The Gallows Tree

deadtree

I need to see the sunrise. I have to. To film it, record it, capture it. To let it wash over me. Over this project. It’s the missing part. The missing link. The final solitary jigsaw piece that’s buggered off below the couch into an apparent abyss. I’ve got everything else after all. Filmed it, penned it, recorded it. Every shade, every angle, every mood. Yet this is the one that evades, that taunts. A masterpiece can never be a masterpiece if it’s missing a piece. No matter how small, large or vital that piece may be. That’s simple logic. That’s cutting through the jargon, the artistry, to arrive at the truth. What’s a sunset without a sunrise? An ending without a beginning. A finale without an introduction. Death without birth. A masterpiece need’s it’s purpose, it’s opening. And this is my masterpiece.  My Sistine Chapel. My Citizen Kane. My Mona Lisa. I will become the art, the art will become me. A recognition, admiration, a lasting epitaph. Or, at least, it will be once I get this bloody sunrise captured. That’s why I climb. Why I struggle. Why I falter through the uneven hillside under the shadow of darkness. To reach the outline near the top. The crooked pyre. The contorted monolith. The subject of my masterpiece. The Gallows Tree.

The Auld Gallows Tree to be more precise. There it stands above me. Some twenty yards or so. A dark silhouette framed by the even darker clouds and skies above. A gothic beacon on an otherwise barren hillside. Jagged, wrinkled, pleading almost. A decrepit, skeletal sinner’s hand thrust through the soil, reaching up to the heavens. Even from a distance as close as this the branches seem pencil thin. Intricately drawn outlines traversing their own fragmented and wayward path. A tree I know. One I could draw in my sleep. A tree that knows me. One that’s peered down on me, on my house, what was once my parents’ house, on its isolation at the foot of the hill throughout my life and beyond. To me an eternity. To the tree, nothing more than a brief glint in its long history. A minuscule scratch in its vast tapestry of lines and rings.

A history so expansive, one so varied. Infused with life, death, worship. The tree and the land around it has seen the birth of Pictish Kings, Wicca rituals, battles, both religious and political, fought in its shadow. A sight of pilgrimage for thousands throughout the dark and middle ages. It’s proximity to heaven, within ‘touching distance of the Lord’, affording it its revered status. And, of course, it was the sight of one of the many hundreds of clandestine, yet hugely attended, Covenanters gatherings during the Killing Time. Thousands would flock to the hillside, through a myriad of weather conditions, to listen to Preachers booming their sermons, their doctrine, to the assembled mass of believers. Outlawed, hunted, yet defiant. And the subsequent fallout from this period of history is where the name ‘Gallows Tree’ originated from. Whilst many Covenanters were sent to the infamous mass prison at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh, many others were killed where they worshiped. And so it was that hundreds, if not thousands, were hanged from the very tree they had once seen as a symbol of their salvation, a symbol of their faith. And yet, for all of that, the tree sits on the hillside largely ignored. No brown tourist road sign highlights its existence, its prominence. Not even so much as a crudely-scrawled symbol on a local tourist map. A forgotten feature on a forgotten landscape; tourists and day-trippers directed in their droves towards the nearby neolithic standing stone circle instead.

And so that’s the reason I’m doing this. That’s why I’ve invested so much time, so much effort, in this project. To celebrate its individuality, its isolation, its solitude. Seemingly forgotten, ignored, shunned by all. But no more. This crooked, crippled collection of bark has been there for me. Throughout my life. Watching, peering, whispering comfort. In a scattered rural setting such as this, where next door neighbours can be, and often are, several miles apart, it has been a constant. A companion. Stability. Every morning as a child I’d stare out my bedroom window and it would be there, affixed on the hillside above. Basking in sunlight, wilting under a rainstorm, decadently bathing within a snowy landscape. Every morning there. Grasping at the low hanging clouds. Often slowly revealing itself amid the rolling mist caressing the grassy verge. But always there. I sketched it, time and again. Researched its past, its fables, its ghosts. Wrote about it, wrote to it. Talked to it. Hid my dreams, my worries, my darkest thoughts deep within the scraggly arms of its embrace. I uttered my goodbyes when I set off for pastures new. Shamefully shuffled back to its presence years down the line when pastures new dissipated into nothingness, an ex-wife and a tribe of step children trailing in my wake. A long-term job lost, discarded, scattered into a chasm of indifference. It offered no judgment, no flash of disappointment, no scorn. Just stability. I’ve climbed this hill in school clothes, pyjamas, work clothes. And twice in the last two years I’ve climbed this hill in my Sunday Best straight from the kirkyard, clambering to the tree for solace, for comfort. For answers. Returning to an empty house. To echoes. Memories. And still it watches. Over me. For me. I need it. And it needs me.

