As Gerry Loose speaks, the varnished wood of floors and tables slowly comes to life: whitewashed walls drift green with leaves. The Scottish writer, poet, and environmentalist is discussing his latest work, An Oakwoods Almanac, which records the time he spent living in and observing the Scottish Sunart and Finnish Saari oakwoods, and which instills a similar level of awareness in its audience, who listen intently to the author’s readings of its precise, poetic prose.
Despite its name, the work – which is paired with monochromes taken in the same locations by photographer Morven Gregor – is not just about oakwoods; it is intended, in the author’s words, to be ‘not just a study of the ecology of the landscape, but a cultural and social ecology of the people who interact with it, who have formed it and been formed by it’. Oak trees, indeed, don’t enter the text for quite a while, the work and the evening’s readings beginning instead with an account of wood ants, and the meandering thoughts of their observer.
An almanac is traditionally an annual agricultural publication containing forecasts and facts, the drifts of tides and stars, and less literal ephemera like farming folklore and rural curiosities. Gerry initially received the commission that allowed him to live in the woods in order to write poetry, but, when he arrived, he found that poetry wasn’t forthcoming. He kept instead a journal, and it is in this form that his moments of small wonder and humour unfold, each entry comprised of the day’s experiences ‘walking, examining, picking fruit and talking to people’, written up that evening.
The entries are not just a record of the author’s actions, however: they also include as mentioned the thoughts and speculations that surround these, a choice that creates a feeling of intimacy with both the speaker and his environs. This intimacy never becomes isolation, however, despite – or perhaps because of – the remote woodlands that surround it. ‘I was never lonely,’ Gerry insists of his time in both Sunart and Saari, ‘I enjoyed myself immensely’. Much as farming almanacs traditionally included rural ephemera, beside the facts and history of the landscapes he visited, Loose’s almanac also captures his conversations with locals and other visitors, the text teeming with different voices, from The Journal of Experimental Botany to a Finnish cyclist returning home from a long trip for vodka; from Basho to Maeterlinck, with everything between.
These different voices, then, the different types of text included, the mingling of fact and poetry such that the boundary between them blurs, and the combination of words with photographs, creates in the work a feeling not of disconnected seclusion, but of teeming synchronicity: something akin to the feeling of vast and incipient life perceived all around when walking in the woods. Morven’s photographs, which range from small details to vast landscapes, are the product not of an attempt to literally illustrate Loose’s prose, but, in her own laughing words, of a desire to ‘see the wood for the trees, or see the trees and the wood.’ Though working with different media, both artists shared a similar process: ‘spending a lot of time just wandering in and out amongst the trees’.
A sense of time features heavily in the text, but, much as the remoteness of the surroundings never falls into loneliness, this sense of time does not stagnate as the ageless arcadia of a romantically pasteurized pastoral: news of terror attacks emerge from radios above forest floors rich with ‘the mould of centuries’; barking groans of rutting stags mingle with the modern roar of fighter jets – and similar connections emerge between the different locations in the book too.
The author found that links emerged between Sunart and Saari far beyond the similarity of their trees. Despite their physical distance, the closeness of each community to the oakwoods around them, tending them, and being tended by them, made similar the lives of their peoples. This kind of discovery is an example of the ‘cultural and social ecology’ the author aimed for, of the ‘fruitful thinking’ he wished to achieve, and is one of the countless connections that comprise the living network of the text. The book and the evening became in this sense a kind of forest in themselves, a space of branching understandings and examined roots – and, as if that wasn’t enough, there was even home made strawberry cake too.