“Trees matter, and that means every tree, including outliers and the craggy loners.”
Harriet and Rob Fraser are building a series of drystone ‘folds’ in Cumbria which will embrace new trees, offering a space for people to sit and pause with the trees, and revisit them over the years. Each ‘treefold’ will contain some stones carved with Harriet’s poetry – the poem can be read individually or as one long poem threading its way across the landscape. The drystone treefolds will be made with local stone by a master waller, using vernacular techniques that date back for more than a thousand years.
Rob and Harriet’s connection with trees has deepened over the last two years while they have been visiting seven trees spread across Cumbria, as part of their project The Long View. “We have spent days and nights with these trees,” says Harriet, “in all weathers, alone and in company of others. We’ve walked between them, slept with them in midsummer and midwinter. The more time we spend with them, the more we study them, and each time we introduce them to others, they seem more special.”
Two treefolds will be at the east and west of this constellation of seven trees, with the third in central Cumbria, in Grizedale Forest. The stone folds are an invitation to consider ordinary trees that are part of all of our landscapes, and the importance of celebrating and protecting them.
treefolds: east – Little Asby
The sun’s light on the treefold gives it a softness, a pale glory. The range of greys and browns and whites in this ordered arrangement of limestone chunks are of this land and, here, in this circle, offer a meeting of what’s below earth and what’s above – the limestone that lies beneath the grass and the skitting clouds in the increasingly blue sky.
If you came here for the first time you might well think this sweep of blown grass and heather under a broad sky is in the middle of nowhere. The land feels open, wide open, and without boundaries. But, having spent several longs days in this single spot, it has become clear that this is far from the middle of nowhere – it is a crossing point, or a meeting point, between many places: Little Asby, Great Asby, Crosby Garret, Orton, Kelleth, Newbiggin, Mazon Wath, Ravenstonedale, Sunbiggin and other hamlets and villages, small settlements whose intersections converge on a rise of land between two brows of the same rolling back of limestone.
During the five-day build we had a constant stream of visitors. Some were cyclists or walkers, many of whom were following the coast-to-coast path, but many more came from the surrounding villages. There has been an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm and excitement – some people returned a few times to see our progress, others brought friends, children, grandchildren. And with the visits have come stories of the Dowly Tree, once strong and tall, but now a stump. It is spoken of as a boundary marker, the tree that everybody knew who came this way. It is remembered as a meeting place, perhaps for lovers; one woman said she’d come here to watch buzzards perch in it and circle into the sky; some people have photographs of it; some knew it when it was in leaf; poems have been written about it. And everyone is happy that a new tree will be given a chance to grow up here, protected in stone.
The Dowly Tree was almost certainly a way marker for travellers, and the stump that now stands is probably the last in a succession of trees that have stood here. As a boundary marker, it holds a line of sight with other trees and stone cairns. The new tree within the treefold, which is about 70 yards from the Dowly Tree stump, will take the same view as those that have stood here before it: looking east to the Pennines, south to the Howgills, and, in the distant west, towards the Lakeland fells. Knotted into this place are stories, genes, beliefs and traditions, and the treefold seems to stand for these. There’s a looking back and also a continuity looking forward, into a future where stones will slowly weather as a tree grows slowly taller within them.
Now that the treefold is here, the build seems almost irrelevant, but the process has been really enjoyable and each time we visit we will remember the build. Rob and I have been tasked mainly with sorting and lifting stones, while Andrew Mason does the building. Watching him work is completely engaging: each individual stone assessed, looked at from different angles, lifted, maybe tapped and hammered, and placed, so that a perfect curve of wall rises slowly. I think the toughest part of this build was placing the bottom throughs, massive stones that are set through the wall and hold it together. Some were too heavy to lift. I made some notes the morning Andew and Rob fitted them in:
We have been working in rain for much of the day. The biggest chore for Rob and Andrew has been getting the bottom throughs in place. They are monster stones. The biggest one is pushing a hundred kilos, the smallest maybe 70. Getting them in place begins with the process of selection and inspection, Andrew deciding which side is to be laid on the wall, which faces up. He dresses them with his hammer to get them right then he and Rob roll the stone towards the wall. A breath in, legs set, hands on and then a lift onto one edge. A small stone (football size) on the ground acts as a pivot and they push the stone onto that and let it roll forward, landing on its opposite edge; then lifting it again, moving the pivot stone, repeating the process, rolling, heaving, rolling – mindful all the time to have feet and fingers out of the way. When they get the through to the wall there’s no option but to lift it – bodies set, arms set, they do it, all but for the heaviest one. For this, they place a couple of stones to offer a pivot and after a massive heave, the stone is on the wall. From here it’s a case of gently swivelling it or lifting inch by inch to get it in the right place – and the right place is a precise thing, within an inch. Even then it’s not ready – they lift the stone onto an edge and Rob holds it while Andrew takes his hammer to it, chipping away so that the stone rests, solid and completely unmovable, on the top of the wall. There are ten throughs in the end – most of them overhanging sufficiently to make seats inside the treefold. They sit as if on a clock face, angled in towards the centre of the treefold, and we take a break.
