Journal

Q&A | The Long View </br>- Rob & Harriet Fraser

Q&A The Long View
- Rob & Harriet Fraser

This year, Millican Maverick, Rob Fraser and his wife Harriet, embarked on a project that set out to celebrate the beauty and value of seven unique Lake District trees. Their 'The Long View' exhibition is now available to view in the beautiful setting of Grizedale Forest, until August 31st. We caught up with them during their exhibition installation to find out more.

Words and Photography: Harriet & Rob Fraser

We have heard great things about your new project and exhibition - The Long View. Can you tell us a bit more about this project and how it came to be?

Thank you! We never know quite how news travels about what we’re up to but it’s always good to get positive feedback.

The Long View has its roots in a conversation we had back in 2010. We had only known each other for a couple of months and discovered that we both knew and loved the same sycamore on Whitbarrow Scar in south Cumbria. It stands, relatively isolated, on a vast expanse of exposed limestone pavement and has a kind of lollipop shape. We had both climbed and sat in it several times before we met.

We began to talk about trees and our creative impulses got the better of us. We decided it might be a good idea to visit seven trees repeatedly, in all weathers, through all four seasons, night and day.

Our working title for the project, while we developed our ideas, was ‘Seeing Seven Trees’ but we knew it would be about much more than just seeing. The project title, ‘The Long View’ came about when we were talking about the state of the environment and the way that being outside, and slowing down, can deepen our appreciation of the natural world, and through this, incline us to care for it. At this moment in time, there is a global decline in biodiversity and a destruction of wildlife habitats, largely caused by human activity. Repeated, slow journeys and plenty of time with the same trees has given us a chance to get a feel for specific locations, and to take a longer-term view of a place – in all seasons, and in the context of other people’s stories and its own natural and cultural history. It’s a gradual way of getting to know a place, and its many layers. Increasingly sophisticated technology and an endemic use of screens and social media seems to feed into a ‘now’ culture, with a desire for instant gratification; and this filtered view of life, we think, doesn’t help to mend a disconnection from the natural world around us. With this project we invite people to slow down, to pause, and to ‘take the long view’ when considering the environment. There’s another, simple reference too: each of the seven trees offers a fabulous, long, view to the hills and valleys beyond.

Once we had the right name, and our ideas were formed, we were able to start gathering funds. The organisations that have supported us have given a lot more than financial support: spending time with specialists at the Lake District National Park Authority, the Woodland Trust, the National Trust, Friends of the Lake District and Natural England has added to the insights we have gained from walking and working with farmers, and we’re continually learning. We’ve brought a lot of this information into the exhibition and the book, and have shared it during the public walks and schools work we did in 2016. We have walked to the trees with around 350 people, so there has been a lot of sharing!

Why these particular seven trees? How did you pick them?

Our intention was always to have seven trees, each of a different species. You might think it’s quite easy to find a tree but in fact it took us five years to come up with the septet. Each tree needed to have a visual quality so that it could be framed against the skyline and would provide interest through the seasons; so the trees had to stand apart. Each one also needed to have a presence, something that may be hard to define but we both had to feel moved by it.

We spent a lot of time looking, often going out on walks and coming back without having identified a tree. When we found contenders we sat and paused, looked, listened and tuned into the tree’s environment. When we both agreed, we selected that tree. It was almost as if we were drawn to the trees.

The Langstrath Birch was the tree that clinched our decision to do the project. We had headed off on a three-day walk and the tree caught our eye just 45 minutes into the first day. When we realized we’d been sitting with it for two hours we knew we wanted to get to know it better. Some trees we already knew – the Trout Beck Alder, for instance, was a tree Rob had photographed in 2004 when he walked for thirty days, taking just two photographs a day on an old-fashioned large format camera. The Kentmere Rowan surprised us. We knew its environment very well but hadn’t stopped to notice the tree before. It’s a stunner, rising out of a two-metre-high tooth of rock.

Why are you adding colour to the trees and what do the colours represent? How did you pick the colour for each individual tree?

