Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Chris Watson

Chris Watson | 22nd December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Chris Watson:

There is something special about being amongst trees. We all know this; it’s a feeling within us. Groves, woodlands and forests are somehow magical, full of restfulness, excitement and wonder as well as being places where we sometimes, quite rightly, fear to tread.

During 2019 I have spent some memorable times amongst some remarkable trees.

Across February and March I made several trips out from Newcastle to the village of Stonehaugh at the south eastern edge of Kielder forest in Northumberland. Here there is a natural amphitheatre with a mixture of pine, birch and alder. It’s a sheltered acoustic where I can spend a couple of hours wandering along the Warks burn in search of otter spraints whilst listening out for dippers in the company of goldcrests and crossbills in conversation overhead. It’s the closest place to home where I can enter another world.

In the south of Tasmania fires have ravaged parts of the National forest. Huge areas of Stringy bark and Swamp gum eucalyptus trees have been destroyed. They have grown over centuries often to more than 30m high. This is temperate rainforest and during May, the Austral winter, the habitat is cold, wet and windy. I’m here for the Dark MoFo festival based up in Hobart. My commission is to present ‘Hrafn – Conversations With Odin’, an Ambisonic sound installation featuring a real-time winter roost of more than 2,000 northern hemisphere ravens gathering at sunset. The fires have spread bad news from the south so the festival invites me to install the work in an undamaged area close to the coast to encourage visitors to return. The Hastings Caves state forest reserve is chosen as it has a visitor centre to receive the audience and a series of boardwalks winding into the old growth. Lyre birds were introduced here from mainland Australia in the 1940’s and a small population now breeds here in winter. Before dawn I drive out along the narrow forest tracks, spotting a few Tasmanian devils returning home from their nightshift. Over sunrise the song of a Lyre bird bounces around the giant trunks and eventually finds its way onto the capsules of my Schoeps microphone array. This solo voice, with its wild mimicry wreathed in the winter stillness, conjures to my ears a strange sense of being somewhere unfamiliar and unsettling — whereas over sunset the sounds of ravens gathering unseen overhead heralds a spirit of regeneration.

The Great Wood Of Caledon in the Scottish Highlands now survives as pockets of managed resistance. Mosaic patterns of trees, heather and wetlands clustered around the Cairngorms and the Great Glen. The Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, was once part of the Taiga forest stretching eastwards from Alaska to Siberia. In late June, under the watchful eyes of a herd of Red deer, I spend time recording the sighs and moans wafting down from the canopy as the breeze catches the needles of three hundred year old pines on the royal estate at Balmoral. From a distance the collective rush of air sounds like an advancing waterfall which swirls past invisibly and leaves me high and dry on the forest floor waiting for the next wave. It’s perfect ambient mood music for a place where it’s impossible to hurry.

In late October I’m 7000ft up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, however from where I’m standing I can’t see the mountains for the trees. That’s because I’m surrounded by giants, the Sequoias. The figures don’t do them justice, however consider this: some of these Sequoias are over 90m tall — that’s around 300ft. They are also ancient, many more than 2,000 years old. Being in that sort of company can feel overwhelming. Anxious to listen to this place I head out at 0430h and drive to Crescent Meadow, which a local botanist has suggested might be a quiet location. Before sunrise I step into the darkness with 50m of cables and microphones. Within a few paces down the trail the red glow of my head torch illuminates a sign “Danger – Active bear area”. I set up my mikes hastily and return to my Dodge SUV still clutching 40m of cable, climb inside and record over sunrise whilst keeping a careful watch. The bark of Sequoias contain dark red tannins which act as a powerful insect repellent. Very few insects mean comparatively few birds and my favourite track from that cold, still morning is of a single raven circling and calling unseen from the canopy high above.

La Selva biological station in Costa Rica is within an area of tropical rainforest. At 0400h on December 11th it’s hot and uncomfortably humid. I meet Orlando from the scientific group who generously escorts to my recording location down 2Km of trails. Torches are essential. This section of forest has Fer-de-lance and Bushmaster snakes. Both are highly venomous pit vipers and not something you would wish to step on. Orlando scans the trail in front of our path by sweeping arcs of bright white light with his giant Maglight until we arrive at my GPS mark. With a warning not to stray off the track he walks back, leaving me temporarily blinded by the powerful beam. I click off my head torch and for around ten minutes I forget about recording and simply listen. In rainforests you see very little but hear everything, and although the pitch darkness is disorienting, I’m almost hypnotised by the sounds. A metallic wall of insect song, the nasal twang of Poison dart frogs and the clattering wingbeats of – ‘what on earth is that’? close by in the dense understory of foliage. For two hours I stand and record, scanning around my feet every few minutes with the feeble glow of my head torch until the grey/green sunlight burns through the canopy and reveals my isolation. I turn off my recorder and listen again to the howler monkeys, mealy parrots, broad billed motmots and all the other sounds beyond my knowledge which have turned this darkness into light.