Planting the tree
One local visitor, who has been effervescent with excitement throughout the week, told me the treefold feels like an embrace. And it’s true – even though it’s built of hard material it has a softness, and if you climb in to its windless centre, there is a peace and a quiet, the sky changing above and, visible through the entrance, the old Dowly Tree. She also asked for a champagne celebration when a new tree is planted here, this coming winter. Let’s see what we can do about that!
The emerging poem
in treefold:east :
in this circle of land’s bones
moments gather into wood
in treefold:centre :
seeds, ideas, earth, light
a slow graft of time
The final treefold and drop-in date
The final line of the poem will be revealed when treefold:west is built in Wasdale. The drop-in day to visit and meet us and Andrew there will be September 13, 11am – 1pm.
More about treefolds and Little Asby Common
If you’ve just joined this blog, you will find out more about the three treefolds we are building here. treefold:east is the second to be built – the first, treefold:centre, was completed in Grizedale Forest at the end of July. The treefolds are part of Common Ground’s Charter Art Residency programme, which involves eight artists (or artist collaborations) across the UK who are creating legacies to mark the 800th anniversary of the original Charter of the Forest, and the launch of a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People this year.
The treefolds also offer a legacy for The Long View – something that celebrates trees and landscape and offers an invitation to pause a while. The treefolds, the trees within them, and the landscapes around them, will gradually change over the decades. On Little Asby Common we’re delighted to have support from the Friends of the Lake District, which owns this section of land. Just up the hill from treefold:east, curving out of ancient, weathered limestone, is the Little Asby Hawthorn, a tree we have come to know very well over the last few years.
treefolds: east – Little Asby (early build)
treefold:east has been gradually gaining height since the first footings were laid on Monday. Early that day a truck arrived and dumped about 13 tonnes of stone – huge chunks of limestone dug out of a nearby quarry. We stood and looked at it and wondered how it’s possible to craft a perfectly circular wall out of monster chunks like this.
We spent the morning sorting through the stones and discovering that beneath the monoliths smaller stones were hiding. We marked out a circle and made piles of smaller stones around this, selected stones that would work as top stones, and laid these to one side, then eyed up the bigger stones. There’s a lot of bending and lifting, looking, bending and lifting. But by midday we’d made a start. Andrew has – I think – a 3D imagination. He seems to know which stone will fit where. A tap with the hammer, and an occasional bash, levels things off so that stone fits next to stone, just right, and the wall gains height.
The entrance to the treefold is lined up with the Dowly Tree, which is about 70 yards away. It is now a stump but has for many decades stood here as a local landmark. Facing this way, the treefold will also give shelter if you step inside to sit in it: the wind here tends to blow (or roar) from the west, so it could offer a welcome break while on a walk or a cycle over Little Asby Common.
While we’ve been building we’ve had people dropping by to watch progress. The narrow road across the common is relatively busy: it links Orton and Little Asby, and is followed by people cycling to Kirkby Stephen or finding their way from Coast to Coast. The local Asda delivery driver lingered for a chat and told us he is looking forward to seeing the treefold completed and, over the years, watching a tree grow within it.
The toughest part of the build for sure, physically, has been the placing of the bottom throughs. There’s no tractor here, no lifting equipment: just brute force, strength and determination. Some of the through stones are more than 90 kilos so Rob and Andrew used a combination of rolling, upending and pivoting to get the monsters from the ground onto the wall. Throughs are essential to give a drystone wall strength, so even though the ten that are in place were challenging, they will do their job well.
Day three and the course above the through stones is set, so that the poem stones can be put in place. This bit is exciting for me, and it’s where I understand the importance of an inch or half an inch in making them look right. The people that have stopped today to find out what we’re up to have taken huge delight in reading what’s on the stones and the sunlight makes the words sing. By the end of today they’ll be snug under another course of stones, ready for the top throughs to go in place – now that’ll be a day of lifting and grunting, for sure.
treefold:east looks very different from the Grizedale treefold – different stone (big chunks) and a wildly different location. And a different significance. In Grizedale, the tree within the fold will be one of many, set in the midst of a forest. Here, the tree within the fold will be one of few, standing in a wide open landscape. The Little Asby Hawthorn on Lousy Brow is just out of sight and only the tops of the sycamores around the nearest farm are visible. The tree inside treefold:east will stand, quite literally, for many trees. If it survives and thrives perhaps it will, slowly, bequeath a woodland. As an oak thirty or more years will pass until it produces acorns. There is no knowing what the grazing pressure on the land may be at that time, or whether in the coming years other trees will take root, or will be planted within sight of this one special oak.
treefold: centre – Grizedale
In just one week – a pile of stones transformed into a thing of beauty.