There are a few layers to this. In the early days of planning we knew we wanted to find seven trees. It was a number that appealed to us both – not too many, not too few. It’s also the number of colours that emerge from white light when it is passed through a prism – the colours of a rainbow. As light is the indispensable ingredient of photography, this felt fitting. But there is another element. The seven colours of the rainbow are associated, in Indian philosophy, with the seven main chakras or energy points in the body. Each of these points is linked with a separate emotional and physical drive. For example, yellow, the colour connected with the solar plexus, is representative of will power and the energy of assertion or anger; red, the colour of the base chakra, is connected with putting down roots, and a sense of belonging. This symbolism of each colour added an extra dimension to our consideration of the trees, their environment, and our own relationship to them.

The physical act of adding colour to a place, and changing it, temporarily, was an invitation to others to look at what might be a familiar view in a new way. We’re interested in the way we as individuals and as a society feel connected to the places we love, and how we behave towards them. How do we react when they change? 

We knew early on that the Kentmere Rowan needed to be red: red is the colour of its berries, and red is the colour of the base chakra, of roots and as this tree sends its roots down two metres of rock before finding earth the roots are in full view. Red is also the colour that shepherds use to dress up their Herdwick sheep for show – we used ‘Show Red’ as a paint to stencil a poem onto rocks.

We chose which colour to add to the other trees through repeatedly visiting them, becoming familiar with their environments. We decided over time, drawing our inspiration from the trees, their locations and the way we felt when we were with them. In the chakra system, as in a rainbow, the seven colours follow an order from red to violet. But our response to the trees meant that what emerged is a fragmented rainbow - all the constituent parts but not in the expected order. The departure from the natural flow of the spectrum began as a practical choice but we have come to see this as a metaphor: the disruption of something considered to be unchangeable, like a rainbow, offers a reflection of the state of the environment, with depleted habitats and species loss. 

The colour transformations were fleeting; our interventions are removed, or fade, while the elements of earth, wood, stone, water and air retain supremacy. There is no trace except in photographs and in our memories, an altered perception of seven ordinary trees.

We know Grizedale takes the lead in connecting and celebrating art sculptures and installations with the natural landscape. You are doing some great projects to support this and spreading important messages. How do you intend to keep spreading these messages, connecting the landscape with the community, and use art and creativity to have a voice and make a difference?

We feel enormously privileged to be showing our work at Grizedale and adding to the legacy of work there. Our own work is rooted in a response to the natural world and we enjoy running projects that create opportunities for others to have new or different encounters with place. We have no intention of stopping what we’re doing and will continue to get outside, to photograph and to write.

The development of The Long View installations and our collaboration with screen printers and wood workers for the exhibition has opened up new avenues of thought for us, so we are planning more sculptural and 3D work in the future. We will also continue working in partnership with individuals and organisations whose work inclines them to care for the environment, and, with them, to thrash out some of the very difficult and pressing questions that we are faced with now, with a changing climate and continuing pressure on natural resources. And when it comes to working with schools and communities, wherever possible we like to bring walking into this: it loosens up mind and body and always makes for interesting conversations. As for making a difference – this always begins with small actions, with conversations, decisions, commitments, so continuing to engage with people both in person and online or through books and exhibitions feels important. We are so heartened when people get in touch to let us know they have been inspired to do something positive in their own locality.

Behind every artwork, photograph or poem there is always a long process and that remains fundamental. We both have to be outside, for prolonged periods of time, to create what we do – and to feel good in our own bodies. It’s important for our physical, mental and creative health so we can’t imagine doing anything else!

As mentioned at your exhibition you reflect on the value of slowing down and pausing outside... something here at Millican we strongly relate too. What is your ultimate way of slowing down, disconnecting, and getting lost?

Ha! Is there an ultimate way? It always begins with the first step of a walk, and the gradual slowing down that comes with the increased distance between us and the four walls of a building, or the confines of a car. Then, within every walk, there is an ease. We seldom rush. We stop often, whenever something catches our attention. Rob might want to photograph something; I might stop to make notes. Or we just look – the way a cloud shrouds the craggy top of a hill, a caterpillar on a leaf, a dewdrop on clover, the sight of a hare running. Today we were amazed by an owl lifting from the moor in broad daylight while we were walking between farms as part of a project in the Yorkshire Dales. There is so much richness around us. While we do sometimes make very long walks, and both of us have stood on most of the Lakeland tops (not to mention many Himalayan hills) our goal these days is seldom to reach the peaks. It is simply to be present from moment to moment.

