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Friday 31 December 2021

Take The Time – seeing the forest from a new perspective

Hollie Folkard-Tapp is a PhD student at Imperial College London, researching the recovery of degraded tropical rainforests logging estates.

The mural project was developed through a collaboration between Richmond Arts Service, Orleans House Gallery, the Grantham Institute (Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London) and UK Youth for Nature. The mural has been sponsored by Octopus Energy. It is part of a wider collection of murals being designed by young people up and down the country responding to the crucial UN Climate Conference (COP26) that took place during November 2021 in Glasgow.

“During the run up to COP 26, I was invited to work with the students of Waldegrave School as they designed their mural, providing scientific insights into the life of a mighty oak. My current research focus involves tracking the growth and mortality of a tropical forest, so I like to believe that I do ‘take the time’ to listen to what trees are trying to tell us. The trees of my day-to-day are identified by unique tags, and I know their heights and diameters, their health, and their GPS location. To me, these trees in a far-flung corner of Borneo are individuals (which, thanks to Covid, I have yet to meet), but I admit I sometimes lose sight of their wider significance. I suppose that sometimes, I suppose I really fail to see the forest for the trees.

Following the student workshops, Bryony kindly offered to let me help with some of the painting on one rainy Tuesday afternoon. Freed from the monotony of my home office, I was able to switch off my brain and get lost in the moment.

At the start of the first workshop, Bryony had described painting on a wall as a feeling of defiance. I felt that, too, in my first few strokes of white emulsion onto the craggy surface of that wall. But once the initial thrill of ‘I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this’ passed, something else took root, something more profound and more primal.

Painting on walls is a practice that long pre-dates human civilisation as we would recognise it. That tunnel, with its cold, damp walls and lichens, felt cave-like. Though I sat on a deceptively comfortable seat pad and held a modern paintbrush, something ancient began to move in me.

As a child, I would drag my parents to see prehistoric paintings on family holidays to France or Spain. In the darkness beneath the earth, womb-like and still, the past feels tangible. Murals, bones, broken pots; you could simply reach out and touch the history- if you didn’t care about damaging the relics, of course.

There are those that would handle the objects despite the risk, like those that carved their names into Stonehenge, or of course, the ongoing targeted destruction of history as part of a political regime. Our degradation of the natural world is at times less conscious but no less wilful. When we fuel our cars, do we stop to think of the ancient history we are burning, the damage caused to nature in its collection, or the consequences of the fuel’s eventual combustion?

How odd that painting on a wall, something so natural, such an integral part of our collective history, should feel like breaking the rules. It echoes the attitude that sustainable resource management is a tedious and challenging compromise that we must make when good environmental stewardship was the backbone of early society and remains so for many cultures that persist today. Perhaps it goes to show how far we have strayed from our roots, our own nature. That is the message behind the art of this mural, too.

The painting asks us to take the time to notice the world around us and what we are losing. Just as we should all endeavour to stop and smell the roses, we also must take account of the less pleasant reality of what is around.

The painting asks us to take the time to notice the world around us and what we are losing. Just as we should all endeavour to stop and smell the roses, we also must take account of the less pleasant reality of what is around. As the time to cement the legacy of COP26 ticks by, the eyes of the world must keep watch. If trees, coral reefs, mountains could see, would they pause to look too? If animals could understand what this moment means for them, would they raise their heads and stare?

We are not blind. We play witness to the changes in the world around us and must also act as the jury. The world is watching.

Whether you are a scientist, an artist, a student or a passer-by walking under a railway bridge, you are not disconnected from nature, but a part of the incredibly complex web that connects all living things. So, as world leaders continue to meet to discuss our future, your messages are valid, and everyone’s voices deserve to be heard, whichever way you best know how.

Painting thin white lines on a railway bridge, giving form to the words and wishes of children, I don’t think my own voice has ever felt louder.

You can visit the mural Take the Time, on the Heath Road railway bridge foot tunnel in Twickenham TW1 5TX.

Read more about the creation of the mural by clicking the button bellow.