a walking conversation (1992)

herman de vries visited the Royal Botanic Garden in May for the exhibition 'The Unpainted Landscape'. This was his first visit to Scotland, and his itinerary was to be guided by the locations of certain plant species which he would study and collect; thier familiarity bringing more than reassurance, to provide the basis for his continuing study of geographic variation in the physical and chemical properties of significant plants.

He returned in October 1989 during his exhibition 'flora', to make work for this exhibition, and to study plants in the herbarium, glasshouses, rock garden and arboretum. The following extract is taken from a conveisation made at that time during the collection of branches from 56 species of tree and shrub in the arboretum, a living outdoor 'tree museum'. As we walkeed, herman would notice certain species which were very familiar to him, being common in the hedgerows and forests around his home, and others which were completely new, brought from locations world-wide to trow together in an artificial but fascinating juxtaposition.

Specimens were collected, and carefully identified from their labels - with species name in latin (the international language of plant description), common name where it existed, the family which the plant belonged and its country of origin.

The following extract is taken from a recording made by Paul Nesbitt on 11 July 1992, in the oldest beech forest in Germany, (Kleinengelein, in the Steigerwald) for the Art & Science Conference 'Order, Chaos and Creativity', 29 & 30 August 1992. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Can you remember how long you have been interested in plants

ever since i was a little boy. when i was five years old i already knew the names of most common plants - except grasses, around our town near the dunes of north holland. my parents stimulated my interest very much, and later they bought me a picture book so that i could identify plants for myself. after i met suzanne and we went to holland together for the first time, we went to the dunes where i remembered beautiful valleys in which grew parnassia and wintergreen and creeping willow, but we v were prevented from going further by a fence, and when i looked over this fence there, in the valley of my youth, stood the first dutch atomic power station.

the needles of this tree look like the pines of our forest, but it is pinus densiflora from china and japan - different from pinus sylvestris, the scots pine. the destruction of the native scots pine forest represents another chapter in our cultural history. after the occupation of scotland by the english many forests were felled for their wood, and for charcoal with which to smelt iron ore. i believe that near loch maree there were three furnaces which used 150 hectares of mature forest each year. when i came to scotland for the first time i saw on the maps the names of many forests, but when i visited these places, i found not forest, but moorland, or grazing land. realizing the impoverishment of this landscape, i studied all the topographical maps and made the text of a book in memory of the scottish forests, containing the names of all those lost forests. but with a book you don't get back a forest.

A book con evoke however the memory of those forests, which is a beginning.

of course; it is a contribution to our becoming conscious of it, which is also what art's about. art is one of the very small number of things in life which we have no definition for. but for me at least, it has to do with consciousness, or becoming conscious. unless we change our environmental consciousness, it will be too late; not for nature which can become poorer and poorer by our means and still survive, as it has throughout the history of earth, but for ourselves. we will be gone. people think we have to protect nature for itself; we have to protect nature for our selves ...

i am using a sickle to cut a twig from this cherry tree - one of the oldest human activities, harvesting. it has a human scale and the person who cuts with the sickle has a relationship with the plant being cut. it is a big distance from the sickle to the harvesting machine, and one of the reasons why we have lost our connection with nature. but what can i say; i fly to edinburgh in a plane, and when i make an exhibition with twigs, leaves, earth - or when i go to the printer who prints poetry - i use my car. i do not drive big distances, but still i use it.

perhaps the most direct connection to our environment is our sense of smell (i prefer to use the word life space rather than environment because for me it has the sense of us being a part of it more). when we were in the rock garden and peat house, i smelled the juices from small-leaved species of ledum and rhododendron. every species smelled different, and you can with some experience identify many plants from their smell. we have no words to describe this, and it's nice to do something that we don't need words for. our nose has perhaps the most direct connection to our environment of all our organs, although i don't like to use the word environment, i prefer the word 'life space' because that unites us with it.

We cut a branch from Caragana arborescens, a member of the pea family, which releases a pungent odour into the warm air.

i would never eat from this tree. the smell is a sign - it would make me sick i think, but it's a kind of signal that many of us have lost our sense for. we don't need these senses in a supermarket, and when we no longer have supermarkets we have lost our orientation in the world!

How does this relate to the branch of a cherry tree which we are about to collect?

in springtime when the forest around my village is without leaves, you see cherries flowering on the hillsides, like white clouds between the trees. i have worked with them in autumn, by laying down card beneath the tree and as the leaves fall onto it, fixing them in the positions where they have fallen so that i have that moment made visible. and i feel that i have to make visible that which people don't see anymore. but it's about randomness in nature as well, that particular work. randomness and chance. in the beginning i said when a leaf falls from a tree there are many factors making the leaf at a certain moment fall on a certain point and this togetherness i called randomness. but later i saw that everything is causal, and 'randomness' in fact expresses our inability to grasp the complexity of all these causes.

We walk along, through the autumn smells of rotting leaves, cutting twigs for our collection and just as we debate whether it is randomness or chance which determines our choice of where to stop, we discover another cause - fascination!

fascination has a cause - many causes, yes of course. i am fascinated by the aspect of completely unrelated species resembling each other so closely that it becomes difficult to recognise the differences. in this closeness is a diversity which is remarkable to witness and to experience.

This is one of the prime functions of the Royal Botanic Garden - the identification and classification of plant species, so how would you say your work differed from that of a botanist?

they have different points of departure to do with consciousness i hope, and the herbarium (a reference 'library' of over two million preserved plant specimens) where we were working yesterday, is a collective work of art made by botanists. it certainly fits into what my idea of art is - but that is not so important. what is important is that such differences do not always exist. this is what language does; language is 'you and me', 'we and them', 'here and there', whereas in effect, it is all part of the same, it is one. but language is a human instrument of great power, like words of sorcery. it gives us the means to communicate what we are doing, what is around us, and gives us a grip on reality and great social power, but also we pay for it in the loss of unity. but still i am talking!

You have your own collections of living and preserved plants, but also a museum of earth samples collected from all over the world.

yes, there are i think about 2,400 samples. about ten percent has been collected by friends, and the rest i have collected myself. sometimes i have a large sample from a particular region, such as the three hundred samples i have from groningen in holland - many of them very similar, but always different in some way. from the island of gomera in the canaries which is an important place for me, i have collected 350 samples, each very different because gomera is an old volcanic island, and there you have red, white, yellow, orange, grey and brown earth. in scotland i have collected yellow earth, orange earth and even very red earth from the shores of loch kishorn.

What do your earth samples represent to you?

everything represents always something. earth signifies so much because it is the basis of life; on which all plants grow, on which we stand. but i am interested of course not only in earth. i like to see lakes and streams because water is present in all living things; not because of it - that is an intellectualisation of it, but because i love streams.

source: Paul Nesbitt, 'a walking conversation', in herman de vries. documents of a stream. the real works 1970-1992 (Royal Botanic Garden : Edinburgh 1992) 4-7 (ill.).