• Heidi Staples

An Oval Grove by Iain Biggs





An Oval Grove


This image evokes a place I’ve visited regularly for some twenty years. I wonder now if I return to it again and again because its enmeshed in a host of paradoxes about the planting, the resilience, of these old pines. They form a tiny oval forest at Iron Castle, just north of Southdean, over on the Scottish side of the border. But they’re only there at all because they were planted on, and put their roots deep down into, the top of what is probably the remains of a late Iron Age or early medieval fortification. As a result, the whole little wood, its ragged edges twisted and bent by the wind, sits on a mound like a ship that sails above the sea of grass that, in early summer, covers the surrounding fields.


Trees for me are so often both familiarly themselves and something else, something other or, perhaps better, an opening into the Other. In this case, into a place where history and imagination dance around each other. This oval of trees is not a historical remnant of the vast original forest that once covered much of the Borders. It’s a deliberate planting, probably one intended to provide shelter for cattle. In that respect it’s closer to the commercial Sitka Spruce plantations that litter so much of the Borders than to the ancient deciduous forest. A forest whose oaks fed the pigs that still haunt the names of sites only a short morning’s walk south. But, beside all its literal, historical past, it’s also an imaginal place, even a small sanctuary.


In my mind’s eye it’s a grove I’d like to dedicate to Dionysos, with his pine-cone tipped staff or thyrsos. It would be easy to build on that image and write that I value it as ‘a little oval of Dionysian wildness’. But to write that would be to belittle the reach of the God’s power, to allow myself to forget that Dionysos is also He who, as Genette Paris has it in her Pagan Grace, ‘introduces us to the world of Otherness’. Who opens us up to the new world of endless uncertainty we must know acknowledge, even embrace. To the new absolute that ‘nothing is fixed’; and so to our own obligation ‘to play many roles’. Observations that I have now come to understand as connected to something Bruno Le Tour writes in Down to earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime:

what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.




Iain Biggs works as a mentor, writer, maker and researcher and is Visiting Researcher at the Environmental Humanities Research Centre at Bath Spa University and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Dundee. His recent publications include a chapter - ‘Ensemble Practices’ - The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Domain and, with Mary Modeen, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.