Back to Home Page
Artists Community Send us Info
Membership Frequently Asked Questions About Us Search
See other Writings

Do You Want the Light On?

by Martin Spray

This is part of the Toolbox for Managers
FIRST, THE APOLOGY. In such a relatively small and densely peopled place as England, relief from the signs of urbanism is scarce; the Hand of Man shows on nearly everything, and predominates on much of the land. We have no real wilderness - but there are projects afoot to rewild some areas. I once part-seriously proposed that the Forest which borders our garden might be one of these. I don't think anyone else took it in any degree seriously!

The Royal Forest of Dean itself is borderland, where England marches with Cymru (a.k.a. Wales). Royal, because technically it is property of the Crown not the State (Yes: it is the 21st. century over here….), it was long reserved for hunting, then grew timber for the Navy, and is now administered by the national Forestry Authority. As it is still cheaper and more convenient to cut down other peoples' forests and ship them here, the Forest of Dean is at present at least as much use as a 'recreational resource' as for a standing crop of wood. It has been a 'forest park' since 1938.

walking forest
I must explain that the Dean is a huge area of woodland… for England. The present treed area is about 27,000 acres. (That's around 120 sq. km. - less than 50 sq. miles. Visiting Quebec students once teasingly asked me where the other 50,000 square miles were…) 'Woodland' in this case doesn't imply natural, or self-regeneration: it is very nearly all row-by-row plantation, much of it non-native. Nonetheless, it is an attractive place, relatively wild, with de facto open access.

In 1986, catalysed by the pioneering - and much larger - enterprise in Grizedale Forest in the English Lake District, at first seven, then 18 sculptures, by artists of local, national, and international repute, were placed in artist-selected sites in one of the more popular parts of the Dean. Amongst the names represented are Zadok ben David, Ian Hamilton Finlay, David Nash, Peter Randall-Page and Sophie Ryder. A few others have followed; but long-term development appears to be undecided.

As we lived just a few miles away, finding them - or trying to - was a regular part of family walks for a while. And I enjoyed them also when exploring the woods by myself. From my point of view (naturalist, beard-and-sandals, averse to urban culture, crowds, &c.), when the sculptures were new to the forest they were greatly more interesting than now, and not merely because of novelty. They had simply been placed. Signage was almost nil; clearance around the sculptures was minimal, as were surfacing and draining; and they were not nodes on a defined trail.

They soon were. About 50,000, five times the predicted number of visitors, came to see them in the first year. A handful of years on, the gravel-surfaced paths, numerous waymarks, and (ironically) the very visible presence of other visitors - very many of whom now expect the forest to have the 'facilities' of an urban park writ large, with 'health and safety' concerns kept foremost - all had detracted from the original charm. Now each year over 100,000 'do' the trail, and forest rangers rate it highly as a device for getting people away from their cars for about 2½ hours. Before popular demand led to the establishment of the waymarked trail, the art provided a far greater pleasure - more delight - than subsequently. This is not (only) a factor of familiarity; it is because the experience of them as parts of their places was more satisfying. I don't think this is only my subjective view - though I may be being a bit selfish about it!

Although the pieces didn't all 'fit' their settings especially well, in the early months they 'belonged' more. Hundreds of thousands of pairs of feet, and thousands of bicycles (which shouldn't have been there), have created voids - often muddy - between the sculptures and their woodland matrix. In some cases, even a couple of metres seems enough to cause detachment. Now, my response to them is too much like that I have to much other sculpture. They have almost become what they were not - gallery exhibits. Some of the sculptures appeared no longer to be part of the forest - they came to seem more like pieces of art displayed within the forest.

This may be a minority opinion. However, some other early visitors also patently enjoyed finding a sculpture, rather than queuing on the hardcored track to stand next to it. Some didn't mind having to push branches aside to reach a sculpture - they looked as though they didn't want to be able to see the piece long before they reached it. Perhaps they and I all enjoyed, and wanted, the chance of serendipity. Certainly, I at least wanted the 'artworks' - however skilful, and whether they echoed the local small-scale coal-mining, or quarrying, or celebrated some of the wildlife, and the trees themselves, or encouraged one to see the forest from a different perspective - to feel as though they were integral, autochthonous, parts of the forest. That is largely a vain wish. What we call 'art' is a separately pigeonholed part of our lives; it is not part of our ecology in the way that the Native Australians' 'art' is part of their total relationship with their land. However, the forest was hiding sculptures, and the search for them was fun.

forest walking
It is presumptuous and a little self-centred to ask - but, is this loss of serendipity and diminishing of fun the inevitable consequence of popularity?

