that cater to discerning drinkers about.
The great naturalist Linnaeus was deeply disappointed in the scant variety of species found on his trip up this valley in the late 1700s. He had expected more abundance perhaps, something on par with the plethora of cold-loving plants that he had come across on his trips to the northernmost parts of Sweden. Little did he know that although the variety here might be scant, contemporary locals have come up with many ways to make do with what’s available: we are served blueberries from last fall, preserved with characteristic green leaves and all, and among the many things on offer at next morning’s breakfast table I find jars of pickled mushrooms. Removed from times when supplies had to be brought by horse and sled in the winter through roadless land by some hundred-plus years, traditional ways of preserving and preparing foods have swung back in fashion. Careful husbandry of food stuffs – be they cultivated, hunted or foraged – reflects a sense of care and respect for the local environment. It helps, then, that the stuff tastes great too, and comes in a pleasant lack of packaging. No need to peel any annoying little stickers from either bear or mushrooms.
We set out early the next day and trade our van for snowmobiles that will take us up the mountain’s north slope. The dress code for these machines is all hyperbole: big overalls, massive gloves, hightech goggles and helmets. It feels a bit odd, bringing all this gear and noise into an environment that at least superficially exudes pristine serenity. On my previous trips I have carried my modest equipment on my back, and although there are no guarantees that more is better, I am still excited to visit the tree in the company of a professional film crew. Hauling my burlap sack with some thirty kilos’ worth of blasting sand onto one of the sleds, I send a grateful note to whoever invented these obnoxious machines. There is no way I would have ventured to drag that load up the mountain on foot.
When planning for this trip and my performance I toyed around with various options for the actual piece I was going to do. The solitary tree on a snow-covered mountaintop. A large-scale drawing on the snow. I thought an aerial view would work the best, particularly since the tree itself is no more than some 3.5 meters tall counting the foot-deep layer of snow. I tested different ways to shoot from an improvised boom, using a tree of similar height and volume by my studio, but the results were never satisfactory and I had a hard time to make a construction that would be lightweight, collapsible, sturdy and able to withstand strong winds. I thought of a drone, seeing as they were able to hover in place; this, however, necessitated a day with no or very little wind, and the chances for that were slim. I got in touch with the production office in Paris about this, but the particulars of my enquiry — what equipment they would bring and to what extent I needed to make my own preparations — got lost in the general frenzy of organising the shoot. In the end, I decided to bring a contraption that would allow me to capture the tree and my performance from five metres above ground with a regular video-camera: a heavy surveyor’s tripod with a collapsible extension pole with a jerry-rigged camera mount at the top. I felt a bit foolish when I met up with the first half of the crew at the airport who informed me that Jean Charles, the cinematographer, was on his way — he just had to retrieve several cases with parts for boom and drone out of special luggage.
Three park rangers accompany us on our first visit to the tree. Because this is a production visit by a documentary film crew, I suppose there is a certain protocol to follow. I can’t help thinking that the rangers might also be a wee bit curious about the project. I ask one of the wardens what she thinks of this particular tree, and her response takes me by surprise: ‘No different from other trees in the park’ she says. Her view on the old spruce’s impressive age is decidedly pragmatic — to her this tree merits the same level of protection as do all the other trees and plants that fall under her supervision. A supervision which for most part is conducted on snowmobiles in the cold months. The park rangers make regular rounds up here in the winter, extending assistance to tourists, taking stock of wildlife and making sure that the rules and regulations particular to Sweden’s national parks are observed. Even though the sudden celebrity status of one particular tree does not impress them much, they all concede that there have been some overall benefits in terms of publicity and visitor numbers. I inadvertently slot myself into a growing number of tree-gazing tourists that have started frequenting the park since the tree was ‘discovered’ by professor Leif Kullman in 2004. I would probably not have come here otherwise; much less thrice in a single year.
A few days later, the rangers Veronica and Peter arrive at our cabin with an outsized sled in tow, loaded to the brim with logs of spruce and pine from the valley below. They are bringing a fresh supply of firewood for heating the cabins and fueling the sauna that is housed in a separate building down by the lake. The trunks are almost the exact same size and girth as the tree we are here to document, albeit of considerably younger age. I am reminded of a Tao narrative where the old age and beauty of an old gnarled oak is chiefly attributed to its relative uselessness as a source of wood for fire, construction or furniture. To cut down a solitary scrawny spruce far away from your house simply does not make much sense when the forest just a few hundred metres below is awash with more suitable specimens. This relative uselessness may have been a saving grace throughout the centuries and millenia. The current concern of the rangers is that the quality of novelty (World’s OLDEST tree!! Right HERE!!!) recently attributed to Old Tjikko may well turn out to be a potential threat to the tree and its immediate surroundings. The modest fence around the tree is simply not enough to handle large numbers of visitors, much less to deter anyone from snapping off a branch or two.
What is at the core here is the way in which we humans attribute value and non-value to our surroundings. It is becoming abundantly clear that too keen an interest in any particular resource for material gain or just simply as a vehicle for transient comfort — think firewood on a blistering cold mountain — will have negative effects that go way beyond the eventual depletion/ extinction of that particular resource. The negative outcome of our endeavours in mining, dredging, harnessing, hunting and, recently, fracking the bejeezus out of our environment also has the unfortunate tendency to be long-lasting, if not downright terminal. I think it is a good idea to feature ‘the world’s oldest tree’ in a documentary like this because it can serve as an inroad to a discussion about resilience and sustainability with a living, albeit gnarled, representative of these concepts as a starting point. This is a smarter kind of exploitation of natural resources, and it is one that I am quite happy to partake in. This does not mean that I am above using a variety of fossil fuels, rare earth metals and other tokens of contemporary life on a daily basis; what it does for me as an individual is to provide a possible alternative to climate-change-angst-cum-paralysis on the one hand and a blissful state of mindless shopping on the other.
