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Tree Lines: An imagined place

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

If asked to image a tree line what would you think of?

Walking the tree line on the slopes of Aonach Mor

I've asked people this question and commonly people describe a scene that might be found in the Rockies or the Alps- a place where you might be able to find the stark horizontal line the pine trees make when they reach their climatic limit, beyond which they wouldn't survive. Another answer people give is the edge of a non-native forestry woodland, where the tightly packed spruces create an obvious straight line across an otherwise treeless hillside, forming geometric shapes planted purely as a wood supply. It seems few people think about Scotland having natural tree lines but they do exist in theory, if not physcially. Generally considered somewhere between 600-650m up the hillsides (varying depending on region and aspect among other things) I decided to develop a socially engaged art project around the idea of our lost tree line in an attempt to bring it back into our imaginations as Olya Esipova passionately discusses in her TEDx talk how the power of the imagination can be the first building block to action and conservation solutions (1). Perhaps if we can conjur up an imagined tree line, one that is suitable for our local hillsides, resilient in the face of climate change and beneficial for people and wildlife alike, then perhaps we might feel a little more invested to partake in pro environmental actions going forward.

Collecting tree notes at sea level

Tree notes made by participants during a walk

To begin with, I wanted to collect examples of existing connections to trees lower down the mountainsides- close to our local urban areas at sea level. Devising a series of walks to suit each group I went out with, I collected a total of 48 responses recorded on A5 paper which I then stitched together to make a concertina book. This collective book of responses to trees has provided me with a literal line and a starting point to symbolically take elsewhere- from sea level to the tree line; from reality to the imagined. This initial stage was not only a way of collecting a community response to our existing trees however, it was also about providing an oppotunity for learning, sharing and exchanging knowledge between participants- giving rise to the chances of becoming more rooted to our local natural woodlands and environment. As the environmental writer Gooley states, "names are dead words until we find meaning in them, but as soon as we do, the species behind them can find new life in our imagination” (2). It is through finding this meaning by sharing stories, walking through and being in these environments that these species become more alive in our imaginations, ultimately deepening our care and inate understanding of place.

Carrying the tree notes to the tree line

Creating a symbolic tree line on the slopes of Ben Nevis

The next phase of the project consisted of a series of slightly more arduous walks with hillgoing participants to take the conretina book of tree notes to the tree line on our local mountainsides. What did these tree lines (approximately 600m above sea level) look like? What would we find out?

Although the weather has been against us this autumn, I have been able to go out with willing participants four times so far and collected many conversations around land access rights, barriers to engaging with the outdoors as well as topics around trees and what should or could be done in the name of conservation. Each time, of course, the what-should-be tree line was treeless and the act of pulling out the concertina book made a stark literal line that visually cut over the purple moor-grass. These walks gave particular rise to the issues around outdoor engagement and the still dominant culture of conquering mountain peaks. The act of walking up to a non-descript area, somewhere around half-way up the mountains, felt oddly liberating. The perfect excuse to not feel pressured into having to carry on or accept 'defeat' by not getting to the top as that was never the goal. Given the rise of appreciation of hyper local nature since covid restrictions began, with research suggesting that up to 70% people notice local nature more since lock-down (3), the act of slowing down and appreciating what is around us is a poignant prompt to perhaps refrain from always feeling the need to reach summits of mountains to truly appreciate them. Of course there will always be a place for this, but given what many of us have learned in the wake of the Covid pandemic, let's make more room for wandering somewhere between sea level and an imagined tree line and be more open to discovering along the way.

Keep an eye out for more updates on this project, coming soon!


List of References

1. Esipove, O. (2016) Is Imagination the Key to Saving Mother Earth? [video file]. Retrieved from <> [15 November 2020]

2. Gooley, T. (2014) How To Connect With Nature. London: Macmillan

3. Lemmey, T. (2020) Connection with nature in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown. Carlisle: University of Cumbria (Unpublished)

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