As far as getting lost is concerned, we don’t tend to lose our place as Rob is a very good map reader and navigator. But we do get lost in time, ignoring watches and clocks, which become irrelevant when you need to respond only to place, physical comfort, hunger and light.

And you ask about disconnection – you mean, I think, disconnecting from ‘daily’ life of obligations, electricity, buildings, WiFi. But what we experience is, rather, a connection or re-connection, with the fundamentals of life: our own bodily rhythms, our creative impulses, and the elements around us. It’s like plugging in and it feels essential.    

We all have a favourite tree from our childhood that we can look back on, reminding us of special memories, specific walks, one we used to climb, ones that grew in our family garden... What are your favourite memories/stories from your favourite tree?

Harriet: I have a few. I think it’s the very tall beech tree that I climbed in spite of my mum begging me not to. Luckily I never fell out. There are many trees I climbed as a child and it’s something I still love doing. I don’t have a favourite, though. What has been interesting about doing The Long View is that there are now seven individual trees that feel like friends and I will keep on visiting them, sitting with them, leaning into their trunks. There’s a kind of ‘coming home’ in that.

Rob: I spent my early years in Somerset, grew up on the edge of the Levels. Before phones the only way to arrange to meet mates was to agree on a time and a place whilst at school. A favoured meeting spot was an old pollarded willow on the banks of the River Parrett that we named exotically The Rocket. It had been struck by lightning and was more dead than alive but four of us could get inside it if it rained. I have also been fascinated by bonsai – the art of keeping trees small by continually pruning their roots and branches – and have assembled a collection of my own for nearly thirty years. I think that kind of close attention to something so beautifully small has increased my love for trees. 

What do you want people to take from the project? How can people get involved with the project?

What we’d love is that people come away from the exhibition, or from reading the book, or a blog post, with the impulse to get outside and look more closely, or differently, at what is around them. Maybe make a plan to spend some slow time outdoors, or get involved with one of our partners with volunteering or conservation work – there are opportunities across the UK. We’re really pleased as well when our work gets people talking about environmental issues and we’d like to think that what we present is offering inroads into discussions that can seem a bit impenetrable or overwhelming if presented only scientifically, or only through politics. We’re not the kind of people who rant but we do feel passionately about the importance of nurturing and protecting the natural world. We often refer to words spoken by Sir David Attenborough, that pretty much sum up what we feel:

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

People can get involved with The Long View by sharing their stories with us through thelongview.today and through visiting the exhibition, which will be touring the UK next year, after its showing in Grizedale this summer (open daily 10am-5pm until August 31st). They can also add their voices and signature to the forthcoming Charter for Trees, Woods and People which aims to influence policy in the future in a way that protects trees and ancient woodlands, and promotes an increase in tree cover (treecharter.uk). Projects we have in the pipeline will have more opportunities for joining walks and other events – but we can’t say too much about that now! 

What exciting projects are you planning next?

We are going to be busy in the next few months with the creation of a legacy for The Long View – something very exciting that is part of a bigger nationwide project, but we’re not allowed to talk about it quite yet. Sorry!

Today we have been out with farmers in the Yorkshire Dales where we are running a project about farming and landscape, meeting farmers across the dales to discover more about their points of view, the traditions of farming and emerging practices in changing times. We’re working in partnership with the Farmer Network and the Yorkshire Dales National Park (dalesfarmers.co.uk). We’re really enjoying getting to know people who know individual dales, woodlands and moors intimately. We’ll be working with schools on this and have a great team of volunteers involved as well. The photographic, written and audio work will be exhibited in the Dales Countryside Museum later this year, and will be archived at the museum and the University of Leeds.

For a future large-scale project, well, we are full of ideas, too many perhaps. We are planning a week away in the autumn to refine our thoughts. Whatever we come up with, it will be something in the outside. We feel passionatly about the environment and want to continue to work in a way that engages others in considering all the elements that make up a landscape, and why each element matters. 

By the way, we have decided that just because The Long View has officially finished, we won’t stop visiting these seven remarkably ordinary trees. They are like old acquaintances now. Maybe there will be a project called The Longer View

We share what we’re up to regularly through FaceBook and Twitter and on our website, www.somewhere-nowhere.com, and will continue to post blogs at thelongview.today. Plus 'The Long View' book is now available to buy here > http://www.somewhere-nowhere.com/shop/  

Leave a comment