Our stay at the cabin on top of Fulufjället lasted for four days, and we were rather lucky with the weather — crisp, clear and temperatures moderately below freezing. It’s difficult to make even the world’s oldest tree look good in sharp sunlight though, and I think some of the best sessions were filmed at the crack of dawn and in the long dusk of early evenings. Looking at my own footage I was struck by the intense blue tint that colours the snow at nightfall, rendering the layers of snow with an almost ocean-like quality.
The sparseness of the landscape with a solitary tree on an almost completely flat plateau some six hundred meters above sea level is an apt framework for an ancient tree, like a showcase for ‘old tree in landscape’. The immediate context is visually reduced almost to the level of modesty (small rocks, tiny explosions of coloured lichens here and there) while at the same time affording qualities of grandeur and landscape monumentality in the panoramic view. This makes Old Tjikko a thankful subject for image making. It is one of the few remarkable trees I have seen that is scaled to fit within a single frame against a backdrop of visually neutral surroundings.
An opportunity to try out the drone presented itself on the third day of the trip. With only a whisper of wind in the afternoon and a mountain enveloped in an eerie stillness, the conditions were just right for this fragile piece of equipment. The director and cinematographer went on ahead to set up the shoot, and got the drone ready for launch. I stayed behind on a nearby hillock with Alexandre the sound engineer. We watched the toylike contraption go airborne in the warm afternoon light, with the rest of the crew at the controls below. We squatted next to a bent and twisted shrub of arctic birch when Alexandre suddenly motioned for me to lean forward and put my ear to one of the branches. In this almost complete stillness I could not hear much else than the synthetic creaks of my thermal overalls, but I bent down and put my head close to the tree. As my breathing slowed down and my body came to a rest I could hear it: a barely discernible hum of the fine limbs of the tree vibrating in the stillness. For a moment I felt, or at least felt able to imagine what it must be like to perceive the world as a wild animal — a fox or a hare with ears attuned to a universe of the minute and barely audible.
On my last day on the mountain with the crew it was time to perform. I started out in a rather clumsy and self-conscious manner. Benjamin and Henrí directed me to make an exit from the cabin, don my gear, and set off towards the tree along a specified route. I could appreciate the benefits to both narrative and cinematography in these directions and reminded myself of my supporting role in this enterprise. I do not do well with instructions, which is one reason why I tend to do my performances and actions all by myself, having neither audience nor crew on site. Another reason is that I am a very poor actor. I need the trappings of real ordeals to keep me focused. Get the tripod straight. Make sure I can guess where to enter and exit the frame. Try to avoid serious injury. Tuck in my white shirt under the suit. Not smoke on-screen and avoid looking into the camera.
But a little make-believe is OK, and I had come to trust the members of the team enough to suspend my initial hesitation and overcome what must be a kind of stage fright. I approached the old tree with my backpack, my black sand and my very tall and awkward tripod. And after doing a bit of libation around the tree with a draft of spring water from the nearby waterfall, I brought out my GOJNNNNGGGGG… and banged on it at even intervals as I paced around the tree for three full revolutions; banging and twirling the gong to draw out the reverberations across the plain and into the stillness. When I got to the heap of sand at the end of the third round, I started sifting out the black granules onto the crusty snow. Old Tjikko’s trunk became the centre-point of Papa Legba’s symbol; a Vodou veve on this Scandinavian mountain. I drew stylised crosses, swirls and cones in the cardinal directions, working my way from centre to periphery and back again. I had done a last-minute substitution of the heavy backpack with vacuum-hose dispenser just before leaving Stockholm, and opted instead for a store bought orange funnel. This turned out to be a more precise drawing instrument, with the drawback being a constant need for replenishing the sand. Going back and forth between drawing and sand heap soon became a dance of routine, and I soon forgot about the looming camera crane overhead and Alexandre’s microphone. I was just too wrapped up in my version of invocation; a ritual which regardless of what transcendent powers it might hold, de facto had been part of bringing the five of us to spend this afternoon filming, recording and beholding a 10,000-year-old tree in northern Sweden.
Among the many images, snippets of video and notes from this trip, there is one photo I never took: that of a linoleum tabletop in the kitchen area. Our rustic mountaintop cabin had no running water, no grid connection or other fixings of contemporary life save for a diesel generator that kept humming away in the deep snow just outside the front door. A long black power cable snaked its way inside and branched out in a motley array of extension cables that fed the gear on the tabletop: chargers for triple-A battery packs, GoPro cameras, iPhones and laptops, flashlights, pocket warmers for freezing fingers, terabyte hard drives, studio lights and a portable mini studio. The contrast to our cosy but rudimentary shelter was striking, and I thought of taking a picture on several occasions, but there always seemed to be something practical to tend to when inside: making sure the fire was lit, taking turns cooking, washing the dishes etc. As dusk set in on the mountain the cabin was completely dark save for some candles on the dinner table and the glow from the wood stove in the corner. In the small hours of night the dying embers grew too faint to see, much less to navigate by. The one remaining source of light was blinking LEDs on chargers and battery packs. Drop-size, intense pulses of red and green that felt oddly reassuring in the dark, like a token of purpose up here in the middle of nowhere. I stuck my feet into the nearest pair of oversized snowmobile boots and shuffled outside into the bitter cold. The firmament was alight with stars and the wind sucked my breath away as I unhooked a stainless bucket from its hook and turned down towards the frozen lake for fresh water.