Mea culpa. I too could not resist climbing on and otherwise exploring the works that were really intended only as eye-pleasure. That may be a sign of a successful artist, of course... but the almost inevitable consequence of assuming such a freedom is wear, tear and detachment. To some extent, one can repair or ameliorate such 'damage' (if that is how it's perceived). Or preempt it… but I recall, for instance, finding a beautiful smooth-curved stone figure that had been carefully nestled in a sweep of English parkland, yet was rectilinearly detached from its temporary place by what looked like a concrete paving slab plinth. It made a potential new part of the landscape into an object placed in it. The park was a grassy gallery. (As such, it was a delightful one.)

The Forest's Sculpture Trail was not intended as a gallery. Nor were all the pieces intended to be longlasting. One made of bracken was soon gone; some, of untreated wood, mouldered after a few seasons: the mouldering kept them fairly well attached to their places! Remedial work and substitution helped a couple - but the charm they had is much diminished. Yet… one can find most of them charming, and more of the forest, in the right conditions.

Often rain, or snowfall, most often mist, brings back much of the original charm and intimacy, and something of the serendipity of the early days - when one could easily overlook several of the sculptures. But it is in twilight, or moonlight, even when one can still see that the trees stand in rows, and aren't native, that something like magic starts to come back to the Forest. Even though one is never more than a mile or so from a tarmac road, civilisation is put aside a little - just a little. Also, fewer people are about.

It is, however, in the embracing darkness of night that one can have the woods as one's own. Then, maybe grudging the light of a torch, one can find these pieces of art belonging to the Forest again. It's as if they relax. It is, of course, the night rambler who relaxes. (I found this to be case, once I'd learned the topography and main paths. The Forest is a relatively safe area - but it felt much more so only a decade ago.)

I'm less surprised now, than I used to be when (even so recently!) danger from fellow citizens was less, how few people walk at night - but it is sad that so few people enjoy the countryside of the dark. For several years, I took friends and classes of students around the trail and other parts of the Forest in the dark - the students only unofficially, alas, as the web of Health & Safety forbad it otherwise. Hardly any had done such a thing before. Not a few were nervous (remember this is in lowland English plantation, not a relic of primeval wilderness!). Almost all were delighted.

So was I - especially one spring when there with a group of mainly fine art students. They had previously 'done' the Sculpture Trail in daylight. In May, parts of the Dean are wall-to-wall carpeted in amethyst-blue, and washed on a calm evening by scent: we probably have the world's best displays of the bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. These we enjoyed just before starting our walk (only five miles) at dusk. Light rain started simultaneously. By the time we were amongst the sculptures, the sky was a continuous blackness… and rounds of thunder had joined in. Then the lightning. For about an hour, we were treated to a Wagnerian performance in the wet, blind-black forest that we moved through by torchlight, but could see with brilliant clarity at each flash.

Wonderful!.... Wonderful! I have never found 'outdoor art' so very right - so well-fitting, so much belonging in its environment, as during this Donner und Blitzen. In those brilliantly lit slices of time and forest, the sculptures I was familiar with to the point of being blase, or bored, were re-enchanted. If only we could arrange such things….


FOUR NOVEMBERS ago, the same part of the Forest of Dean, newly released from foot-and-mouth disease limbo, hosted 'Lightshift'. In just a week, some 40,000 visitors (not a few locals made repeat visits) came to see two dozen light installations, including giant fireflies zipping through the trees, laser-beam dances, red smoke-plumes burped from a pond, luminescent hands germinating from a trackside open grave, and waterfalls (back-projected videos) pouring from the canopy.

Forty thousand was way beyond the prediction. It was difficult to linger and contemplate, so many others wanted to see. Nearly 15,000 went on the last evening, but parts of the trail needed repair after just one night. It was a very temporary show; and some of the contributions - fascinating or beautiful - would have been incongruous as permanent residents. It was highly successful. There are to be more lights in the Forest. In 2006, the Sculpture Trail's twentieth year, some new permanent works are intended for daytime visiting, and more art-in-the-dark. I look forward especially to the latter. It means an inundation of feet, disturbance of wildlife and some sheep, many more car journeys, more resources used, more of the paraphernalia of urbanisation, and a risk of propagating the view that 'the countryside' is (just) a place for fun, and a setting in which artists can show their creations. These are some of the negatives. Yet it also means that a lot more people can see that 'art' doesn't live only in museums, and that (while it isn't Art) some of it is fun; it means more people introduced to part of the British countryside, and it gets them to walk in the woods at night.

The evening I saw Lightshift, the moon was near its fullness in a clear sky, and it joined in. Just as though it was arranged.

For the sculpted forest see the Forest of Dean website. Sculptures in the Forest of Dean. Rupert Martin, 1990, Redcliffe Press, Bristol, describes the setting up and first years of the Trail.

For Lightshift, see e.g. this site..

Martin Spray is an ecologist who recently retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, where he taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics. He is an editor of Ecos - A review of conservation, and reviews editor for Landscape & Arts. He writes for a variety of magazines on conservation, landscape, and gardens. He has Parkinson's Disease.

The British Association of Nature Conservationists

Landscape and Arts Network

© 2010