Stand on a hillock in Feanedock and you are met with a panoramic vista of trees for miles beyond. Squint and you spot an installation of a giant illuminated moon that hangs in the foliage, rumbling strange lunar sounds. Copses are theatrical stage sets. Storytellers sit in logged clearings around campfires. Authors discuss the fearsome mythology of the woodlands. Sound artists mimic the sound of birch and beech trees.
This is Timber, an inaugural arts festival in the Midlands that puts the significance – and magnificence – of trees at its heart. The grounds on which it is staged are central to its focus: 25 years ago, the 70-acre site lay derelict and pockmarked with decommissioned coal and clay pits.
Since then, the National Forest Company has planted 8.5m trees to regenerate its landscape. “Trees are a metaphor for transformation,” says John Everitt, chief executive of the charity. This concept runs through the programme, incorporating 200 acts from spoken word to theatre, music and wellbeing workshops, never losing sight of the ecological messageat its core.
Jony Easterby’s Tree and Wood is a spectacle to behold. Easterby worked with lumberjacks to create a clearing and the space is transformed into a series of stage sets that take the audience from opulent visions of a pre-lapsarian Arcadia (fruit, plants, vegetation) to industry, conflict, the colonisation of Native American land and, finally, a message of peace: “Still the trees they grow,” sings Easterby.
Multilayered sound mixes human yelps with electronic beats and the hammer and tongs of industry, while a two-man saw is played with a bow to eerie effect. The lights drop in the final scene like a curtain falling on the forest, before the back of the copse blazes up to signify nature’s resilience. It is a breathtaking sight and an extraordinary achievement of sound technology within the natural elements.
Seek, Find, Speak; A Conjuring Told in Gold is an interactive adaptation of The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s illustrated book about words that have disappeared from the Children’s English Dictionary. It takes the audience into the thick of the woods with actors performing poems. Its high point is a dance sequence performed by eight-year-old Gabriel Payne and the Nigerian dancer Edenamiuki Aiguobasinmwin, who slip, slide and entwine limbs to conjure the silky effect of an otter moving in water.
Other spoken-word sessions range from a talk by Macfarlane to a specially commissioned poem by Karen McCarthy Woolf. Author Jonathan Drori takes his audience on a tour of the world’s most majestic trees while the radical arts and environmental charity Common Ground discusses how the regrowth of woodlands can enhance local communities.
“A culture is no better than its woods,” says Woolf, quoting WH Auden, in a panel discussion on literary forests. Woolf remembers being “comforted by the natural elements” while grieving a stillbirth, which became the subject of her poetry collection An Aviary of Small Birds, and the oral storyteller Ian Douglas reflects on the lessons learned from trees when he was made homeless. He found refuge in the woods, he says, but the experience of living there also sparked a fear first conjured in childhood stories: “The only way I coped was to go deeper into the trees until my fear disappeared.”
For those seeking to go into the woodland themselves, there are workshops teaching everything from practical crafts (straw-bale building, using a chain saw, whittling) to the whimsical (laughing yoga, tree climbing and an exhilarating session with sound artist and beat boxer Jason Singh, in which 150 people walk through the woods to listen to – and then mimic – the sounds of nature).
Equally quirky is a session on “thinking like a tree”, with Sarah Spencer, who applies the principles of permaculture to the human psyche. “The idea is that nature has been getting it right for billions of years and we can learn from trees – their resilience and connectivity, how they use their energy to best effect, the way they help other species survive – to use our own edge, get outside our comfort zones and to be happier and healthier.”