The town hall has been booked for an age. The best part of my inheritance gone into hiring its space for six months. They were reluctant to allow me the booking initially. Isn’t it generally artists that usually create art installations such as this? Why for so long? A tree you say? They’ve had to move meetings, coffee mornings, cancel anniversaries, birthdays, wedding parties. It has to be done though. This exhibition, this art installation, demands to be seen. To be witnessed. To be understood. A audio-visual homage to the Gallows Tree. A celebration of its history, its characters, its stories. Its meaning. Shining a light on its existence, its ethereal majesty. Dragging it metaphorically up by its roots from its hillside seclusion and thrusting it into the eyes of the wider population. Forgotten no more. I’ve filmed it day and night, night and day. Every day for months on end. From this angle, from that angle. In every conceivable shade, mood, pose. All weathers, all conditions. Recorded it constantly; cataloguing every sound, every storm, every raindrop, every creak of its branches. Written pages, screeds, tomes on every aspect of the tree. Every historic moment from its past, every character, every death. The hall will be smothered in information; sketches of the tree, photographs, film, branches connecting the stories, the characters. All creaking under the continual, relentless sounds of the tree’s muted entreaties. Every single object cluttering my house, my mind, will be unloaded and presented to the world.

The Tree of Life, that tree in American Gods, the one in Sleepy Hollow, The Giving Tree, all the trees in the Suicide Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. Trees of fiction, trees of legend, trees of myth. All of them, I repeat, all of them will pale into insignificance in the shadow of the The Gallows Tree once I unveil it to the wider population. Bringing an end to its isolation, an end to the ignorance. All prepared, all waiting, all ready for the curtain call. Or it would be if it wasn’t for this bloody sunrise that I just can’t quite seem to capture right. I’ve captured enough perfect sunsets, enough raging storms, enough exquisitely-picturesque strands of lightning to last an eternity. But the sunrise still eludes me. Any time I think I have it, the camera fails, the light dims, a cloud forces its way into the frame. Any number of factors pollute the waters, the stream of perfection I’m striving for, the one the tree so richly deserves.

So here I stand once more, perched on the hillside. Perched below the tree. Waiting, pleading, begging for the sunrise to creep from the shadows and weave its way through those jagged limbs. To provide me with the beginning, the opening, the introduction I’ve been grasping for all this time. The final piece of the masterpiece. The finishing touch one day before the launch of the installation. The skies above me start to lose their darkness, becoming lighter, penetrable even. Flickers of the morning sun start puncturing the gloom, shards of light dotting the surrounding hills. This is it. The moment. The final I dotted, the last T crossed. I quickly empty the camera from my bag, draping its strap around my neck. Waiting. Poised. Trembling. The weight of history, of relevance, of myself, sparking throughout my tired bones, my gasping veins. Light. Creeping. Finally. Slowly, painfully slowly. Creeping. Creeping. Edging into shot. The perfect shot. The once a day, perfect, film opening, exhibition launching shot. Poised. Ready. Waiting. And…gone. A cloud edging into view a split-second before my finger slams down on the button. Another blurry picture of the tree to add to the collection. The sunrise obscured by cloud, obscured by fate. I sink to my knees, throwing the camera to the ground in the process. My last chance gone. Defeat. Perfection slipping from my grasp. Once more.

I pull my bag closer to me as the clouds scatter every which way, the sun nestling high above the earth, announcing daybreak to the sleep-laden Northern Hemisphere. A familiar battalion of mist begins its march up the hillside, engulfing all in its path, creeping up towards my position beneath the tree. I rummage in my bag, an eerie calmness suffocating me, warding off the emptiness, the anxiety, the darkness. A final cruel placid twist of fate. A sanguine warmth grasped within the flames of failure. A mocking light within a perpetual darkness. The knowledge that this has been planned for. This failure. This eventuality. A shift in focus, a shift in tone. There can be no true ending without a beginning. The ending sought for fallen by the wayside, a new ending required. The Gallows Tree must be seen, must be noticed, must be revered. It’s isolation shattered, it’s solitary vigil brought to an end. I pull the rope out of my bag and push myself up off the ground, glancing down one last time at the empty shell of a house below. Silent. Long ago deserted. Bereft of feeling, of meaning, of life. Letters have been written, instructions detailed. Six months earlier than planned, but planned nonetheless. My epitaph. Carved into the tree, its roots, for all eternity. The tree will have its moment. It will. Its name will step forth into the light once more. I throw the rope around one of the thicker branches protruding from the crooked frame, a tight noose at the other end dangling in the air, swinging gently above the encroaching layer of mist. I move towards the tree, grabbing hold of a lower branch and thrusting myself up. I reach out for the rope, just barely managing to clasp hold of it and wrench it towards me.

I gently loop the noose around my neck with my left hand. My right still clinging hold of the tree.

The tree must be known. Its story must be told.

The ending must have a beginning, yes.

But every story demands an ending.

A finale.

A conclusion.

I let go.

The Tree

deadtreeMy father would, on occasion, offer up spontaneous advice. I remember once he said to me, and I remember being quite unprepared for the suddenness of it, ‘Don’t worry, your time will come’. I stared at him, puzzled by this unexpected and unwanted outburst. ‘I was older than you before I was married. There’s plenty of time’, he continued.

I still rack my brains now trying to figure out where that little gem came from and I just can’t explain it at all. But that was my father; getting me spectacularly wrong every time. I can only assume it was another projection of some strange path he thought I should be following, and I was obviously straying from it at that time, dangerously enough for him to have to offer wisdom and caring support.

He liked the outdoors so we did have that in common, I suppose, though we had different ideas on how to embrace it. He had his favourite spot and there are photographs from every camera he ever owned, testing their worthiness on that slope, looking down into the valley below. The earlier ones are now sepia, and the colour on the later ones have turned grotesque shades making the view look like an alien landscape. They are all, however, quite unmistakably of the same view.

When I was born he planted a tree in that spot and you can see it grow over the years in a strange picture-postcard storybook. A solitary sad little thing clinging to the edge of a slope, stunted by short summers and twisted by strong prevailing winds. It’s a wonder it ever grew at all.

He took me up there when I was quite young, at an age when I guess he felt it time to impart his philosophical views on me, to start moulding me into a man. ‘This is you’, he said. ‘Roots in the ground, the earth, Scotland. I planted this when you were born. When I come up here now, I’m connected to the land, and to my family’.

I can’t remember how long ago it was my father died. Funny that. It might have been 20 years ago, maybe 25, or even 30. You’d think I’d remember but it all just fades after a while. I do remember him dying though. Each single laboured breath separated by long, agonising pauses as his weak, brittle body tried to muster enough strength to pull more oxygen from the air into his starved lungs.

Eventually, a pause was simply left unfollowed by an intake of breath. I remember waiting for it, but it never came and his eyes focussed on something I couldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, was this really it? But that was me all over, going through life never quite knowing what I’m supposed to do next. He’d have been infuriated.

Last year I came across his old maps and on one, clearly marked, was his spot with a little red circle. I decided on a whim, before my legs would reject such a trip, to take a walk up there. It was easy to find but the tree was long since dead. Perhaps it had died when he had, maybe even before, maybe since. Looking around it was clear he was no Elzéard Bouffier and the landscape remained unaffected by this singular, incongruous, non-native alien. Its roots were probably not deep enough to find the nourishment it needed to grow in this bleak environment, and leaves barely turned green long enough before turning brown and falling to be caught and trapped by the heather below. It didn’t really belong here at all. With an unexpected watering of my eyes I looked at the dry, brittle, withering collection of twigs and logs and thought, it seemed like my father never really understood trees either.

In the Darkest of Woods

deadtree

In the darkest of woods
where nightmares are made,
light does not exist
and all happiness fades

Dreams become twisted,
infected by fear,
the stench of sheer terror
draws hobgoblins near

Burrowing in to
the heart and the soul,
they sift through
all thoughts for
mind numbing control

And horrors long hidden,
once more free to roam,
find their way
from the darkness
to creep all the way home.