In Cumbria when the sun shines for a few days in a row you might be forgiven for thinking that’s a bit unusual – last week that happened, but the week was unusual in another way, and in a wonderful way. We were in the sun, on the flanks of Carron Crag, creating the first of three treefolds in celebration of many things: trees, art, the environment, the creation of a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, and the continuation of an exceptional collection of art in the forest of Grizedale, the UK’s first forest for sculpture.
treefold:centre setting the poem in place with words carved into limestone.
So – lots of sun, and the growth of something solid and real after many months in the planning stages. That certainly makes for a week to remember. What now stands in the midst of a working forest is a place to pause with the trees and – once an aspen has been planted in the centre of the treefold – a place to rest with a single tree and witness its slow change, year after year. The landscape around it will also change: it will be planted with other trees and after a few decades the view that exists today, taking in distant fells to the north and east, will alter, and the trees will come into focus.
The best way to tell the story is through pictures, and I’ve added in a few snippits from the notes I made in the windows of time between sorting stones.
Stones sorted and circle laid out, ready for the footings
We started with an idea, and followed through with a plan. Now we are standing on the edge of Carron Crag in Grizedale Forest, in sweltering heat. It is just after midday and we have been sorting stones for a couple of hours – the stones have come from a fallen wall nearby. They are now laid around the rim of a circle that Andrew has marked out, using a central metal pole and a piece of string with two knots in it – on for marking what will be the inner edge of the wall, to give an internal diameter of 7 feet, and one for the outer edge.
Footings in place, almost all the way round now
We have set aside larger stones that will become through stones (which double as seats) and top, or cam stones, and e’ve arranged the remaining stones ready for placing. The first stones to go in are the footings, and need to be big, forming a base layer, a twinning of two large stones, the spaces between them filled with small stones (heartings).
Our work is all hands and bending and lifting. The sound is of stones being knocked on stones, a gentle flow of conversation. And there is silence, the kind of hum you get on still summer air that’s a blend of grasshoppers, flies buzzing, light breeze, and sun.
During the day the Forestry Commission has been on hand: John dropped by with a tractor full of stones, dumped them, and helped move the piles that we’ve been sorting. He and Rob spent a couple of hours retrieving stones from a ‘retired’ wall elsewhere in the forest, and while they were gone, foresters Joe and Andrew stopped by for a chat. Joe is in charge of planting and has a vision for this section of the forest: aspen, Scots pine, douglas fir and spruce. They’ll be planting around February time – while the trees are still dormant, but not so early in the winter as to provide the deer with fodder for too long. There will be an aspen in this treefold, overlooking its fellows that will be planted on the sloping ground below. It will take them 15-20 years to grow up and begin to impinge on the far reaching view, maybe longer.
The ground is not level, but the wall needs to be – before the first through stones go in, there’s attention to detail to ensure the treefold will be level with the horizon.
A dry stone wall is just that, dry. There is no cement, no bonding of any kind, only stone and air. Andrew sizes up each stone with his eyes before he selects it and places it, and uses his hammer to shape top, bottom and edges where necessary. Over a few days, a circular fold takes shape.
The through stones are in and it’s time to put the poem in place
There’s a kind of knowing, an artful skill, to the setting of stones. I watch Andrew as he works to fit them into place. Some stones go straight in but others need a tap with the hammer, which just chips away an edge, somehow makes it a better fit. With the poem stones there’s a lot of work to be done, particularly with the word ‘graft’ which Pip has carved into a large chunk that we selected from the quarry. Andrew chips off some of the edges then he works at the bottom – the shape he’s creating is one that will work with what’s underneath as well as what is to come – and although the stones that will be laid on top haven’t been chosen yet, Andrew has in his mind – or perhaps more so in his hands – the knowledge of what kind of shape will work best with whatever comes next. he is chipping away, turning the stone, eyeing it up, turning it again, knocking it, chipping it.
It feels as if it has some similarity with the way I work with words – you kind of get a feel for what’s building and which words to use and how their edges fit, one to the next. Some edges beckon another word while others close the sentence down. There’s a rhythm in the placing of words – and in the placing of stones – and a rhythm in the finished pattern of a wall, as there is in the reading of words.
Here in the treefold, words and stones are now blended, static and held in place, but as I walk around to view the piece, to climb inside, to read the words, there is a movement … eventually there will be the constant movement of an aspen tree that sways and, over time, changes: season by season, year on year, within the solid, celebratory circle.
TREEFOLDS: GATHERING STONE
Harriett and Rob loading up the car with stones for the treefolds.
Harriet working out the letter spacing prior to their being carved.
Harriet with Pip Hall, the stone carver.
Marking out the site of the treefold before site works.
Residency funded by:
Get involved and support Common Ground: