COUNTRY LIFE

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS almost midsummer and in the countryside it felt like mid- November. Rain-sodden branches cracked by the winds were scattered about the lanes like spillikins. Toadstools were already sprouting in the hedgebanks. It was time for a visit to the Chiltern Sculpture Trail's Summer show - or perhaps, I should say, seasonal rehanging.

The Forestry Commission has been putting sculpture in its woods since the late Seventies, and though some regard it as intrusive, it's usually made of the same mutable stuff as the landscape. And I was right in thinking that flameless June might have done some interesting editing in Cowleaze Wood. One of my favourite pieces, Bryan Illsley's Raised Ash Line - a long, curving rib of ash cutting the woodland verticals, like an aerial walkway for dormice - had been blown or taken down. But Paul Amey's Fish Tree was still standing, a skeletal metal tree with iron fish at the end of its branches. It had been on the receiving end of two years of rain since I last saw it. And it presented a bizarre and incongruous mixture of elements - autumnally rusty fish floating among spring green leaves. The jokiest piece in the wood, Robert Jakes's giant picnic table covered in a wooden check tablecloth, was also weathering impishly. It's a brilliant visual pun, the best place in the wood for having picnics under. And the tablecloth - now looking as if it was the arena for a frenetic tea- party - was covered with bracket fungi.

This is one of the points about environmental sculpture. Nature is expected to have a role in shaping it. It is ambiguous, hybrid, and challenges assumptions about the utility and durability of things. Many of the Cowleaze pieces are hard to find. They are hidden up dark tracks, lurking in hollows. All along the trail, serendipitously windthrown logs, dens, a polythene bag wrapped round a branch in the shape of a squirrel, make you wander whether you are looking at a deliberate work or a natural happening. I thought that I'd at last found Illsley's other piece, Broken larch circle, only to realise that it was an extraordinary "found tree" - a conifer bent over, split open like a mouth, and sprouting new shoots all along its upper lip. And were those symmetrical black collars round a stand of oaks caterpillar controls or Constructivism?

None of this is remotely "arty". It is in the great vernacular tradition of outdoor doodling, of name-carving, cairn-building and tree-decorating that has been going on for millennia. Halfway round the trail I glimpsed a stone structure topped with something red, and thought for a moment that I had tracked down Hideo Furuta's runic pink granite hump. But it proved to be a memorial from another generation, a tough stone memorial to the crew of a Halifax bomber downed in 1944, and still decorated with Remembrance Sunday wreaths. Was Cowleaze wood where the plane had crashed, or the pilot's favourite retreat?

Woods, even for the agoraphobic English, are still places of mystery and devotion as well as whimsy. 8

Comments